Piercing Through Peretti’s Darkness
My wife and I are Christians. We’ve also moved around our fair share during 13 years of marriage. Inevitably, the “what do you do?” question comes up and I always say I’m a writer. At first, I deflected the follow-up “what do you write?” but now I boldly state that I write horror. Instead of getting back into why it works to be a Christian and a horror writer, I want to talk about a name that regularly becomes part of the conversation: Frank E. Peretti.
I didn’t know anything about this author of 24 books, including novels, nonfiction, and children’s books before I got married. I still don’t know a lot about him, other than some people have called him the Christian Stephen King. The other thing I know is that some people have recently seen parallels in his books This Present Darkness and Piercing the Darkness in the current climate of far-right and Christian-oriented political activity.
In April 2022, a trio of writers at Vox took on the two books in their article “Revisiting the Christian Fantasy Novels that Shaped Decades of Conservative Hysteria” and said that their influence was even greater than the Left Behind series. Even I knew what those books were because they were inescapable, and a couple of movies were made based on them. But I hadn’t really heard of Peretti. “Peretti envisioned a new kind of Christian fiction that visualized and vivified his idea of modern spiritual warfare: Angels and demons engaged in very real, literal battles for humanity, often just out of sight of their impassioned human charges,” writers Aja Roman, Alissa Wilkinson, and Emily St. James said in their article.
This is exactly what happens in This Present Darkness. Only a few of the humans involved ever see angels and demons, and even then, they don’t always one hundred percent believe it. Then there are those who are more devoted in their faith and believe in angels and demons even when they don’t see them, and also there are those who are clearly on the side of demons but don’t actually believe in them. And that’s part of the problem.
Peretti doesn’t sugarcoat his stance: conservative Christians are good. While some fence sitters can be won over, the only good people are the ones who side not just with God but with the “right” version of God. In the book, the more liberal church down the road has aligned itself with the demonic forces of mind expansion, meditation, psychology, and being at one with the universe. The leadership is involved with upwardly mobile and upper-middle class people whereas the other church, the one keeping up the battle against Satan, is the church of the elderly, the working class, and the old-fashioned “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” Christians.
In other words, while Peretti may have predicted the attacks on higher education, liberal ideals, book banning, and the general resurgence of “Satanic Panic,” one could argue that he missed the alignment of most evangelical white Christians in America today. From megachurches to small community chapels, the battle lines aren’t so much church versus church but church versus non-church (except the LDS, who want to be on the church side, but that side still doesn’t really accept them).
Like bestsellers across all genres, there is an air of “writing to market” in these books. Whereas an extreme horror writer would up the gore factor and foul language, Peretti specifically avoids it. Early in the book, a piece of graffiti is mentioned, with the statement not fully written. Instead, we get, “The last word was an obscenity.” Neither of these tactics serves the story — which should ultimately always be the point — but instead detract from it. It turns potentially multidimensional characters into caricatures, devoid of any real personality. Instead of cutting away for suspense, this tactic plays like self-censorship. One could argue that it is trusting the audience to fill in the blank, to let them imagine the worst thing possible, but it also feels like an attempt to avoid the real world and the repulsive things one person can say about another. As the Vox writers state, that might be the point. The real fight is between the angels and demons (also one-dimensional and lacking complication) and the humans are just non-playable characters in this fantasy game.
There is still a global conspiracy being played out in the small town of Ashton; it’s one of the reasons we still gravitate to King and Dean Koontz. We want to see towns and people like the ones we grew up with being given a greater role than what we remember them being. “We” in this case remain a white, working-class population, some of whom got a share of that liberal education Peretti warns his readers about. “Three of us, like millions of other ’90s evangelical kids, have our own formative experiences of reading Peretti as preteens. Even rereading as adults, Alissa, Emily, and Aja agree that these books are still fun, engaging standouts among the pantheon of pulpy conspiracy theory thrillers,” according to the Vox article.
There is a conflict within the text, but it isn’t about demons and angels. It’s about people, who we really are, and who we pretend to be. I know many good people who never cuss and are always kind. I don’t necessarily know who they are behind closed doors. Maybe they swear up a storm and kick their dogs. Peretti’s spiritual warfare doesn’t seem willing to go there unless it concerns someone we are told is “good.” If it’s one of those liberals, well, their kindness is a fraud, and they are all screwing around with each other. If it’s someone good, anything bad said about them is a lie and an attack from Satan.
That’s perhaps the biggest difference I’ve seen between Peretti’s style and King’s. King will almost always show you the dirt because he knows everyone gets a little dirty but that it can be overcome. You can still fight the devil even after you’ve made a deal with him. In Peretti’s book, however, I don’t see one of the key tenets of Christianity: redemption. One of my favorite things in mainstream horror is the person who messed up the most storming back to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. I don’t see that in Peretti. If you are somewhere in the middle, your chances to fall in with the bad guys are much greater than your ability to find the path to his version of God.
Horror, in many ways, is about overcoming the tragedies of humanity to become better people. When the fight is all about angels and demons, and the only thing a person can do is pray, the human factor is eliminated from the equation, and we no longer matter. But hey, maybe that’s pride talking — the need to matter in the grand scheme of things. So perhaps Peretti had something there, something a bit more aligned with Lovecraft: there are forces, creatures, and entities beyond the comprehension of humanity that run things, and we are only cannon fodder at best and food at worst.
Ultimately what matters here is that readers are allowed to read what they want. I’m sure there were some Christian readers who didn’t like Peretti’s “liberal” use of angels and demons and some who were overjoyed to see them on the page and handed to younger readers throughout the late 1980s and early ’90s. Books — and their ability to get us to think about the world — are dangerous. That kind of danger is always good. 🩸
T.J. Tranchell was born on Halloween and grew up in Utah. He has published the novella Cry Down Dark and the collections Asleep in the Nightmare Room and The Private Lives of Nightmares with Blysster Press and Tell No Man, a novella with Last Days Books. In October 2020, The New York Times called Cry Down Dark the scariest book set in Utah. He holds a Master’s degree in Literature from Central Washington University and attended the Borderlands Press Writers Boot Camp in 2017. He currently lives in Washington State with his wife and son. Follow him at www.tjtranchell.net or on Twitter @TJ_Tranchell.
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