(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Cora Whitman introduces her account of what she calls “the Dry Falls entity,” which was set down three and one-half years after the actual events, with an account of her present circumstances. She and her husband, Henry Lieber, are now forty-two and fifty-six years old, respectively. Having left behind their former occupations, they establish, along with Henry’s former secretary, Adele Manning, a private foundation called the Center for the Study of Anomalous Phenomena. The purpose of this organization is to collect case studies of “outlandish” events in the hope of discovering patterns that might help explain the strange occurrences that blighted the summer of 1974, when Henry was rector of the Episcopalian Church of Saint Anthony the Hermit in Dry Falls, Maine.

The Saint Anthony of Egypt after whom Dry Falls Church is named was reputed to have lived from 251 to 356. Between 286 and 306 he dwelled in complete solitude in a deserted fort at Pispir, during which time he allegedly underwent an extraordinary series of temptations that became a favorite topic of medieval legend-mongers and Renaissance artists. Graphic representations of the supernaturally beleaguered saint were painted by Pieter Bruegel, the Elder, and Hieronymus Bosch. His visions also provided the basis for Gustave Flaubert’s novel La Tentation de Saint Antoine (1874; The Temptation of Saint Anthony, 1895). The Temptation of Saint Anthony exists in two versions, one written in 1849 and the other in 1874 because the author was persuaded by his friends that the earlier one was too shocking. Skeptics attributed Anthony’s afflictions to the hallucinogenic effects of ergot poisoning, whose aftereffects became popularly known as Saint Anthony’s Fire.

Arensberg’s novel is, in essence, a modern recapitulation of the legend of Saint Anthony, its central character being a thoroughly modern “hermit” subjected to a thoroughly modern series of exotic “temptations.” The fact that Cora Whitman’s belated account does not interpret what happens to her as a diabolical temptation—she prefers to present it in a very different light—is a measure of the extent to which she fell victim to the temptation and to which modern skepticism has devalued the religious assumptions of old. This crucial ambiguity is minutely calculated and carefully displayed by Cora’s creator, the novel’s author.

Cora’s introduction to her story takes care to stress that the Liebers’ conversion to skepticism is as uncompromising as most conversions. She states explicitly that “[w]e no longer trust what we see, hear, taste, smell or touch.” Given this forewarning, the reader is bound to treat her account of the paranormal happenings with considerable suspicion. If Cora does not trust what she has seen, heard, tasted, smelled, or touched, why should her readers? This lack of trust is bound to extend to her eventual judgment as to how the strange events ought to be explained. Psychologically sophisticated readers cannot help but wonder whether Cora’s steadfast refusal to entertain the hypothesis that the cause of these events is the Devil, in anything more than a symbolic sense, is a symptom of what analytical jargon calls “denial.”

The modern “hermitage” in which Cora lives in 1974 is her comfortable marriage to Henry, whom she met while serving as his secretary—a position in which she has been replaced by Adele Manning. Cora fled to this refuge from a former home that was troubled by constant conflict between her widowed mother Emily and her older sister Hannah, who has remained a spinster since her intended bridegroom was killed in an accident shortly before the appointed wedding day. Within the marriage’s protective custody, Cora is able to extend her two vocations, cooking and gardening. She settles into this situation after serving brief stints as a guide at the shrine of St. Anne de Beaupré (“the Lourdes of Quebec”), where she escorted pregnant women, and at the Shaker village on Sabbathday Pond. She also worked as an assistant editor at Maine Heritage magazine and produced a feature on Maine kitchens that enabled her to establish a secondary career as a columnist on domestic matters; she continues this kind of work within the marriage.

Henry Lieber’s attachment to the faith represented by the church of which he is rector is only a little less tokenistic than his wife’s, although he was initially moved to take up his vocation by a revelation born of his harrowing experiences in World War II. Henry may also qualify as...

(The entire section is 1865 words.)