Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Dark World: From the New World

(The story begins here.)

Dr. Fleming smiled at Darren’s bewilderment. “It isn’t magic, you know,” he whispered as he indicated Lassiter’s strange conveyance. “It’s controlled by radio or sound, and there’s a metal strip on the floor that probably powers and even guides it.”

“I am not a benighted heathen, Victor, but thanks for the explanation anyway. It just seems rather cold and mechanical compared to being borne along by one’s fellow men.”

“A modern hospital room is cold and mechanical compared to a witch doctor’s hut.”

An open door and the view through it interrupted the debate. A man with dark, shoulder-length hair sat at what Darren first took to be an organ. An image flashed through his imagination: Captain Nemo sitting at his organ following the destruction of the mysterious warship. Darren could not understand why that image; he could find no trace of the the overwrought, vengeful submariner’s pathos.

But Karel Dvorak turned to face them, and the image vanished, especially as Darren saw that it was not an organ at all, but some strange collection of keys or levers of unknown purpose. “You appear startled, sir,” Dvorak stated.

“I thought for a moment you were an organist, sir,” Darren replied.

Dvorak chuckled. “I can see how one could think so. I am not a musician, though I suppose you could say I am a composer. A composer of music might produce a symphony; the symphony I produce here is from the new world that my keyboard, here, makes possible. This device shall someday be famous along with me.” His gaze moved to Dr. Fleming. “Your patient’s vital signs are quite normal. Indeed, the only irregularity I find is that he has remained unconscious. The ride is scarcely lulling.”

“Mr. Lassiter is a man of many hidden irregularities. This, meanwhile, is Mr. Darren Christopher, who has some tedious irregularities of his own. Darren, Dr. Karel Dvorak.”

The two men bowed slightly in acknowledgement, and Darren said, “I take it that this device of yours is medical in nature?”

Dvorak chuckled again. “It is universal in nature, as is my own work. I meant what I said about creating a new world. If I survive long enough, I intend to usher in what the bumbling Soviet and German fools promise: a true technocratic paradise, free of the divisions that threaten the Czechoslovak Republic and the rest of the world.”

“Pardon me if I find that terrifying.”

“You aren’t alone. They are afraid that I shall succeed where they are doomed to fail; that’s why they are determined to kill me—that and the services I rendered to Masaryk’s intelligence efforts during the Great War. Some Germans still hold a grudge about that period.”

“But still, any technocracy is only as good as the supposed experts who tell everyone else what to do. Why are your experts better than the others?”

“Because my expert harnesses the inexorable, inevitable accuracy of the machine,” Dvorak answered, indicating his keyboard.

Next installment: Keeper of the Keyboard

Monday, December 21, 2009

Dark World: Dvorak Manor

[In an attempt to get back on schedule somewhat, I'll post a few chapters (sections, whatever) of Dark World to get the "Dvorak Manor" arc going; then I'll do some reviews and such. I'd rather not do even a Christian horror tale going into a holy day.]

(The story begins here.)

“It’s a castle,” Darren murmured, gazing at Dvorak Manor. “What did he do, bring it over from Europe?”

“No, it’s all American stone,” Victor replied. “When Karel Dvorak adopts a country, he doesn’t look back.” He guided the car expertly through a minor labyrinth that separated the drive from the main complex of castle and outbuildings.

“I see what you meant about paranoia. No one can get in or out quickly without knowing the route well. I take it you’ve been here often?”

“A few times. I automatically map places I visit.” The doctor parked the car and got out. “Keep your hands in sight and make no sudden moves.”

Darren joined the doctor and stood by the car for nearly a minute before seeing any sign of life from the manor. Then a tall, muscular man with close-cropped blond hair emerged from a doorway. He approached swiftly and silently with a military gait. Only when he stood before them did he speak.

“Dr. Fleming, the master greets you and enquires about your mission and your friends.”

“The man in the car is a patient—and rather a curious case. This is Mr. Darren Christopher, also a curious case, but more annoying than problematic. Darren, this is Antonin Čapek, Dvorak’s assistant and aspiring automaton.”

The man’s face remained impassive; if he had a sense of humor, it was carefully stored somewhere far away. “Is the patient dangerous?”

“He can be extremely dangerous, and so can some other people involved with him—whether friends or enemies, I do not know. I would suggest restraining him.”

“The master will not appreciate incurring an added risk.”

“I didn’t appreciate it either, but I need a safe place to work, and this is the safest I know.”

“It is the most imperiled,” Antonin stated. But he fetched an odd contrivance that made Darren think of a sarcophagus on wheels. When he had brought it to the car, he opened it and, with Darren’s and the doctor’s help, placed Lassiter inside.

The machine now reminded Darren of an iron lung, and he was startled when it moved off by itself into the recesses of the manor. Antonin followed it, and Darren and Dr. Fleming brought up the rear. After they entered, a heavy door shut and locked behind them.

Next: From the New World

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Return of the Judaizers

The recent comment about Jesus' so-called original teaching is a matter for concern, though I'd rather not spend much time on it just now. C. S. Lewis said that human nature is constantly moving from one extreme to the other, and having spent far too long despising anything Jewish, some people have gone the other way and now worship anything Jewish.

The middle ground isn't that hard to find. The Old Testament remains vital reading for Christians, because it gives the context of the New Testament. Without it, the New Testament is meaningless and without foundation. Further, much that we find in the early Church, including the term for church itself, ekklesia (= "assembly"), has Jewish origins. Ignoring these facts leads to folly.

On the other hand, Judaism itself has changed considerably since the time of Christ. I have seen references to Jesus wearing a tallit, for example, which is a neat trick considering that they didn't arise until centuries later. From an OT perspective, covering the head was a sign of mourning--David fleeing Absalom (2 Sam 15:30--13:19 may also be an example) and Est 6:12 (though here it's Haman[!] who is our example). In the NT, Paul says that a man who is praying or prophesying should not cover his head (1 Cor 11:4, 7), and he seems to consider this obvious: there is no hint that he is disagreeing with the normal Jewish practice of the day. So some people back-read a modern practice into biblical times and misunderstandings arise.

Then there's the matter of considering non-Christian Jewish sources authoritative. In 2 Cor 3:13–16, Paul deals with this: when an unsaved Jew (probably anyone unsaved—2 Cor 4:3–4) reads the Law, he can't understand it properly; only in Christ is truth revealed. You can learn a lot from unsaved experts, but you must always remember that you're dealing with someone at least partly blind.

But the recent comment goes beyond such incautious blunders: the group in question effectively believes that Jesus did not come to establish a new covenant, because the old laws remain in place. Indeed, they ignore the argument of Heb 7:12--there has come a change of priesthood and therefore of law. They may bring up Mat 5:17-19, where Jesus claims that he has come to fulfill the Law rather than destroy it, and that the Law will remain until everything has been fulfilled. But since he came to fulfill it, he either did so or failed; and if he fulfilled the Law, its purpose has been accomplished, and a new covenant may be introduced. Rejecting the new covenant robs Jesus' life, death, and resurrection of their meaning; it marks a return to the first major heresy in Christianity: the Judaizers.

That's about all I'll say on the topic at the moment, though I'm sure I'll have to revisit it. Just indulge some healthy skepticism about wild (and often contentious) claims. You can usually pick up what kind of spirit and wisdom (Jam 3:13–17) they're using. Also remember what C. S. Lewis said about those who attack Christianity: they usually claim to accept what Jesus said while attacking Paul's teaching, but if you look carefully, it's really Jesus' teaching they're attacking. They just think Paul is a safer target. That's cowardice—and hypocrisy. Such people refute themselves.

If all goes well, I should resume some overdue reviews and get back to Dark World in short order—in fact, I'll probably intersperse them a bit.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

In defense of denominations

As previously noted, God knew full well that denominations would arise, just as he knew a monarchy would arise. I'm going to sketch an argument for denominations.

To begin with, the monarchy wasn't the problem; the motivation was. It's always bad when someone depends on someone or something other than God, and that's how the Israelite monarchy began. What about denominations?

Have you noticed that in 1 Cor 1:12, Paul mentions factions--early denominations--with disquiet and even disgust, but one of the groups claims to follow Christ? It's obvious that someone following Paul, Apollos, or Cephas (Peter) has a problem, but apparently so did the "Christ-followers." Why?

While following Paul is here a bad sign, Paul himself urged others to follow his example (1 Cor 11:1, Php 3:17). The difference is that it's good to follow the example of godly people, but it's bad to follow just one person and ignore all others. This is why the "Christ-followers" were a problem: just as the Paul-followers ignored Apollos and Peter, the "Christ-followers" would have ignored any merely human teacher, including Paul. But Christ sent Paul--and Apollos, Peter, and many others. Ignoring the ones Christ sent meant ignoring Christ. But following Christ in the right way, in humility, means following the ones he has sent as well.

The danger in movements and denominations comes when they have our devotion. Are you a Christian first or a member of your denomination? If your denomination comes first, it has become an idol. Also, you are probably rejecting out of hand some people God has sent to teach you, simply because they aren't from the right group. That's one of the main reasons the Jewish religious establishment rejected Jesus!

The proper use of denominations involves humbly following God's path for you without rejecting others, and in part this means knowing why denominations exist.

