Review: Enemies of the Cross

Things were not going well for Jeff Weldon. His brother had been taken from him, his church was losing its good name and, with it, all sorts of congregants. Being the pastor, he was also losing all sorts of income. And he was pretty sure the powers of darkness were, if not stalking the town, hanging around it somewhere. He wanted to fix it. Where to start?

With garage sales. Baby showers. Helping people move. If such a litany of good deeds seems that it would hardly help – it didn’t. Jeff moved on to other deeds, many of them not so good.

Enemies of the Cross is the second act of The Coming Evil Trilogy, written by Greg Mitchell. In The Strange Man, the first book, we saw evil invade Greensboro; in the second book, we see the range of its conquest. And if you think the question, when the Strange Man arrives, is whether you’ll be able to hang on to your town, you’ll find that the vital issue is whether you’ll be able to hang on to your soul.

Enemies of the Cross has a mystery feel to it that the first book did not. The writing is also tighter and more disciplined. Unfortunately, the book has less considerably less humor than its precursor. This is due partly to its more somber mood, but largely, I think, to the removal of Dras.

Dras was my favorite character in the first book, and I missed him in the second. I found him a more charming protagonist than Jeff, and he brought a lot more humor. Still, for the type of story Enemies of the Cross was supposed to be, I think Dras’ absence was a good thing. Greg Mitchell used it effectively.

Though Dras is gone, most of the old cast is still present. Mitchell added new dimension to nearly all of them. Jeff’s slippery slope was well-done, particularly because it wasn’t straight down. There is moral truth in how he slipped down, struggled up a few feet, and then slipped down farther. Some new characters emerge – one of whom became the novel’s unexpected triumph. His way to redemption felt fresh and real, and it moved me.

The religious element is strong in this book. It defines the conflict and directs the characters’ journeys. It’s to the author’s credit that the Christianity is neither obligatory nor extraneous – as it is to his credit that he was not too self-conscious to include it.

Enemies of the Cross is an intense book – perhaps, in a few moments, too intense. The story takes unexpected turns and the characters are vividly realized. And, in the intensity, there are yet touching moments, and light breaks the darkness.

Enemies of the Cross

Back in April CSFF toured The Strange Man, by Greg Mitchell. It’s the first book in The Coming Evil Trilogy, and according to the author, the second book is set to be released next February. He tells us:

What can you expect to find in this next installment? Secrets will be revealed–changing everything you know–and everyone will be forced to choose a side in the upcoming war between the last remaining “saints” of Greensboro and the forces of hell. There will be new characters, returning favorites, and even more gruesome monsters. The stakes are raised as the mystery of the Strange Man’s master plan unfolds.

To be honest, the “more gruesome monsters” bit makes me a bit squeamish. I found the Strange Man quite gruesome enough. But the rest of it sounds good, and I am definitely intending to read Enemies of the Cross. According to Greg Mitchell, an excerpt of the book could be up on his site as soon as Halloween, and he’s hoping to post a “tie-in short story” around Christmas. I’ll be looking for them.

For anyone who hasn’t read The Strange Man and wants to look into it, my review is here, complete with a batch of links to other bloggers who reviewed the book. You can also find reviews on Greg Mitchell’s site and on Amazon.

CSFF Blog Tour: When Satan Attacks

Have I said how much I like Greg Mitchell’s commentary on The Strange Man? I ought to, because I am about to quote it again. Here he writes about the end of chapter 4:

