The first part of the story takes place in the year 1711 and the author, to create the impression that the book was written by someone from that time, uses words and a literary style similar to the one used then. While this makes it harder for the contemporary readers to understand what the characters are talking about, it also gives a sense of authenticity.
In the beginning of the book, the main character and the narrator, Dryer Nicholas, is inside his office with his assistant. They talk about a project they were commissioned to finish, the erecting of five parish churches. From the beginning we find that Dryer is not necessary a man of God since he dismisses the worries of a clergyman about building a church above graves and uses unholy materials for the building of the Churches. What is more, he has no respect for the people sent to look at his work and patronizes them and even talks to them in a mocking way.
From his thought it is revealed that he is not someone who should be seen as being a good man because he admits himself that should his assistant follow in his steps, he would end up not fit to enjoy life.
Next, the narrator talks about his youth and some of the events that affected him. Nicolas mentions he was born into a poor family and he and his mother almost died during childbirth. His father did not believe he will survive but both Nicolas and his mother did. Nicholas then grew up but admitted he was different from the rest of the boys. Nicholas was extremely sensible as a child and everything had the power to make him cry. He was also distant in comparison with other boys and would often stay separated from them. He was also uninterested in the topics most of the boys enjoyed and would keep himself separated from the boys who would manifest distain towards religion and sacred things. In time things changed and Dryer mentions two things that influenced him. The first thing is literature and he mentions the first piece of literature he read, Faust. The reading affected him as a small boy because it exposed him to occultism and to the idea of Devil as a powerful and real being for the first time.
The second event that influenced him is the death of his parents. Dryer mentions that when he was just 11years old, his parents died because they were infected by the plague. Both the mother and the father were isolated inside their home because they were infected and thus Dryer witnessed firsthand the death of his parents. Instead of mourning them, Dryer waited for his parents to die and was even relieved when they did. This moment is important for him because it represents his rebirth as a new person, stronger one who had to learn to take care of himself.
Another important element is the way in which those who were infected by the plague were seen. Some people considered them as being demons or people affected by bad spirits. This influenced him in such a way that he admits he continued to see demon-like creatures walking on the streets. He also perceived men and women as walking corpses, sweeting poison. The narrator remained an orphan after his parents deaths and he was eventually taken in by a mysterious man and two women.
The way the man is described is important because it is similar to the way the Devil is described in many literature pieces. He is described as being a tall man, thin and dressed in black. He is helped by two attractive women, who follow him everywhere.
The young Nicholas is taken in by this man and he is told how everything he was thought until them is wrong. He learns how the Devil is actually the positive character and he is told he should learn to worship him in a manner accepted by him. The proper way to worship the devil is by building him places for worship, namely churches. He is also told that human sacrifices are required by the Devil.
The narrator then moves to another part of the story and recalls an event that took place during the time when the first church was built. A boy of about ten or eleven years old felt from one of the church towers and died instantly. Nicholas was present when this tragedy happened and even offered to help the father by taking care of the body of the young boy and offering him a proper burial. The event was also important for Nicholas because he interpreted it as a sign from the devil regarding his needs. Nicholas saw the death of the boy as a request for human sacrifice and the first chapter ends with the description of Nicholas being overjoyed by the revelation.
The first chapter sets the basis for the rest of the book by explaining how Nicholas was thought and brought into the satanic practices and how he slowly turned from a normal man to someone capable of horrible things. The book does not present Nicholas as the villain at this point but rather as someone who was influenced by the life he had and who had no other choice but to become the type of person he eventually did.
The second chapter takes place in the present time and presents a story similar to the one told by Nicholas in the first chapter. The second chapter focuses on the story of a young man named Thomas whose father died. Thomas lived with his mother near the place where Nicholas’s parents died and also close to the first church built by Nicholas.
Thomas was bullied at school and he found refuge in books, in the same way Nicholas did when he was a small child. Some book titles are mentioned and they are the same as the ones read by Nicholas when he was a child, focusing on the devil.
