Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Day Three - June, 2011 CSFF Blog Tour, Darkness Follows

Darkness Follows by Mike Dellosso
Published by Realms, Lake Mary, FL

In this final post, I would like to touch on two things, Dellosso’s writing and the question of what makes Christian fiction, Christian.

The writing is average. Character development is key for any novel to be good. For me, none of the characters drew much empathy. Evoking empathy always goes back to how life-like the characters become in the imagination of the reader. If the reader lives out the character in his mind, the author has done his job well. Certainly, the success of that has a lot to do with the reader, but I think it has more to do with the writer. Granted, creating good characters is not easy and most of us have to work hard at it. I don’t think the characters in Darkness Follows rise much above those that are commonly found in Christian fiction today. My favorite example of good characterization is George Polivka’s Blaggard’s Moon. His is a high standard, and we would all do well to try and meet it. That doesn’t mean we emulate Polivka. But we should study him (and others who equally qualify) to see what factors and techniques he uses that make his characters so good, and strive to use them within the complex of our own personality, vocabulary, temperament, and style.

Having said that the characters drew little empathy from me, I confess that I liked Dellosso’s characters of Symon and his victims, the latter of whom (excluding the state trooper, Ned Coleman) were cameo appearances. Short-lived (no pun intended) but memorable. The fact that they were murdered didn’t elicit empathy because they weren’t around long enough. Even so, they were vivid and interesting.

One of the things all writers commonly make use of is simile. I find simile to be a good litmus of an author’s writing ability. Good writers use simile that fits the situation or mood without excessive verbiage. Bad writers don’t. Using appropriate simile is difficult. When done well, it is like the brushstroke that finishes the masterpiece. When not done well, it is like spinach topping on your least favorite ice cream. Darkness Follows has too much of the latter.

...his words trailed off like a column of smoke into a starless sky. (p 37)
...tickling Molly’s skin like insect legs. (p 50)
Questions, like day-old bug bites, nagged him. (p 57)
Those words rushed back from the past like a winter wind... (p 130)
His hands quivered like the last leaves of autumn buffeted by a stiff November wind. (p 166)
The bullet pierced Symon’s palm like an awl through leather... (p 260)

It’s not that these don’t give us a vivid picture, I think they do. But they just don’t fit and some are overstated. Words trailing off like a column of smoke is good, but the starless sky adds nothing and hampers the effect. Insect legs on Molly’s skin probably wouldn’t tickle, but they sure would draw a reaction. Day-old bug bites presumably itch, but how does itching carry the imagery of nagging. What is the connection between the sudden recollection of a conversation (real or imagined) and a winter wind? Leaves buffeted by a stiff November wind don’t quiver; they thrash about. A speeding bullet through a palm is nothing like the slow-pressured force that pushes an awl through leather.

To be fair, there were some fine examples of simile; here are two:

The line began to move like a segmented worm... (p 83)
A memory, like a gunshot, exploded in Symon’s mind... (p 83)

The question, What makes ‘Christian fiction,’ Christian? is a crucial one. As writers of Christian fiction, we want to get this right. For me, Christian fiction is not truly Christian unless it pointedly and clearly brings in the salient truths of the gospel. One may argue that such a definition is too narrow. Some would say that it should include any fiction written by Christians, predominately for Christians, and does not require a heavy emphasis on the gospel itself. Wholesome themes - love, faithfulness, kindness, graciousness, humility, forgiveness - essentially the fruits of the Spirit delineated by Paul in Galatians 5:22 are sufficient to mark the literary work as Christian. These themes are good, and they are Christian, but they are genuinely so only when they are understood in the light of the Gospel. Christ came to save sinners, not from hell primarily, but from their sins, which has implications not only for one’s eternal destiny, but also for this life. Christ saves his people from their sins, transforming them into a people who grieve over their sin, repent continuously, recognize the deceitfulness of their own sinful hearts, and in an ongoing manner, humbly seek the mercy and grace of the One who saves them that they may overcome worldliness and carnality. As overcomers, they manifest the fruit of the Spirit. Bringing these truths out is what qualifies a novel to be worthy of Christian classification.

This does not mean a Christian can’t write purely for entertainment. Nor does it mean that all the elements of the Christian faith must be treated with equal emphasis. As an image-bearer of God, writing good fiction, creating a world of fiction (reflecting God’s creativeness), even if there is no effort to include Gospel truths, is a worthy vocation, and one that honors God. But if it does not pointedly bring out the truths of the Gospel, let’s not call it Christian.

Darkness Follows is anemically Christian. It mentions the love of Jesus, but doesn’t tell the reader what that means. It provides a contrast between good and evil, but the most pagan of literary works does that because it is impossible to avoid. The Christian novel should show why it is unavoidable through a strong Gospel oriented story.

