LBCF, No. 173: ‘The hidden display’

Originally posted July 25, 2008.

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Left Behind, pp. 456-458

I should start by acknowledging something remarkable about this passage: Jerry Jenkins succeeds in conveying some of what he’s trying to get across. Nicolae Carpathia is genuinely creepy here, just as Jenkins intended. There are touches that actually work. Nicolae’s calm, polite cold-bloodedness is effectively disturbing.

This isn’t the first time we’ve encountered something creepy in these pages. Nearly every scene with Rayford, for example, is deeply disturbing. But this is the first time that Jenkins succeeds in being intentionally creepy — still not creepy enough, perhaps, but to some extent legitimately creepy. Yes, the scene borrows heavily from things we’ve all seen before, and yes it goes on a bit too long, but on some basic level, this bit here works:

“Everyone be seated, please,” Carpathia said, calm again. “Jonathan, on your knees.” Painfully, the old man crouched, using Hattie’s chair for support. He did not face Carpathia or look at him. The gun was still in his ear. Hattie sat pale and frozen.

“My dear,” Carpathia said, leaning toward her over Stonagal’s head, “you will want to slide your chair back about three feet so as not to soil your outfit.”

Part of the reason that little bit works a little bit is because it’s understated. As we’ve seen time and again, Jenkins is capable of understatement, but he can never seem to leave it at that. Every time readers encounter something that seems subtle or nuanced, we’re quickly reminded that Jenkins uses such light touches only as a one-two combination, a quick jab always followed by a big, sweeping, off-balance roundhouse.

Stonagal began to whimper. “Nicolae, why are you doing this? I am your friend! I am no threat!”

”Begging does not become you, Jonathan. Please be quiet. Hattie,” he continued, looking directly into her eyes now, “stand and move your chair back and be seated. Hair, skin, skull tissue and brain matter will mostly be absorbed by Mr. Todd-Cothran and the others next to him. I do not want anything to get on you.”

That seems less creepy and more just kind of gross.

Plus I think Nicolae is right about Jonathan Stonagal — begging doesn’t suit him. He shouldn’t be the begging type, and “I’m no threat” is exactly the opposite of what he should be saying here. He’s Jonathan Stonagal, after all, he owns banks and governments all over the world. He’s the head of an international shadow-government conspiracy. It seems likely he’s had a gun pointed at him before.

We’ve all seen this scene on television or at the movies enough times to be familiar with its conventions (which is a nicer word than “clichés”). The eerily calm master manipulator never flinches at the sight of the gun. He simply explains to the person with the gun why shooting him would run counter to their own best interest. He mentions intimate details about their friends and family members in a vaguely menacing way; he explains the consequences he has ensured will occur should anything unforeseen happen to him. He hints at secrets that would never be revealed if he were to die, and at secrets that he would no longer be able to conceal. He doesn’t raise his voice and he doesn’t beg. And he absolutely never whimpers or pleads for mercy on the basis of friendship.

We’re supposed to accept here that Stonagal is surprised by Nicolae’s sudden betrayal. That seems unlikely. First of all, Stoney didn’t get to be where he is today as a global puppet-master by trusting anyone. He might have to rely on his associates and his deputies, but that’s not the same as trusting them. He would anticipate the possibility of betrayal by any or all of them, and he’d have plans in place for that contingency. That seems doubly true in the case of his protege. He knows that Nicolae is capable of murderous betrayal because he, personally, taught him how to do it. So it seems unlikely that Stonagal could be caught off-guard like this.

Stoney is also well-acquainted with all of the dirt in Nicolae’s past. He knows where the bodies are buried. Rather than whimpering and begging, he ought to be reminding his protege of that and advising him of the consequences of pulling the trigger — such as perhaps the nonstop global broadcast, through his many-tentacled media empire, of every incriminating or embarrassing or career-ending detail of Nicolae’s past. (“Remember that unfortunate situation in the Ukraine? I told you not to worry, that I’d take care of it? Well, she’s still alive. Oh yes. She’s almost 12 now, and the specialists think she may even be able to walk again some day. And that videotape? I’m afraid I may have exaggerated slightly when I told you that every copy had been destroyed. Although should anything unforeseen happen to me that tape would be the least of your problems …”)

Stonagal is supposed to be the great Machiavellian manipulator. What we needed to see here was Nicolae out-manipulating him, beating him at his own game. There ought to be a final chess match between these two evil megalomaniacs, ending with Nicolae’s crowning “checkmate,” but instead he just knocks the board over, scattering the pieces. That doesn’t fit with the picture Jenkins is trying to paint of Nicolae as a calm, methodical mastermind carrying out a carefully devised plan.

