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.


  1. Nice review, Thomas. A couple of the other Tourists, Joan Nienhuis in particular, also noted the dangling plot threads and ambiguous cause-effect relationships.

    How important did you feel the spiritual elements were? Did they add anything significant to the story? It sounds like the story could have played out as well with only insanity/hallucination as an explanation for what was happening.

    Fred Warren

  2. I never thought that Sam Travis was brainwashed, or that he was crazy. I assumed he was just succumbing to the darkness - within and without.

    My interpretation of the story, and in particular of the 'occult' aspect, was this: The Marxists grew desperate and sought help from the occult. To put it bluntly, they made an alliance with demons. It was spiritual forces, not the Marxists, who led Sam Travis down his path.

    You raised some very interesting points and I enjoyed reading your thoughts. Thanks for posting.
    - Shannon

  3. Shannon you hit it on the head. That was my intention for Sam.

    Thomas, thank you for your honest thoughts and the time you put into these reviews. It means a lot to know that you didn't just read the book and set it aside, but truly thought about it and wrestled with some of the issues. Thank you!

  4. Mike, thanks for clarifying. Sorry I missed your intent, and reading it in that light might help to make things cohere better for me.

    In my third post I look at what makes a Christian fiction truly Christian and in a nutshell I think it is a pointed presence of the Gospel. Since it is demonic forces that are at work in Sam, then the 'other-worldly' (supernatural) aspect not only makes your book a suspense/thriller, but it concretely moves it into the realm of fantasy (not meaning that the spiritual forces of darkness are a fantasy like Santa Claus). Jacob alone does that. But the presence of spiritual demonic forces is an excellent context in this genre for bringing the hard hitting truths of the gospel and Christ's triumph over sin, death, and darkness. He is our only hope regardless of where the attack may come from - earthly, sensual, or demonic (James 3:15). I know, I'm preaching to the choir. You already know this and those of us writers who are truly Christian know it. Can't we bring the gospel into plain sight in our stories without being soppy, melodramatic, or stereotypical?

    By the way, as I also point out in the third post, I liked your characters of Symon and his victims. You did a good job on them. Your manner of treatment seemed to be different, particularly with the victims. Not sure why, and I don't know if I can put my finger on it; maybe its different because they were cameo. The experience with the clerk at the gas station was very well done, I thought. The giggly double chin was a nice touch.