Hello and welcome back to our off-topic Monday chat series, Lord Snow Presides! We return to our review of Frank Peretti’s cringe-inducing 1986 fantasy book This Present Darkness. In Chapter 14, we’ll discover how dangerous it is for Christians to seek out real experiences that compete with their beliefs. We’ll also encounter a character capitalizing on a young woman’s Daddy issues. Yes, today, Lord Snow Presides over two dangers fundagelicals dreaded in the Satanic Panic in the 1980s: counterfeit experiences and unapproved secrecy.
(Please click here to find the master list of previous This Present Darkness discussions. Also, any page numbers cited come from the 2003 paperback edition of the book.)
The Busy Signal.
Chapter 14 opens with Marshall Hogan trying to call Juleen Langstrat. Hogan acts here in his capacity as the ruff-n-tuff newspaper editor trying to track down leads for a story. He could assign this story to the actual, I dunno, paid journalists who work for him. But no, he’s doing it himself!
In Frank Peretti’s world, the owners and editors of newspapers have all the time in the world to do footwork like this. It’s kind of weird considering how busy Hogan should be at his job. I mean, it took me like thirty seconds to find descriptions of what small-time newspaper editors do (like this one). Obviously, the internet barely even existed in the mid-1980s. Still, it shouldn’t have been too hard for Peretti to actually go talk to such a person (or their staffers) to find out, since one of his main characters is in fact a small-time newspaper editor. Maybe Peretti could have also found out what a New York Times editor’s life is like, since that was Hogan’s previous employer!
Instead, we get the owner/editor of the Ashton newspaper calling the sketchy, wackadoodle psychology professor. Or at least, trying to. First, he must track down her personal phone number, which is unlisted. He finally obtains it from a colleague of hers who doesn’t like her. Hey, who else would have her home phone number? (In the 1980s, BTW, having an unlisted number meant what it means today: don’t give this number out without permission. But whatever.)
Ah, but the number is busy! After all that effort, Marshall Hogan is stymied!
Of course, he’d have been stymied even if he’d gotten ahold of her. These two have a history of hostility. I think it’s funny that Hogan actually thinks Langstrat would even talk to him in this situation. I sure wouldn’t, after my privacy being violated like this.
But as we’ll see, fundagelicals don’t notice stuff like invasions of privacy–and often even consider it an absolute right they hold that others do not. In this sense, this is not actually not a terrible opening scene.
Cue the Ominous Music!
Oh, but y’all. If Hogan only knew exactly why Langstrat’s line was busy, he’d have exploded with frustrated-white-fundagelical-dude rage.
See, right then–at that very moment!–Juleen Langstrat guides his very own daughter Sandy through a meditation exercise (as fundagelicals would imagine it, anyway).
Before the scene, Shawn (Sandy’s white knight) took her to see Langstrat. Just as we saw the professor doing to her boyfriend Alf Brummel, Langstrat takes Sandy into her darkened living room and voice-guides her into what Frank Peretti describes as “a deep, hypnotic trance” (p. 135).
And y’all, this experience blows Sandy’s mind.
This “hypnosis” scene cracks me up.
Let’s set the scene. The professor’s apartment is dark. She’s taken her phone off the hook so nobody can interrupt that way (Curses! cries Marshall Hogan from off-camera). Sandy sits opposite her, eyes closed. Langstrat, meanwhile, moves her hands up and down Sandy’s body, just inches from her skin.
First, she guides Sandy into a state of hypnosis. Then this is how Peretti describes the last half of the session (p. 134):
“Release your true self . . . let it go . . . it is infinite . . . at unity with all existence . . . Yes! I can feel it! Can you read my energy returning to you?”
The subject murmured, “Yes. . .”
“You are free from your body now . . . your body is an illusion . . . you feel the bounds of your body dissolving away . . .”
Langstrat leaned in close, still using her hands.
“You are free now. . .”
“Yes. . . yes, I am free . . .”
“I can feel your life force expanding.”
“Yes, I can feel it.”
“That’s enough. You may stop there.”
In a story more resonant with real life, Shawn would be over there on the sofa wondering if he’s supposed to be paying money to be allowed to watch this kind of display.
(Mr. Captain: “Hey. Lesbomancy is big magic to fundies.”)
But the scene’s even funnier than that because of the sheer histrionics Peretti’s describing.
The New Age, According to Satanic Panickers.
Many Christians, especially the toxic ones, carry certain ideas around in their heads of how their enemies act and what they believe. These ideas rarely coincide with reality. Atheism-according-to-toxic-Christians doesn’t look anything at all like actual atheism. Nor does paganism generally, nor Wicca specifically, nor New Age stuff overall.
