Reading Time: 12 minutes

Welcome back to our off-topic chat series, Lord Snow Presides! We return here to our examination of Frank Peretti’s terminally-awful 1986 Christian fantasy novel, This Present Darkness. In this installment, we get to the heart of the earthly plot to take over Ashton–and we break our WTF-meters with Christian projection. Today, Lord Snow Presides over a dark conspiracy that is way more likely to happen in Christian circles than secular ones.

a brick building that looks like a university building
(Michael Marsh.) Probably a university.

(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.)

Quick Overview.

Chapter 16 is relatively short. It consists of two scenes. The first scene involves Marshall Hogan and Bernice interviewing the ex-dean of Ashton College, Eldon Strachan. It turns out that the Cabal of Satanic Wiccans (or Wiccan Satanists, Whatevs) (CSWWSW) was behind all of it! OMGWTFBBQ!

The second, considerably shorter scene follows Carmen–the seductress trying her darndest to get into Pastor Hank Busche’s TRUE CHRISTIAN™ pants for her demonic masters. She applies for and immediately obtains the empty secretary position at Hogan’s newspaper (the previous one just ran off with a man, as ya do). She demonstrates no qualities whatsoever to qualify her for the position. No, she just shows up, says she’s “come to apply,” and Tom-the-paste-up-man at the paper just hires her immediately. He doesn’t talk to anybody there, like–I dunno–Marshall Hogan who owns the paper. Instead, he just thinks she’s super-pretty, wishes he was young again so he could hit on her (because only young guys hit on pretty young women, amirite?), and hires her.

Both scenes are 100% Christian projections about how the secular world works, as well as being evidence of just how lazy and incurious a writer Frank Peretti himself is.

Otherwise, nothing whatsoever happens in the chapter. It’s just Frank Peretti’s attempt to advance and entwine his plots in the most hamfisted ways possible.

Following the Money.

Hogan and Bernice head out to Strachan’s little home outside of town. After his firing, he skedaddled to a little country farm. He doesn’t farm it, mind you. Instead, he lives there and keeps the farmhouse nice with his wife, and he maintains some farm animals there. But he doesn’t do anything else with the land.

As the reporters come up to his door, Hogan declares that they’ve found “a normal human being to interview for once.” (Bernice observes wryly, “That’s why he moved out of Ashton.” HAW HAW! Ashton is full of nutjobs! Christian-dominated towns sure ain’t like that!)

Once they get past the niceties, Eldon Strachan relates to the reporters a dizzying tale of how he got fired as the Dean of Ashton College. He found some serious financial improprieties going on, basically (p. 155):

“I never suspected anything until we started having some unexplained disbursement delays. Our bills were being paid late, our payrolls were behind. It wasn’t even my job to be hounding after that sort of thing, but when I started getting some indirect complaints–you know, hearing others talking about it–I asked Baylor what the problem was. He never directly answered my questions, or at least I didn’t like the sound of his answers. That’s when I hired an independent accountant, a friend of a friend, to look into it and maybe do some quick scanning of what the accounting office was doing. I don’t know how he ever got access to the information, but he was a clever character and he found a way.”

The accountant is now dead, of course. Mysteriously. But the rabbit hole goes a lot deeper than just financial shenanigans.

OMG, It’s a Conspiracy, Y’all!

See, Strachan discovered that tons of people at the college were getting fired or not-renewed for work. Then they’d get replaced exclusively by people who were friendly to the Cabal’s leader, Juleen Langstrat, and bought into her wacky New Age ideas. (Strachan doesn’t think she’s the center of the conspiracy, though. Rather, he thinks “she’s answering to someone, some unseen authority.” OMG Y’ALL, WHO COULD THIS POSSIBLY BE???)

At the reporters’ follow-up questioning, Strachan realizes that this process of letting-go old faculty and bringing-on new faculty must have been a sort of hijacking of Ashton College! OMG (p. 158):

“I knew there was some kind of common interest spreading among all these people; they all seemed to have a very unique and undefinable rapport with each other–their own lingo, their own inside secrets, their own ideas of reality–and it seemed no one person could do anything without everyone else knowing about it. I thought it was a fad, a sociological phase–” He looked up from the list with new awareness in his eyes. “So it was more than that. Our campus was invaded and our faculty displaced by a–a madness!”