Dellosso’s novel is dark, and alarmingly so in several places. That in itself doesn’t disqualify it as Christian. What severely damages its qualification as Christian is that the Gospel is absent. Merely including Eva’s need to tell her daddy that Jesus loves him fails to qualify the novel as Christian. Stephen King could write a novel like that, but no one would think of it as Christian.

Many in the world and the professing Church have been told that Jesus loves them yet have none of the grace of God that transforms them from sinner to saint because they misunderstand what that love is. These do not see God’s love side by side with God’s holy hatred of them as sinners (Psalm 5:5) who are under divine condemnation and are powerless to do anything about it because they are dead in their sins (Ephesians 2:1). They don’t understand that their hope is not in any inherent goodness they think they have, nor in any value they think God sees in them. They don’t see that their only hope is in the atonement of Christ through which they may be saved from their sin and sinfulness. Without the clear, pointed presence of the Gospel in a novel, the novel is not Christian.

Participant Links
Mike Dellosso Website
Darkness Follows on Amazon

Thanks to Realms Publishing for kindly providing a copy of Darkness Follows for review on the Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy Blog Tour.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Day Two - June, 2011 CSFF Blog Tour, Darkness Follows

Darkness Follows by Mike Dellosso
Published by Realms, Lake Mary, FL


Some may regard the issues I bring out in this article to be much ado about nothing, but I think they are important and have a direct bearing on the quality of the story.

The psychopathic mystery character I mentioned in the Day One post is known as Symon (that was what the voice on the phone called him) but his real name comes to him in a rush after he has gone down from a rifle shot that ‘pierced his palm like an awl through leather.’ Curled in pain on the ground, Symon has another flashback, of having been shot once before, and of a woman kneeling over him mouthing his name, Albert.

His full name is Albert Drake, and the denouement chapter seventy-three contains a transcript of a talk show, Mitch Lewis Live, whose guest is Lucretia Billows, presumably the woman Symon recalls mouthing his name. Based on the transcript the two characters, Albert Drake and Sam Travis were both brainwashed by a Marxist group (the Marxist Brotherhood), and we are to infer from this, I believe, the brainwashing is responsible for the strange behavior of both.

This fits appropriately with Drake who can remember nothing earlier than two months prior although, over the brief time-span of the novel, recollections of his childhood, involvement with the Marxist group, and of his own daughter come back in bits and pieces. His instructions (to kidnap Sam Travis’s daughter, Eva, as a hostage to ensure Sam’s complicity with the assassination attempt) are from a voice over the phone most likely a member of the Marxist group. In the pursuit of the kidnapping, Drake, without feeling (which he finds troublesome), murders six people who live in the Gettysburg area.

Looking back over the book, Sam Travis’s brainwashing can be taken as a factor in his behavior and strange experiences, but some of those experiences have an other-worldly feel, and intentionally so, I think, by the author. They are meant to be taken at face value as truly other-worldly. As such, these particular experiences are not attributable to brainwashing. Rather than finding a lucid explanation for them, their presence is puzzling.

To see this, we have to step back a little and try to see the brainwashing of Sam Travis in the context of the big picture, beginning with the prologue.

Samuel Whiting, the inaugural figure of the prologue, is a historic personality, a Captain of the Union Army at Gettysburg. He is writing in his journal, and the content of his writing is given only in general terms. However, I believe we are to infer from the modern day entries Sam Travis makes in his daughter’s notebook (journal entries as though authored by Captain Whiting, but actually written in Sam Travis’s hand) that the Captain wrote of his despair over the needless death and suffering of the battle for which he blames President Lincoln. While writing, a mysterious darkness engulfs the Captain. The reader has the sense that that darkness plays a significant role in his decision to assassinate President Lincoln, an intuition that is more and more confirmed as the novel unfolds. The point here - there is an other-worldly presence at the outset, the darkness, that enshrouds the Union Captain.

In the present day, Sam Travis, as noted, composes journal entries as if written by Captain Whiting, but does so unconsciously. I wonder, is this meant to be the result of his brainwashing, or something else? That explanation might be discounted if we consider the final chapters where it becomes known that the real Captain Whiting is a relative of Sam’s (a great, great, great uncle) and that he is not the only one in the family to have been insane (‘gone off the deep end’, p 274) There is a darkness that has been in the family which affected not only Whiting, but also Sam’s brother, Tommy (a chilling psycho), and Sam himself. If the darkness that followed his family into the present day is the cause of Sam’s ‘trance writing’ in his daughter’s notebook, then Sam is a golden find for the Marxists, and their brainwashing techniques would have had to be, I think, quite sophisticated to make use of it.

