The Sad Decline of Ashton in ‘This Present Darkness’ (LSP #97)

The Sad Decline of Ashton in ‘This Present Darkness’ (LSP #97) July 1, 2019

Hi and welcome back! We’ve been talking lately about Frank Peretti’s terrible 1986 Christian fantasy novel This Present Darkness. In the doing, we’ve talked about all kinds of stuff about the novel and its historical context. Today, we examine the book’s setting: the tiny town of Ashton. As with the book’s other elements, Peretti chose this one–and then set it in undeniable decline–for a reason. And we can tell what that reason was. Even today, Christian culture warriors suffer from a singular sort of wilful ignorance when it comes to what good they provide to humanity. So please join me for a look at the formal expression of that ignorance. Let’s walk through Ashton together for a spell.

romanian village
A Romanian village. (Robert Doloczki.)

(Previous LSP reviews of TPD: Marking an Era, the Stereotypes, the Persecution Fantasies, Magical Christian Jesus Powers, Magical Evil Demon Powers; Meet the Women and the Sexism. All quoted material comes straight from sources; I don’t scare quote Christians. Page numbers come from the softcover 2003 edition of the book.)

Everyone, Here’s Ashton’s Brochure.

We don’t know that much about Ashton. Peretti never tells us where it is, for example–not even what state it might be in. Sometimes it gives off rural Washington State vibes; sometimes it seems more like the Northern Seaboard–Massachusetts or New Hampshire, perhaps.

Very likely, it’s like Echo Grove from God’s Club, existing only in the hearts of TRUE CHRISTIANS™ everywhere. Its exact placement could have added much to the book and grounded it. But Peretti was nowhere near that good of a writer. His book feels like a myth or a folktale, with a Märchen beginning that might as well be “Once upon a time…”

And I don’t think that he did it that way on purpose. He tries to give Ashton a real-world feel. Thing is, since he can’t place the story in his mind, he can’t show it on the page. It floats away immediately.

All we really know about Ashton could be summed up in a brochure:

It’s a quaint little college town that somehow only fits two churches into its city limits despite having a population of 12,000 when the one local college is in session. 

And gosh, y’all, nobody knows why, but this tiny little town is going to the dogs.

Ashton. Big Deal. Scum Centah Udda Woild.

(Apologies to Heavy Metal. That “Harry Canyon” scene’s still in my head.)

Every year, Ashton hosts a huge bacchanalia of a festival that sounds like it slots somewhere between an orgy, a riot, Bonnaroo, and a drug-fueled romp through the poppy fields of The Wizard of Oz.

It’s painfully obvious that Frank Peretti himself hasn’t really figured out why Ashton puts up with this hugely-disruptive festival every year. A good writer could have done something there with the economic necessity of hosting the festival, or stressed the serious benefits that come to the town as a result of allowing it to proceed each year despite wrecking their town every time.

But as far as we know, Ashton’s residents don’t seem to gain any benefits at all from hosting this festival. Peretti makes it sound like something they all just have to put up with as an artifact of living in this modern age of 1986.

Speaking of Which: The Dark Carnival.

On the second page of the actual novel (p. 11 in the book), we read the following:

The festival, reaching a crescendo now on its last night, was like a terrible storm that couldn’t be stopped; one could only wait for it to blow over, and there would be plenty to clean up afterward.

The festival’s showrunners had better be giving each resident of the town a four-figure check, for all that hassle. But nope! In fact, most of the town doesn’t even attend the festival.

On page 15, taking place the morning after the festival’s end, Hogan Marshall, the ruff-n-tuff NOO YAWK TAHMS newspaper editor who now runs Ashton’s one newspaper, asks his other reporters if they attended it. See, he sent Bernice to go cover it, but she hasn’t come in yet that morning. So he needs a story about the festival to run in the next newspaper edition.

But almost nobody working for him even attended it:

“Anybody make it to the Festival?” [Marshall asked.]
“Went fishing,” said George. The Festival’s too wild for me.”
“My wife wouldn’t let me,” said Tom.
“I caught some of it,” said Edie.
“Start writing,” said Marshall. “The biggest townbuster of the year, and we’ve got to have something on it.” [See endnote about jargon. — CC]

Edie isn’t even formally a reporter. She’s Marshall’s secretary. And even she only “caught some of it.” One wonders what secrets she carries! But Peretti remains incurious about the matter.