Also, Strachan passes along another bit of information. He knows that Langstrat attended UCLA–that godless hotspot of heathenry in liberal California. Oddly and probably completely coincidentally, that’s the same college that Frank Peretti himself attended for a brief while to study–I kid you not–English and screenwriting.

The Madness Replacement.

This replacement group did more than just take over Ashton College, though. They’ve apparently engineered the murder of Strachan’s accountant friend. They ran Marshall Hogan’s predecessor, Ted Harmel, out of town on a rumor that he’s a child molester. Strachan, by the way, calls that it “that ridiculous scandal.” And they’ve got Alf Brummel, the chief of the town’s police force, caught up in their wackadoodlery.

It turns out that Strachan was friends with Harmel. In fact, he thinks Harmel’s disgrace was sort of collateral damage in the Cabal’s fight against him as the college’s potential whistleblower, just as the accountant’s death was. That’s why he’s remained quiet since leaving his job–while living a stones-throw from the college, I suppose.

The characters–Bernice, Hogan, Strachan–all seem to realize at once that they’re looking at a conspiracy enveloping the whole town, involving its most powerful figures, millions and millions of dollars (in 80s money, no less), a desire to stop at nothing to get their way, whatever it is, and shadowy controllers whose identities they can’t even begin to guess.

(By the way, the Madness Replacement is my new band name.)

The Ominous Warning.

That’s why Strachan makes sure to caution Hogan and Bernice both (p. 160-161):

“I do believe there’s genuine danger here. . . You people watch out for yourselves. You’re not invincible. None of the rest of us were, and I believe it’s possible to lose everything if you make just one wrong move or take just one wrong step. Please, please be sure at every moment you know exactly what you’re doing.”

The scene ends there, picking up with the second, considerably-shorter scene of Carmen getting hired by Tom at the newspaper. That scene ends with Tom bringing Carmen into the office area of the paper’s headquarters. He tells her, “Let me show you what the devil’s going on here.”


See, it’s so funny cuz Carmen is in fact acting on infernal orders!

Get it?

“The devil’s going on here!”

Ouchtown, Population Fundagelicals.

Here’s an outline of the massive conspiracy Hogan’s stumbled onto, the one rotting at the heart of This Present Darkness:

  • Absolute wackos have established a cult-like presence at the local college.
  • They’ve found a way to control the hiring committees all over the college.
  • Having found it, they’ve gotten rid of unfriendly college staff and hired friendly ones.
  • They have somehow misused funds on a dramatic scale and nobody’s noticed for years.
  • This wacko cult group thinks that they can keep this financial scandal quiet forever.
  • When someone noticed it anyway, they a) murdered him and b) intimidated the person hiring him into silence.
  • They’ve also gained control of the nearby town’s powerful figures.
  • They use those powerful figures to intimidate critics or potential whistleblowers into silence.
  • One example of that intimidation involves falsely (?) accusing the previous owner of the town’s newspaper of sexual abuse of a child to get him to leave town in a hurry and stay quiet about what he learned about the college’s coming financial disaster.
  • Whatever this cult group wants, they have massive resources and a lot of powerful members to make it happen.

Everything in this scenario screams fundagelicalism, not secularism, not New Age wackadoodlery, not anything but TRUE CHRISTIAN™ control-grabbing, impulse indulgence, and power-mongering.

Oops. His Christian Upbringing Is Showing.

Frank Peretti has very little experience with what we might call the real world. He grew up with a severe facial deformity, one that made him withdraw from society early and stay withdrawn from it till he was much older and could get it fixed. His parents didn’t have the money to fix it–so instead they thought real hard at the ceiling and took him to conjob hucksters in hopes that their imaginary friend would magically heal the lad.