This chapter’s preoccupation with seating arrangements also undermines that image. Everyone comes into the room and Nicolae has them all take their seats just as he’s arranged for them to do, orchestrating their every movement according to his master plan. Now at last, the pieces are all in place and his grand scheme can go into … Wait. Sorry. Jonathan, you and I need to switch places. Right, good. Thanks.

OK, now at last the pieces are all in … Hold on. Todd-Cothran, would you mind switching seats with Hattie? Just skooch over a little there …

This game of musical chairs might have worked if Nicolae was supposed to be a capricious sadist — a psychopath who took pleasure in toying with his victims before killing them. But that’s not what the authors are shooting for here. Nicolae is supposed to be anything but capricious. He has a meticulous Master Plan. It’s hard to worry about his nefarious Master Plan, though, when he can’t even put together a proper seating chart.

Carpathia was in no hurry. “I am going to kill Mr. Stonagal with a painless hollow-point round to the brain which he will neither hear nor feel. The rest of us will experience some ringing in our ears. This will be instructive for you all. You will understand cognitively that I am in charge, that I fear no man, and that no one can oppose me.”

… Until I run out of bullets.

Again, it’s difficult to be impressed by what was billed as a supernatural display of power when the only actual power on display turns out to be that of Man With Gun in Room Full of Unarmed People.

Buck considered a suicidal dive across the table for the gun, but he knew that others might die for his effort.

So Buck continues to just sit there, doing nothing. In a few pages there’s a dramatic scene in which he sits there, saying nothing. And then a few pages later he springs into action and … runs away.

“When Mr. Stonagal is dead, I will tell you what you will remember. And lest anyone feel I have not been fair, let me not neglect to add that more than gore will wind up on Mr. Todd-Cothran’s suit. A high-velocity bullet at this range will also kill him, which, as you know, Mr. Williams, is something I promised you I would deal with in due time. Todd-Cothran opened his eyes at that news, and Buck found himself shouting, “No!” as Carpathia pulled the trigger. The blast rattled the windows and even the door. Stonagal’s head crashed into the toppling Todd-Cothran and both were plainly dead before their entwined bodies reached the floor.

Those high-velocity bullets, it turns out, are way deadlier than your typical low-velocity bullet.

Nicolae puts the gun into Stonagal’s hand, staging the scene, roughly, to look like a kind of suicide with collateral damage. He’s not wearing gloves, so his prints are on the gun and the powder residue is on his hand, but he’s not really worried about that. He can always mind-mojo the CSI squad if he needs to, and he’s got a room full of eyewitnesses to support his version of the story:

“What we have just witnessed here,” he said kindly, as if speaking to children, “was a horrible, tragic end to two otherwise extravagantly productive lives. These men were two I respected and admired more than any others in the world. What compelled Mr. Stonagal to rush the guard, disarm him, take his own life and that of his British colleague, I do not know and may never fully understand.”

And of course this works. Over the next several pages, all of the non-born-again eyewitnesses in the room will dutifully repeat this version of the story, believing that this is what they really saw happen. Here, at last, we see that Nicolae really does have some supernatural Antichrist powers beyond the kind of trigger-pulling powers available to every mere mortal.

The display of supernatural powers by the Antichrist ought to be chilling, but here in the final chapter of Left Behind it falls flat. This is partly due to bland, unimaginative writing (as we’ll see in the following pages), but mainly it’s due to his grand display of Antichrist powers just plain not making any sense.

Nicolae demonstrates his supernatural powers by concealing them. I can’t figure out how this constitutes a “show of strength.”

Everyone in the room is thoroughly convinced that they saw nothing other than the suicide Nicolae just described. That scenario scarcely holds up — Stonagal could barely kneel unassisted, how could he have overpowered the guard? And why would he have run back to his seat? — but set that aside. Apart from Buck, no one in the room will remember what they really just saw. Apart from Buck’s Tribulation Force friends, no one outside the room will ever hear any other account of what occurred there. How is that account supposed to make the whole world “understand cognitively” that Nicolae is in charge, that he fears no man, that no one can oppose him?

Bruce Barnes said that, according to prophecy, “The Antichrist will solidify his power with a show of strength.” If Nicolae is really the Antichrist, he told Buck, then “He has to show some potency. What might he do to entrench himself so solidly that no one can oppose him?”

What might he do? Well, he might just convince the entire world that he had been a hapless bystander at a suicide. Power solidified. Prophecy fulfilled.


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