Paul told the Corinthians that different groups had to exist among them to show who God approved (1 Cor 11:19). I think we've misunderstood this. He isn't saying that the idea is to find the one group that is completely correct: given human sinfulness, there won't be one. Even if there were for a brief moment, human perversity would misdirect it--and a good thing, too, or we'd begin to worship and rely on it, not God.

This is what Paul was talking about: Christianity involves living out God's love in community, and nothing shows God's love more powerfully than getting along with people when you disagree with them. The existence of different groups should be an opportunity to love fellow Christians who are unlike us. If we do so, well and good; if not, it's really our fault, not the fault of the other groups.

And there will be different groups because we are individually different. Some denominations emphasize quiet contemplation, others loud, energetic worship. Some emphasize individual responsibility, others corporate worship. And so on. Just as no one has all the spiritual gifts, so no one lives out all these facets of the faith in perfect balance. In a given congregation, this leads to the "many parts, one body" phenomenon: no one has to do everything; we each do what we were called to do. And denominationally, there is no one perfect group; each has its own strengths and weaknesses, its own place in the Body. The trick is to carry out your function without demeaning the others. As long as we do that, denominations will be a blessing, not a curse.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Christianity and "Religion" 2

I think we'll all agree that no one has ever successfully thrown a surprise party for God. He knows the end from the beginning, so of course he knew about denominations and religious wars before the Incarnation. Perhaps he thought it was worth it.

So in answer to the question, Did Jesus come to found the religion called Christianity? I would ask in turn, Did God bring Israel out of Egypt to found a monarchy? From Deut 17:14-20 we know he was aware they would choose a king eventually, but when they actually got around to it (1 Sam 8:5ff), God wasn't pleased. Now, a lot of that had to do with motives--they wanted to depend on a human leader for military victory, not God. But if you look at the history of Israelite kings, they were generally not good. Hardly any in the eventual northern kingdom were godly at all, and few of the kings of Judah were more than nominally devout. Yet God knew there would be a monarchy, and he did chose David's line for the Messiah: it wasn't all bad.

So did God bring Israel out of Egypt to found a monarchy? No--at least, that wasn't the main idea. Was the monarchy an entirely bad, human-devised idea? No--God allowed it; it was the motivation that was the issue, and God brought good out of it, including the Messianic line.

I consider the cases analogous: God did not set out to establish a religion or a monarchy, but he didn't set out not to establish one. They were acceptable and inevitable consequences of what he was out to do.

You may agree that, given sinful human nature, they were inevitable, but acceptable? I'll try to demonstrate that next.

Christianity and "Religion" 1

I don't know why Christmas brings out certain types of trolls--and if this isn't a troll, it's a line typical of trolls. I normally just reject their comments, but this one is common enough, I thought I might as well deal with it in a post. Basically, did Jesus come to "found a religion called Christianity"?

First, there's the matter of "religion." I suspect this is the sort of person who considers "religion" essentially evil. It isn't. Simply put, "religion" involves man's beliefs about and interactions with some greater (usually divine) reality. Even atheists are often religious: they are devoted to their belief in a zero-god.

"Religion" is also a system explaining these interactions, and a term for outward manifestations of them, as in James 1:26-27. Note that these verses don't treat religion as evil. I could bring up several other passages that treat the topic neutrally or positively, but then I'd feel obligated to invoke Greek, and it would probably get tedious.

Did Jesus come to found a belief system? Not as such; he came to get rid of our sins and destroy the works of the Devil (1 John 3:5, 10). But events (e.g., the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ) entail certain beliefs about them. How can you claim to follow Jesus and deny any of these events? Furthermore, he left us teachings on a number of topics, as well as commandments to follow. And these beliefs, teachings, and commandments constitute a "religion" called Christianity.

Now, the focus is Christ. Mere assent to a group of beliefs is worthless: the demons know such things too (James 2:19). But faith requires content: it is not enough to say, "I believe!" What do you believe? You have faith in Jesus? Which Jesus? Jesus the Great Teacher and All-Around Nice Guy who didn't literally rise from the dead? Try again.

In my next post, I'll examine something similar to the founding of a "religion" that God did anyway.

Monday, November 30, 2009

About Dark World

I thought I should explain a bit about Dark World and why I'm doing it. The simple answer is to try something different.

I don't mess with critique groups anymore, for the simple reason that I don't find them useful. (Others do; this isn't a blanket condemnation.) So I was told that I should change a past tense verb to the past tense, and various people advised me to do things that are ungrammatical (many writers are apparently functionally illiterate) or wouldn't mean what I wanted to say. There was an extreme example where someone looked over two chapters of a story, was ABSOLUTELY SURE she knew what I was trying to do, and explained at great length how to do it properly. I replied that I wasn't trying to do that at all, and I even detailed how the story did work. Her response was that I should abandon my project and do the sort of story (a Narnia knock-off) that she envisioned.

So I gave up on crit groups. But a complaint I encountered a few times was that I never put forward a work in progress, only stories I had more or less finished and even polished. I don't like people looking over my shoulder while I work, and I have enough trouble with kibbitzers trying to second-guess my intentions in finished works; I don't want to think what they would do with something obviously unfinished, which they would surely consider more open to meddling.

My writing style would annoy such people anyway. Not only do I tend to edit as I go, so my rough drafts look polished, I also get back into the story in progress after a break by re-reading (and thus re-editing) the previous chapter or so.

Yet the idea of just sitting down and writing something without my usual procedures appealed to me. I didn't want to write a complete chapter every day, just two or three a week. And anyone who wants to see what my rough drafts look like may now do so.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Dark World: To the Manor Borne

[Worse pun than usual in the title. Sorry.]

(The story begins here.)

“How do you intend to get to Dvorak Manor?” Darren asked. “The tree’s still blocking the road; it didn’t disappear with the woman and her pets.”

The doctor stirred uneasily at the reference. “The car’s fenders are reinforced, and its motor is powerful; I can probably push the tree enough out of the road to proceed.”

“Then why didn’t you do so before?”

“I didn’t say I could do so quickly and easily. It will take a minute or two, and we shall be sitting ducks until I get through.” Lassiter moaned faintly in the back seat, where Darren was stationed. Without looking back, the doctor said, “Keep an eye on him. I’d like to be underway before he regains consciousness, and if he shows signs of backsliding, you may have to convert him again.”

Silence held until the doctor pushed past the tree; then he asked quietly, “Is Lassiter still unconscious?”

“Yes. Why, do you want to rouse him with smelling salts and bludgeon him unconscious again?”

“Don’t be facetious; I only do that to werewolves. How hard did you hit him, anyway?”

“Not nearly that hard. I think he’s resumed his near-coma.”

“Very convenient.” The doctor paused briefly. “Darren, did you feel anything unusual when that woman looked at you?”

“You mean the pull? Of course. We all have a world of evil inside us; she was calling to that evil, trying to use its power to control us.”

“And Lassiter?”

“She already had an opening there: the power of the curse is gone, but not its effect. He now has a door open to a part of himself most of us keep sealed off, and the true monster within can surface quite easily.”

“I see.” Another pause followed. “You spoke before of another world touching ours. Do you mean Hell? Is she a demon?”

“Not Hell and not a demon. There is something demonic afoot, certainly; but I suspect she is still physically human, and the nature of that other world is as unknown to my theology as to your science.”

“And you felt something before she appeared?”

“I’m used to such evil, yes. I could feel it coming like a cold, rank draft from a swamp. That’s why I looked at Lassiter’s hair: I expected a breeze.”

“Well, give me plenty of warning next time.”

“You expect another attempt?”

“Don’t you?”

Darren didn’t answer. He didn’t have to. They drove on in silence to the fortress called Dvorak Manor.

[I'll resume reviews and such for a few days. The next installment of Dark World will be Dvorak Manor. First, however, I'll post a belated explanation about the story itself.]

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Dark World: Practical Theology

(The story begins here.)

At the gunshot, everyone froze. At first it had no other effect: no bullet hole appeared between the large, dark eyes. Then everything and everyone changed.

The eyes became tinged with fire, and Dr. Fleming could feel himself melting, burning before them. The werewolves leapt from the prominence, only to meet more effective fire on the way down: Darren’s shots sent them tumbling to the ground, where they writhed.

Dr. Fleming glanced at Darren and saw something somehow worse than the werewolves: Lassiter had gone from passive to aggressive, and while he wasn’t changing into a werewolf, he was changing into something. His face twisted with rage, his eyes seemed scarcely human, and if he didn’t quite achieve a bestial form, it wasn’t for want of desire or effort.

Darren’s attempt at an exorcism got nowhere, and he barely ducked a ferocious swipe. “Time for some practical theology,” he said as he dropped the man with an unexpected left. “Paul said to lay hands on no man suddenly, but I suppose a single fist is different.”

“Finally some theology I can believe in,” Dr. Fleming commented as he ran to join him. They would be safer if they were closer together. Then he paused. There was something different…

“They’re gone! The woman and the creatures and…and everything!”

“Can’t say I’m surprised,” Darren grunted as he lifted Lassiter’s feet and began dragging him to the car again.

“Have you encountered something like this before?”

“Not personally—not at this level. But I’ve heard of such things. It’s an irruption of evil.”

