A Prayer for the Dying
For a historical horror novel set in post-Civil War Wisconsin, A Prayer for the Dying has an experimental prose style: present tense, strong verbs. “Children tramp the woods, wade the creeks, sound the cool ponds.” Stewart O’Nan ups the ante. By addressing the second person, he puts you inside the head of the protagonist. At first it feels intrusive to be told “you like it like this.” The intimacy is jarring. The narrator wants you to know what it’s like to be young sheriff Jacob Hansen.
Jacob finds a dead transient in a Union Army uniform. In a time of poverty and desperation, Jacob assumes it was murder. Transporting the body, he finds a woman delirious in a field. Doctor Guterson diagnoses diphtheria, a contagion spreading from an encampment of the Holy Light Colony and its leader Rev. Chase.
A man of faith, Jacob faces a moral dilemma – whether to leave town with his wife Marta and their baby, or stay on to serve the townspeople as sheriff, deacon and undertaker. He tracks down Clytie, the mad cow, for an uncivil widow. The cow becomes a symbol of the plague-ridden Colony woman. Apocalyptic, strange happenings beset the town. Drought, followed by fire. Things large and small go wrong.
O’Nan works the historical details into the scene: “Your belt buckle jingles and clinks; her petticoats rustle.” Bells toll the death knell, and Jacob and Marta count the chimes, guessing who has died.
The fire spreads like purification, approaching the Hermit by the Lake. As the animals die, Jacob burns the barns. He takes to burning houses with a bucket brigade standing by. Sometimes the inhabitants aren’t dead yet.
The novel has a millennial feel as Jacob pieces together the progress of the plague. The soldier slept with the Colony woman, and he touched them both. Obedience to what he perceived as his duty brings tragedy on the whole town. Rev. Chase becomes his rival, as he takes better care of his flock than Jacob does his.
In this harrowing tale, Jacob’s God always wins. In the valley of death, Thy will be done.