A White Knight Appears in ‘This Present Darkness’ (LSP #109, Ch. 8-9)

A White Knight Appears in ‘This Present Darkness’ (LSP #109, Ch. 8-9) September 23, 2019

Hi and welcome to our off-topic chat series, Lord Snow Presides! In this series, we’ve been discussing some cruel and unusual punishment from author Frank Peretti: his 1986 Christian fantasy This Present Darkness (TPD). In this installment, we’ll finish up the nothingburger that is the rest of Chapter 8, then plunge into the first scene of Chapter 9. Here, a young man shows up and talks like a kidnapper to Sandy Hogan’s devastated parents, and they do not immediately take him prisoner and start removing bits of him till he tells them where their daughter is. Today, Lord Snow Presides over the misogynistic projection in This Present Darkness.

colorful hotel doors in tokyo
(Dil, Unsplash.)

(We now have a Series List entry for these reviews! Please click here to find the master list of our previous This Present Darkness discussions! Also, the book has its own archive tag. Page numbers come from the 2003 paperback edition of the book.)

Quick Runthrough From Chapter 8.

In the interests of completion, let me run through the rest of Chapter 8. The first part of the chapter has Sandy Hogan meeting Shawn Ormsby. The second and last part has Bernice Krueger, the perky reporter, and her boss Marshall Hogan putting some pieces together about the vast conspiracy encircling Ashton.

As they talk, Hogan floats a guess of his to Bernice. See, he thinks that the baddies they’ve tentatively identified (Alf Brummel, Oliver Young, and Juleen Langstrat) possess mind-control powers–or at least that they all try hard to give that impression. He thinks Officer Barbrady Alf Brummel isn’t good at the technique yet. They don’t know yet who the “pudgy” businessman and the gothy secretary might be from the carnival meeting in Chapter 1.

Bernice says she’ll meet with some people who might know some more dirt about the psychology professor, Juleen Langstrat. Also, they both know that Langstrat and Brummel are dating and that Langstrat’s positioned their poorly-concealed relationship as “therapy.” Brummel’s secretary spilled the tea already to Bernice. Oh, and Brummel is not, in fact, married. I didn’t think he was, but it’s nice to know for sure. Bernice laments this fact, because she “could have done more with it” (p. 78).

This entire conversation doesn’t sound even remotely like any real conversation between journalists; both characters imply that sexual fraternization with subjects is both inevitable and useful.

Oh, and Hogan’s secretary Edie has apparently quit abruptly amid a huge marital dustup. Her situation involves cheating (hers), domestic violence (against the husband, played for laughs), and general chaos and disarray at the news office (for some weird reason–I guess she super-needed to come in and steal/misplace the cord to the office coffeemaker?).

Now you’re caught up.

Devastated Parents.

After work, Marshall Hogan returns home to his wife Kate. Their young-adult daughter, Sandy, vanished the night of Hogan’s demonic attack panic attack. Kate and Marshall are completely devastated and anguished at this point. It’s been an entire day. They’ve contacted the police and Sandy’s university; neither have turned up any news about her.

So now, the couple waits at home. Kate sets a third place at the dinner table in hopes that Sandy will be there for dinner that night.

In other words, they don’t contact her friends; they don’t comb the bus station out of town, visit the parks and public spaces in town, or interrogate whatever passes for a taxi service there.

This story is set well before cell phones and social media were things, but even so, I at least remember what we did when people came up missing. Especially among Rapture-obsessed Pentecostalsthat exact scenario happened with alarming regularity. But it’s like Frank Peretti had no idea how people work.

Then their doorbell rings.

A Stranger on the Doorstep.

The couple rush together to the door, open it, and discover a young man on their doorstep.

Peretti describes him as young, blond-haired, and neat. Weirdly, he then adds this detail about the young man (p. 85):

He carried no leaflets or religious propaganda and seemed shy.

Why on earth would Peretti note this detail? A religious zealot looking for victims was only one of the guesses Hogan suggested out of three potentials: the mailman (at night?), a Girl Scout selling cookies (in the summer?), or a Jehovah’s Witness (maybe).

The way Peretti describes this young man makes him sound a lot more like a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ than like any of their tribal enemies.

Maybe that’s what he wants, but seriously, if I didn’t already know that Shawn’s a bad guy controlled by demons, I’d be completely fooled by now. And I don’t think Peretti’s a good enough writer to perform that trick intentionally. All his other villains are puppy-kicking stereotypes of eeeeeeviiiiiilllllll. No way, no how did this hack writer intentionally manage to make Shawn Ormsby look exactly like an evangelical paladin of milady’s virtue and safety to protect her from her overbearing, meaniepie parents.

The Self-Appointed White Knight.

He tells them his name–Shawn Ormsby–and that he’s a friend of Sandy’s. When Marshall Hogan gruffly asks if Shawn knows where she is, he says that he does. It is very clear he’s there to speak on her behalf and defend her if need be. He’s her white knight.

So not only does he look like a stereotypical evangelical man, but he acts like one too.

Evangelical Christianity is chock-full of men doing this same thing for the women in their lives. I still laugh to remember all the Christian books I’ve seen that were written by women that have their husbands’ or (male) pastors’ approval set in stone in a foreword. Especially if it’s an apologetics book, male evangelicals get very antsy about learning anything at all from women. That sexism extended very much to real life. At my old church, women weren’t even allowed to walk up to the dais during services by themselves. If they didn’t have husbands or sons to escort them, deacons leaped into action.

