From Nobody Goes to Earth Any More
The unspoken subject of much horror fiction is faith. The dictionary definition of faith is first, “complete trust or confidence,” and second, “firm belief, especially without logical proof.” Donald Ward’s story, which follows an unnamed Catholic priest and a native tracker named Joel Natoweyes traversing a patch of boreal forest in search of the beast that slaughtered a group of campers, is both a straight-up supernatural horror story, and an explicit examination of the second kind of faith.
Ward sets the uncanny tone right from his opening sentences: “Billy Greyeyes told me he had seen a white moose at the narrows, with antlers as big as trees, but when he got it in his sights it vanished like smoke. A week later Annie Bear gave birth to a male child with six fingers on each hand, and all that day a dark cloud hovered over the south shore of the lake.” The moose “with antlers big as trees” that disappears “like smoke” when Billy Greyeyes catches it in the sights of his rifle, coupled with Annie Bear’s child, born with an abnormal number of fingers under an ominous dark cloud, are indications that something is askew in the natural order of things; from the start, the story is infused with a strikingly illogical aspect. The priest is straightforward in his recognition of these supernatural phenomena: when Joel tells him that he has “found the tracks of a cloven-hoofed animal where the white men had been camping,” the priest accepts the news as “confirmation rather than surprise.”
The story’s two protagonists adhere to differing belief systems, but both arise out of an acceptance of the supernatural steeped in longstanding tradition (the cannibal creature at the centre of the narrative bears certain resemblances to the Wendigo of native legend). The priest and the tracker are both, on one level at least, spiritualists who exist in opposition to the kind of secular rationalism that pervades modern Western culture. In the story’s key paragraph, the priest assesses the legitimacy of scientific evidence as against religious belief:
The scientific method gives us one way of thinking, one way of knowing. This the modern world has embraced because it comforts us and requires no sacrifice. Ghosts, demons, and the myriad creatures of nightmare do not exist because they cannot be explained by observation and experimentation. One might gaze into the abyss and postulate its origin, but one is not required to leap into it. A fine and rational faith. Religious faith follows a different logic that seems no logic at all, and offers us another way of knowing. It gives us rules and reasons and it comforts the credulous with certainty. But this was faith of a different order. This was faith as old as the rocks, as old as the water and the sky. It was the faith of the living earth, and the laws it conceived were designed to kill the weak and the faithless.
While disavowing the scientific method as inadequate to accommodate events that transcend rational explanation, the priest is equally unprepared to accept a kind of psychologically comfortable retreat into religious certainty that brooks no questions, or that does not allow for the presence of doubt. “I have said that faith gives us certainty,” the priest says elsewhere, “but at the end of the day the only certainty is doubt. Were I asked to define humankind, I would say not that we are toolmakers, monument builders, jesters, or chroniclers, but that we are the doubting animal.”
The priest remains steadfast in his adherence to his Catholic vows throughout the story, even when tempted by the beast in its latter stages. However, he retains a measure of doubt as to the legitimacy of the suffering that his god allows to exist in the world. He never questions the reality of the monster that savages the campers, but he does question the reason for their suffering. At the story’s close, he ponders on the fate of the people who must eke out their existence in the harshness of the boreal forest:
I thought, for a moment, of a strange tribe damned for the remainder of natural life to that vast and trackless land, killing, eating raw flesh, dying violently at the hands of nature or others like themselves. How many legends might spring from such a hapless fate – tales of evil spirits, of cries in the night, of faces on the edge of the fire, of creatures almost human in their ferocity and greed?
The notion of evil creatures “almost human” in their rapaciousness is a somewhat unflattering assessment of the nature of our species. The priest’s unwavering belief in the existence of supernatural evil, it would appear, is a direct consequence of his understanding of human nature. In this context, the story’s final image is startling and potent in its implications: “I went back into the church. I glanced up at the tortured man hanging eternally on his cross. Had that really been necessary to redeem miserable mankind? I wondered.”