Despite them all figuring so prominently in his book’s plot, Frank Peretti isn’t even slightly interested in learning anything about any of these topics. But he doesn’t need to know anything about them. He can just use the tribe’s conceptualizations of these groups. They’re all totally false, but the tribe will never figure that out–or care that they’re false.
In describing Sandy’s reaction to Langstrat’s dramatics, I suspect Peretti’s trying to channel that Animal House scene where the students visit their professor to hang out and smoke pot. Animal House came out in 1978, so Peretti would almost certainly have known about it. Almost everything about this movie would have distressed TRUE CHRISTIANS™ of that day, from the pot-smoking to the pop music song evoking forbidden love to the high-kid discussions about other universes in our fingernails.
Peretti just doesn’t know how to make his professor seem as cool, transgressive, and fascinating to Shawn and Sandy as Professor Jennings clearly is to Pinto, Boon, and Katy.
Smoking pot with the professor in 1978’s Animal House.
The Dangers of New Age Stuff.
In this scene, Peretti puts Sandy Hogan through what he imagines is a totally for realsies New Age ritual. It’s just too hilariously overblown for words. He’s trying to make it seem like Sandy’s done this dreadfully dangerous thing, like she’s gotten OMG TOO CLOSE TO THE REAL MAGYCKYL POWAH HERE.
In reality, only the most wackadoodle New Agers would ever do anything like this. I’ve known some of those in my day–and have seen some of ’em perform similar “hypnosis” sessions as Peretti describes here. Some time ago, I described one of these sessions. But as with Christian rituals, nothing whatsoever came of these sessions that the participants couldn’t have worked out for themselves. The ritual I described in that post got done to find my friend’s wallet. It was excruciatingly and embarrassingly overblown and dramatic; neither of us were impressed at all with the priestess’ theatrics. And obviously, the wallet was not anywhere close to where her ritualistic “hypnosis” predicted.
In a lot of ways, hypnosis is just a shared pretendy game. It’s not supernatural in any way. If the subject isn’t totally on board with playing that pretendy game right then, then the “hypnotist” needs them to be really suggestible to push the idea through so the game can get started.
So I’m not even a little surprised that when Frank Peretti sat down to write a scene involving a New Age ritual, he used one that capitalizes on the same exact traits that his own tribe exhibits–and doing something they all consider competition for their own product.
A secular YouTube channel takes a look at a very excitable pastor and his flock. Yep. Suggestible.
And not only does the scene capitalize on those same traits, it follows the same outline as a fundagelical ritual does.
Juleen Langstrat coaches her young victim along every step of the way, giving her exactly the right cues at every moment. Constantly, she tells Sandy Hogan what she should be seeing (with her mind’s eye), experiencing, and feeling (emotionally and physically).
You won’t be at all surprised to hear that I watched my Evil Ex Biff do almost exactly this same ritual at every single altar call he ever attended–just in a slightly different format. He just coached them with Jesus words and got a lot more physical. I remember often seeing him and his (always male) victim of the moment, both drenched in sweat, with him enfolding the victim in his arms and rocking them both back and forth as he groaned his instructions right into the victim’s ear.
I know from experience what that coaching sounded like, too, because Biff often took it upon himself to do it to me when I ventured into the altar calls–just without the sweat and rocking. These efforts never worked on me–I did not speak in tongues as a result, in other words, which is 100% what he wanted to see happen. All the same, he tried it again and again anyway whenever he could.
But giving cues and coaching are totally okay if it’s done for Jesus reasons!
Sandy’s Mind = BLOWN.
And just like fundagelicals want to see with their coaching efforts, Sandy’s mind is just blown by Langstrat’s lackluster hypnosis session. She comes up for air in the culturally-approved way (p. 135):
In the next several minutes, [Langstrat] brought her subject slowly back out of the trance, step by step, suggestion by suggestion.
Finally she said, “All right, when I count to three, you will awake. One, two, three.”
Sandy Hogan opened her eyes, rolled them about dizzily, then took a deep breath, coming fully around.
“Wow!” she responded.
The three of them laughed together.
“Wasn’t that something?” asked Shawn, sitting next to Langstrat.
“Wow,” was all Sandy could say.
Just WOW, y’all.
Have you ever looked at your hands? I mean, really looked at your
Sidebar: A Crowning Moment of Ineptitude.
Oh, and by the way, this scene might be my favorite part of the book so far. It serves as such a crowning example of Peretti’s total ineptitude as a writer.