Moreover, his father worked as an evangelical pastor right when evangelicals were beginning to merge with fundamentalists. In the 1980s, they got on the road to becoming what we know them as today: ultra-politicized culture warriors who isolate and misinform their kids on purpose to sabotage them forever.

Peretti grew up in that mess.

Briefly, he escaped to UCLA. But he didn’t last there long. It’s very likely he simply completely lacked the ability to study and learn new information, especially if it ran contrary to his beliefs, but that’s just my guess. Whatever happened, he ran back home to Daddy to become his “co-pastor.” That, too, didn’t last long–probably because Frank Peretti had never gotten properly socialized as a child.

After failing hard at pastoring, he took a short succession of low-end, low-wage retail-type jobs. And he lost those too. Writing this book was his last-ditch attempt to earn a living. And it turns out that a very isolated guy can spin stories about fundagelicals’ beliefs that fundagelicals will pay good money to read!

Frank Peretti’s Selective Ignorance.

So Frank Peretti’s never really worked in the environments he’s writing about in his book. He has no idea how the New York Times functions, or what journalists do or why or how. He doesn’t have the faintest idea what real Wiccans do, nor real Satanists. Nor does he know anything about how to run a college, how forensic accountancy works, or how a group might get control of a town’s police chief.

And he’s entirely too lazy of a writer to figure any of this stuff out.

Did you notice that Peretti doesn’t even care how Strachan’s accountant pal got the information he did? Strachan just shrugs it all away–with Peretti just writing it in without any explanation at all. Is this accountant pal like Magnum PI? Or Remington Steele, able to sneak into the college’s offices to steal their files? Or is he a teen hacker whiz?

Who knows?

But Frank Peretti does know how churches work and what church culture is like. He knows how a small, well-funded, rigidly-controlled group can seize control of an entire organization. He knows the tactics they use to gain compliance and silence from their many victims. He’s well aware of the lengths they’ll go to maintain their power.

And he probably knows exactly what happens to anybody opposing them who refuses to stay silent.

In the News.

Listen to these news stories and tell me, just tell me they don’t contain the same exact elements Peretti wrote into the CSWWSW:

  • A small university is slowly buying up real estate in its small town and “insinuating” their students and leaders into every aspect of the town’s life and social fabric. Their goal, they say, is improving the city and helping the poor. But longtime residents are rattled. (Source)
  • This hip young group has operated right under its city’s nose for years. They seem like a wonderful, supportive, loving group. But slowly news has crept out about their incredibly culty indoctrination tactics–and there are alleged whiffs of a seriously bad and mind-bogglingly huge real estate scam going on in its background. (Source)
  • He seemed like a dream come true for the people who followed him. Soon enough, though, his abusive personality began to leak out through his facade. Worse, he allegedly considered his group a personal piggybank. At least one of his whistleblowers is afraid this man means to retaliate against him in a permanent way. (Source)
  • He’s the son of one of the most famous men in his business. Everyone who knew him as a huckster and liar kept their mouths shut–who’d even believe them? Now he fights against accusations of everything under the sun: from sexual impropriety to financial wrongdoing. (Source)
  • This one helped create the group as it stands today. He’s one of its biggest names. But generations of women know him for what he truly is: a misogynistic asshat who treated them like dirt when they needed help the most. (Source)

Every one of these stories is about a fundagelical leader or group. Every. Single. One. Of. Them. As I discovered quite some time ago, these stories almost never involve a liberal church or even a secular group of people. It is almost always about some fundagelical group.

There’s a reason for that, of course. And it’s not because “Satan” is totally gunning for them cuz of their Jesus Auras.

And the Situation Allowing The Ashton Conspiracy To Happen.

The main situation allowing the conspiracy to exist at all in This Present Darkness is Ashton College’s financial opacity.

That’s the mechanism allowing the CSWWSW to spend money on stupid programs (like Langstrat’s New Age blather), hire unqualified and highly-disliked teaching staff, and buy the loyalty of political figures. To do all that, they need money–just like today’s fundagelicals do.

This is why I pointed out the Southern Baptist Convention’s sell-off of real estate as a super-big-huge deal last year. Real estate = real money.

