Ohhh, this book. It makes my head hurt. Today, we tackle Chapter 1 and 2 of Frank Peretti’s sprawling ode to the Satanic Panic: This Present Darkness. Last time, we touched on how this book both derived from and defined those wild and woolly years. This time, I’ll show you the biases and prejudices that seethe and pulse under its oh-so-purple prose. Today, Lord Snow Presides over This Present Darkness: a book that revels in its pure hatred of outsiders.
In the last LSP, I showed you the bizarre college town of Ashton. I don’t think it’s a real town that Peretti knew about or visited. I think he just made it up for the book.
To be sure, however, it resembles no small town I have ever lived in or passed through. It feels a bit like a Kansas town I lived in for a bit, and it’s even about the same size. However, even in its most debauched hours and biggest village-wide celebrations it came nowhere near the debauchery described in the first chapter of This Present Darkness. If nothing else, I can’t see any feasible way to reliably keep underage people out of the celebration. So this carnival sounds more like a frat party–as described by someone who never actually attended one.
Ashton represents the influx and destructive power of KIDS TODAY. The Christians who fell for the Satanic Panic considered KIDS TODAY their very worst enemies–just as they do today. They were certain that the Cabal of Satanic Wiccans (or Wiccan Satanists, Whatevs) (CSWWSW) targeted high-school and college kids in particular. Satanic Panickers thought and still think that people that young are simply more vulnerable to the foul, dark promises of unapproved sex, drug use, roleplaying games, and un-edifying music.
Consequently, in this book Ashton runs smoothly and well, except when all those college kids let loose during their annual carnival of carnality. On that weekend, particularly at night, the town resembles nothing less than a nightmarish Tim Burton version of Mardi Gras.
The “Enterprising Migrants.”
All of this debauchery really originates with a business decision made by “a community-conscious landowner” with a spare vacant lot. See, for the last few years, he’s leased the lot to “a traveling troupe of enterprising migrants.” With that lease, these “migrants” install “rides, booths, and portapotties” every year for the carnival. These attractions (and relief stations) in turn draw college kids from the local dormitories and whatnot–and up the ante on the mayhem caused.
Who are these migrants, though?
Peretti makes them sound quite picaresque, but he does so indirectly. We do not actually see them or learn their names. It’s been years since I read this book, so we might find out more about them later on. That said, I’ve learned not to trust Christian books or movies to play responsibly with Chekhov’s gun.
Thus, we only know that they create and facilitate debauchery. They are outsiders. They only bring trouble to nice, peaceful, settled-up Ashton.
Oh, But the Angels Are HOTTTT.
In contrast to the debauchery dragged into Ashton by the “enterprising migrants,” however, the angels get lovingly described to sound exactly like you’d expect from the dank imagination of a fundagelical Christian author.
These angels are super-tall, mega-ripped white dudes: one blond and “powerful,” one dark-haired and presumably less-powerful but “sharp-featured.” These descriptions don’t matter in the least, really. Peretti doesn’t do much to characterize either one of them. They remind me of that old Crusaders comic book that Jack Chick published long ago, except Jack Chick made one of his heroes black.
For all their immense power, however, the angels must first meddle a bit with someone in Ashton. Well, two someones, really.
Their first target is a journalist. This is Bernie, but we won’t learn her name until later. The dark-haired one points her toward something of interest. We’ll come back to her momentarily.
After that good deed, the angels walk to the local TRUE CHRISTIAN™ church. There, they find their second target–the praying college kid I mentioned last time. They “minister peace” to him so he can feel better about all the people in his town who are totally going to Hell. This process appears to be a sort of video-game-style mana transfer.
Those people are still totally going to Hell, of course. But now the Christian feels way better about the situation.
Hooray Team Jesus!
Only This Christian Matters.
As the angels marvel at the great faith of this praying college-aged Christian, they talk between themselves. This young man is, literally, the only TRUE CHRISTIAN™ who spends time like he does in prayer for the town. He might even have been the one to influence his god to send the angels there to help!
The angels resolve to find other Christians like him.
Now, it might strike the casual reader as weird that in a town like Ashton, there’s literally only one Christian who acts like this young man does. Most small towns–especially ones described like Peretti describes Ashton–find themselves swamped and dominated with people who think they’re the real deal. Churches in these small towns constantly stage revival services, which aim to convert anybody unwary enough to visit on those nights and also awaken the fervor of current Christians.
