|Father John Baptist
(creator: William Biersach)
|Father John Baptist, before becoming a priest, had been Jack Lombard, Chief of Homicide in Los Angeles, for almost 10 years. But in the end, "I couldn't understand how people could be so utterly evil, and how God could let it be so. My wife, Christine, had died the year before, and I had much to think about". His search for the truth took him to ordination.
"The five years I spent in the diocesan seminary were the worst in my life .... What they teach young priests, these days! They would have kicked me out for sure if I'd revealed my mind, but I kept silent. Ordination was my goal, so I answered the examination questions with their modern heresies, lied my way through the orals, and buttered up the overbearing matrons who run the place." But his Traditionalist views, and devotion to the Tridentine (Latin) Mass, soon got him into trouble and he was "kicked out of my first three parish assignments for preaching about Hell from the pulpit".
So, "officially on leave of over three years" he ended up using his police pension to buy an old church, St Philomena's, where he could ignore all modern deviations, supported by his very arthritic ex-gardener and general handyman and associate, Martin Feeney, who narrates the story throughout (although every now and then he rather strangely refers to himself not as "I" but as "the gardener"}. He knows his Bible inside out and can immediately attribute any quotation. His most precious possession is "a chip from the crown of thorns that Jesus wore on Calvary". He says he is sure it is genuine because he possesses a "certificate of authenticity"!
We are told little about Father Baptist's appearance, other than references to his threadbare cassock. The author explains that, "This I did on purpose, hoping my readers would picture him as they might. There was, in fact, a real Father John Baptist who did me an important favour once. He was an Irishman, a Capucin and a scholar who had studied in Rome. He taught at the Catholic high school I attended many years ago" and had come to the help of Father Baptist when his older brother had died, by offering to say a Latin Mass for him.
William L Biersach (1953- ) was born in Pasadena, California. He attended a Catholic grammar and high school, but "naturally lost his Faith when the effects of Vatican II came rattling through the world like a maniacal jalopy in the 1960s and 70s". In 1993, he found his way back to traditional Rome. He was not only a senior lecturer at the University of Southern California School of Music in Los Angeles, but also a rock musician. His first novel, The Endless Knot (reviewed below) was rejected by every publisher he approached, so he and a friend, Stephen Frankini, decided to go it alone. Frankini formed his own publishing house,Tumblar House, and The Endless Knot was its first product.
The Endless Knot (2001)
Father John Baptist is sent for by the Archbishop (who thoroughly disapproves of him but remembers that he had been a very effective detective) and is ordered to investigate what becomes a whole series of mysterious deaths of Catholic Bishops in Los Angeles. Clues surrounding the murders point to an occult connection (a triangle was carved in the palm of the first victim's left hand, and a pentagram was inscribed on a piece of quilt), and it requires all of Father Baptist's skills and understanding to undercover an extraordinary conspiracy involving even a witches' coven, attended, it seems, by all the murdered bishops!
He is helped by an unlikely group of fellow Traditionalists who call themselves the Knights Tumblar (four, later to become five, "single men, ages 25 through 40, who came to drink champagne - port on cold rainy nights and scotch on special occasions. They smoke cigars, and talk Church with Father Baptist .... They came promptly at eight on Thursday evenings - several bottles in hand - chatted until nine, sang songs until nine-thirty or so, and then went out bar-hopping .... Oh, and they invariably wore tuxedoes in the evenings." Their aim, we are told in a later book, is to "go all over town involving themselves in social affairs so that at any propitious moment they can turn the topic of conversation to the Catholic Faith. That is their mission, their apostulate."
The story is told with real feeling and humor. One of the characters, the archbishop's " liturgical coordinator", is a Ms. Stephanie Furie whom Martin Feeney recognises as a woman who used to be Sister Veronica Marie who had been "principal of the grammar school at St Philomena's, back before the nuns went coo-coo". Feeney thinks that she and her associates might as well call themselves the Altar Belles.
Every now and then Feeney adds a paragraph or two headed Gardening Tips, such as this one: "In the Traditional Rite the priest and the server faced the altar with their backs to the congregation. In other words, with their focus on God. Student savant of human nature that She was, the historical Church understood that if the priest faced the people he would soon become a game show host. In times past such a possibility was considered undesirable, ludicrous, and offensive to Almighty God. Today's priests, by contrast, go to workshops in Toluca Springs to practice sincere smiles, hone up on spontaneous jocularity, and receive free samples of teeth-whitening dental products. Which is one of the many reasons I prefer the Traditional Rite. I hate game shows."