“I hope this annoys you, but I happen to know what ‘irruption’ means,” the doctor replied, taking the heavier end of their companion and helping Darren load him in the car.

“I’m sure it will annoy you to find it doesn’t annoy me a bit. This is an in-breaking of evil, as though another, darker world connected briefly with ours.”

“Then why didn’t it happen at the other spot? They did push the other tree down, didn’t they?” Dr. Fleming took a moment to handcuff Lassiter, and Darren nodded approval.

“Probably. Will you entertain an irrational, supernatural conjecture?”

“Of course. I asked you, didn’t I?”

“I suspect their time is limited. Lassiter’s encounters were apparently brief, for example, so perhaps they pushed over both trees, withdrew, and somehow waited for us. It may be that the first tree we found had just been pushed over, and they couldn’t return immediately.”

“Thank you. That was irrational and supernatural, and I feel sane by comparison.”

They were back in the car by now, and Darren asked the obvious question. “Now what?”

“We continue our journey to Dvorak Manor.”

Next installment: To the Manor Borne

Friday, November 27, 2009

Dark World: The Dark Call

(The story begins here.)

“Pushed over that tree? It doesn’t look weak enough!” Dr. Fleming said.

“I suspect the other one suffered the same fate,” Darren replied. “I’m used to such tricks in places where larger animals are available, but here the claw marks were at the right height for a man.”

A chill came over them suddenly, and Darren bolted to intercept Lassiter, who had left the car and was walking around in a daze. Darren felt almost the same: the morning light had dwindled unexpectedly to twilight, and he knew he had to get them all in the car and out of the area immediately.

“What’s going on?” Dr. Fleming muttered, and his voice was as close to panic as Darren had ever heard. Even during the werewolf attack he had been calmer than this. “How did it get dark so suddenly? There are no clouds, no eclipse…” His mind scrabbled for some foothold in the situation, and he remembered as a child being told that if he would look up a chimney during full daylight, he would be able to see the stars in a night sky. He had experimentally disproved the notion, to his regret. “Night has come. But how?”

“It’s the wind that bothers me,” Darren said, trying to steer Lassiter into the car.

“What wind?” the doctor asked. “I don’t feel anything.”

“The wind, Victor, that is ruffling Mr. Lassiter’s hair.”

It was true: Lassiter’s hair was blowing in a breeze that stirred nothing else.

Dr. Fleming glanced about, and his gaze fell on a prominence he had somehow not noticed before. On it stood a woman with long, raven hair. Could she be the one Lassiter had described? No; for how could anyone speak of this woman without mentioning her great, dark eyes? They were pools of night, enveloping and overwhelming all else, calling something forth from the depths of a soul the doctor denied he had. He stepped forward…

“Resist!” Darren’s voice commanded as his steel grip seized the doctor’s shoulder.

Dr. Fleming felt as though waking from a deep and terrible dream—but he was the sort who always wakened instantly and in full possession of his senses. He was also in possession of a gun, and it was aimed at the strange woman. “Who are you?”

She smiled. It was neither happy nor sad but beguiling, like a void that drew all into its emptiness. “Yo es li desir, li destine de tot homes, de tot animes.”

“You are not the desire or destiny of this man or this soul,” Darren called back.

She glanced at him but fixed her gaze on Lassiter. “Veni, accepta li don. Revela li potentie de—”

If Lassiter accepted the gift, the power he revealed was not good: he screamed and doubled over, clawing at himself. “I’m burning! Burning from inside!”

“The silver!” Dr. Fleming muttered. Darren was already half dragging the squirming man to the car, where he stuffed him in the back. The sight roused the doctor to a full awareness of his danger. He adjusted his aim. “Madame, I am scientifically trained to be a crack shot. Surrender, or I fire.”

She spread her arms, and a wolf-like creature emerged on either side. Still her gaze and her smile seemed to draw something within the doctor, and it was less because of his iron will than his strict training that he aimed between her eyes and pulled the trigger.

Next: Practical Theology

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Dark World: If a Tree Falls

(The story begins here.)

“I believe he’s asleep,” Dr. Fleming said, indicating Mr. Lassiter, who was slumped beside him in the front seat of the sedan. It was a dreary morning for a drive.

“I’m not quite fresh myself,” Darren Christopher murmured. “We had a rough night making all the preparations, especially with unseen assassins supposedly breathing down our necks.”

“His exhaustion is still unusual,” the doctor replied. “I think the transformation wearies him, especially when it’s interrupted so rudely. He’s almost in a coma.”

“And you think it’s a good idea to move him?”

“My friend has better hospital facilities than I do. That’s his primary qualification just now—that and his paranoia. His place is a fortress, and it always helps to have a safe environment when dealing with the unknown. Unfortunately, it also means that he has limited his approaches. There are just two ways of getting there, and if we have been watched, we may be anticipated.”

“You expect an ambush?”

“I acknowledge an unavoidable risk. Keep your eyes open, use the clips with the silver bullets only when necessary, and remember that Lassiter may turn on us in more ways than one. Or do you think you cured him with your exorcism?”

“There’s always an element of choice: what I ran off, he may invite to return.”

“Annoyingly plausible—perhaps even true, if only psychologically.”

“You still think it could be some extreme form of psychosom—”

Dr. Fleming swore softly as he hit the brakes. He only just remembered to put his right arm out to prevent Lassiter from hitting the dash, which only worked because he was driving slowly to begin with. “Tree in the road,” he muttered as Lassiter plopped back against the seat, still unconscious.

“At least we are dealing with old-fashioned villains,” Darren said. “I thought that trick went out with the horse and buggy, at least in America.”

“It may not be a trick at all. There was a windstorm here last night, and I’ve seen some other old trees and limbs blown down. That’s why I was being careful. Speaking of which, keep me covered while I check on the tree.”

Darren rolled his window down and prepared either to poke his arm and head out or to open the door and move.

Dr. Fleming returned almost immediately. “False alarm: it was broken off, not sawed. But we’ll still need to detour.”

They drove on in silence for nearly an hour, and Darren noticed that Lassiter was stirring. He wasn’t surprised when they encountered a second tree across the second route. “I’ll check this one.”

He took scarcely longer than his friend had to investigate and return. The doctor had already turned the car as best he could when Darren trotted up.

“There’s evil at work here. Let’s leave.”

“They sawed it down?”

“Of course not. They pushed it over.”

Next installment: The Dark Call

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Dark World: A Pound of Cure

(The story begins here.)

“What now?” Darren asked.

Dr. Fleming caught himself checking the windows and scowled. “We should keep an eye out, but right now I want to know what’s behind this transformation.” He turned to Lassiter. “You only change on the full moon?”

“Normally. The time at the gully or ravine was different.”

“Then we should have plenty of time to prepare. You aren’t allergic to silver, are you?”

“Not in this form.”

“Then I’m going to put you on a regimen of silver to see whether it will stop or weaken the transformation.”

“I wonder why silver?” Darren mused.

“Because it has proved effective. If you mean why silver works, I have no idea so far. It has a few unique properties; any one of them or a combination of them could explain the effect. It is an antiseptic—it seems to block infection, though no one knows why yet. That’s the most probable explanation. Silver is also a good conductor, though I’m not sure how that could play a part. I’d like to have you hooked up to a battery of instruments next time, Lassiter, but if silver can cure you, I’ll be content with that for the moment.”

Lassiter stared at the doctor. “What do you mean, ‘for the moment’?”

“If the transformation could be controlled, think how useful it could be. You were practically invulnerable.”

“So you’re like the guys who kidnapped me.”

“By no means. Invulnerability would have a number of everyday uses. Imagine a workforce practically immune to harm.”

“Or criminals,” Darren muttered.

“All progress carries a risk. In any case, I think I shall confer with some colleagues. There is a gentleman in upstate New York who could probably be of great assistance eventually, but I’d rather begin with someone a bit more traditional. I’ll make some preparations and get Mr. Lassiter started on a silver solution. Then we can make a trip to see an old friend of mine.”

Dr. Fleming went to a safe and removed a small quantity of silver, some of which he set aside for putting in a solution. “I would like to use pure silver, not a compound,” he explained. “A compound might not have the effect we need, but pure silver should. At the same time, I hope to spread it through his system as insurance.”

“You expect trouble, Doctor?” Lassiter asked.

“No, I merely prepare for it. Your mysterious woman apparently changed you off schedule before.”

“Because of the ravine—”

“We don’t know that.”

Darren eyed the second pile of silver suspiciously. “What about the extra silver?”

The doctor cocked an eyebrow and replied matter-of-factly, “That’s for the bullets.”

Next installment: If a Tree Falls

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Mr. Wicker's Window: a Free Book review

[Sorry about the delay; it was a bad week.]

True to my threats, I'm reviewing an old book available free online in both text and audio book form.

Chris Mason has Problems. Not the typical, modern, angsty ones: his dad's away being naval, and his mom's apparently come down with a bad case of Incipient Death. So he does what any twelve-year-old would do: he goes out for a walk in his native Georgetown and gets talked into visiting an antiques store to ask the owner about giving a job to a friend.