So, this is probably THE most controversial and debated scene in the book among readers and even my editors. Lindsey cries out for Jesus to save her from the bogeyman. All fine and good, except…she dies. This has raised some questions: “If she genuinely called on the name of the Lord, why did He not rescue her? Why did she die? Did God abandon her?” One review even went so far as to say I was condemning her for what I, the author, viewed as a sinful lifestyle. In a Christian book where demons are involved, it’s awfully easy to just have the hero “rebuke the devil in the name of Jesus” and then, wham, instant relief from danger. But I don’t think it works quite like that in real life and it definitely doesn’t work like that in The Coming Evil Trilogy. People die. Sometimes good people, who call on the name of the Lord. I think of the story of Job. The Lord forbade the devil from killing Job, but said no such thing about all of Job’s kids. They all died in one horrible afternoon. Now, most Christians want to cast themselves in the role of Job–believing that the devil can never harm them. But maybe, sometimes, we’re Job’s kids. But, even in the death of Job’s children, God was given the glory and it eventually strengthened Job’s faith. That’s a victory of a kind. I love Lindsey and certainly was not stepping in as Author and condemning her or passing judgment on her. In fact, I think there was a line that was eventually cut that said the spilling of her “innocent” blood is what affects the lake at the end of the book. Nor was I suggesting that God abandoned Lindsey or that He didn’t forgive her or save her soul.

There is a lot of truth in this. Any serious study of the Bible, any knowledge of the persecution the Church has suffered and is suffering now around the world all will show that to be a Christian is not to be safe. Sometimes good people meet evil and it kills them.

And yet … Greg Mitchell brought up Job. There are many intriguing things about his story, and one of them is this: Satan never directly attacked Job. All his assaults were made through the physical world: forces of nature (which is scary), and human beings (which is scarier yet). Job’s children were killed when the oldest brother’s house, struck by a strong wind, collapsed on them. Satan didn’t show up in physical form and take care of business – which is pretty much what the Strange Man did with Lindsey.

In the Bible, direct confrontations between demons and human beings are hard to come by. Not that it is impossible. The Seventy-two, for example, had their encounters:

17 The seventy-two returned with joy and said, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.”

18 He replied, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. 19 I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. 20 However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

From first to last this is a fascinating statement. I always found it interesting that Jesus did not allow His disciples to rejoice in their authority over demons. But what is pertinent to our discussion is that the spirits did submit. They continued to.

One thing to note about these confrontations is that Christians prevailed, through the authority the Lord gave them. Another thing to note is that even there, the confrontations took place through the possessed human being. It still isn’t quite like The Strange Man, where demons interact with humans as physical beings in the physical world.

So to what degree are demons are capable of that, to what degree does God permit them, and to what degree do they choose to? And the answer is, simply, we don’t know. Greg Mitchell takes us into territory that is, scripturally speaking, uncharted.

And that’s why it doesn’t bother me. I understand the theological points raised by other reviewers, but Mitchell’s bogeyman is sometimes mythology rather than theology. The bogeyman coming to town in a storm and the gremlins flying down Main Street aren’t real-world; they’re just analogies to it.

CSFF Blog Tour: The Art of the Point and the Point of the Art

The Strange Man opened with an old man telling the sad, strange tale of Joe Hallerin. At the end of the telling, he stood and roared the moral of his story: “And if the Strange Man ever come knockin’ at your door, don’t you ever, ever let him in!”

A few chapters later, a mother soothes her daughter’s fears of the bogeyman by giving her a candle  and the assurance, “Everybody knows that light keeps the bogeyman away.”

There are two powerful Christian points to be found in those statements, and I expected the novel’s moral to turn on them. I was more surprised when I found that the novel’s action turned on them.

The subtle imagery, the double meaning of the little girl’s candle and the old man’s story did not set the pattern for the book. The Strange Man is the most forwardly Christian novel I’ve read in a long while. There are two heavy-duty “witnessing” scenes. Greg Mitchell has some interesting comments on these. To quote him here:

Part of the thing I wanted to do back then with The Strange Man was show that “Hey. We can tell the gospel, but have all the other stuff too.” I wanted the message in there, sure, but also good characters and plots, excitement, etc, and to also turn the “gospel scene” on its ear–where it’s not a neat and tidy conclusion. It wasn’t until many years later that I discovered how vehemently some Christian writers are against this kind of scene period. They would say that this is a trademark of bad writing and that this is the reason “Christian Fiction” is not taken seriously by the literary world.