Unfortunately, though, the book is longer than it need be, and the tortuous plot is quite slow-moving. Yet even so, parts of it are really entertaining and I enjoyed encountering the ever-indomitable if distinctly perverse Father John Baptist. It is the best book of the series.
The Darkness Did Not (2004)
Father Baptist never believes in compromising his beliefs. When an old cemetery is discovered in the grounds of St Philomena's, he points out that there was a special consecrated area "reserved for unbaptised babies, non-Catholic relatives, and suicides".
Another revealing quote is when Father Baptist makes the sign of the cross over smouldering incense and pronounces, "In cujus honore cremaberis". Martin Feeney goes on to explain how "Father always smiled when he said this particular formula. It was the same one used by Pius IX when a group of Anglican clerics insisted that there must be some form of blessing the Holy Father could properly say over them. The prosaic Pope responded with the only blessing that he felt applied: 'Mayest thou be blessed by Him in whose honor thou shalt burn'." It doesn't make either the Pope or Father Baptist seem to be very appealing characters.
The local police know Father Baptist from of old, for most of them remember him when, as Chief of Homicide, he was their boss, so they actively welcome his contribution. At first he is reluctant to help for, as he points out, "I am a priest, not a police detective. I left that part of my life behind when I took my vows. My duty now is to those under my care." But Archbishop Fulbright, who has now become Cardinal Archbishop Fulbright, orders him once again to help the police. And it is he who eventually realises the significance of the "two small puncture wounds, right over each victim's left jugular vein." It is all a matter of vampires.
The main problem with this book is that it runs to 515 pages (including, as with all the books, some blank pages at the end, hopefully labelled Notes) and it is simply too long drawn out. But, as before, the humor is always welcome, as when Martin is described as Baptist's "hunchbacked partner" and comments, "Of all the nerve. I may have severe spinal arthritis, but I'm years from applying for bell-ringer at Notre Dame cathedral."
But unfortunately, everything is decribed in too much detail, and after a time it all gets rather tedious, as when such unlikely characters as Willie "Skull" Caps get involved. Also known as Guillaume du Crane Cristal, he is a "pseudoo-Voudou-yoohoo" fortune-teller who speaks like this: "Wot you want wit me? Dere's bad mojo all around. Can't you feel it, mon?" Father Baptist is able to get some useful advice about potions from him - but it all takes too long.
The "House of Illusion", where magicians and fortune tellers perform, provides more interest. Amongst the unlikely characters to be found here is Elza: "Ask her to play your favorite song for you. Don't be annoyed if she doesn't know any current tunes. After all, she died in 1932." And the piano seems to play itself. According to Father Baptist, Elza is actually a suffering soul in purgatory who, he suspects, had "been confined to this room all these years for this purpose: that one day she would render aid to you, Martin Feeney, and thus expiate her sins." It is not exactly easy to believe.
However, the description of the other "acts" that perform in the house are unnecessarily detailed. The author seems determined to follow up every reference he makes, no matter how unnecessary, as when we are even given labelled diagrams of Traditional liturgical vestments. Other irrelevancies include pages devoted to the story of St George and the Dragon, and the stories of "St." Martha and "St." Lazarus , and there is much else that has only a tenuous connection with the plot.
The most unlikely incident of all is when the good Father drives a stake into a dead vampire's heart with the result that: "Something gooey and black like tar dashed around the point of penetration. The thing's eyes popped open, glaring hatefully at the mortal whose hands had sealed its doom anew. White foam flecked with green erupted from its mouth, weirdly wiggling as a snakelike tongue thrashed within. Bones cracked and sinews snapped as the animating spirit separated from the physical fabric of the writhing monstrosity. Like an explosion in reverse, the body suddenly collapsed inward upon itself. A gust of molten air rose from the devastated corpse, coalesced into a nebulous shape without form or detail a few feet above the open box, and then dissolved in the tepid breeze. It drifted limply away in the direction of the back parking lot, and was gone. Nothing remained in the coffin but a thin layer of shifting ashes and a warped crow bar that has been straight a moment before. Even the stake had been annihilated." So there you are. But it is not long before Father Baptist is telling the police that there's another vampire still at large. It all sounds plain silly.
When Father Baptist quoted, "And the Word was made flesh", a monsignor pointed out to him that, "Your attention to the myth at the expense of the reality is touching -- and no doubt sincere -- but out of step with the times."
