Retronomicon: Review: The Burning Time

 

Faherty, J.G. The Burning Time. Journalstone, 2013. USD $11.97. ISBN 978-1-936564-63-7.

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One of the oft-overlooked aspects of Lovecraft’s writings is how much they actually center on small towns. He apparently never bought into the big myth of Middle America (codified by, say, the 1950s) that small towns were any kind of representative of virtue. Instead, he seemingly took a page from one of his idols, Sherwood Anderson, in showing such places to be a collection of various emotional freaks. Even John Mellencamp, musical evangelist of rural America for thirty years, went so far as to acknowledge that small towns are often hotbeds of activities that nobody really bothers to notice. Two of Lovecraft’s successors, Stephen King and Joe R. Lansdale, understood this same insight and applied to their own work. To that list add J.G. Faherty with his book The Burning Time, where a small town becomes a battlefield for the end of the world.

The setting for all this is Hastings Mill, a small town in upstate New York that is about the same as any other (albeit suffering from the worst heat wave anyone can remember) at the start of our tale. The first paragraph won me over to Mr. Faherty’s side with this statement:

Had they known what was coming, more than a few would have packed their things and headed out for a long vacation. Most folks would have stayed, though.

That’s just the way things are in small towns.

But what, pray tell, is coming, you may ask? That would be two things or, rather, two people. One is Cyprus Christian, the new reverend of the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Hope, a man who is connected to a string of suicides involving young girls throwing themselves into the river. The other is one John Root, a wanderer out of the Carolinas who has been tracking Christian for a very, very long time. Each section of this story is highlighted by the old Southern folk tale, “The Stranger,” and it is obvious early on that it refers to both men (well, maybe not men…patience, dear readers).

The town has a lot of recognizable types that I’ve seen all my life: Chief Showalter, a head cop whose idea of law and order is whatever he wants it to be to keep the peace; Billy Ray Capshaw, a one-time resident-turned-ex-con who comes back to the town for the purpose of lying low; Marge Chilton, owner of a boarding house and regular town gossip. But arguably the most important from the plot perspective would have to be Danni and Mitch Anderson. Danni is Mitch’s older sister, raising her brother after their parents’ death. Mitch is the kid you probably knew from school, the bright student who isn’t strong enough to stop the bullies, but is too proud to run.

It takes little time for John and Christian to start affecting everyone’s lives. Christian begins giving sermons that eventually pack in the whole town (This includes Danni and Mitch. Danni is doing this to keep a promise to their late mother). It so hypnotizes everybody who listens to it that nobody notices the increasingly strange references to “the Gods,” Cthulhu and the other Great Old Ones that he laces in there. John winds up doing some handyman work for Danni and Mitch in trying to fix up their old house. Mitch insists on helping out. He and John become close, in the manner of a father-son dynamic. Events accelerate to the point of testing that bond, culminating in a church fair that has to be read to be believed.

When I say, “Events accelerate,” what I mean is that the pacing of the novel goes from that of a train moving at 70 MPH to that of an SR-71 doing Mach 10 by the end. Mr. Faherty is obviously a fan of Stephen King (He even tosses in a couple of references, just in case you missed the resemblance between the two in portraying the lives of ordinary people and small-town atmospherics), but his style is much more compressed, reminiscent of the late Robert Bloch in his ability to pack a lot of punch in just three-to-six pages each chapter. Still, you never get lost as to where you are in the plot or the story and you do wind up genuinely caring about most of the “good guys.”

John Root is a case in point, a battered occult veteran well past any illusions that he’s going to save the world without taking a few hits (and does). He’s even fully aware of the possibility that he may fail. For his trouble, he gets ostracized and handed many serious injuries in the course of this novel. Good thing he knows herbal magicks. Mitch proves to be a brave and resourceful kid, despite the limits of his age. At least a couple of times, he winds up saving the day as much as John. You even find yourself feeling a bit for Billy, a man who lets his greed override his fear upon becoming church handyman and seeing all the large amounts of cash going into the church coffers. In spite of the fact that he never quite sees the light, he has plenty of incentive to regret his mistake by the middle of Part III.

How bad do things get? Well, by Chapter 13, the mad music that the Reverend’s words inspire starts stepping up the tempo. A pair of cops gun down a hitchhiker just for fun the same night that Billy’s partner-in-crime, Tony Lopez, comes up with that one bright idea that gets him killed. Subsequent chapters bring to mind a condensed, miniaturized version of the breakdown of society found in King’s The Stand. Whether it’s two best friends of four decades killing each other in a nasty dispute that starts with who gets to bake what pie for a bake sale or an old man setting his dogs on a disgruntled paperboy for breaking a window with lethal results, the effect is like watching someone slowly boil a frog. Oh, did I mention that the suicides of young girls never stop during all this (though the investigation of them eventually does)? I found the demise of the mentally-challenged Cookie particularly poignant, having known such a girl in my school years.