This festival thing isn’t something the townsfolk of Ashton feel warm nostalgic attachment for. It’s a huge bother, even a potential marriage-buster. They allow it purely because Peretti doesn’t have much of a story spark otherwise.

In Decline.

So after springing Bernice from the hoosegow, Marshall returns to have a meeting with Alf Brummel, the town’s crooked police chief.

Marshall parks his Buick in the front of the parking lot of the town’s “courthouse complex.” As he walks into “Courthouse Square,” Peretti grants us a withering glance at the sad little town of Ashton.

Hogan–and thus Peretti–perceives the town as “walking with a limp, sort of tired, sore, and sluggish.” But Peretti lavishes his purplest prose so far on just how decrepit this town is. He needs people to just be up in arms about how sadly declined Ashton is, and how different it is now from its onetime glory days:

The usual little gaggles of half-hurried pedestrians were doing a lot of pausing, looking, headshaking, regretting. For generations Ashton had taken pride in its grass-roots warmth and dignity and had striven to be a good place for its children to grow up. But now there were inner turmoils, anxieties, fears, as if some kind of cancer was eating away the town and invisibly destroying it.

Peretti dwells on the broken, boarded-up shop windows, the broken-off park meters (from, one imagines, Cool Hand Luke roaming around town), and all the litter and broken glass lining the streets.

A village in the Beauce at sunset. (Angelo Brathot.)

Gosh, It’s JUST SO MYSTERIOUS, YAWL.

Peretti’s keen-eyed, ruff-n-tuff NOO YAWK TAHMS editor just can’t figure out just why everyone seems so despondent and spiritless, why the town seems to be in such sad disrepair, or why “crime was up, especially among the youth.” Instead of a nice, clean, wholesome town, Ashton dissolved more by the day amid “rumors, scandals, and malicious gossip.” In fact, we learn:

In the shadow of fear and suspicion, life here was gradually losing its joy and simplicity, and no one seemed to know why or how.

But the fundagelical culture warriors reading his words would have known instantly what the problem was. Even in the 1980s, they knew–and they also felt certain they knew exactly what would fix this citywide malaise.

I barely remember this book. Its shoddy writing and cardboard cut-out characters and plots ensured that it slipped from my mind probably as quickly as I finished reading it. But I already know exactly why Ashton suffers, just as Christians back in the 1980s and 1990s knew.

Why Ashton Declines.

Ashton fell into decline because evil, meaniepie heathens in the Cabal of Satanic Wiccans (or Wiccan Satanists, Whatevs) (CSWWSW) have infiltrated the town’s various power structures. Now they’re doing what Christians imagine such folks always do whenever possible: they’re degrading and destroying all traces of TRUE CHRISTIANITY™. They do this in service to their evil masters in Hell.

Even worse, the biggest church in town apparently fell long ago into the apostasy and heresy of Evil Ecumenicism. That means that the church’s leaders compromised their lofty ideals to Christians’ most dread enemies. They compromised to gain wealth, social status, and increases in credibility and community esteem.

Everyone involved with the culture wars knows very well that everyone totally hates TRUE CHRISTIANS™ (like themselves, natch) for their Jesus Auras. Just as toddlers hate being forced by their mommies to eat vegetables at dinner, heathens and apostates hate being reminded of their sinful and hellbound status by TRUE CHRISTIANS™.

But Jesus himself totally appointed them the Designated Adults of the whole wide world. When people refuse to listen to Jesus’ hand-picked Designated Adults, gosh, Ashton is what happens!

Fixing the Decline.

KIDS TODAY, amirite? This is totally all their fault, obviously, for refusing to listen to their TRUE CHRISTIAN™ pretendy-time mommies and daddies.

So obviously the answer is finding a way to get heretics and apostates to step back into line again, giving their obedience to the correct sources.

Once everyone is Jesus-ing sufficiently hard enough and along the correct lines, Ashton will figure itself out as if by magic.