Conversion and witnessing scenes are often awkward – awkward to read and awkward to write. It can be – often has been – done very badly. But I don’t see how it can be rejected altogether. Accepting Jesus Christ is the most important, the most pivotal thing any human being can do. It is, the Bible says, crossing over from death to life. It’s reconciliation with God. And all that being so, how can we say it should never make its way into fiction?

I’m speaking, of course, on the basis of a shared belief. The “literary world” at large is not going to view a Christian conversion as a matter of eternal life and death. They may have a hard time taking books that do seriously.

I’m not saying we should dismiss their criticism out of hand. Some of it is valid. We can learn by listening. But why would we let secularists tell us how much Christianity is acceptable in a novel? It would be like a political party letting the opposition edit their campaign ads.

The failure in Christian media is not doing “altar scenes”, but doing them badly. You can make a point with art, but you have to do it artistically. That’s the thing. Whatever message a novel contains must come naturally from its story and characters. Quoting Greg Mitchell again:

I scrapped my old way of looking at things. This scene wasn’t about saying the right things for the Reader. This is Dras and Rosalyn’s lives on the line here. I focused on my characters–on Dras. After everything he’d been through in this story, what did he need to say to Rosalyn? I wrote this scene from the heart–Dras’ heart–to Rosalyn.

And I think that focus is just about perfect.

CSFF Blog Tour: The Strange Man

(Note: In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.)

Dras has problems. He has no job, no money, no prospects, and no ambition. Plus, he just got gypped on a Snake Eyes GI Joe action figure.

But the Strange Man is coming to town, and soon Dras will really have problems. When the bogeyman sets his sights on you and your best friend, it’s time to run. Or start praying.

It’s a touch choice, especially for someone who asks the video store clerk for advice on whether to rent She-Vampires from Mars or Garden Tool Massacre. (The clerk was no help at all. I would have advised, constructively, “Bambi.” But nobody asks me these things.) Dras is a screw-up little brother, and it’s a tall order to suddenly become a man of God when you’ve never even been a man.

The hero’s journey in this novel is to grow up, but it’s not really a coming-of-age story. It’s more like a shaping-up story. I have to say I admire Dras as a character, and even more as a hero. Bogeymen are easy to find, and goblins are a dime a dozen. A twenty-two-year-old protagonist with the obsessions – and mode of transportation – of a twelve-year-old is more unique.

Dras brings much of the book’s freshness. He also brings much of its humor. Humor is one of The Strange Man‘s best points.

And believe me, The Strange Man needs all the lightening up it can get. There was too much violence for my liking, and occasionally the creepiness went too far. I’m all for the hero pedaling for his life from a horde of gremlins, but I draw the line at mind-controlling little girls, and Eldon Granger’s fate was unnecessary. The author would do well to ratchet back such factors.

He would also do well to more strictly maintain the viewpoint of his scenes. The style of the book is limited third-person, but there are times when it lapses. It’s not as limited as it ought to be. There are scenes that would be smoother, and ultimately more effective, if they were kept entirely to one character’s perspective.

All this notwithstanding, The Strange Man is a good book. Its religious element is strong and more profound than I first guessed. The pace is brisk. The ending was unexpected, and it had meaning and depth of emotion. Between that, and Dras, and the humor – this is the highlight reel – I enjoyed The Strange Man.

You can buy the novel on Amazon. I highly recommend checking out the author’s website; it has short stories featuring the characters of the Coming Evil Trilogy, and a fascinating author’s commentary on The Strange Man. The rest of the blog tour can be found here:

Noah Arsenault
Red Bissell
Kathy Brasby
Grace Bridges
Beckie Burnham
CSFF Blog Tour
Amber French
Tori Greene
Katie Hart
Bruce Hennigan
Timothy Hicks
Jason Joyner
Carol Keen
Inae Kyo
Emily LaVigne
Matt Mikalatos
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Gavin Patchett
Andrea Schultz
Kathleen Smith
Donna Swanson
Jessica Thomas

Steve Trower
Fred Warren
Dona Watson
Phyllis Wheeler