When a novel deals on an intellectual level with matters spiritual or supernatural, the urge to try and figure out what the author may be trying to tell us becomes irresistible. I may be wildly wrong, but I feel sure that Ann Arensberg intends some sort of meaning or message in her third novel, Incubus, but I'll be, uh, damned if I know what it is.

Not that ambiguity in this arena keeps Incubus from being a successful novel. It is satisfying and creepily entertaining from its whisper-of-danger beginning to its thunderous War-in-Heaven-style end.

The story is narrated by Cora Whitman, recounting events of three years earlier, the summer of 1974, when she "spent three months in the underworld." Cora, in her fifties, is the wife of Henry Lieber, rector of an Episcopal church in Dry Falls, Maine. Henry is a clergyman rapidly running out of, if not faith, then enthusiasm for it. Cora is a materialist who maintains, "It was only the prospect of an afterlife that made Death fearsome." Strange things begin to occur. In the middle of April, Dry Falls is hit by a heat wave that, accompanied by a drought, continues through the summer. But only the inhabitants of Dry Falls, as if they were "living under some kind of climatic glass bell," experience the bizarre weather, which goes unnoticed everywhere else.

Then some schoolgirls, messing about in a graveyard at night, are frightened (and enthralled) by some sort of bogeyman. Henry and the other men of the town lose their sex drive. A large, menacing black dog is seen lurking about. Cora sees "signs of disturbance in the reproductive cycle" that indicate that "something in our neighborhood was hostile to females of all species."

Still more eerie: Women have nightmares of being oppressed by a vague but loathsome weight on their bodies during sleep. Things then go beyond the dream stage. Evidence of nocturnal sexual assault of the schoolgirls is found, and then Henry and others witness such an assault -- rape, apparently by a demon, an incubus, of a sleeping woman who appears to be in stupefied ecstasy.

What are we to make of this abominable activity, which is real and actual, not some sort of mass hallucination? For an epigraph the author uses the eighth-century Irish prayer known as "St. Patrick's Breastplate," then precedes each section of her book with a line from it -- "Christ before us," "Christ behind us," "Christ within us," "Christ beneath us," and so forth — as if to signal that great faith must be used to protect against great evil.

But what great faith? Henry's is fading, and there are indications that he is trading his doctrinal belief in the supernatural for a fascination with the supernatural's current disgusting manifestations.

Cora has no faith. She is completely convinced that the planet has been invaded by something, but whatever it is, it either nullifies the claims of Christianity or is beyond Christianity's universe.

And yet, at the end, there is a terrifying clash between what seems to be Earth and Hell in which Henry, in his church and for the moment refrocked, puts himself at eternal risk to protect the townspeople from a sort of supernatural Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Well, it is entirely captivating, and to expect a Charles Williams-style allegory is probably pointless. With it all I can pick only two superficial nits.

One is that, unlike their Roman Catholic and Methodist clerical brethren, Episcopal priests normally are not assigned to churches by their bishops, as Henry is here, but are chosen ("called") by a committee of the parish, typically after lengthy internecine wrangling.

The other is that it stretches credulity to maintain that no one outside Dry Falls would notice a three-month abnormality in the weather and reproductive cycle. But then, I suppose, we're not dealing with logic but with the demonic. And demons, like extraterrestrial aliens, presumably prefer to conduct their depredations in secret. Where is Kevin McCarthy when we need him?

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