Narrator Martin Feeney describes how his previous book The Endless Knot "is still making rounds among the literary agents", one of whom has replied: "Thank you for thinking of us regarding The Endless Knot. We are sorry to report that we simply did not have enough enthusiasm for your project to pursue it. Sincerely yours, Blah D. Blah." The author himself must have received many such discouraging letters. But you can't help wondering how much the books might have been improved with the help (and the blue pencil) of a professional editor.
The Search for Saint Valeria (2005)
The story, as always, is told with humor, but the comic incidents are sometimes overplayed as when Father Baptist's housekeeper gets her own back on a resident priest of whom she disapproves by giving him just a stale slice of bread with a small lump of doubtful meat, or sometimes just a single small potato for his meal. But she goes on doing it for so long that it gets rather tedious. However, there are some nice touches as when a quote from St John Chrysostom is used on a plaque above Father Baptist's fireplace: "I do not speak rashly, but as I feel and think. I do not think that many priests are saved, but those who perish are far more numerous. The reason is that the office requires a great soul. For there are many things to make a priest swerve from rectitude, and he requires great vigilance on every side."
Even though it is a short book, there's still room for irrelevancies, as when members of Father Baptist's congregation wonder why, although present, he did not say Mass: " 'I saw Faddah up in front,' Mrs Cladusky, who had filled my range of vision by this time, was saying, 'but now he's gone.'
The plot, involving a Knights Tumblar plan to steal away the remains of St Valeria, is light-weight and far from convincing, but there are some nice moments as when Father Baptist reacts to the rudeness of a visiting policeman: "That's it," said Father, standing swiftly. "Get out, Lieutenant."
I liked too the description of Santa Barbara's Chapel which "aroused memories of saner times, at least when viewed from the outside. It was built when churches were still constructed of brick and mortar instead of girders and pipes, and the stained-glass windows depicted saints performing heroic deeds rather than deranged arrtisans suffering from acid indigestion."
Out of the Depths (2007)
The book is extravagantly over-long, and the author even finds room in his preface to mention that his first book, The Endless Knot, "has entered its second printing, two years after its release". But he ruefully admits that the first-run consisted of only 525 copies and he has "yet to make a penny". However, he consoles himself with the thought that they "are my legacy, and I do so hope they become popular -- or at least widely read -- after I am gone, if not before. They make me laugh as I write them, and I so need to laugh. Moreover, Father Baptist and Martin Feeney and the rest are constantly reminding me not just to believe and accept, but also to practice the True Faith that comes to us from the apostles with diligence, patience, perseverance, and a cheerful heart."
Unfortunately, the author's style seems to get increasingly self-indulgent , as when Father Baptist tells Martin that "I'm not a character in a Tolkein novel. Instead, I find myself trapped inside yet another of yours." Later on, Martin tells him, "You really are trapped inside this novel. You may as well play your part." Then another character complains, "I knew it. We are all trapped in another of Mister Feeney's novel's!" Such constant repetition gets rather tiresome.
The author enjoys his in-jokes, as when Pierre Bontemps, one of the Knights Tumblar, complains, "I consider the name you gave my character a mite contrived". And Martin has all his old problems in finding anyone to publish his work, with another character finally saying, "Frankly, I think it is too Catholic to be accepted by any of the major houses. Who knows? Maybe someone should start a new publishing company." And that, of course, is exactly what had really happened with this author.
There are numerous eccentric characters of whom the most endearing is Father Baptist's indominatable housekeeper, Millie, ironically described as "our beloved housekeeptrix and sweetest of den mothers" as she slams down "five mismatched mugs on the tiny table. She was attired in wobbling green plastic rollers, frayed orange-and-pink plaid housecoat, sagging white socks, and a pair of those furry machine-washable scuff-along slippers, one faded yellow and the other faded very yellow. She shuffled over to the stove and returned with a fresh pot of six-molar caffeine which she dive-bombed into our cups without any collateral damage to two paper plates piled with teetering columns of her irresistible homemade oatmeal-molasses cookies." It is she who enjoys hacking up potatoes with a meat cleaver: "The glint of metal, the rapid chops, the bits of flailing potato flesh - somehow it wasn't a pretty sight. Performed by any normal housewife it would have seemed comfy-cozy, but not when executed by our Millie. Somehow she turned meal preparation into something sado-prickly."
