A Visitation of Spirits

by Randall Kenan

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 327

"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.

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