But this element of Peretti’s story also comes straight from the Satanic Panic. In the mythology of this moral panic, solitary, lonely TRUE CHRISTIANS™ hold back the gates of Hell through their prayers–and their cheap political grandstanding, of course!
This part of the mythology evokes a sort of underdog bravado–which makes the (largely imaginary) victories claimed by the Panickers all the sweeter. It also keeps them engaged in their busy-work of talking earnestly to the ceiling and makes them feel much more important in the grand scheme of things than they truly are.
(We’ll be talking later about how this book praises really terrible examples of Christianity–like this young man.)
Someone’s Read Too Much Spider-Man.
Next, we whisk into the offices of Ashton’s newspaper, the Ashton Clarion. It sounds exactly like a small-town version of the Daily Bugle.
When we meet the paper’s new editor,
J. Jonah Jameson Marshall Hogan, that similarity gets downright painful. He’s a big-city NOO YAWKA, straight from the New York Times! We don’t know yet why he decided to buy this tiny town’s struggling newspaper, but here he is–frustrated with small-town inefficiency and slowness, gruff and busy, all snapsnapSNAP onthedouble, transplanted to the middle of Small-Town Time. He haz a fierce!
And y’all, he’s got a problem today. He needs to get the next day’s paper on the printing-presses, but he’s missing the story that Bernie, his reporter, promised him about the weekend festival. She’s really late! Where could she be? Nobody else attended the festival–they’re all adults with families and stuff to do on the weekend. The implication: they would never attend a bacchanal like that.
Marshall gets more and more gruff and busy until someone finally finds out where Bernie went off to.
J. Jonah Jameson Marshal asks-yells, “Where the heck is she?” (I have confirmed with numerous NYC commenters that a proper NYC/NYT journalist would not talk like this.)
AND ZOMG Y’ALL! BERNIE IS IN JAIL! SHE NEEDS TO BE BAILED OUT!
Oh, And Guess Why Bernie Got Arrested?
Peretti first describes Bernie when the two angels found her earlier (and directed her to something interesting to photograph):
She was young, very pretty, but also very unsettled, looking this way and that, a camera in her hands and a stiff-lipped expression on her face.
Got that? Now, at the start of Chapter 2, we learn that Bernie got picked up in a wide sweep for prostitution. She happened to be standing with a pair of sex workers at the festival. When one of those two women tried to pick up an undercover police officer, all three women got arrested and brought in.
It is absolutely impossible to imagine that the local police officers didn’t notice that one-of-these-things-just-doesn’t-belong-here. (ITT: Everyone’s humming an old childhood tune suddenly.)
Now, in reality sex workers look like all kinds of people. You know that, and so do I. But Frank Peretti learned everything he knows about sex workers from Heavy Metal and “Harry Canyon,” that one scene with the cabbie. The women in the police station in that movie’s scene act exactly and precisely like the women in this book’s police station. They are bawdy, unrepentant, and eager to get back to work–right there in the cop shop, ideally.
This is a very cleaned-up version of the sequence. The women in question show up around 1:00. And yes, this entire storyline sure resembles The Fifth Element.
So y’all, Bernie sounds about as unlike a Frank Peretti-style sex worker as it is possible to get.
This whole setup is so gross to read. Peretti just needed to get Bernie into a jail cell for some reason, and this is how he decided to do it. You can just about hear him going “HAW HAW!” to himself as he finished writing the scene.
Oh, You Know How These Small Town Cops Are.
Naturally, Bernie’s hopping mad by the time Marshall comes to spring her from her jail cell. She tells Marshall that the arresting officer never asked to see her identification–only handcuffed her and dragged her to jail with the two sex workers. Indeed, she wants to press charges against that officer. She wants his badge! But Marshall stops her:
“It’ll only turn your chest green.” Hogan held up his hand to halt another outburst. “Hey, listen, it isn’t worth the trouble.”
That made my eyes just about pop out.
I don’t think that’s how someone would take the situation even back in the 1980s. Marshall’s a hard-bitten, tough-as-nails NYC journalist–until the story needs him not to be.
But Bernie has some information for Marshall. She tells him that she saw his pastor, a fellow called Pastor Young, meeting with some really weird characters at the fair. That meeting turns out to be what the angels directed her to photograph.
We Meet the Two Christian Pastors, Sort Of.
Pastor Young leads the Ashton United Christian Church. It’s described as the really big, somewhat ecumenical church in town. Bernie sums him up thusly:
“President of the local ministerial, endorses religious tolerance and condemns cruelty to animals.”
Ohh, lordy. This is gonna be that kind of drama.