The sheer casual reaction to these atrocities by everyone in town is unsettling, to put it mildly. The phrase, “the banality of evil,” is a much-abused one, but the only one that seems to apply in this case. Another Stephen King influence springs to mind as the reader watches this unfold: Jack Finney’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (better known for its film incarnations, starting with the 1950s classic directed by Don Siegel and starring the recently-deceased Kevin McCarthy). The loss of empathy and community that leads that book’s alien invaders to allow Main Street to rot is not so different from the collective shrugging of the shoulders we see here. It’s just that this is uglier. It is so ugly, in fact, that when real atrocities get started, like patrols shooting anyone who tries to leave or a sex-laden romp at a Cub Scout meeting, you find yourself feeling a bit of relief because now it’s more out in the open.

I wish that I could say that Mr. Faherty is off-base with his depictions of how Hastings Mill implodes. The sad truth? What’s on display isn’t exaggerated by TOO much. All the nastiness that comes bubbling out of everybody is there in the small town I’ve been raised in, an open puddle of kerosene waiting for a lit match to hit. The description of what the bake sale degenerates into makes that plain enough.

Nor is Cyprus Christian (please note the monogram of that name and tell me you didn’t think “Crawling Chaos” after a certain point) that outrageous a figure. The sermons he gives are pretty much every Southern Baptist rant I’ve heard all my life with a different object of worship. Overall, he comes off as Nyarlathotep channeling Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter, with a dash of Stephen King’s vicious trickster, Randall Flagg. He’s also something of an egomaniac who keeps reaching for the stars while being tripped up by the little details he can no longer see.

Okay, so obviously there’s some really good stuff here that’s worth the price of admission. But no writer is perfect and an honest critic truly supports the writers he likes with comments on what they can improve. First, the relationship between John and Danni feels…flat. Nothing terribly bad about its progression in execution (I especially like the fact that she gets tough-minded enough to call John on his BS in terms of keeping his emotional distance), but it feels mostly tacked-on, just the expected thing that you would find in a novel like this. It doesn’t exactly help that, with the exception of a household siege in Part III that recalls Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (yet another Stephen King influence), Danni comes off as little more than the damsel in distress waiting to be rescued. She even gets in on the suicide act at one point (though I will admit that was a unique twist of the knife in terms of the way it’s plotted).

Second, the playing up of the religious overtones of the Mythos gets a bit too Christianized. To be fair, Mr. Faherty handles the issue mostly well. John honestly acknowledges that the Great Old Ones he knows consists of good ones, bad ones, and mostly indifferent ones. He also acknowledges all he’s doing is performing a delaying action, at best, no Revelation-fueled nonsense about God’s ultimate triumph here. In a certain way, it recalls Edward Erdelac’s Kabbalistic take on the Mythos in his Merkabah Rider saga.

But the association of Cyprus Christian with the usual infernal suspects of Hell just doesn’t wash. I mean, seriously, you’ve got an entire backlog of alien monsters you could tap into, from ghouls to nightgaunts, and the best you can come up with are imps, hellhounds, and a few tentacles? Anybody seeing any of the classic Lovecraftian beasties would regard them as no less creatures from Hell than the traditional tropes, or even new and unique ones that would fit both setting and story. I also wonder why Cthulhu suddenly falls in the camp of the “bad ones” that John was talking about. It smacks too much of Brian Lumley’s treatment of same.

I’m also a little irked by the various associations that John puts on Christian’s shoulders in calling him the Trickster. Having known the stories of Loki, Coyote, Kokopelli, and Gwydion, I find myself wincing more than a lot at the association of those names with Christian. Anybody who has actually read the various Trickster stories of whatever culture will know that Christian is unworthy of the title. Yes, Tricksters have a habit of causing a hell of a lot of trouble out of spite, boredom, or sometimes just hatred. But Tricksters are ultimately their own bosses. The only side they are consistently on is their own and nobody else’s.

Christian, on the other hand, is little better than a high-ranking henchman of the Great Old Ones who has a way with words. The most charitable interpretation I can give to this development is that Mr. Faherty wound up dividing the sacred and profane within the Trickster in much the same manner that Robert E. Howard did with the Picts in his Bran Mak Morn series. John Root gets the good aspects while Cyprus Christian gets the nasty ones.

Finally, there is the whole car trip business between upstate New York and the Carolinas that is a major plot point close to the end. Supposedly, this trip takes about eleven hours and is aided by magic in terms of the cops not catching onto John. With that kind of distance, cops are the least of the problems. You’ve also got twisty roads, various traffic signals, and lots of miles between you and your destination. So, unless some of John magicks included warp gates, the suspension of disbelief gets a bit strained on this point. Still, it is the least of my objections and not truly enough to harp about.

Even with the flaws, this is a book that you can devour in one sitting. It is a testament to Mr. Faherty’s skills as an author that he paints his story with such quick, vivid strokes that you find yourself compelled to see how it all ends. You know that it’ll be nasty, but, by Part III, you’ll wonder which of the participants are going to survive the race against the clock. Add the grim ending that lets you know that this is far from over and you’ve a worthy successor to the works of HPL on your hands.

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You can find The Burning Time on Amazon.com.