Review of Dark Faith, and Dark Faith: Invocations

Reviewed by Kristin Janz

In discussions about speculative fiction stories that engage with questions of religious faith, the two Dark Faith anthologies come up again and again. Published in 2010 and 2012 by Apex Publications, edited by Maurice Broaddus and Jerry Gordon, both volumes featured some of speculative fiction's most critically acclaimed authors, all exploring questions centered around faith. (Read last month's interview with Maurice here.)

Dark Faith by [Lake, Jay, Valente, Catherynne M., Keene, Brian, Sedia, Ekaterina, Braunbeck, Gary A., Piccirilli, Tom, Kowal, Mary Robinette, Mamatas, Nick, Maurice Broaddus, Jerry Gordon]While there had certainly been anthologies focused on particular faiths (Jack Dann's Wandering Stars and More Wandering Stars for Jewish science fiction and Michael Bishop's A Cross of Centuries: Twenty-five Imaginative Tales About the Christ come to mind), Dark Faith's approach was notable for being especially broad and inclusive. Yes, there are stories that focus on Christianity or Judaism; but others explore Buddhism, modern paganism, Greek mythology, African religion, or Yazidism, or the intersection (and often conflict) between different faiths. And many of the stories don't deal overtly with religious questions at all. Wrestling With Gods (edited by Liana Kerzner and Jerome Stueart) took much the same approach a few years later, but was definitely following where Dark Faith had gone before.

Another thing that the Dark Faith anthologies and Wrestling With Gods have in common is that they both paid their authors well. Dark Faith paid the standard professional rate for speculative fiction stories, and Wrestling With Gods' rates put them solidly in the semi-professional payment category. It may seem crass, to some readers, to talk in a book review about how much authors were paid. But there's a long tradition, in science fiction and fantasy, of short fiction authors expecting to be paid for their work. Unfortunately, there's an even longer tradition, in religious circles, of expecting creative people to work for free (or, sorry, for the glory of God). When these traditions collide, the results aren't always helpful for the reputation of religious-themed fiction. In the speculative fiction field, if you don't pay your authors well, they'll mostly send you stories that all the higher-paying publications have already rejected. (One of the reasons Mysterion is committed to always paying pro rates for fiction.)

The stories in Dark Faith and Dark Faith: Invocations are of uniformly high quality. That doesn't mean I liked them all. In case the titles don't make it clear enough what sort of stories you should expect, and you're not familiar with Apex Publications, the covers should help: a dead hand losing its grip on a cross for Dark Faith, and a head with blood streaming from the eyeball for Invocations. These are horror anthologies, and if you prefer your fiction on the lighter side, you might want to avoid them.

I'm not really a big horror reader, so please keep that in mind when deciding how much to trust my review. There were stories here that I absolutely loved, some stories that I thought were fine but unmemorable, other stories that irritated me, and a few that I kind of hated but couldn't get out of my head. I'll focus mostly on the ones in the first and last categories, since I think that's more useful in terms of helping readers decide whether to check something out.

My favorite story in the first Dark Faith was Jennifer Pelland's "Ghosts of New York". I'd heard the author read this before I saw it in the anthology, and it brought me to tears. (It's hard for me not to appreciate a story that makes me cry.) A 9/11 ghost story, where the ghosts of those who jump to their death (as many did right before the Twin Towers collapsed) are condemned to relive that death over and over for as long as anyone remembers their tragedy. Is there any purpose to this endless suffering? The story appears to explicitly reject any kind of religious meaning, and then ultimately turn around and offer a possible explanation surprisingly adjacent to the Christian gospel.

I also loved Catherynne M. Valente's "Days of Flaming Motorcycles" and its depiction of a new religion emerging post-zombie-apocalypse--among the zombies. The best thing about the story, though, is the portrayal of a "normal" young woman's relationship with her zombified father, and the questions this evokes about what it really means to be human.

Other standout stories for me included "You Dream", by Ekaterina Sedia; "The Mad Eyes of the Heron King", by Richard Dansky; "Mother Urban's Booke of Dayes", by Jay Lake; and "The Choir", by Lucien Soulban. With the exception of Jay Lake's story, in which a teenage boy experiments with magic to try to induce the gods to change the weather in Portland, none of these really focused on religious faith. But they all feature compelling characters driven by an encounter with the supernatural to question what they really believe in.

Dark Faith: Invocations by [Resnick, Mike, Collins, Max Allan, Piccirilli, Tom, Lake, Jay, Shawl, Nisi, Snyder, Lucy]I had a clear favorite in Invocations as well: Elizabeth Twist's story "Kill the Buddha". In what initially seems to resemble the immediate aftermath of a zombie apocalypse, only with Buddhas instead of zombies, two determined Buddha hunters fight the joyous monstrosities and try to remain uncorrupted by reminding themselves of all the family members and friends the enemies have devoured. But it becomes more and more apparent as events unfold that the protagonist and her assistant may have misunderstood the nature of the apocalypse.

Although horrifically creepy, Jeffrey Ford's "The Angel Seems" was another of the second anthology's most compelling stories. Seems, a diabolical Santa-like creature with a bone sled drawn by two mastiffs, offers a remote village his protection in exchange for a villager each year, of his choice, to serve him in the forest. Those who do return after their year of service are always horribly damaged, and Seems quickly makes it clear to the village that even talk of rebellion will be severely punished. He does keep his word to protect his people from every danger except himself, but is his protection worth the awful price?