The least likely characters are the two fussy and elderly Doily sisters who describe themselves as publishers and enjoy reading everything they are sent without ever publishing it, and are quite prepared to take a priest prisoner and keep him shackled so that he can preside over a traditional mass in their private chapel on demand! They rejoice in the magnificent names of Hortense and Mehitabelle. The author is always inventive when it comes to names. It is they who eventually try to force Martin to eat his manuscript page by page - a fitting punishment, surely.
It is this ability to write with real humor, along with the author's self-deprecating style, that are his strong points. If only there had been an editor to help him speed up the narrative and reduce repetitions. This is a criticism that the author must have heard before, as one of the characters comments that what Martin really needs "is a good editor". As it is, however, the author even finds room for over-long quotes, not only from earlier on in this book, but from a previous book tool! He is much preoccupied with patterns and puzzles and quite happily involves ghosts from purgatory, or tears of blood, in his story. What is lacking, though, is any real sense of excitement.
Martin seems to be speaking for the author when he voices many of his personal likes and dislikes, prominent amongst which is any move away from traditional Catholic rites and buildings: "Our present errand took us to the hideous protruberance off to the left where the clergy holed up. I would have called it a 'wrectory', but nobody asked me." And there is an amusing description of a modern-style funeral, helped along, or hindered, by a group known as "The Ever-Twangin' Mostly-Saggin' Steel Pluckers". Martin comments on the "unprecedented defalcation of the basic principles of melody, harmony, and rhythm - not to mention the absence of the merest conceivable notion of good taste.
The author never hesitates to introduce what he finds interesting, however irrelevant it may be, so we are told about the Roman emperor Maximian, or an old author called Montanus, or sundry various unlikely saints of the past. Not content with mentioning the title of an old film like Sunset Boulevard, he insists on telling us that it starred William Holden and Gloria Swanson. Then, when Pierre Bontemps writes an article describing Cardinal Fulbright's favourite restaurant, we are given his whole article to read - not just the relevant bit. When Martin goes missing, it is Pierre who takes over the narrative for 108 pages, so that we can have a first-hand, although unfortunately much less entertaining, account of what had happened in his absence. Oddly enough no one seems troubled enough by Martin's disappearance to make finding him their first priority.
The author is well aware of all the irrelevancies, for, when he makes a religious point, Martin himself comments; "if I may belabour the point - if only to give some future editor something to cross out and draw question marks on both sides, St Eynard explained in the same book ...." Martin does not respond well to criticism of his literary style. When Father Baptist points out to him that he has used the word "scowl" in his narrative twice in quick succession, he does not bother to change it. It is still there in the published version. Similarly when told that one of his books has two sections numbered 32, Martin decides to "absolutely positively insert two chapter 64s in my next book, for no other reason than orneriness." And so he does. But there are other repetitions that Martin has not noticed, as on page 250 when Father Baptist is told, "You can go to Hell."
Father John Baptist may be a dogged and dogmatic old Traditionalist, but we certainly come to respect him. As Martin explains, "Virtually everyone who works in any capacity around St Philomena's parish, with the exception of Father Baptist, does so 'in lieu of' cash in the plate. He works for less." But he can sound incredibly pompous, as when he tells Martin, "When the satiation of my curiosity propels me in the same direction as that commanded by my superior, the potential for peril escalates. What will I do should circumstances change and my own motivation again deviates from the course ordered by my cardinal?"
For the Knights Tumblar, as presumably for the author, Vatican II had been a disaster: "Convents closed, parishes abandoned, dwindling seminaries disseminating heresy, nuns desiring to be priests, priests forcing themselves on innocent children, belief in the Real Presence held by a minority of adult Catholics - these have been the true fruits of Pope John XXIII's ill-conceived council." It is no good looking here for a balanced view.
So, really entertaining though parts of the story are, other parts of it are a rather strange amalgam of much-extended talk, complicated puzzles and ultra-traditional beliefs. Martin, who describes himself as Father Baptist's "fictionalizer" rather than biographer, admits that, "I'll probably crank it all out, incident by incident, page by page, just to keep my fingers limber until something exciting, electrifying, gripping finally does occur. Yes, that will be the starting point of the next novel. I'll just throw these uninteresting pages or way and move on". If only he had!
The books are printed to order.
|The author could not find a publisher until his friend set up Tumblar House, and this became the first book they published.|
|The first clue in The Endless Knot: part of a pentagram. The book includes a number of such illustrations.|
|This is one of a series of remarkably unhelpful pictures of vampire bites on a victim's neck, taken from The Darkness Did Not.|