A Visitation of Spirits Summary
by Randall Kenan

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A Visitation of Spirits Summary

"A Visitation of Spirits" is a rather dark coming-of-age story that takes place in a black North Carolina farm family. Horace Cross is portrayed as a modern, intelligent—if somewhat quirky—young man with an interest in comic books and science, whose family sees in his brains the potential for him to achieve something beyond their conventional rural existence among the pines and tobacco. Horace's family are mostly preachers and teachers whose Biblical beliefs conflict with Horace's awakening to his own homosexuality, which he feels compelled to hide under the circumstances. Horace, raised on stories of prophets, revelations, dreams, and the raising of the dead, turns to an interest in occult magic in his desire to become a "true mystic."

Wrestling with his internal conflict, he tests his magical powers and tries to transform himself into a bird (a symbol of escape, freedom, transcendence), but when his ritual fails, the demons come to torment him in his own dark night of the soul. He struggles with the demons while confronting his deepest fears as he walks around town barely clothed and carrying his grandfather's gun. His oddball interests, non-conformity (he got his ear pierced) unmistakable homosexuality, and righteous family and their inability to help him are interspersed with flashbacks to events that introduce other family members, including his minister older cousin, James, whose constant recourse to the Bible for solutions is not always helpful. The reader gets the feeling that this downward spiral is not going to end well for Horace, and it doesn't.

With the tragic failure of educated, middle-class cousin James's advice that Horace would just "grow out of it," James begins to reflect on why he returned to his family's hometown of Tims Creek. Why stay after his politically radical northern wife died? What is the hold of family tradition on the present? In the end, we see that family tradition can take a powerful hold on modern people for both good and ill.


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

A Visitation of Spirits is essentially a novel about homosexuality. Young Horace Cross finds himself irresistibly attracted to men and has been having one affair after another. He finds that his attraction to males does not recognize racial barriers; he has love affairs with virile white actors who are playing in summer stock in his rural area, and he prefers to associate with a group of rowdy young white males who are considered renegades and dropouts at his high school. Horace is exceptionally bright and has been getting top grades up until the time of this adolescent crisis. Now his grades have plummeted, and all of his relatives, including his doting grandfather, are pressuring him to change back into the polite, ambitious, well-behaved boy he had been.

Horace goes to his cousin, the Reverend Jimmy Greene, with his problem, asking him in confidence what he can do, if anything, to renounce his homosexual tendencies. Jimmy has been through the same crisis himself and is ashamed to discuss it openly. He simply tells Horace he will outgrow it. It becomes evident, however, that Jimmy himself has never outgrown his own homosexual proclivities and that denying them has turned him into a sort of spiritual and sexual eunuch. His failure to help Horace causes him to begin to reevaluate his entire life.

Jimmy serves as a foil to Horace, more or less the way Leopold Bloom served as a foil to Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce’s classic novel Ulysses (1922). While Horace is wandering around town nearly naked, struggling with his repressed sexual desires, Jimmy is going through the motions of being a small-town preacher and interacting mainly with the older African Americans of the community. Through Jimmy’s eyes, the reader gets a thorough picture of the small-mindedness, the provinciality, and the xenophobia of the older generation, with its lip service to moral rectitude and its actual selfishness, spitefulness, and ignorance of everything outside its isolated, small-town world.

(The entire section is 2,142 words.)