Most people know Alexander Virden as the owner, with partner Sandra Doss, of the Grandview Hotel and 302 on the Square in Berryville. What many people don't know is that before Virden came to Arkansas from the Louisiana coast, he was an actor, an arts promoter, a film maker; now he can add novelist to the list. The Four Trials of Satan, which he began several years ago and just finished, is available on Amazon and through the Ozarts Center for the Arts.
The Four Trials of Satan is about an earthly son of Satan who is commanded by his "father" to manipulate essentially decent people into abandoning their good selves to take up sinful and evil lives. These sins are complex, seemingly without number, and the reader is warned that the book has significant sexual content and the bad guys all use bad language.
A lot of the popular fiction of today, like Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series and Charlaine Harris' True Blood novels approach the same themes and have become widely popular. Americans apparently cannot get enough vampires, devils, witches, wizards, or end of the world fandangos. Some of us are left wondering what ever happened to Tom Joad, Sammy Glick and Jay Gatsby: aren't there any mortal characters left?
As a former bookseller I am inclined to like any book that sells well as these books do, but as a lifelong reader I am, of course, baffled that authors like Meyer and Harris sell well. Usually, these books are so badly written you're tempted to poke yourself in the eyes to avoid seeing the next page. Go figure, I guess.
I don't think this is a singular, snooty artsy-fartsy literary assessment. I love Stephen King and Neil Gaiman and I like horror fiction in general. There are a lot of good sci-fi fantasy horror writers working today, especially folks like Connie Willis or Huntsville, Arkansas' Suzette Haden Elgin, and it's a shame that readers, especially adolescents, haven't discovered them.
Fortunately, Virden's The Four Trials of Satan falls into the King-Gaiman-Willis category and is a book for the discerning horror and fantasy reader who expects to be challenged and wants to avoid the witlessness and vacuity of so many pop writers on bestseller lists. Virden and Lovecraft, yes; HBO, no.
A major thematic element in Four Trials is the man-devil Michael's paradoxical yearning to be a good man, oppositional to his inherent and native drive toward evil. Readers are used to characters who struggle against the sultry temptations of the dark side--entire books, like Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union, or even Jonathan Harker's dreamy tussles in Dracula--are about resisting that darkness. Michael's trials, however, are about resisting a better nature and an alien drive toward holiness.
Evil, as defined by Virden, is the taking away of innocence and the despoiling of that which is naturally Good and whole. Within that definition, Virden squarely places the book, the writer, and the reader, well within the context of St. Augustine's teaching that evil does not exist but is more simply an absence of Good. By example, a hole in the ground is not evil but an absence of earth.
I admit to being surprised that Virden, someone I know primarily as a restaurateur, should be a talented writer. Yet, half the people here in the Ozarks are immigrants from other places and other lives where they had varied careers and myriad obligations that prevented or delayed cultural and artistic aspirations. Arriving here seems, however, to unleash those aspirations and free people to be the photographer, fine artist, or writer they have always wanted to be. Virden is among these gifted and talented people.
The Four Trials of Satan is published by the Ozarts Center for the Arts and proceeds from sales go to support the local arts community. For an extended audio interview with Alexander Virden--in which he reads from the book--go to The Ozark Harvest Radio Hour--which you can access from the link below.