While everyone else stayed away from the church, Thomas found it a safe place and would often hide near it. It is through the church the small boy discovers his sexuality as he sees a couple kissing and undressing one another and he grows sexually excited. After that incident, Thomas has strange dreams, feeling as if he is urged to go higher and higher.
He also sees a strange man lurking near his house and the way the man is described is similar to the way Mirabilis was described by Nicolas. The strange man and Thomas eventually meet in the church when Thomas decided to follow the man. Thomas ends up in one of the tunnels and there he is taken by a group of people, one more similar to the way Nicholas was received by Mirabelis’s group. The second chapter ends with Thomas remaining in the tunnels.
While the narrator does not reveal what happened to Thomas, one could reach the conclusion that maybe he died. The reason behind this is that Thomas heard a voice urging him to climb higher, similar to the voice the mason’s son heard before he felt from the church. This may also transmit the idea that there may be some type of connection between the two.
The third chapter returns in the past to Nicholas and presents more about his past. Nicolas talks about how he was taken in by an aunt at the age of 14 and how Mirabilis left after the great fire of London. Nicholas continued to visit the place where he would use to meet with Mirabilis but he was no longer there. At the age of14, Nicholas became interested in architecture and he read everything he could get his hands on. He also became an apprentice to a mason who thought him everything he knew. As a result, in only two years, Nicholas was noticed by an architect who took him by his side and who opened the door for new opportunities.
This part of the story is important because it presents the moment when Nicholas became interested in architecture. His passion for building also replaced the empty spot left by Mirabilis and thus it became something akin to a religion for the young man. Nicholas threw himself into the work he was doing and ignored everything happening around him. This allowed the young man to forget about being left by Mirabilis and move on.
The fact that Nicholas continued to visit the place where he and Mirabilis used to meet is also important because it shows that even though Nicholas was hurt by Mirabilis’s actions, he still appreciated him and still continued to believe in the ideas he was thought.
The narrator moves to another important moment in his life, the time when he visited Stonehenge. After this trip, the narrator meets a printer named Ned and he convinces him to commit suicide, guiding the knife held by the man.
Ned becomes the first person whose death was promoted by Nicholas. While initially Nicholas was affected by the death of the son of the mason, Nicholas had no involvement in his death. However, in Ned’s case, Nicholas becomes involved directly, urging the man to kill himself, providing him with the tool he needed to kill himself and even guiding the knife. Nicholas describes himself as laughing, showing this just how uninvolved he was in the death of the man and also shows how he is found pleasure in the process.
The fourth chapter is linked with the story Nicholas told about the beggar named Ned. In the present time, another beggar is also approached by a strange man and urged to kill himself. The man was once a respectable man but he became paranoid and started living on the streets. In comparison with the Ned from the past who lost everything because of his drinking problem, the Ned from the present probably lost everything because of some unresolved mental problems.
Another similarity between the two stories is the mentioning of Stonehenge. In the 18th century, Nicholas was the one who went to Stonehenge but in the present Ned was the one who visited the place before arriving in London. It is there where Ned first hears strange voices, urging him to kill himself. The place is important because Stonehenge is considered by many as being a spiritual place. The place is linked with the Druids who saw the place as something sacred. The religion mentioned by Nicholas also centers on druids and thus the place becomes even more significant.
The place where he dies is also important because it is not the same church where Thomas died. Instead, he dies at the second church built by Nicholas. This transmits the idea that the deaths are some sort of offering made in relation with the church.
The fifth chapter returns to the past and presents an unexpected turn of events. Nicholas Dryer and his actions became suspicious for many and thus many started criticizing him and even bringing the matters in front of a committee. This is a turning point for Dryer who becomes increasingly suspicious of everyone and even insists of firing everyone working under him because they complain too much and because they criticize him.