Little does he know that the owner, Mr. Wicker, is a wizard recruiting for a job back in the 1790s. It's the sort of thing most kids would miss. Anyway, before even Chris can say, "Golly Moses!" (his typical exclamation), he's back in time and on the verge of a mission to help finance the fledgling American economy by doing something that would actually lead to a disastrous downturn in the prices of precious metals and gems and probably produce a global financial catastrophe. I hope no congresscreatures are reading this.

Anyway... The story features magic, sea adventure, near-fatal events, and some Amazingly Bad People for villains. It's a good yarn, but I'll mention a few issues:

1. Despite Mr. Wicker's claim that it's all really high tech, we're talking about magic here: magic words, sometimes with some material component, modifying reality. It's mostly about shape-changing, though there are some magic gadgets that are vaguely techy. Chris even brings a wooden statue to life, which is theologically problematic, but then, this isn't a Christian book.

2. The story goes downhill a bit toward the end, as though the author suddenly noticed a deadline. Specifically, the scene change between chapters 27 and 28 was so large and sudden that I actually thought for a moment that a chapter or two had disappeared. Similarly, there's a brief summary at the end of Chapter 31 that I would've fleshed out and made into a short chapter. And a duel introduced in Chapter 33 is never resolved, though I would like to have known who won.

3. A note about the audio book: while generally good, there are a few chapters that combine poor audio with a non-native speaker with a heavy accent rushing through the text. Under anything but optimal conditions (or with better equipment than my portable player), the result is hard to follow. You're better off reading the book there. The problem chapters are 2, 3, 18, and 19. The reader is intelligible in other chapters she reads, and I had no problem understanding these chapters when using my computer at home.

4. There is a fiddly point that can't be right: I'm certain that any professional sailor of the period could have recognized a slightly disguised ship he was already familiar with--the ship's lines, its movement, etc.

But these points aside, it is a good yarn, mostly on the right side of modern political correctness. There is violence, especially when the arch-villain, Claggett Chew, uses his whip, but it's well below Harry Potter level. The running time of the audio book is just under six hours, and I would suggest audio books as a good way to teach munchkins about the joys of being read to and of using their own imagination.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Dark World: Werewolf at Large

(The story begins here.)

Lassiter covered his face with his hands. “The next thing I knew, it was morning. The ravine, the woman, Althaus and his goons—all were gone. I was crawling toward the gully when I came to my senses. It was the last place I should go. Was the woman good or evil? I didn’t know. About the ravine, I had no doubts.

“I returned to camp, but it was abandoned. Only the tent used by Althaus and his men remained. I ransacked it—then burned it. I scattered or hid the remains carefully: I wanted to make the area as hard to find as possible, though I knew someone would come looking. I kept some books, letters, and papers I found, and some money. I guess the others were too frightened to disturb the tent, though they took his car. I was no longer afraid of anything but the ravine—and myself.”

Dr. Fleming cleared his throat. “I assume this is a foolish question, but why didn’t you—or the wolf—simply kill them all? From what I saw of you, a tent shouldn’t have kept you outside.”

“The wolf seldom enters buildings,” Lassiter said, “even tents. If it had pursued someone who entered a tent, it would be another matter, but otherwise no. I doubt it was seriously hunting anyway after disposing of the Germans.

“I wasn’t sure where to go that morning. I considered Poland, but I thought France or Switzerland might be safer, and I didn’t know Polish anyway. The problem solved itself: a Sturmabteilung squad seized me before I had gone twenty miles.

“It was a rogue operation, I think. They arrested me for murdering Althaus, but they weren’t police and didn’t turn me over to the proper authorities. Instead, they chained me up for a few days in an old farmhouse to wait for someone important. He came at night, of course. The wrong night, as it turned out. A familiar feeling came over me, and I managed a glance out a window and saw the full moon.”

“The full moon?” Darren interrupted. “It wasn’t full that first night?”

“No,” Lassiter replied. “I don’t know how this works; there’s no manual that I’ve ever found for it. But the place where I saw the woman brought on the first transformation, and the full moon has done it since. I think there are different levels of lycanthropy: some can change practically at will, while others only do it under a full moon.

“Anyway, there was a full moon the night they gathered to interrogate me. I really don’t think any of them suspected I was a werewolf; they just thought I had stumbled upon some useful information. By a terrible irony, they had been babbling about harnessing ancient powers to produce the ultimate fighter. I remember snapping the chains and rushing them, rejoicing as the machine guns’ bullets pelted off me like so much chaff.

“In the morning, I found that they had left me a car and many useful items. I managed to reach Switzerland and get a flight to England. From there to America was easy enough. But I’ve used up the money I acquired, and jobs are still hard come by.”

“I can take care of that,” Dr. Fleming said. “Your case interests me, and I’ll furnish room and board in return for the right to study you.”

“Thank you. But there is more. I’m beginning to think that I’ve been traced here—to the US at least and probably to this city.”

“Why and by whom?”

“Doctor, I have no idea.”

I'm going to shift back to reviews, theological rants, and so forth, but I'll get in an installment or so of Dark World each week, all going well. The next chapter will be A Pound of Cure.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Dark World: Werewolf at Bay

(The story begins here.)

“There was a man named Althaus who was our liaison with the German government,” Lassiter continued. “I never understood his role; looking back, I no longer believe that he was a government man himself. He seemed more like an archeologist, always concerned with possible relics and with interviewing the locals. He acted a little less obnoxious than the others when I told my tale. He didn’t appear to believe me, but he didn’t laugh or call me insane, either. Afterward, when the others avoided me, he invited me to his tent for a talk—irrelevant matters, mostly. He kept coming back to my ancestry, especially after I admitted having German relatives. The curious thing was that he seemed to know it already, even though it shouldn’t have been in my work record. I think they preferred people with a Germanic background to those without; I’d beaten out a Frenchman for the surveying job, even though he’d been living in Germany since the War.

“But Althaus got out some wine—good stuff, too: the Germans generally have good beer but lousy wine—and we got chatty. He asked again about the ravine: could I find it again? I said it was large enough to be on our map. Then he showed me the map. Where the ravine had been, the map had only a gully.

“I offered to take him to the ravine. It was getting late, but there was time to take him to the edge of it, anyway. I certainly didn’t want to be there at sunset. He accepted my invitation and brought some of his men along. We reached the spot within the hour, and I headed into the ravine, though it was beginning to get dark, and the place did look different.

“There was no ravine.

“The gully from the map was there instead, taunting me. The hills were the same; I looked carefully at the one I had rolled down. At first I was too busy to notice the growing shadows. I did notice something else when I looked back.

“Althaus and his men had guns out. Was it a precaution against the approaching darkness? Althaus himself dispelled the idea. ‘Turn back, Herr Lassiter, and try the ravine again. Perhaps it will be there for you this time.’

“I protested that I had been telling the truth about it, that I wasn’t mad. He laughed. ‘I know, Herr Lassiter, and we wish to see it ourselves. Look again; can you not hear it calling to you, coming for you?’

“I did. There was something like a wind behind me, though I doubt anyone else could have felt it. It was the breeze from an opening door, and though I didn’t want to look back, I had no choice.

“The woman was behind me, still on the top of the hill, her hair blowing in a wind that existed for us alone. ‘Fugi, idiotes! Fugi del furie de—’

“She called them—or all of you—idiots and told you to flee,” Darren said. “‘Flee the fury of’ something. I wonder what? Werewolves?”

“I don't know,” Lassiter said. “Althaus called, ‘Fraulein! Come down to us now, in the name of—’

“Wrath shone from her face. ‘Li nómine del diábol!’ she cried. Their guns were aimed at her, but the unearthly gale swept through me, transforming me instantly, not in the minute or so it usually takes. I leapt at them, ignoring the bullets and screams that were equally futile, and entered my first night as a wolf.”

Next: Werewolf at Large

Friday, November 13, 2009

Dark World: Strange Encounters

(The story begins here.)

Lassiter stirred uneasily in his chair. “It should have been barely noon! How could we have lost so much time? I rushed down to warn the others, but they didn’t believe me until they had seen for themselves. That cost us precious minutes. And though it was childish and cowardly, we at once ran back into the ravine, hoping to get back, maybe to somehow regain a few hours and emerge in the daylight.

“As we neared the caves, a robed figure emerged and called, ‘Veni, filios mie! Veni con me e sia salve!’

“So, ‘Come, my sons! Come with me e be safe’?” Darren said. “Your Latin needs work.”

“His did. I am quoting exactly, believe it or not. Languages aren’t my specialty, but I learn them easily enough when I’m around them. I even know a little Latin. But anyway, the man in the robe was evidently some kind of priest, and some of the superstitious fools followed him without a thought. I never saw them again.

“The rest of us fled into the ravine, pursued by howling. Since I had paused neither to re-check the sun nor to follow the priest, I was in the lead. From time to time I heard something behind me, but I never looked back.

“Then I saw something that stopped me—atop the ravine was a woman in a robe of some kind, with long, flowing hair, raven black, and she called out, ‘Garda vos contra li lupes de asel!’

“‘Guard yourselves against the wolves of... Of what? It sounds almost like Provençal, though,” Darren ventured.

“Yes, but it was entirely the wrong part of Europe,” Lassiter replied. “I thought she might have been from some sort of Provençal enclave, though there was some German to her speech as well.”

