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Review: This Present Darkness

67640955-61EF-4269-BDD0-B4C4C790FF34.jpgThis Present Darkess is a fun little book, but it’s a novel and not a book about theology. Indeed, if you think about the theology too hard it all kind of falls apart.

Let’s do it anyway.

The book, for those of you who haven’t read it (you should; it’s a good romp if a mite predictable), is the story of a small town being overrun by demonic forces, and the people and angels who drive those demons out. The rest of this is full of spoilers, so if you care about such things you should stop reading now.

It’s got some silliness inherent in its origin; the bad guy is a conglomeration of everything the Religious Right feared in the early eighties (the UN, psychics, foreigners, video games, and academics all play a part), and the portrayal of some aspects of the world are odd thirty years on (cell phones really changed the suspense genre), but it holds up pretty well.

I do want to point out one bit of hysteria that’s notable for it’s absence, though: Marshall, one of the main protagonists, is a journalist hot on the trail of the real story, bravely standing up against corruption, trying to find a calm place for this family after leaving… the New York Times. Today he’d be from Fox News. Or the AP, or something. But not the Grey Lady; she’s too liberal.

Hank, a small-church pastor and the other protagonist, is bland to the point of boredom. He’s a praying man (which gives him power to expel the demons, which is handy), and he’s standing up to the corrupt board members, but his strong faith defines him so much that he’s got no conflict and no character. He’s a goody two shoes, which makes him useful, but not interesting.

But Marshall is enough to drive the story, and largely does. He’s screwed up and conflicted, trying to slow life down from his previous hunt-the-big-story days by moving to a small town, but caught up in something bigger than he bargained for. He’s doubtful and cynical and smart, and makes a very good vehicle to explore the town. His efforts to get to the bottom of everything are what makes the plotline move.

The plotline is mostly good, but does get a little muddled. The demonic forces want to take over Ashton, the small town where all the action happens, but it’s never made clear why that’s a reasonable goal. The college in town is largely theirs already (book learnin’ jus’ makes ya forget yer Bible!), and it’s implied that they could use the town as some sort of base of operations, but it’s directly stated that there are other towns that the demons already control, and it’s never said why this town is special enough to merit the showdown that the book describes.

More problematic, though, is how the book describes the spiritual warriors that are the reason the book stands out from most suspense novels.

The demons are split into two categories: most of them are named for some dark deed (Divination, Fortune Telling) or inclination (Lust, Deception), but some have proper names and rule over the others (Rafar, Lucius, The Strongman). The demons are always intimidating each other and jostling for rank; there’s a lot of infighting and back biting, with predictable results. But the demons are also always scheming and plotting; they take matters into their own hands and use their initiative to catch the good guys flat footed and turn the situation to their advantage. The demons can scare the humans and screw up their lives by latching onto them and eventually possessing them.

The angels, meanwhile, are hiding. They come into town and keep a low profile, and protect Hank and his church buddies. They’re always seeking “prayer cover” to help them in their fight against the demons. They talk about God and his foreknowledge, but they seem rather unsure of their own plans. They never, ever take the initiative, because they want the humans to get everything done; they step in to protect and to aid, but never to do it themselves.

This is necessary to make the narrative work; the demons have to look like they’re going to win, or the book would be a very long series of uninteresting routs. And the forces of darkness appear to be doing well for most of the book: they’re screwing things up, pushing the town closer to the brink and making life more miserable, while the Angels stand by and do very little (sometimes intentionally, sometimes because the demons overpower them). But this is rather troubling theologically; if the Angels are present, why can’t they manage to win anything?

This is a small subset of the larger problems with this kind of Spiritual Warfare: it moves the focus off the battle for souls and puts it onto an actual battle. The tactics and strategies used by the Angels and the Demons become more interesting (and more influential) than the actual people that should be the whole point. The humans need to be the ones resisting, and they need to be able to do so with or without angelic assistance. Demons reaching into the humans’ minds and convincing them to follow bad theology breaks the primal role of man making the right decisions. And perhaps most important of all, the battle only makes sense if there’s a possibility that it can be decisive; God has to be in a position to lose, or neither side will show up on the battlefield. But putting God in that position is difficult to pull off, since you have to have a pretty bizarre reading of Revelation to think that these battles happen and that a divine loss is a possibility.

But even with this Amazing Unravelling Armageddon Thread, this book is a well-executed suspense novel intertwined with a neat supernatural complication that’s well written if a little kooky at times. If you take it for what it is and don’t try to read too much into it, it’s an enjoyable read.