Because of this, Dryer partners with a man named Joseph and they cut a deal according to which Joseph will kill and Dryer will present the sacrifices. Another important element is the strange letter Dryer received, a letter that made him even more paranoid.
This chapter is important because it presents the turning point for Nicholas Dryer. His actions became all of a sudden suspicious for many and he recognized the need to behave in a more controlled manner. He is also afraid of the consequences he will have to suffer if he is discovered, probably a death sentence. This chapter also has the aim of making readers understand the gravity of the situation and the dangers Dryer was exposing himself to. It also humanizes Dryer to some extent by presenting him as a person capable of experiencing fear, not just as a person who does not care about anyone and is capable of killing without remorse.
The sixth chapter takes place in the present, when the tree murders attracted the attention of the authorities. A detective named Haksmoore began investigating the events and taking an interest in them. The sixth chapter is a continuation of the fifth one, the chapter in which Dryer’s actions become suspicious. The chapter also shows how some events can’t be hidden, no matter how much a person tries to do so.
The seventh chapter shows how Dryer was affected by the knowledge that he was being followed by a strange man and how he reacted as a result. The home where Dryer stayed is visited by a strange man looking for him and after Dryer learns about this becomes even more convinced that the man who looked for him was Hayes. He thus searches for him and kills him as a way of covering his tracks.
This event marks a turning point in Dryer’s life because he stops being the calm and calculated man he once was and becomes instead someone who is governed by their fears. He is unable to control himself even though he is sure the way he behaves is not the most efficient one. Despite this, he acts impulsively and to some extent even out of character.
The way he acts after he commits the murder is also important. Instead of deciding to return home, Dryer seeks the services offered by a prostitute. Through this, the author wants to transmit the idea that just like sexual relationships are a way for many to distress and ease tension, for Dryer, the murders the committed has almost the same effect.
The next chapter shows how Hawksmoor is also affected by the killings. His subordinate notices how his superior behaves in an unnatural way and becomes worried, fearing how Hawksmoor will eventually ruin his career. The parallel between Dryer and Hawksmoor has the purpose of transmitting the idea that not only those who commit the murders are affected by the events but also how these events affect those who investigate them.
At the end of the chapter, Hawksmoor is affected by another event, namely the moment he receives a letter from the person who claims to be the killer. This moment marks the moment when the detective’s behavior becomes even more out of control.
The ninth chapter returns to Dryer who hurries to hide any type of evidence that could lead up to him. When the body is discovered, he gets involved in the planning of the funeral just to throw any suspicion off him.
He also finds that the person who sent the letter was his own assistant who now blamed himself for the death of Hayes and who became sick because of the guilt. Dryer also realizes the mistake he made and feels guilty about it. His reaction is to search for more people to kill and he disguises himself in an attempt to hide his true identity.
The extent to which Dryer changed is highlighted by the fact that he is eventually replaced by another man who takes over the building of the churches. This has the purpose of showing just how much his behavior changed and how easy it was for those around him to notice the changes.
Chapter ten shows the culmination of the tension felt by Hawksmoor: he is discharged as the leader of the investigation and forced to take some time off. Hawksmoor changes from the strong person he was in the beginning and he metamorphoses into someone who is affected by the current events to the extent where he feels he is no longer capable of taking care of things as he was before.
The narrator draws a parallel between Hawksmoor and Dryer once more because just as Dryer was replaced by someone else as the master architect, Hawksmoor was forced to give up his position and take a step back.
The last two chapters present the devastating consequences these actions had on the two characters. It is implied that Dryer lost his mind, as the narrator mentions how Dryer stared hearing voices and seeing people in his room. He is determined to finish the last church but does not kill anymore. The eleventh chapter ends with Dryer entering the church and possibly dying there, finding peace at least.
The last chapter focuses on Hawksmoor, also affected by the events that took place in his life. Just like Dryer, he becomes increasingly unstable and his outward appearance is affected as well. The book ends with Hawksmoor entering the last church and possibly dying there.