Art History in “Dead to the World” by J.N. Williamson

Mild spoilers ahead

A group of salespeople make residence in a small town and discover immediately that something’s off. While there, they meet the town’s real owners who have their own sales pitch. By the way, that’s not subtext, for even the salespeople notice this too. It involves the arrival of a sculpture that acts as a conduit for awesome, terrifying powers.

Early on, a member of the sales team sarcastically mocks the hype of the mysterious plot device by equating it to the Venus de Milo. This acts as a portent of what’s to come and a kind of allegory for the grand reveal. The search for avoiding aging and trying to reach an ideal. While that happens, in comes a statue called the Jagannath.

According to research I found via search engines, the Jagannath featured in the novel is fairly accurate to the deity revered in Puri, India. Right down to the use of wood as a medium to represent the deity. The only difference is that the antagonists’ use of the Jagannath is for rather large-scale mystical purposes. The text even reveals that the statue was a victim of art theft. Furthermore, the way the text describes the Jagannath statue, the visiting salespeople were not impressed by abstract features found on the artwork. Also, having looked at pictures of Jagannath statues, I think the book depicts the Jagannath as tall and imposing, but I noticed the real statues look about the size of an average adult human. There’s also monologues about famous architectural structures and shrines that acted as conduits for magical powers. And they’re the usual suspects you will automatically think of. Structures from the ancient eras of Egypt, Greece, and the United Kingdom. They even mention Christian art having magical properties.

Now, this story takes place in Indiana and all the sports culture that’s the life blood of the state will be mentioned ad nauseam. However, to make a comparison to the Jagannath statue, one character does mention the State Soldiers and Sailors Monument found in Indianapolis. Having seen the sculpture in the link, I found it quite a contrast to the South Asian sculpture. Both depict deities, but one is devoted to abstract styles, while the other (according to this link) takes from Classical, Old Master, and Ancient traditions.

All in all, I recommend reading this book. An enjoyable horror novel with a mystical edge.

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