“Then perhaps it wasn't ‘asel’ but ‘Esel,’” Dr. Fleming interjected. “That's German for ‘jackass.’”

Lassiter pointedly ignored the interruptions. “Anyway, I can’t justify it, but I ran to her, jumped up and swung myself over the edge of the ravine. Something bit me just as I started to roll clear, and I found a large wolf trying to chew my right leg off. We continued to roll, which brought us into broad daylight: it was somehow noon again. But the pain in my leg kept my attention on more pressing matters. I kicked the wolf in the face with my left heel. It drew back, stunned and blinking in the light, and I emptied my pistol into it. It stumbled backward into the ravine, more disoriented than hurt, I think, and I tumbled in the opposite direction.

“I was on a steep slope, and I began rolling down it. The strange woman reached for me, but she wasn’t quite close enough. I rolled and fell down the slope until I passed out.

“I awoke in camp. The others had heard the gunshots and run out; I wasn’t hard to find. They brought me back and wanted an explanation for their trouble. They didn’t want the one I had. They said I was mad, and I almost agreed. What happened next nearly pushed me over the edge.”

Next: Werewolf at Bay

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Dark World: The Werewolf's Tale

[Hands up, everyone who thought I'd go for the obvious pun!]

(The story begins here.)

“Everyone was edgy,” Lassiter continued. “The area was odd—there were geomagnetic anomalies that made compasses useless, and some of the areas we visited did not welcome us. I thought the Ruritanians would meet us with force; a team working further south had already encountered volley after volley of crossbow fire from Grand Fenwick.”

“They are fond of quarrels,” Darren observed.

“From time to time a worker would disappear. Given the general tension, that was understandable, but sometimes they left all their possessions behind. We heard odd noises in the night—something like wolves, but, contrary to myth, wolves normally don’t attack a healthy young man, only children, the aged, and the sick, and seldom even them. Then one of our survey crews failed to report back one dark and stormy night.

“I was in the search party the next day—there was a new order against staying out past sunset. The missing survey team had known about it, so they must have been delayed somehow. They were just supposed to see whether there was an obvious route for the rails through all the rocks and hills. Why didn’t they at least fire a flare?

“The theory was that the others had run afoul of a ravine or some other unexpected feature of the terrain. The land was rocky, with numerous caves, and it was possible that their combined weight had collapsed a cave beneath into a pit. It was a reasonable explanation.

“I took a gun. We all did.

“We set out in the morning and followed the path they were to have taken. We soon found traces of them. Some of us had done some hunting and were reasonably good trackers, so following them wasn’t hard. They deviated a bit at one point—or so I thought; the compass was acting up—and entered a ravine. The sides and the growth at the top blotted out the sun for a few minutes; it was almost like being in a tunnel. Then we emerged and found ourselves turned around: the sun was in the wrong place, and we had to get our bearings. Though the ravine was reasonably straight, we had somehow gone east and come out facing west, for the morning sun was at our backs now, not in our faces.

“We soon found evidence of some kind of rout. The crew had scattered, leaving equipment here and there. The tracks were too confused to follow. Some had apparently sought shelter in some nearby caves; we weren’t sure what had become of the rest. But there was no one there now.

“It was as I inspected the tracks that I realized the light was bad. I supposed it was the brush or a cloud obscuring the sun. But then I ran up to the top of the rise to get a look at the area as a whole, and I happened to see the impossible.

“The sun was setting.”

Next: Strange encounters

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Dark World: Interview with the Werewolf

(The story begins here.)

“My name is Henry Lassiter,” the former werewolf said, coughing. “What did you do to me, anyway?”

“You don’t remember?” Dr. Fleming asked.

“I only remember snatches of what the wolf does, like bits of a dream. I remember that your friend did something that infuriated me, and I was going to tear him apart. Then I felt as though I was burning up from the inside out, and I came to in that cell. I assume you believe now, doctor?”

“Let’s say that I am willing to investigate,” the doctor replied. “If you want belief in the supernatural, that’s Darren’s department. Darren Christopher, Mr. Lassiter, and vice versa. Darren is quite useful, if you can overlook his religious mania. He was the child of missionaries, and after they were massacred, he traveled around the world on his own until quite recently. He can do nearly anything, and his knowledge of languages, geography, and cultures is astonishing. He is also fearless and good in a fight. He saved me from a small mob a few months ago, and we’ve been at each other’s throats ever since.”

Lassiter pointedly ignored the introduction. “I have a medical problem, so I am seeking medical help. It’s a very difficult problem, though, so I looked for a doctor who is a genius not only in medicine but also in chemistry and physics. I am a man of science myself, doctor, being an engineer. I do not require the help of superstitious people.”

“I am a man of honor as well as science,” Dr. Fleming said, “and as such, I must point out that it was this superstitious barbarian who figured out how to subdue you. He stays, or you leave.”

“How did he do it? I remember breaking the gun—”

“And when you did so, you must have ingested a small quantity of the silver shot. I suspect that it impaired you enough that I was able to escape and hold you off. Darren ground up the remaining silver and blew it in your face as you inhaled. Then he appealed to your better nature with a rather expensive chair. I almost wish I could bring myself to bill him for it, but you seem a better choice.”

“If you had used the gun, he wouldn’t have needed the chair.”

“We can discuss that later,” Darren said. “Right now, I’d like to hear more about your hairy little hobby and when you took it up.”

“It took me up. I am an engineer, but times are tough, and I was in Europe, working as a surveyor. They are trying to bolster their economies through public works programs. The Germans are determined to unite Europe—the Germanic parts first, then the rest. They’re trying to bring the whole place into the twentieth century with a modern railway system. The French claim it’s a scheme to dominate Europe, but the Germans had that nonsense knocked out of them at Versailles. They know now that only a united Europe can stand, and they’re determined to make it happen.”

“Thank you for the Panglossian panegyric,” Dr. Fleming muttered. “So they recognized your efforts by making you a werewolf?”

“No. That was just the culmination of several disturbing incidents. It was a dark and stormy night…”

Next: The Werewolf's Tale

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Dark World: Huff and Puff

(The story begins here.)

The creature gagged as it inhaled, and Darren swiftly reached back, grabbed the chair behind him, and smashed it against the hairy head with all his might. The blow would have killed a man, but Darren was sure it would have had little or no effect on the thing until that moment, just as the shovel he had hurled like a spear into the back of its head had merely bounced off.

But now it bowed and sank to the floor, and the chair was still intact enough for another try, which Darren immediately used. Good thing Victor always insisted on buying the best quality!

The creature collapsed as Victor ran to the scene, shovel in hand.

“Is it unconscious?”

“I think so, but you’re the doctor.”

“Quite. I have a mind to rouse it with some smelling salts and batter it unconscious again with my shovel.”

“If I had a mind like that, I’d leave it on the shelf unused.”

“So I’ve noticed. Would you mind telling me what you did to the thing?”

“Of course. But let’s put him someplace secure; he might come to at an awkward moment.”

Dr. Fleming looked around. “Put it in the vault; that’s the only place I’m reasonably sure will hold it.”

They dragged the creature toward the massive door, and Darren was not surprised to find the weight of the burden diminishing as they went. By the time they had the door open, their captive was a man. “He’s a werewolf, you know.”

“Superstitious nonsense,” Dr. Fleming retorted. “Something like a werewolf, perhaps, but a scientific phenomenon all the same.”

“That strange pistol wasn’t yours; it was a kind of small shotgun, and its shot was silver. I ground the shot to a powder with one of your gadgets and blew the dust in its face as it inhaled. That’s why it was weak enough to subdue.”

“Clever and delusional. I note your pathetic religious ritual wasn’t so effective.”

“I think it was, just in a different way. I’ve encountered similar phenomena elsewhere, but this time I felt I wasn’t supposed to rely on a spiritual confrontation alone.”

“Your religion isn’t enough?”

“Your science isn’t enough. How do you explain the transformation? I assume he came here as a man; I know he changed from werewolf back to man as we carried him. I suspect the transformation was caused by a demon; without the demon’s power, he eventually reverted to his normal form. But subduing him required other means.”

“Namely chemistry: the silver provoked an allergic response or interfered with the transformation.”

“And its response to the exorcism?”

“Obviously the man is superstitious, which may explain a lot of this.”

“Including the transformation?”

“Perhaps. I know a doctor who believes in such things; he would no doubt find this man an interesting case.”

Darren scowled and inspected their prisoner. “He’s coming around. Maybe he’ll give us some answers you’ll accept.”

Next: Interview with the Werewolf

Dark World: Taking a Stand

(The story begins here.)

It took all Dr. Fleming’s strength to withstand the attack on his stronghold. He braced for another assault and wondered yet again what his arch-friend was up to. A thump and clang suggested an answer, and he thought the howl on the other side of the bookcase had a note of pain and surprise.

“That’s right, flea-bait,” Darren Christopher called. “I’m right back here without a bookcase to my name.”

The answering growl receded swiftly, and Victor peered cautiously from behind his barricade. The thing was standing almost fifteen feet from Darren, and it was clearly about to charge. Victor scooted out from cover, though he wasn’t sure what he could do to help. A shovel lay invitingly on the floor, and he picked it up, though he was sure it would be useless as a weapon and little comfort in digging a grave. If he could only get to the power cables!