Y’all, Peretti actually tried his hardest to make Sandy’s identity a mystery in this scene.
He doesn’t actually name her until that moment when she opens her eyes. Until that line, Peretti only refers to Sandy as “[Langstrat’s] counselee” and “her subject” and whatnot.
I didn’t realize he was even trying to play coy with Sandy’s identity until a few minutes ago when I began transcribing stuff for this post.
Here’s how I noticed:
To make it easier for readers to parse blockquotes, I like to put square brackets around pronouns for their first usage. That’s the only reason I realized that Peretti never actually names Sandy till that opening-eyes line. In reading the scene, however, I didn’t notice this coyness. Nor did I ever wonder who it was. I simply never visualized anybody else sitting there except Sandy. Her identity is just not any kind of surprise to me.
Put another way, I would not ever have noticed that Peretti was even trying to play that game if I hadn’t transcribed the blockquoted “denouement.”
This guy really is just that bad at writing.
If anybody ever wonders why on earth this book fascinates me so much, maybe this little detail will answer their questions.
Pandering Guns: Engaged!
The TRUE CHRISTIANS™ reading this short scene would have harrumphed over two things (at least) in it:
First, they’d have said Sandy’s experience was totally weaksauce compared to what their own leaders coached them into feeling every Sunday (night). Indeed, they’d have been very very sad and gotten their preacher eyebrows all scrunched up over how impressed Sandy was with such a weak-sounding experience.
Second, of course, they’d have been outraged that the Cabal of Satanic Wiccans (or Wiccan Satanists, Whatevs) (CSWWSW) had targeted an innocent child to get to an adult they feared.
In fact, Peretti plays to his audience’s outrage on that second count in two ways.
First, he notes specifically that this experience “was a real first for Sandy.” Poor dear, she just hadn’t wandered into any TRUE CHRISTIAN™ churches yet!
Second, he has Langstrat warning Sandy and Shawn not to talk about what happened with anybody else–whereas fundagelicals would be told to go out and tell everybody, using their experience as a conversion tool. But the situation’s way worse than just that.
Don’t Tell Your Daddy.
Fundagelicals would have clutched their pearls over knowing that Sandy will listen to Langstrat’s warning. She won’t tell her father what happened.
In fundagelical culture, Hogan deserves and needs to know absolutely everything she does, everywhere she goes, and everyone she ever talks to.
Obviously, child abuse groomers tell children exactly this same thing. Secrecy–the gaining of it, the guarding of it–allows them to operate for as long as they often do. It is the currency of abusers.
But a total lack of privacy also functions as a tool of abuse, and fundagelicals have gone whole hog in that direction with their children.
Both extremes spring forth from the same dreadful fountain. Both represent an overstepping of a person’s rights and autonomy and an important tool of abuse and control.
Sandy’s a college student and thus presumably an adult in the eyes of the law. But that doesn’t matter to fundagelicals. They would be outraged that Langstrat uses this tactic to keep important information away from her daddy. She’s still a child–forever–to Hogan, who in their culture will never lose his godlike power over her. She will always, in their eyes, be obligated to obey him utterly and thus grant him complete access to her experiences and inner life. And in turn, he will always be excused by them for using whatever methods he can to gain and keep that access.
The Transgression of Boundaries.
So this short scene–just shy of one-and-a-half pages–functions as a warning to fundagelicals about their enemies.
First and foremost, their enemies will try to override Christianity by offering people pale, weak substitutes for TRUE CHRISTIAN™ experiences.
Second, their enemies will seek to destroy divinely-set-up family ties by taking control of those Christians’ children! ZOMG! So childhood rebellion–the formation of boundaries, the carving out of the I in a sea of not-I, the declaration of self against all the forces that seek to destroy the self–become part and parcel of a downright demonic plan to destroy Christians and Christianity itself.
Today, Lord Snow Presides over the tactics that Christians love showing up in the hands of their enemies.
NEXT UP: Join me as we look further into the sordid case of Todd Bentley–and how he’s survived in leadership all these years. He gets by with a little help from his friends!
See you soon!
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Lord Snow Presides is our off-topic weekly chat series. Lord Snow presides over a suggested topic for the day, but feel free to chime in with anything on your mind. We especially welcome pet pictures! The series was named for Lord Snow, my recently departed white cat. He knew a lot more than he ever let on.
Incidentally, in the next LSP I think we’ll finally see this book’s first real action sequence–and it is an ugly one. In fact, it reveals some of the very worst aspects of fundagelicalism.