In Invocations, I also especially liked Jay Lake's "The Cancer Catechism", Tim Pratt's "Wishflowers", K. Tempest Bradford's "The Birth of Pegasus", and Douglas F. Warrick's "I Inhale the City, the City Exhales Me". Lake's piece is a powerful meditation on wrestling with the dark god of cancer that ultimately killed him: "There are no atheists," he writes, "in the oncology unit." Bradford's story alternates between prose and poetry, delving into the deep mysteries of Greek myth. "Wishflowers" deliberately rejects even righteous vengeance for grace, while Warrick's tale of a female Japanese cartoonist and a clueless American journalist explores racism and sexism as manifestations of the human inability to see others for who they truly are, in all their complexity, instead of the images we create of them in our own minds.

Both volumes included stories that almost but didn't quite work for me. "Zen and the Art of Gordon Dratch's Damnation" (another by Douglas F. Warrick, in Dark Faith) is a well-crafted characterization of a Buddhist in Hell, and the God who refuses to let him go (but in a creepy way). It's an excellent story, but the moral--that it's sad and pitiful for God to be so desperate for our love and worship--is one I've heard too many times to be moved by. I'm probably not the best audience for it. Jennifer Pelland's "Sacrifice" (Invocations) sets up a terrible set of dilemmas: What would you give to save someone you loved from certain death? What would you do to be saved? What if God really did answer prayers? I was caught up in the story until the very end, but didn't think that ending quite worked (again, perhaps I'm just too much on God's side here). Richard Dansky's "Coin Drop" (Invocations once again) is entertaining and quite funny, but in the end I didn't find the protagonist's decision significant enough and couldn't entirely follow which of two things was going to happen (or not happen) based on the choice he made (and the underlying premise of the story felt pretty flimsy, once revealed).

God isn't especially heroic in most of these stories. When he isn't absent or inscrutable, he's a vengeful despot or an abusive father. In selections where Jesus makes an appearance, he's often somewhat sympathetic, but every bit as clueless as the rest of us. Christians are rarely the good guys, with ministers and priests usually the worst of a bad bunch. This may not endear the anthologies to many devout Christian readers. But it's worth remembering that the books make no promise to present the world as Christians would like to believe it is. These are stories by mostly secular authors who have been inspired or compelled to write by the horror and meaninglessness they see all around them. Some Christians want to convince others that nihilism won't have the last word; well, these stories are where some of your intended audience is starting out. You might not get too far with your argument if you refuse to listen to theirs.

But, as I said earlier, that doesn't mean I enjoyed the vengeful, evil God stories. Two of these especially stood out for me. In Invocations, Tom Piccirilli's "Subletting God's Head" is darkly comic and filled with sharp social satire, with a petty, unfair God who keeps an exacting record of all our sins. The parallel with earthly fathers who are always disappointed by us is clear even before God's disappointing son Jesus moves into the apartment across the hall. Dark Faith features Wrath James White's "He Who Would Not Bow", in which God descends to rule the Earth, destroy all those he considers wicked, and demand that everyone worship him constantly (not unlike Seems in Jeffrey Ford's story). I was repelled by this portrayal of God and the final judgment. And yet, I'm forced to admit that White is simply reflecting back what many Christians claim to look forward to, taking our revenge fantasies to their logical extreme. What do we think it would look like, for God to return and destroy anyone who refused to submit to his authority, if not this? I didn't like the story at all; and yet, more than any other in these anthologies, it was the one I kept arguing with in my head, months later. And I did have to appreciate that the story does get this right, in its pointed critique of Christian theology: the actual Christian hope presented in the New Testament is that God will someday come (return, actually) to Earth and rule over us here forever, not that he'll destroy the world and take all the Christian souls to Heaven while sending everyone else's souls to Hell. (But, although I'm not a universalist, when I think about the apocalypse I tend to imagine something closer to what's really happening in "Kill the Buddha" than this.)

Overall, I would have liked to see more stories with characters and situations that I could relate to as a person of Christian faith. I wanted to see more characters whose struggles and doubts reminded me of my own (don't we all?). Not necessarily positive portrayals of these characters, just more nuanced ones. More Christians as protagonists rather than antagonists. After all, I hardly need to read an anthology of faith-engaged stories to find speculative fiction about an evil God who doesn't deserve our worship and the hypocritical ministers who serve him. And with many of the stories, it felt like a stretch to describe them as being about faith, even non-religious faith, in any significant way. This is not to say that the anthologies fail in what they've set out to accomplish. I had just wanted something a little different, something that went deeper into the specific faith experience that has been my lifelong journey.

So, do I recommend these anthologies? That depends on the reader. Christians who found Mysterion too heretical, or thought some of the stories we published were too dark and violent, will want to avoid Dark Faith and Invocations. Anyone who dislikes horror, or doesn't want to read anything with graphic sex, or graphic violence, or graphic sexual violence, should also pick up something else instead.

But if you're not turned off by stories that grapple in an immediate and visceral way with the horrors of both mundane everyday life and our dreams and imaginations; and if you really want to start to understand what the speculative fiction community thinks and believes about faith and religion, these anthologies are pretty much required reading.

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