He ran toward the massive generator, hoping that the creature wouldn’t notice, but also wishing it would notice enough to turn from Darren. What was the idiot’s problem? He had no weapon. A chair stood just behind him, but instead of wielding it, he faced the thing confidently, with his fists clenched as though for a boxing match. Dr. Fleming had admired Darren’s courage before, but courage without a plan is folly.

The creature paused to take another breath and howl. There was some kind of pattern there, but the doctor didn’t pause to analyze it. If it slowed the thing down, fine; he was in full sight of it now, and he didn’t want it to spot him until he had the cables in hand.

The creature charged Darren, and the doctor ran for the cables, dropping all attempt at stealth. His only chance to help his friend lay in getting a workable weapon—assuming that electrical force could succeed where kinetic force had failed.

“Come out of him in the name of Jesus!” Darren cried.

The commanding tone and sheer audacious stupidity of the order arrested the doctor’s progress, and he saw that the creature had been similarly affected. It was within arm’s reach of the man, but instead of attacking, it looked as though a giant hand had slapped it violently across the muzzle: it winced, its face averted.

Then it leered and turned back to Darren, who held his fist to his open mouth as if in terror and gasped.

The creature evidently liked the idea and took another breath, which the doctor knew would lead to another howl and his friend’s demise.

But Darren merely smiled, opened his clenched fist, and blew.

Next: Huff and Puff!

Friday, October 30, 2009

Dark World: Fresh Blood

(The story begins here.)

Darren Christopher’s placid amble changed to a breakneck dash without so much as a pause when he heard the gunshots. He had grown up around danger from savages and civilized men alike, and he seldom hesitated, even when he was puzzled. He was early for his usual argument with Victor, and he wondered who else the doctor might be shooting at.

The door was unlocked, which wasn’t unusual, but the sight of a barricade in a corner attacked by a large hairy animal was. The table where they traded insults and insights over tea was overturned, the doctor’s gun lay on the floor, and something like another gun was near it. An odd, shiny substance spilled out from the broken object.

He examined the doctor’s situation more closely as he collected a shovel from the tool rack near the door. The creature was clearly quite strong, but it seemed to be struggling somehow, as though injured. There was no sign of blood, so it presumably hadn’t been shot, but in any case it was making no headway against the doctor’s makeshift defense. The large metal bookcase had its back to the attacker, allowing the doctor to hold it by the shelves, Darren surmised. He only knew the doctor was there at all by his occasional outbursts and taunts.

“New patient, Victor?” he called.

“Darren! Thank G— Thank goodness you’re here!”

Darren smiled: even at such a moment, Victor wasn’t about to thank the God he despised. He bent down to take a closer look at the guns on the floor. “You dropped your gun. Did you really miss that many times?”

“Of course not! The thing’s invulnerable!”

“That sounds scientifically improbable,” Darren replied amiably. Strange as it seemed, this was beginning to make sense. He briefly considered confronting the creature, but a familiar nudge said no. “Have you considered a spiritual explanation?”

“Yes, but I doubt this is my fairy godmother. If you aren’t going to help me, why don’t you bore this thing senseless with your prattle?”

“I’m rather busy at the moment.” And he was: the strange gun had been bitten nearly through, and it told him all he needed to know. Almost. Where did the doctor keep that thing?

The creature took a deep breath and howled. It seemed to grow with the noise, and it assaulted the bookcase with renewed vigor, provoking more invective from the doctor.

“Darren! Try running the power cables to it! Maybe you can electrocute it.”

“I think I have a solution of my own,” Darren called back as he seized the device he wanted from a shelf. “But please stop screaming; it’s very distracting.” He set to work, but the creature nearly dislodged the bookcase on its next try. Its injury or handicap was gone, and so was Darren’s time.


Thursday, October 29, 2009

Dark World: By the Dark of the Moon

"You have five minutes to live, Doctor."

Dr. Victor Fleming regarded his visitor with almost as much amusement as annoyance. The mild demeanor of the young man betrayed a trace of unease, even fear. Was he truly a killer?

"Take my pistol, Doctor, I beg you. You can still save yourself."

"I prefer my own pistol. Whatever you try in...four minutes, I shall be quite prepared."

"Your pistol won't help. At least take mine, even if you don't intend to use it."

"Take a strange weapon? Whom will it end up killing?"

The man shifted uncomfortably. "It won't kill me; it will only make me harmless."

Dr. Fleming smiled. "My pistol shall achieve both purposes." The man squirmed slightly in answer, and the doctor continued, "If you are so sure of my danger, why did you come to me? And why don't you simply leave before this deadline?"

"I came because I thought you could help. But I knew you would need proof. And it's already too late for me to run away: it would return and kill you."

"What do you mean, 'it'? I thought you were the killer."

"No, I'll become the killer. I—" He broke off and shook his head wearily. "It's too late! Quick, take the gun! Take it, for God's sake! For your own sake!"

"I am my own God, so it makes no difference. Though I begin to think I should have brought a tranquilizer instead of a bullet, if this is merely a psychotic episode."

The man gave no answer. His head lolled back, and his eyes stared toward one of the high windows in the doctor's laboratory.

The outer darkness was giving way to the cold light of the rising full moon, and the inner darkness gave way to something even more terrible.

Dr. Fleming had followed the man's gaze, but a sense of movement from the corner of his eye drew him back to his visitor. "Spasms of the facial muscles," he muttered. "Evidently some kind of seizure. A sedative would have been a better idea, but if he grows violent, I can wing him and slow him down while I get the tranquilizer."

He stood up to get a better vantage point. A shot into the leg should be sufficient, and unless the man made a sudden turn—not impossible in a seizure—hitting the femoral artery was unlikely.

The spasms continued, and the doctor marveled at how they contorted the face. If he hadn't known better, he might have imagined that the nose was actually lengthening into a snout, and. . .

It was the hair that did it. No mere seizure could cause hair to grow on someone's face and hands, especially so rapidly. And the nose was definitely a snout. The teeth were long and sharp, and the eyes were beginning to focus—on him.

Dr. Fleming was well acquainted with his gun, and it had already changed target from legs to face. He fired as the thing opened its maw wide, and the creature's muzzle flinched slightly as the bullet bounced off it.

Part of the doctor's mind informed him that the bullet should have blown the muzzle off. Another, more useful part told him to grab the strange gun his visitor had offered, and his right hand emptied his own gun into the thing in hopes of gaining a few seconds while his left got within reach of the pistol.

A clawed hand reached the rejected weapon before the doctor could, and the creature leered with savage glee as it bit the object, crimping the barrel and partly breaking open the magazine.

The less useful part of the doctor's mind informed him that the creature was clearly intelligent as well as impervious to bullets, and the more useful part told him to run for his life.


Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll vs Adaptations

I don't think there's a book more frequently mis-adapted for any medium than Frankenstein. Consider:

1. Frankenstein did not re-animate anything. He made up his creature from scratch. "No corpses were harmed in the making of this monster."

2. No lightning is mentioned, either, though he did have an impressive experience in his youth with a lightning bolt obliterating a tree.

3. He didn't live in Transylvania or some other exotic spot. Try Geneva.

4. Though the creature was self-educated, it read some fairly literate books (Sorrows of Young Werther was a mistake, though). The creature was a compelling speaker.

5. Since it wasn't sewn and bolted together from parts, it didn't have the stitches and such. It had yellowish skin with long, black hair.

6. Although it claims that it was initially good and only driven to cruelty by human rejection, it was fairly evil-tempered from the start.

7. (Minor spoiler) At the end of the story, the creature's still alive, though it promises to do away with itself. How sweet.

Still, I think the mis-adaptations of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde have done more damage, simply because I consider Stevenson's story superior (and not long-winded like Frankenstein). Though Frankenstein has its points, it meanders considerably and has several problems. For example, the whole Irish interlude seemed over the top: how did the monster pull off such a trick? Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, meanwhile, is fairly straightforward, especially given that it's told somewhat out of order: we see certain incidents that are known to Utterson the lawyer, and only afterward do we go back and see them from other viewpoints that explain them.

But the main problem is that the story is meant to be a kind of mystery. It loses a bit if you start out knowing the connection between Jekyll and Hyde. Also, Dr. Jekyll is often misrepresented as either someone trying to cure people (he wasn't) or simply a kind of drug addict (he wasn't really one of those, either). It's really a story about how one's evil side, once unleashed, will inevitably dominate and ruin one's life. There's a bit more to it than that, but that's the gist of it.

The gist of this post: read the original! Adaptations generally mess up a superior work.

You can get free audio books at LibriVox:
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

A New, Old Direction

I've been giving considerable thought to where this blog is going. I like doing book reviews, but I admit that I've become greatly disaffected with modern Christian fiction. G. K. Chesterton said, "The morality of a great writer is not the morality he teaches, but the morality he takes for granted." Despite the occasional preachments (often tepid) of Christian fiction writers, the morality they take for granted tends to be largely identical with that of less-radical secular writers. The theology is typically pretty scary too.

But what is the alternative? Modern secular writers don't even have the Christian veneer. So that leads me, as a rather conservative sort, into the past. It's true that earlier Christian writers were often rather clumsy in their handling of the faith, with two-dimensional plots and characters, but not always. And secular writers back then were often more "Christian" than some modern writers.

