Land of Pleasure: A Synopsis

The title Land of Pleasure is taken from an old American shape-note hymn. The term ‘shape-note’ refers to the four syllables (fa, sol, la, and mi) that comprise the notes of the scale. These notes are in turn identified by on the page by a distinctive shape. And so the book is divided into four ‘notes,’ each of which is named for a tune from an magical hymnbook.

The story begins with the strange appearance of a troupe of singing pilgrims, somewhere in Iowa, sometime ago.

In the first part, ‘The Midnight Cry,’ we meet a girl named Alma—‘Negro, with a smidgeon of French’—who takes a walk ‘on her last night’ through Hill of Zion, the Chapel’s cemetery, where she learns of the local legend: how if you enter the graveyard after dark, you will never leave it again. She also hears rumors of the treasure left behind there, and of the Guardian who protects it.

Later she meets an old man, sitting by a fire, of whom ‘no one knows his name or history.’ He alerts her to impending danger and cautions, ‘when in doubt, travel over water.’ Alma then follows a dog over a bridge where she meets a band of wanderers, then ends up at an old house in the company of a strange pair, a woman and her granddaughter Lily. They, in turn, introduce her to William Crawfoot, the heir of Eoforwic Manor. ‘Uncle Billy,’ as he is called, alludes to the ‘Dusty Ones of Old Canaan’ who are busy digging holes in his fields at night in search of the lost treasure of the Mormon Trail. He also tells of the giant hog, Leander, that has survived for fifty years in the wilds of Canaan County.

Later Alma meets the Sheriff and is returned to the Hannons, her host family, only to begin her travels again. In the dark streets of Zion, Iowa, as midnight approaches, she meets several other men: Miller McWhinney, the Gnostic rector of Mt. Tabor College; his son, Lonnie, who does historical research late at night in the Carnegie library, just off the Square; Luster Hinkle, whose name refers to his ‘inherent brightness, and not some other quality,’ and who owns the Emporium Pool Hall and, now, the Opera House; Peter Nachtegal, the Lutheran pastor and bishop of the ‘Zionitic Brethren,’ a Rosicrucian cult; and, finally, the Badger Man, who leads Alma, like the White Rabbit, to the Ancient Landmark Lodge where the story meets its inevitable end.

The next part, ‘Leander,’ begins with Nelson Hannon, a boy of 16, who is standing outside the Opera House. The movie is over, and he’s waiting for his friends. He is new to Zion, and everything—the Courthouse, the Emporium Pool Hall, the Opera House—is full of mystery, dread, and temptation. On this particular night he meets a ghostly stranger who knows his ‘going’s in and his coming’s out.’

Nelson makes a pact with this stranger that he immediately regrets and is rescued from the consequences by Uncle Billy, who takes him for a midnight ride. In return Nelson helps Uncle Billy move an old trunk and a desk of drawers from his Manor to the back of the Chapel. The temptation is too much and Nelson opens a drawer to discover an old knife with the word ‘Adonai’ scratched on the blade. Later, Uncle Billy lets Nelson to shoot his old rifle, a Winchester ’73, and from the heights of Hebron they see the lights of Kenoma Wells, Missouri, shining ominously to the south.

Previously, Uncle Billy has spent that afternoon with Nelson’s little sister Alice. The kindly Uncle Billy shows her the ‘ancient landmark’ in the Chapel graveyard and takes her to meet the ‘Witch of Zion Hill.’

This so-called ‘witch,’ Sophronia Scrackangast, is an herbalist whose greenhouse is filled with the plants of the Lacnunga, the Anglo-Saxon book of healing lore. Her language, too, is littered with the traces of her East Yorkshire ancestry.

And there’s more. A Mormon antiquarian applies to the Town Council for a license to open an ‘antiquities’ shop;’ Nelson meets a dark girl named Lily who ‘lives’ at the abandoned Manor; and, on Halloween, three boys on a snipe hunt come face with Leander, the giant hog, in the haunted graveyard.

In the third part, ‘The Mouldering Vine,’ a dark-haired woman dressed in brown corduroy arrives via Missouri with a strangely silent driver. She gives her name as ‘Galldor’ and takes up residence in the Thunder Cloud Hotel, just off  ‘The Historic Square in Zion’. She soon befriends a bevy of the town’s women and together they visit the Witch of Zion Hill. In short order little Alice goes missing, blood is discovered in the cellar of Eoforwic Manor and Lonnie is on the lam. ‘Combinations are afoot’ as a band of hobos appears one Sunday afternoon on the Courthouse Lawn, Luster and his mysterious father bury something in the graveyard, and a resident of Hebron Town Hall readies a Civil War cannon against an invasion from Missouri.

As this part closes, a Legion overruns Hill of Zion, the survivors huddle in the Manor cellar, and a child returns from the underworld, bearing the necklace that Alma once wore.

The fourth part, ‘Bozrah,’ begins many years later. A stranger—‘is he man, or is he God?’—returns to Zion bearing something in his pocket. He revisits the scenes of his boyhood and attempts to make that which was crooked straight. He encounters fears and phantoms and returns to the crossroads where it all began and uncovers its long lost treasure, and truth, at last.