But Don’t Mention This…

Plenty of culture warriors believe, deep down to the hearts of their bottoms, that Failure to Jesus leads straight to degeneracy like the Ashton Summer Festival, the vandalism, and all that other bad stuff.

The thing is, this notion is purely self-serving marketing claims.

I’ve lived in some cities that were profoundly secular in nature: Portland, Oregon; Vancouver, BC; Sapporo, Japan (and some others). In some of these, people considered religion an intensely private affair. In others, people followed a religion more as a social thing than a heartfelt conviction thing. And in still others, people were in the process of overtly rejecting the shackles of right-wing Christianity. (I’ll let you guess which went which way.)

All of those largely-secular cities were remarkable in every single way. They might have their problems, but they were economically viable, safe, clean, and full of really nice, welcoming people.

And the Other Side of the Coin.

I’ve also lived in cities that took their religious showboating very seriously. And they tended to be really economically depressed, trodden-down, and full of drugs, gangs, alcoholism, and petty crime.

In the most religious of these towns, I lived across from a frat house near the local college (the town’s population almost mirrored Ashton’s, right down to the huge boost they got in numbers during the spring and fall semesters). So yeah. Every Saturday, Sunday, and Monday on their party weekends, I could count on finding empty glass beer bottles all over my yard and stuck in my doorway-mounted mailbox.

This same town’s Oktoberfest celebrations were legendarily debauched. Oh, and the grocery stores flat-out wouldn’t sell eggs to college-aged people around Halloween, for what are probably obvious reasons. Because I lived there in my late 20s, I could get eggs that week as long as I showed ID.

Most kids who grew up there left as soon as they humanly could for larger towns with more opportunities.

The Good Ole Days (Never Were).

This Present Darkness suffers from the exact same problem today’s culture warriors suffer from: longing for a mythical, idealized past. That past never actually existed except in 1950s sitcoms and their own fantasies, but they’re still trying their damndest to make it happen in reality.

They don’t see how anything could go wrong in forcing a theocracy down the throats of an increasingly secularized population in America. We see them doing it and rightly fear they’re remaking the Republic of Gilead.

Thing is, they don’t see how Jesus-ing super-duper-hard and cramming religion into helpless kids could ever steer anybody wrong. Look at them! Their parents whupped them and forced them to attend church, and look how they grew up to be!

Yeah. Um. About that.

They grew up to be people who think it’s okay to strike children for any reason, and who seriously want to force us all to play their Happy Pretendy Fun Time Game without regard for our human rights or civil liberties.

That exact lack of regard for others’ rights causes their downfall. Almost every time they manage to cobble together a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ community, it ends up dissolving amid scandals and shocking abuses.

Today, Lord Snow Presides over the Christians who expect us to believe that they’d do ever so much better if handed an entire nation to govern

Cuz if anything at all could be a “townbuster,” it’s a pack of paternalistic, control-lusting Christian culture warriors who think they should take control of all our lives for our own good.

And Speaking of Bothers:

TOES TOES TOES TOES (that’s my mom’s old “throwed rolls” mug in the background)

Mr. Captain turned into a spontaneous poet today at the sight of Bother licking her jellybean toes:

I am a cat
You know what this means
Footies get dirty
Must lickie da beans

Happy Lord Snow Presides!

NEXT UP: We turn our steely gaze to why culture-warriors (like those in the SBC) so often turn out to be miserably awful employers. Then we have a timely entry for our Handbook for the Recently Deconverted. Then we plunge into complementarianism for a bit–and explore what no-fault divorce could teach fundagelicals, but absolutely won’t. Oh, and a Super Special is coming soon too! See you next time!


Endnotes.

Regarding journalism jargon: As far as I can tell, the term “townbuster” exists literally only in Frank Peretti’s mind. I freely admit my understanding of 1970s and 1980s New York City journalism jargon remains somewhat limited, but it exists as a word literally nowhere that I could find online. I did find reference to WWII “dam-buster” bombing raids, which eventually got popularized in a 1955 movie called The Dam Busters. That might be what inspired Peretti’s creation of this odd term. (Back to the post!)


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. And she still can't carry a note in a bucket. You can read more about the author here.
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