Join with this the fact that there are free e-books coming out from in particular, and free audio books from as well--so many that it would be useful to have a guide to them. Which of them is worth a look? I'll be reviewing them for you. Not all of them, of course: I don't have that much free time. But I can try to help you search through the pile.

Otherwise--I'll still do some theological studies, and I'll be publishing some fiction on the blog as well.

Next up: Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and the Evils of Adaptations.

Coming soon: the debut of Dark World, a serial about an atheistic scientist, his missionary friend, and the monsters and adventures they encounter in the 1930s. Horror, suspense, and witty badinage!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Quantum of Solace

Not the Bond movie; this has more to do with the original short story upon whose title the movie is based. The idea is that there is a bare minimum of solace or comfort required to keep going, to keep life bearable.

I would suggest that this applies to fiction as well. I doubt anyone wants a story where everyone is happy and life is wonderful all the time. But sometimes the reaction against the high-fructose sweetener plot leads to something equally emetic. I don't think I've ever actually encountered the totally wonderful bit in a book, not even in Pollyanna, which is actually an above-average story, better than the Disney version. I suspect that the Pollyanna defense is really just a poor excuse for putting syrup of ipecac in story form.

In any case, if you have enough negative elements, the story turns ugly. There's enough ugliness in the world without our adding to it; there is enough darkness without our dwelling on it. I would suggest that the negative elements in a Christian story be largely allusive: I already know what ugly looks like and would rather not spend page after page refreshing my memory. But if you can show me beauty, real beauty that isn't just photoshopped ugliness, that is an accomplishment. Or if you're going to stick something ugly in my face, at least do not do so at every turn. Like violence in splatter films, ugliness--be it moral or aesthetic--soon palls, and you have to increase the dosage to get the desired effect. That's called desensitization, and we have more than enough of that as well. In fact, this shows why, even from the standpoint of justifying darkness and ugliness, it's a bad idea.

Supposedly, highlighting such things is simply realistic. But courtesy of desensitization, the highlighting has to be more and more extreme to get the point across, taking us further and further away from that all-important "real life." I was surprised, for example, that no one seemed to notice the character flaws in the guys from League of Superheroes; I kept reading reviews that they were unrealistically good. Yet Tom is sarcastic, condescending, sanctimonious, proud, and a bit cowardly. Even Charlie tends to appease more than he should. But no one noticed these things. Why? Because they weren't exaggerated, and people only notice what's stuck in their face.

Do you call that Art? Then why is it Art to push exaggeration further and further and make reality harder and harder to spot?


Chawna Scroeder posted on the moral and spiritual side of this problem a while back, and I've found her analysis helpful; perhaps you will too.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

If Only You Knew 3: Weak points and conclusion

Time for the weak points ofMags Storey's If Only You Knew. I'll start with a theological matter that's a bit involved but that explains some quirks elsewhere.

Q & A? No way! One of the annoying features of the Gathering is that it has a question-and-answer format. This is a bad idea on several levels. For one thing, honest questions can generally be better addressed one on one or using a Web site. Doing it in public will lead to grandstanding and arguments. This is not how evangelism is done.

Worse yet, at one point they set up debates on topics such as abortion. Again, ill-conceived on several levels. Someone is going to wind up trying to defend something evil, and he'll probably be a new believer. It won't end well.

Let's look at an example involving abortion. The pro-life side was lazy, just assuming that everyone knew abortion was wrong. Now, it's true we should be able to explain why we believe what we believe. But the actions of the pro-abortion side were inexcusable:

The girl who was arguing the other side was a really quiet girl named Ronnie. She had done a lot of research. I mean a lot. She had even visited an abortion clinic and done interviews. She had looked up all types of Bible verses, including one in Ecclesiastes where Solomon says that no human being knows when an unborn baby gets a soul, and one in Exodus that says the punishment for killing a person is not the same as killing an unborn baby. Ronnie talked very slowly and very quietly, and you could tell people were listening. When she started talking about showing compassion to girls who had been raped, one of the other girls started to cry. (p. 68)

She later says that she doesn't believe that abortion's right, but “I think some issues are more complicated than some people want to believe sometimes.” (p. 68)

Let's consider this a bit.

1. Ronnie defends an action she considers wrong just to show that it's more complex than people think. But it's still wrong, and she's still defending it. And she's doing so before impressionable new believers and unbelievers.

2. Despite wanting to show people the complexity of the issue, she resorts to bad reasoning. The Bible passages given (Eccl 11:5 and Ex 21:22-25) do not say what the speaker (and by extension the author) claim. The verse in Ecclesiastes is a variant interpretation, and not a likely one; neither would it greatly affect the debate were it accurate. The passage in Exodus is irrelevant because it does not say that the baby dies, only that the mother gives birth prematurely, and even if the baby does die, (1) life for life is demanded or (2) one could argue that the death was unintentional and the case is like that in Num 35:22-25, only with a different procedure.

So we can see why debating such things is a very bad idea. But this attitude of doing evil that good may come of it and presenting complexity (even if spurious) does explain something about the book as a whole.

All Jerks, All the Time! I have to admit, I don't like the characters, except perhaps Kat. She's actually likable, and by an amazing coincidence, she doesn't appear to be a Christian. Everyone else is a jerk, and most of them have some kind of Danish prince complex as well. They got angst in their pants, and they wanna pose and brood and occasionally scream a lot. I found myself wondering how quite so many inmates managed to escape the asylum, but the Abortion Debate enlightened me: this is yet another case of showing complexity.

Now, it's true that Everyone Has Problems, and teens frequently haven't got a grip on the "quiet" part of leading lives of quiet desperation. This still strikes me as overblown. And it does bother me that the Christians seem to be more obnoxious than the unsaved. I sometimes think that's true, and if so, it likely involves the pressure of going against the flow. But I also generally leave the Evil Christian meme to the secular writers.

And where does this attempt at balance get us? As a Christian, I was sufficiently annoyed that I wouldn't have bothered finishing this had it not been assigned reading, so to speak. But if I had been unsaved, while I might have revelled in seeing the Christians portrayed as losers, when I reached the place where they inevitably started to play nice and take their meds, I'd probably have dropped it unfinished anyway.

Conclusion. The ending is good, and there are some good points made in the last several pages. But the first 80% of the story is troubling. If you're aware of the issues, you may find the story "mostly harmless." As for me, I will hope that the writer turns her considerable talents--for she is an excellent writer--to better stories in the future.

Enough heresy! Check out the actual CFRB tour:

Purchase If Only You Knew at
Barnes and Noble, Christianbook and Amazon.

Monday, October 5, 2009

If Only You Knew 2: Good points

Mags Storey's If Only You Knew has some worthwhile features; let's look at them.

Readability. Especially for the first half or so, it moves swiftly and easily. I admit that I started bogging down about a quarter of the way through, for reasons I'll explain tomorrow. But I tend to be unusual in such respects. Most readers probably will have no problems.

Humor. The main character is a klutz, and some of the others are also (from their own standpoints) unintentionally funny at times. The teen angst undercuts this a bit, especially toward the end, and it's hard to balance suspense and humor effectively. Still, there are funny bits throughout, and as usual, they make the more fraught moments bearable.

Characters. Mixed bag: granted their existence as defined, their actions are generally believable. That's good, because this is essentially character driven.

Ending. The ending is reasonably strong--there's a loose end with an obvious resolution, but that's fairly trivial. More important, there is a good message at the end.

Next time I'll look at some problem areas and present a conclusion.

But in the meantime, check out the actual CFRB tour:

Purchase If Only You Knew at
Barnes and Noble, Christianbook and Amazon.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

If Only You Knew 1: Intro

This will nearly be a first: CFRB is touring Mags Storey's If Only You Knew, and I am more or less tagging along. The buttons are there at the bottom, but I'm not on the tour proper, the better to mention a few issues freely. On with the show!

Jo has just graduated from high school and is spending the summer with her cousin Kat when she encounters an apocalyptic break-up scene between an apparently nice guy and the girlfriend from Hell. While she's taking this in, a total hunk nearly runs her over. Soon she falls off a pier, gets invited to a church group, and is sort-of quasi dating two guys, which is pretty impressive for someone who never really got much attention.

Oh, yes: she also sees a guy she had earlier witnessed being run over, and he's living large. Or anyway, he's living and large, and she starts meeting fun people she dubs "Motor-Oil-Guy" and "Red-Jacket."

They aren't superheroes.

Meanwhile, Kevin, the hunk, is a relatively new Christian attending The Gathering, which is a laid-back Christian encounter group for Seekers and maybe even some Hiders. Meanwhile Sam, the average guy with the psycho ex-girlfriend, hates God's guts and figures the feeling's mutual. Jo, of course, is caught in the middle.

Everyone has some kind of Dark Secret that involves Brooding Silence, Overwrought Outbursts, and Colliding Solipsisms that don't so much drive the plot as blast it forward like the Columbiad firing its giant bullet at the moon, and with perhaps similar results.

Are Motor-Oil-Guy and Red-Jacket out to kill Jo, or are they just really, really awkward around girls? Given the choice between Kevin and Sam, will Jo go with the bigger Dark Secret? Will Nate admit that he never was run over at all, but was just trying to bench-press his car while a friend changed the tire?

