Cold Heaven by Brian Moore; Holt, Rinehart & Winston; New York.

That the supernatural is alive and well is the animating principle of Brian Moore’s tour de force Cold Heaven. He makes no attempt to rob this idea of its force by invoking the mantic arts or the favorite occult ploys of the horror movie (ESP, poltergeists, werewolves), nor does he use the supernatural like an exotic literary spice to enliven a detective story, to season a gothic romance, to enhance the terror quotient of a horror story, or to add a little je ne sais quoi to a fictionalized case study of dementia. Moore’s approach suggests that the supernatural can and does invade the most secular lives absolutely unbidden. In Cold Heaven the supernatural puts on a no-holds-barred, full dress performance of stunning magnitude: Marie Davenport actively hostile to religion, Catholicism especially—is accosted by a vision of the Virgin Mary and plagued by recurrent dreams of the vision in which the Virgin asks Marie to build a shrine to her in Carmel, California, where the vision occurs. Moore does not treat this vision, as most modem novelists would, as a ghost, an hallucination, a hoax, or as a psychoanalytic symptom to be cured. His character takes the apparition seriously, although the heroine would prefer madness to belief in such an unsettling reality.

Her struggle not to believe and not to obey the request made in the vision generates tension that is greatly augmented by the fact that “the other side” seems to be arranging spectacular displays of its uncanny power. Among the most perplexing and frightening of these are the events that occur in the Davenports’ lives exactly one year after the vision. Key is the apparent death and subsequent disappearance of Marie’s husband.

The remainder of Cold Heaven deals with Marie’s attempt to find out whether her husband is alive or dead, to discover where he is, if he is alive, and to understand the relationship between his death and seeming resurrection and the vision at Carmel. From the beginning of the story, “when she remembered as though a bell tolled a knell, that today was the anniversary of Carmel,”until the end when she finally decides “No guns were trained from on high, ready to shoot her down,” Cold Heaven describes her attempt to come to grips with the super natural and with its role in her life.

Cold Heaven probably derives its greatest aesthetic impact from a disarmingly simple fact: it treats the supernatural seriously and, as a result, taps some of the uncanny power, and profundity attached to it. The doll-like Madonna in the chapel with the button eyes; the earthquake which breaks items in the convent gift shop; the priest clad in purple and green Izod golfing clothes; and even a fat jogger’s unsolicited advice are all made more significant not only be cause they may offer Marie clue to the way out of her predicament, but also because they may symbolize the divine will.

Although current wisdom dictates that religion detracts from the inherent interest of an object, setting, or character, in Cold Heaven the reverse is true. The more that an individual or object seems associated with the holy, the more fascinating he, she, or it becomes. Marie, for example, would be quite boring if she had not had her vision. Her husband would be just another workaholic pathologist if he were not involved in his wife’s supernatural story.

In instinctively shying away from the aspects of his story that the typical best-seller would have emphasized, Moore seems to have realized that holiness is far more fascinating than evil. He does not, for instance, concentrate on the Davenports’ marital woes; explicitly describe an affair Marie was having; dissect the decay of her lover’s marriage; capitalize on the power and prestige of the husband’s job as a pathologist working on top secret projects; or exploit the gory details of his accidental death. The aesthetic success of this welcome departure from the usual formula of the successful novel proves Moore’s instinct correct. Marital infidelity, illicit affairs, power, prestige, and egotism pale in comparison with the interest and suspense generated by Marie’s vision. In Cold Heaven almost no one can be seriously interested in any of these other things.

Even passing allusions to others who have had visions of the Virgin Mary become interesting to the reader: none more so than that of Alphonse Toby de Ratisbonne, about whom a young priest tells Marie when she angrily asks him why she has been picked to see this vision. “‘I can’t find any case where this Virgin appeared to someone like me,”‘ she argues. “‘Isn’t that true?'” But he replies:

‘Sorry, no, that’s not right. There was a man called Alphonse Toby Ratisbonnc, in 1842. He wasn’t a believer. In fact, he was an. Alsatian Jew… a relative of the Rothschilds, as a matter of fact … Ratisbonne went into the Church of St. Andrea delle Frate in Rome, purely to admire the architecture, but when he was inside the church he had a vision of the Virgin. And although he was a Jew and an unbeliever, he was completely convinced. He converted at once to Catholicism, became a monk, and when he died he was the head of a religious order.’

Predictably, Marie replies, “’But what if he hadn’t been convinced? Aren’t there any cases like that?”’ The priest’s response, “‘if the cases weren’t reported, how would we know about them,”‘ suggests the entrancing possibility that such appearances may be rather com mon, but what may be uncommon is the response of people like Bernadette Soubirous, Catherine Laboure, and the children at Fatima.

After Marie has turned her back on such a response, she consoles herself that “the truths altered to fit the legend of those who had survived.” Despite her alteration of the truth to fit her “survival,” deliverance from the danger of conversion, and escape from sanctity, the whole strength of Cold Heaven, testifies that truths do not alter to fit the victor’s wishes, although the so-called victor may wish to alter them. The unaltered truth suggests instead that the engagement seemingly ended between grace and evil is always about to recommence; the apparent peace is only the silence before the battle is joined; the ostensible truce is in reality merely the postponement of conflict. If this book leaves the reader with one assurance, it is that spiritual warfare can erupt in the most unexpected circumstances under the most unforeseen conditions. What Cold Heaven cannot tell the reader, however, is how he will react if it does whether he will be an Alphonse de Ratisbonne or a Marie Davenport. That is a choice that not even the supernatural influences of a Cold Heaven will dictate.