However, we have to gain our knowledge about fundagelicals’ cashflow situation at a remove. They aren’t required to be transparent with their funds, like every other nonprofit must.

Ashton College is apparently a private college, but they’re not a Christian school (much less a fundagelical one like Biola). Christian colleges are often hopelessly opaque about money and unaccountable to anyone for how they use it. A small study in 2004 discovered that almost half the Christian colleges they studied didn’t even meet the government’s requirements for transparency regarding Form 990 (which asks for audited financial info, then uses it for various purposes and publicly reveals it). The study also found that 22 of the 100 schools didn’t even meet evangelical standards for financial accountability.

So it kinda sounds like Frank Peretti took his working knowledge of fundagelical schools and applied it to this secular college in the middle of nowhere in a small town that’s not even remotely fundagelical-controlled.


(See Also: Hiring Incompetent People.)

Heck, even Carmen’s hiring sounds like something that would happen in a fundagelical church. Just sayin’. Hogan, if he really did work once at New York Times, would have been infuriated with Tom for hiring someone without even knowing her credentials. In the real world, we need qualified people for positions.

But fundagelicals seem like all too often they hire what they think are “all the BEST people.” Or they rely on word-of-mouth or friends’ recommendations to hire important and key people in their businesses–like LuLaRoe’s fundagelical owners did in hiring their designer, a church friend. And then these hiring folks don’t pay attention to what their hired people are doing.

Here’s why this stuff happens in fundagelicalism, and why they think it happens everywhere else.

The Law of Conservation of Worship.

Here’s the Law of Conservation of Worship, a must-know for anyone seeking to understand fundagelicals:

For every action and belief [fundagelical] Christians hold, their enemies and sales targets have an equal and opposite reactionary action and belief. Spiritual practices are neither created nor destroyed; as beliefs change, they simply transfer to another method of expression.

Thus, everyone worships something just like Christians worship their god. These Christians go to church and revere their Bibles, so obviously atheists go to science lectures and memorize treasured verses from their leatherbound copies of On the Origin of Species. If these Christians praise Jesus, then atheists praise Richard Dawkins or whatever other bugbear those Christians hate most right then. And just as Christians worship Jesus, atheists worship themselves.

When Christians who buy into this idea meet a new person with a new ideology they’ve never heard of before, they try immediately to figure out what that person’s analogues are to Christianity. What revered figure leads their belief system? What’s their idolized sourcebook? And what beliefs do they hold that aren’t strictly done-deal proven to their satisfaction?

The Law Rules All.

This applies to every aspect of fundagelicalism, too.

It’s why fundagelicals think that feminists want to be “the man” in a relationship, and why they ask same-sex couples who “the man” and “the woman” are in their lives–when the whole point is that these couples don’t want anyone to be “the man” or “the woman,” so to speak.

Under the influence of this law, fundagelicals assume that all groups need a totalitarian leader who can force everyone to go along with a plan or everything’ll go haywire. And it’s why they think that science works like theology, with whoever sounds the most certain and can talk everyone around in the most circles winning all arguments.

This law is why I find This Present Darkness so fascinating. The story in this book could only happen in fundagelical culture, with fundagelical-dominated institutions and fundagelical businesses with fundagelical leaders. But its creator insists that it’s happening to not only secular equivalents of all of those, but pagan ones. He puts his own group’s agenda into the mouths and hearts of his tribe’s declared enemies, then asks his audience of tribemates to see those enemies as The Big Problem Here: that once they eradicate this enemy, then everything will be much better.

Nobody ever said fundagelicals have a surplus of self-awareness, but damn. Every new chapter has me wondering what we’ll discover next in the land of Fundagelical Projection. It’s like my reality TV by now. I hope you’re enjoying this as much as I am — thanks for reading! <3

NEXT UP: Speaking of a scandal in fundagelicalism, the leader of a huge church-planting group turns out to be a mega-dillweed (allegedly). Join me tomorrow for a romp through the red flags that might have clued people in beforehand–but didn’t.

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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.

Lord Snow Fluffybottom: the most important cat in the world. RIP, good boy.
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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...