I'm not telling.

But in the meantime, check out the actual CFRB tour:

Purchase If Only You Knew at
Barnes and Noble, Christianbook and Amazon.

The Rapture: All or Nothing

I mentioned before that "prophetic fiction" of the Left Behind variety features sort-of Christians who didn't go in the Rapture but somehow go from spiritual couch potatoes to spiritual supermen just because the Antichrist is running around.

It wouldn't happen, of course. One of the things we learn from reading about the Exodus and the journey to the Promised Land is how quickly and easily real people go from declaring devotion to God after a miracle to chucking him for an idol. Human nature hasn't changed. Technically, there would be a lot of panic conversions, perhaps, but we're too adaptable for our own good, and the new "believers" would quickly settle down and cool down and even rationalize taking the Mark.

Still, the fact that this nonsense is regularly and vividly portrayed presents the equivalent of telling people they will have a second chance at salvation after they die. It's a damnable and damning doctrine, yet people who would never dream of committing the more obvious heresy still believe in the eschatological second chance.

Now, on one level this is simply another example of the humanism so common in evangelical Christianity: we confuse truth (a spiritual thing) with fact (an intellectual thing) and suppose that running into a Fact (zillions of people disappearing in the Rapture) will have the effect of a revealed Truth (turning people from sin to God).

It doesn't work. Paul said (2 Thes 2:9-12) that the Antichrist would bring a deluding influence that would suck in anyone who has received the love of the truth. (People who have received that love are saved.) It seems to me, then, that anyone who enters the Tribulation rejecting God is not at all likely to change his mind. Those saved during the Tribulation will therefore be those who had not been evangelized and thus had no chance to accept or reject Jesus.

But let's prove that there is no second chance. Look at Matt 25:1-12 (The Wise and Foolish Virgins). The fact that they're virgins means, in the imagery of the time, that they at least have a form of godliness: these are churchgoers. Yet the foolish virgins, who in effect miss the Rapture, get no second chance. They get their spiritual act together (buying the oil) only to find themselves locked out. In fact, they hear the thing you never want to hear from God: "I don't know you" (v. 12). So apparently Rayford Steele and his friends are actually damned. Oops.

But there's another side to this. It is harder to get Left Behind than a lot of pop eschatology wonks say: if you truly are saved, you go. Look at 1 Thes 5, where Paul talks about staying awake, which he contrasts with not paying attention spiritually. Sleepers party; the wakeful godly watch and pray. But then see what he says in v. 10: "[Jesus] died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him." That means that the party dudes, if they are truly saved at all to begin with, go too. (If they didn't, they'd be locked out like the foolish virgins.)

Wow! Party on, Dude!

Not so fast. John gives the consequence: And now, dear children, continue in him, so that when he appears we may be confident and unashamed before him at his coming. (1 John 2:28) Apparently it's possible to be ashamed in the midst of the Rapture itself. That's a major buzzkill, and it will change any amount of partying and fun into horror and disgust. Serve God fully; it's easier in the long run.

Friday, October 2, 2009

The Proper Role of Prophecy

The annoying thing about prophecy is that it's generally all or nothing. Either you get practically no real teaching or you get way too much--and in the latter case, it's generally over-hyped and under-researched. It's a popcorn or even cotton-candy topic, and I can understand why less entertainment-driven churches shy away from it. But I think we can learn something really important by considering something basic and unifying that history has to teach us.

Have you noticed that there is generally an eschatological thrust to revivals and waves of evangelism? Seriously, look at the Bible, especially in Acts: how often is evangelism rooted in the idea of the Last Judgment? Pretty much always, at least when the gist of the message is presented. Was it an accident that Jonathan Edwards was best known for "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God"? (And yes, that's eschatological in focus.)

So eschatology matters.

But consider this: when eschatology is used for evangelism, it is what we may call "Common Eschatology"--the eschatology that is common to all truly Christian denominations. There's no reference to the Rapture or the Antichrist or the Millennium. The reference is simply to the Last Judgment: someday, whether we miss the Tribulation through Rapture or just death, or even if we go through it, we shall all stand before God and give account for our lives and deeds. The graveyards of the world are full of people who never encountered a literal Antichrist or Tribulation period, and it may be that we will be there ourselves someday without facing any of them. Comparatively few will come to the brink of the Tribulation, but everyone who has not turned to God shall die--and most Christians, too. So it's reasonable to pitch our sermons to the certainties of death and judgment.

What about the more Hollywood doctrines--the sort that go into making books and movies of the Left Behind variety? Well, I'd say it's more important to know God and the Scriptures than the doctrine. That won't happen, of course, and neither will the respectable alternative: just say that your denomination holds such-and-such a view, while others hold other views. If you have the guts and godliness, explain the other views without putting them down. (Yes, maybe you're right and they're wrong, but even then it's worth understanding them. And who knows? Maybe you're wrong after all!)

It's also worth noting that while prophecy of this sort was clearly taught to new believers, it doesn't seem to have been used in evangelism--only the Judgment was. The modern business of scaring people with the Rapture or Tribulation cannot be found in Scripture, and if you read the early Christian writers, they tended to reserve it for those already saved, not for evangelizing the unsaved. Coincidence?

Let's be honest: we like certain topics because they're titillating and sensational, not because they do any actual good. Discussions of prophecy should be limited to Christians, and they should be dealt with briefly (yet thoroughly), so we can spend more time on the more important issues, such as loving others and living holy lives.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Introduction to Eschatology: Views of the Rapture

I'll give these in the order of the Rapture, that is, pre-, mid-, prewrath, and post-. Note that the strengths and weaknesses, though obvious and typical, can be argued against by anyone with any wit.

Pre-trib View
The Tribulation is a seven-year period of divine wrath, during which God brings Israel back to Himself. As Christians are not appointed to wrath and as Israel is God’s focus, the Church cannot be here.
Strengths: The Rapture is unexpected and unpredictable; incentive for godly life.
Weaknesses: Produces fear of being left behind; indeed, devotion is based on fear, not love.

Mid-trib View
Oddly, mid-tribs often consider themselves pre-tribs—they just don’t think the Rapture is imminent. Instead, they suppose that the Antichrist must appear first by breaking his seven-year covenant (Dan. 9:27, 2 Thes 2:3). The Rapture follows, then the Tribulation proper—a three-and-half-year period of wrath much like the pre-tribs expect. (The first three and a half years of the covenant are considered too mild to be part of the Tribulation.) Thus mid-tribs believe in a pre-tribulational Rapture, but not an imminent one.
Strengths: Accounts for the frequent references to three-and-a-half-year periods in prophecy (Dan. 7:25, 9:27, 12:7, 11; Rev. 11:2, 3, 12:14, 13:5).
Weaknesses: Though trying to combine the strengths of pre-trib and post-trib views while minimizing their weaknesses, mid-tribulationism often seems to accomplish the opposite.

Prewrath View
Just as mid-tribs are technically pre-tribulational, prewraths are technically post-tribulational. Unfortunately, the prewrath view is rather complex. It divides the last seven years into “the Beginning of Sorrows” (Matt. 24:8—the first three and a half years and the first four Seals of Revelation), “the Great Tribulation” (Matt.24:21—the Fifth and Sixth Seals, followed by the Rapture), and the “Day of the Lord” (Luke 17:30–31--but compare Matt. 15:16–21--which extends from the Seventh Seal until the Second Coming). The Seals are taken to represent the wrath of man, the Trumpets the wrath of God on Jew and Gentile alike, and the Bowls the wrath of God against those who persecute the Jews, who have been saved following the Trumpets.
Strengths: Harmonizes the unexpectedness of the Rapture (Matt. 24:36, 42, 44) with the expectedness of the Rapture (1 Thes 5:4—the “thief” metaphor refers to unexpectedness).
Weaknesses: Complex; based on hairsplitting terminological distinctions that are hard to support.

Post-trib View
Post-tribs are the only premills who are not concerned with wrath. They generally suppose that God is a very good shot, who can strike all around us without hitting us (Psa. 91, especially vv. 7–8). Given that tribulation or oppression is said to be the lot of Christians (John 16:33; Acts 14:22; Col. 1:24; 1 Thes. 3:3–4), post-tribs see no reason why we should be spared the final period of tribulation, which probably will differ from that experienced today in communist and Muslim countries only in extent. There has always been tribulation, that is, persecution, but there have always been refuges from it as well, such as the New World once furnished. The final tribulation will lack such havens and be marked by extreme delusion among the ungodly.
Since post-tribs do not consider the Rapture an escape, they instead take it to represent the glorification and empowerment of believers, so that we may rise to meet our Lord as He returns. We shall then escort him to earth (this meeting and escort is the proper meaning of the word translated “meeting” in 1 Thes. 4:17), where he shall punish and destroy those who have taken the mark of the Beast.
Strengths: Probably the oldest view of the Rapture, and the least complicated.
Weaknesses: Predictability of the Second Coming/Rapture; lack of people to enter the Millennium.

Get to know your neighbors! You're going to spend eternity with these people, and it may turn out that some of them are right, not you.

And next up we'll consider the role of the Rapture and eschatology in general in preaching and teaching.
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