Right there, through dogwhistles, we learn that Young is our story’s bad guy. One of them, anyway.
The fundagelicals reading this book would certainly know that fact immediately. I’ve got no clue what a “local ministerial” is, but it sounds ecumenical, which was a really big buzzword back in the 1980s. The Pentecostals I was with despised ecumenicalism and considered it part of the Endtimes scheme by Satan to kick-start the Tribulation. We’ll talk more about it later if we have time. For now, just know it’s a dogwhistle term for Christians who’ve stopped being salt and light.
And I can tell you right now that if you walk up to the fundagelicals demonstrating in front of any women’s clinic and whisper religious tolerance to them, their skin will start bubbling and peeling away and they’ll hiss like movie-cobras as they scuttle away. Religious tolerance means compromise. And compromise means JFC, why don’t we just hand our church’s keys over to Satan right now?
By “condemns cruelty to animals,” we’re meant to infer that Pastor Young embraces evil liberal causes. Booooo! TRUE CHRISTIANS™ don’t have any truck with liberalism!
The little bitty church with the young praying college student is apparently Ashton Community Church, the town’s other church. The town’s police chief, Brummel, attends that one. So, apparently, does that praying college student.
And the Weird Characters.
At the carnival, Bernie saw Young meeting with some very odd people:
“. . . some blond woman, some short, pudgy old fellow and a ghostly-looking black-haired shrew in sunglasses. Sunglasses at night!”
All of those descriptions are meant to make TRUE CHRISTIANS™ shudder. But I cringed hard.
Anyway, at that meeting the previous night, Young told Bernie to beat it. Before she could, the two sex workers “latched onto” her. Then the three women got arrested. Weirdest of all, Bernie’s completely convinced that Police Chief Brummel saw the entire thing–the meeting, her arrest, everything–and that he’s avoiding her now. Unsurprisingly, Bernie thinks Brummel is “a crumb, a coward, and a cretin.”
Marshall soothes Bernie and they decide to check the camera out at the office. It’s still got its film in it from last night, so who knows? After Bernie leaves, Marshall asks his wife,
“Can you figure this town, Kate?” he said finally. “It’s like some kind of disease. Everybody’s got the same weird disease around here.”
Yes, see, there’s not enough JESUS POWER up in here! But he’ll learn that fact sooner or later, I’m sure.
I Can’t Even, With This Book.
Decades since I read it last, the writing in This Present Darkness remains nearly impermeable. Sometimes Marshall Hogan is called Marshall; at other times he’s Hogan. If anybody who owns a copy of this book can tell me WTF the byplay between Marshall and Kate means, the stuff on page 22 about cockfights being illegal in their state, I’d appreciate it. It sounds like a Seinfeld reference–but it really rings weirdly in this conversation.
Speaking of which, Peretti’s characters’ conversations are always hard to follow–characters sound exactly identical for the most part. He doesn’t offer readers much help in the form of stuff like “he said/she replied.”
Right now it feels like Peretti has no idea where his characters physically are at any given moment–or even really who they are. Thus, he can’t really describe them effectively or adequately clue readers in to who is speaking at any given moment. That page 22 byplay might mean that big gruff ol’ Marshall Hogan, the ruff-and-tuff NOO YAWK newspaper editor, has trouble dealing with his adult daughter and dreads being one-on-one with her. I could be wrong.
Signs of the Times.
This book is terrible, but I’m getting reacquainted with the mindset that inspired and created it. More and more, the tribe that embraced this book fights their last fight with every bit of frantic strength they can still muster. The college-aged readers of this book from the 1980s are now hitting their 50s. They’re now sitting in pastors’ offices around the country–and holding and running for political office. This book forms part of their DNA as a group, just like the Satanic Panic itself does.
I think it’s useful to see what went into making toxic Christians who they are today. Plus, it’s hilarious to go back to a huge blockbuster bestseller in Christian fiction to see just how bad it is–and just how low Christians’ standards for entertainment sank–and only got worse!
Today, Lord Snow Presides over Christians who accidentally tell us exactly who they hate most–and why they hate them so much.
NEXT UP: Tomorrow, we look at the Problem of Wingnuts and why whackadoodle beliefs only proliferate. See you next time! <3
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Lord Snow Presides is our off-topic weekly chat series. I’ve started us off on a topic, but feel free to chime in with anything on your mind. Pet pictures especially welcome! The series was named for Lord Snow, my recently departed white cat. He knew a lot more than he ever let on.