But the reason given for Sam’s enlistment as related by Lucretia Billows is that Albert (Symon, the psycho murderer) didn’t have the skills the Marxists needed, and Sam Travis did. Those skills presumably are his expertise with the rifle. Lucretia also notes that the Marxists became involved with the occult and that it was at their deepest involvement when they began to work on Sam. Was it through the occult they were able to discern Sam’s dark side and manipulate it? If so, that would that have been a useful point, which could have been more obviously developed in the story. But we don’t know for sure and are left guessing, which for some may be acceptable, but it leaves me unsatisfied.

It may be that the author deliberately, without spelling it out, intends for the trance writing to be an aspect of the insanity complex that follows Sam’s family, because the symptoms of it appear back in the original scene with Captain Whiting:

After dipping the tip of his quill into an inkwell, he put the tip to the paper and began to write. The words flowed from his hand, though they were not born of him... His quill moved across the paper more rapidly now, the point carving words--vitriol--at an alarming pace. p. 1, 2

If Dellosso intentionally depicts Captain Whiting to be induced with trance writing and purposely meant it to be one of the insanity elements that are passed down through the family and to have it reappear in Sam Travis’s case, I must say that is ingenious.

But here’s what I find confusing. The Marxist group presumably brainwashed Sam Travis, just as they did Albert Drake. When, where, and how is absent and unexplained and would not only have made the story cohere better, but also provided ample opportunity to develop Sam Travis’s character and psyche more thoroughly, a problem I find with most of the characters in the book (Symon excepted to some degree).

If perchance we are reading too much into Lucretia Billows talk show account, and Sam Travis was not brainwashed, it is not clear at all what the Marxists did do in an effort to use his expertise as a shooter in their plan to assassinate the presidential hopeful, Stephen Lincoln. So I wonder how Sam came to the decision to assassinate the target. Was it because of brainwashing or because of the darkness (expressed through the trance writing and, near the end, through a psychological manifestation of his dead brother, Tommy)? Or was it both? Did the Marxist group become aware of Sam’s bent toward a dark side, connect it to Samuel Whiting and the inherent proclivity to trance writing, and so brainwash him in such a way as to use that? It was essentially Sam Travis’s unconscious journal entries that brought him to the conclusion that he should assassinate Senator Lincoln. Was that a result of brainwashing with the unintentional but fortunate (for the Marxist group) side effect of the trance writing, or was the Marxist group aware of the trance writing trait and intended all along to use the brainwashing toward that end. Who knows, it’s not unequivocally connected if that is so. And again, if it were intentional, it would have been a fantastic opportunity to bring the story to a deeper and more mature development.

Here is another matter which is a loose end that I think should have been resolved. In the first chapter, Sam hallucinates (maybe) and hears the Gettysburg battle going on around his home. This might be the result of brainwashing, but the surreal bullet that shattered the window loudly enough to awaken his daughter and wife who are sound asleep upstairs is never found by Sam’s wife or the state trooper, Ned Coleman. What actually shattered the window is never explained (as far as I remember) and though at first it seemed to be significant, it never comes to mean anything. It also lends support to the possibility that the sounds of the Gettysburg battle were not purely mental but also involved external, other-worldly forces as well, which if so, was likewise ignored in the rest of the book.

The appearances of Tommy, Sam Travis’s dead brother, might be attributable to brainwashing, especially given the traumatic experience of having to kill his own brother to save his mother and father from a grisly murder at Tommy’s hands. So Sam’s hallucinatory experiences of Tommy’s manifestations are understandable from that point. But Sam also sees Jacob, albeit not until the climax is about to unfold. Jacob is not a by-product of the brainwashing and not intended to be a hallucinatory figment. Jacob is truly other-worldly, though a benign figure.

Jacob, until the final chapters, is an invisible friend of Eva, taken to be a make-believe playmate by her parents, but the reader is left with the strong impression that he is real. Jacob continually encourages Eva to tell her daddy that she loves him. He even reveals that her dad is going to do something very bad, and that she needs to pray for him.

The reality of Jacob is confirmed when he appears to Sam and assists him in finding his way to his daughter and her abductor, Symon. The confusion for me is that if Jacob, in the end, is not restricted to intervene through Eva only, why did he not do so directly with Sam from the start?

All of these may be making a mountain out of a molehill but the author who thinks through his story thoroughly, works such issues out. Granted, one can probably find inconsistencies and dangling themes in the best works, but I think these in Darkness Follows could have been handled better.

Participant Links
Mike Dellosso Website
Darkness Follows on Amazon

Thanks to Realms Publishing for kindly providing a copy of Darkness Follows for review on the Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy Blog Tour.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Darkness Follows by Mike Dellosso, Day One - June, 2011 CSFF Blog Tour

Darkness Follows by Mike Dellosso
Published by Realms, Lake Mary, FL

Darkness Follows by Mike Dellosso is a novel that incorporates elements amenable to suspense: mystery, intrigue, and dark psychological intensity.

