Friday, October 31, 2008

Halloween Reading

At left is one of Fillius's Halloween pumpkins. This is actually last year's vegetal creation. This year's is currently in progress and probably won't be ready for a photo until evening -- because you just can't rush good art. Fillius does not restrict himself to pumpkins; last year his Jack-o-Lanterns were made out of potatoes in honor of the Irish side of the family.

Today I'm wearing my WWAKD tee shirt, so I'm officially in costume. The tee shirt and my skirt are both black, so we're all very seasonal around here.

This morning I was reading a post written by Fr. Dwight Longenecker (former Anglican clergyman, now a Catholic priest) after one of his children asked him if witches were real.

In my experience witches are very real indeed. I've never met one with green skin, a pointed nose with a wart on the end, nor have I seen them fly on a broom or heard them cackle like a demented crow. However, when I was an Anglican priest in England I served in a parish that was home to a witches coven, and not just any witches coven . . .

There was a negative feeling in the town and a string of unexplained tragedies and scandals within the church community. As a priest I was called out to a surprising number of low level hauntings, psychic disturbances and disturbed personalities. Once I learned who actually lived in the parish I was concerned. I was also concerned that the other clergy in the town simply laughed at the King of the Witches and dismissed the whole thing as so much nonsense.
Read Witches and Wizards to find out which weapon he and his friends decided to employ and how the conflict was resolved.

On a lighter note, while shelving books at the library this week, I chanced upon California Demon by Julie Kenner. I was in the mood for a frivolous book, so I checked it out. (That's one of the interesting things about being a library aide -- I get a chance to have look at how the other half reads. For instance, I had no idea that Danielle Steele wrote so many books!) California Demon is one in a series of novels about Kate Connor, retired demon hunter who's spent the last 14 years in the equally demanding profession of suburban housewife and stay at home mother.

However, as she explains at the beginning of the novel, "I'd been drawn back into active duty after a demon attacked me in my kitchen, setting off a whole chain of events which (as you can probably guess) pitted the forces of good against the forces of evil in one final, cataclysmic battle." (That's a reference to the previous novel, I presume.) After the dust settled, she found herself back on active duty as a Level Four Demon Hunter unbeknownst to anyone except her best friend, Laura who has her own amazing super powers. (". . . she's the woman who'd successfully returned outfits to Nordstrom despite the huge 75-percent Off, No-Return, Clearance-Final Sale signs plastered all over the store.")

So far, it's been a fun read, and I'm hoping that the light, humorous tone is an indication that it won't get too icky for me. As you may have guessed,
I don't read books (or watch movies) in the horror genre. My life has had enough scariness in the past ten years that I've never felt the need to go in search of more as a form of amusement. So I don't really know whether or not some of Kenner's story elements are showing her individual creativity or just her ability to make good use of the genre's conventions.

For instance, in Kate Connor's world incorporeal demons usually can't do much except enviously watch human beings. They long to be human, and occasionally a demon will manage to hijack the body of a living person. But possession is pretty rare. Usually the best a demon can do is to reanimate the body of a person who's just died. So all those amazing stories you hear about people who die on the operating table and then come back to life; people who are trapped underwater for ten minutes but live to tell the tale; and those who walk away from a horrendous auto accident despite a massive blow to the head are not tales of miraculous survival, but the result of very determined demons.

I found that an interesting bit because I'd just read something similar in an entirely different sort of book, The Darkness Did Not by William Biersach. It's the second in a series of novels about Father John Baptist, a former cop turned Catholic priest in a Los Angeles very much like the real one. Father Baptist is on the outs with his bishop because he kept a low profile while in the seminary and only showed his true colors after ordination. He's an orthodox, traditional Catholic who, now that he is a priest, is committed to offering only the traditional Latin Mass.

In retaliation, his superiors put him on extended leave. But Father Baptist cashes in his pension from the police department and buys a tiny run down church, St. Philomena's, which the diocese had decided to close down and sell off. As it's his private property, he is free to offer the Latin Mass there and he's soon ministering to an unofficial parish of "rad-trad" Catholics including the arthritic Martin Feeny who plays Watson to Father Baptist's Holmes.

As in Biersach's previous book, the police department asks for Father Baptist's help in solving a murder case which has occult overtones. This time a serial killer is preying on beautiful young women who had previously shown an interest in the subject of vampires. The police are skittish because each murder victim was almost completely drained of blood, and there were no marks on the bodies except a curious neck wound. Is the murderer really a vampire?

For that matter, what is a vampire? In Biersach's novel, vampirism is the lowest form of demon possession because the demon merely takes possession of a corpse. But it's a hellish thing for all that.

As Father Baptist explains, "The vampire is an unholy amalgam of demon and dead flesh -- evil spirit and coarse matter, if you will -- which is the satanic mockery of the Incarnation in which the Son of God took on human flesh." The demon's reanimation of dead flesh is also a mockery of Christ's resurrection. And isn't that the jealous sort of thing that demons would do? Because Satan himself can't come up with anything original; he can only imitate and distort. Suddenly, because the author began to show a way in which the topic might fit into a Catholic worldview, vampirism became a story element I could take more seriously, and for the characters (in my mind at least) the stakes suddenly became higher. At this point, if it had been a movie, I probably would have been shouting, "Hey, guys! Don't go anywhere without your scapulars!" And I would have been serious, not sarcastic, because the universe of this novel is the same universe I live in -- one in which sacramentals are an incredible conduit of grace.

It's only fair for me to mention that Biersach has a writing style that will annoy many readers. The narrator, Martin Feeny, has a florid style of writing which doesn't bother me as much as it ought to, probably because I'm such a big fan of Victorian novels and children's books. But he also has other stylistic quirks that drive me up the wall. One, which was more frequent in the first novel, is his tendency to attribute volumes of meaning to Father Baptist's glance, followed by a terse remark. An example:
He stared upon us with penetrating eyes that seemed to whisper determined but fearfully, "Considering all that has happened, gentlemen, and is soon to transpire, do you really expect me to offer any comfort other than the same sufferings for which I admonished you to prepare?" But all he said was, "Nearly there."
In the previous novel he did this sort of thing over and over and over. It's not as frequent in this book, but I still shudder each time I encounter it. And accents are not his forte. He has an Eastern Rite bishop who talks just like Yoda! And the ethnic accents of other minor characters are just embarrassing.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book despite its limitations. For one thing, I enjoyed the Catholic geekery,
though the author does get a little too self-indulgent at times. After all those segments with Monsignor Havermeyer practicing the rubrics for the Latin Mass (he's a former modernist priest who has seen the error of his ways), he should have had an important, Latin speaking role to play in the final confrontation. But no. As much as the author may have enjoyed writing some of the geekier segments, they ought to have been pruned if they were not significant to the plot.

Unlike some reviewers, I didn't mind the long liturgical descriptions. In fact, I loved the author's description of Benediction -- especially the part where Martin, despite the sublimity of the liturgy, finds himself becoming hopelessly distracted. The way his mind was jumping from subject to subject, despite his best efforts, was all too familiar. And I loved the Knights Tumblar, a Chestertonian group of men in evening dress, who gad about town drinking champagne when they're not kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament in all night prayer vigils. They are Father Baptist's back-up troops and true knights.

Well, I started this post early in the morning, and now it's so late that it will soon be All Saints Day. So while I still can, I will wish you a Happy Halloween and will close with one of the quotations which C.S. Lewis placed just before the preface of The Screwtape Letters:

"The devill . . . the prowde spirite . . . cannot endure to be mocked." -- Thomas More

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