The setting is Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the battle site of the bloodiest conflict of the American Civil War and the greatest artillery barrage on the North American continent. The prologue introduces Samuel Whiting, a captain of the Union Army in his tent at the end of a bloody day of fighting. He is disillusioned about the cause of the war and the way in which it is being fought. He takes up his pen and writes in his journal. As he writes, the words come quickly and with ease though they are not ‘born of him, but of something else, something dark and sinister, something to which he had finally given himself.” (p 2) Captain Whiting detects a dark, shadowy presence in the tent with him, accompanied by a low moaning wind that snuffs out the light of his writing candle and leaves him in darkness. This establishes intrigue at the outset and contains the kernel that ultimately binds various threads together, although there are some threads left dangling.

In the first chapter, the scene shifts to modern day Gettysburg, and the night scene of Sam Travis who awakens from a bad dream that has terrified him. The only hint of what the dream was about is the mention of his brother and a shot, and Sam Travis’s post-dream recollection of a voice in the past, ‘You did what you had to do, son.’

Sam rises for a drink of water assuring his wife Molly that he’s all right. He checks on their seven-year-old daughter Eva, who is soundly sleeping in her room. Sam moves on to the bathroom were he splashes down his face with water and studies the scar on his face in the mirror. The scar signifies something happened, which has made the last six months very trying for the Travis family.

Then Sam Travis hears a voice from downstairs calling his name. He recognizes it as the voice of his dead brother, Tommy. Sam has been hearing Tommy’s voice quite a bit lately, “a hundred ghostly times since the accident that had turned his own brain to mush. The doctor called them auditory hallucinations.”

Later, a mystery figure comes into the book, who doesn’t know who he is and is a psychopath who finds it troubling that he feels no remorse or guilt for the murders he commits. He asks all his victims if they have ever seen him, or know who he is - there is none who does. He recollects on a variety of occasions a voice on the telephone giving him instructions as to what he is to do, but he doesn’t know whose voice it is though he is compelled to follow it. These instructions include something he is to do to Sam and Molly’s daughter, Eva.

There is a Senator who recently has had a conversion from the liberal principles of the Democratic Party and become a Republican making him the leading Republican presidential hopeful.

The Senator (whose name I withhold lest it catalytically gives away too much), Sam Travis, the mystery psycho, and Eva all come together in a climactic ending that leaves one scratching his head, until he continues on and reads the post-climactic chapters, which, for the most part brings satisfying resolution to the puzzlements.

One more figure, a character that Eva sees, but no one else, whose name is Jacob and informs Eva that her Dad is afraid and needs her prayers. After a time, Sam and Molly become more and more concerned about Eva’s conversations with Jacob (Molly overhears one) and Eva’s insistence that Jacob, who is ‘all shiny like someone dipped him in glue and rolled him in sparkles,’ (p 50) is real.

The intrigue builds on a variety of fronts, and centers around the dark and morose.

Molly’s childhood was marred by a verbally abusive father.

The mystery figure, stymied about who he is, dredges up images and conversations that help bring his past back, though it is all quite disconnected. His father beat his mother and raped his sister. A woman laughs at him, another shoots him. Eventually he realizes he was married and has a daughter. The knowledge of a daughter has the tendency to bring mild restraint to his otherwise unbridled, murderous rage.

Sam Travis recalls his childhood in bits and pieces throughout the story, revealing his horribly disturbed brother, Tommy, and a frightening secret. He finds mysterious entries in his own hand in his daughter’s composition book which appear to be the entries of Samuel Whiting, dated during the Battle of Gettysburg, expressing a continuing mental descent into a despondent and darkened abyss, and eventually, to a resolution to kill the President.

The story qualifies as suspense, but it has the feel of being rushed. There are many places where a slower development of a situation or character would have been an enhancement. As an example, much of what takes place in the first chapter comes too fast. A case in point is what comes on the second page of the first chapter where already, without preparation for the reader or transition, Sam hears the voice of his dead brother, Tommy. To me, it feels out of joint and awkward.

In only a few places did I like the writing. On the whole, I found it average. If I can follow through and post each day of the Tour, my aim on the second day is to discuss Dellosso’s writing in a little more detail, both the good and the bad, and identify things that I think were puzzling. On the third, I want to say something briefly about the ‘Christian’ nature of the book.

Participant Links
Mike Dellosso Website
Darkness Follows on Amazon

Thanks to Realms Publishing for kindly providing a copy of Darkness Follows for review on the Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy Blog Tour.