And the parents, indeed, react to Shawn’s self-appointment as intermediary like I’d expect TRUE CHRISTIANS™ to react to a man who’s appointed himself a woman’s spokespenis white knight.

They immediately calm tf down and welcome him into their home. Then, they sit him down and more-or-less-patiently wait for him to tell them where their daughter is and if she’s safe.

New Yorkers, As Imagined By Someone With No Experience With New Yorkers.

Remember, Marshall Hogan is a ruff-n-tuff Noo Yawk Tahms Journamalist. He’s a cynical, hard-bitten, take-no-prisoners New Yorker with years of experience as a newsman in one of the toughest markets in the world for journalists to break into. Peretti presents his wife as a wise, warmhearted, practical woman who can easily stand up to her husband’s gruffness.

But they both fold like Jerry Falwell Jr.’s accountabilibuddies.

As I read this scene, I kept thinking about how the New York dads I’ve known (cough*like Clancy*cough) would have reacted to this whole situation. Imagine it: his daughter’s been missing all night. He has no idea where she is or if she’s safe. They’ve alerted the police and called the college, which hasn’t determined yet if she attended any of her classes that day. It’s now evening. They’re sitting together at home, waiting for dinner to finish cooking.

Then, this weirdo he’s never met walks in and acts very cagey and suspicious. He trickle truths these worried parents, just giving them tiny snippets of the story at a time.

And Marshall Hogan is totes fine with this.

The Potential Kidnapper Speaks.

Shawn Ormsby acts exactly like I’d expect a kidnapper to act. And her parents just invite him in to chat and wait for his story. He tells them that he met her that day (p. 86):

. . . I met her in Jones Plaza, an outdoor eating area. She was by herself and so visibly upset that, well, I just felt I had to get involved.”

Marshall was sitting on pins and needles. “What do you mean, visibly upset? Is she okay?”

“Oh yes! She’s perfectly all right. That is, she hasn’t come to any harm. But. . . I’m here on her behalf.”

O.O

WAT.

And for some reason, Hogan doesn’t immediately start bending bits of Shawn Ormsby in directions they were never intended to go.

Instead, he sits and waits patiently. Shawn tells the worried parents that he knows where Sandy is, but he won’t tell them where she is (p.86):

We talked for quite a while and she told me her side of the story. She really does want to come home; I should tell you that first.

EXCUSE ME?

KIDNAPPER!

Absolutely, Shawn’s dialogue sounds like it came straight from a ransom letter!

Telling, Not Showing.

Every sentence Shawn says, it feels like this, here, at last is where Sandy’s dad should spring into action. But aside from describing Marshall Hogan’s overall tension, in Peretti’s hands the ruff-n-tuff Noo Yawk Tralala journamalistidoodle doesn’t react overmuch. He most certainly doesn’t act the way Peretti has told us he acts.

I really suspect that Frank Peretti himself lacked the skill to create realistic, relatable characters. So he went for broke telling us that Marshall Hogan is this-and-such, rather than showing him displaying this-and-such traits in his behavior. He hasn’t yet betrayed any sign of being ruff-n-tuff. In behavior, in fact, this Noob Yak Twang jumanji sounds way more like a dog that’s been beat too much, as the 80s rock song goes.

But in the song, “Born in the U.S.A.,” from the very first stanza the songwriter shows us the despair of his story’s hero. Instead of being ruff-n-tuff, Hogan sounds constantly like a man firmly defeated in life. But Peretti can’t actually chew what he’s bitten off in this characterization.

And really, he needs Hogan to fold curiously quickly to Shawn Ormsby. If the young man doesn’t worm his way into the family’s good graces, then Peretti’s story gets totally derailed.

Projection, Again.

Once again, we encounter an evangelical’s projection of their own faults onto others. Shawn Ormsby acts like any evangelical youth would act. And her parents act like evangelical parents do in evangelicals’ own imagination. They not only invite him into their home, but will end the scene by setting another place at the table for him. Yep, he’ll eat dinner with the fam! He brought them back their daughter, so he must be their friend!

See, Sandy’s been out in his car, parked in front of their home all this time.

Marshall Hogan, the ruff-n-tuff Nargle Yarkle Trinkle Jurbamuhthingy, stood at his front door looking out across his yard, presumably, and somehow did not notice the other person in the car at all. When Shawn reveals her location, Hogan doesn’t leap up to get her.

Instead, he grabs Kate’s hand to stop her from doing that, and he asks Shawn about her emotional state. He tells Shawn to go out to his car to tell Sandy he “won’t jump on her. I won’t yell, I won’t accuse. . .” (p. 86).

However, this avowal is not enough. Shawn is a Nice Guy and he needs to be absolutely sure that milady isn’t in danger from her father.

Dance, Daddy! Dance!

But Shawn needs Hogan to jump through a hoop for him before he’ll do what Sandy’s father wants him to do. I cringed so hard at this, and so you get to cringe at it too. Marshall continues his list of things he won’t do (p. 86):

“I won’t get sly or nasty. I just . . . well, I . . .”

“He loves her,” Kate said for him. “He really does.”

“Do you, sir?” Shawn asked.

Marshall nodded.

“Tell me,” Shawn said. “Say it.”

Marshall looked right in his eyes. “I love her, Shawn. She’s my kid, my daughter. I love her and I want her back.”

Shawn smiled and rose from his seat. “I’ll bring her in.”

That evening there were four place settings at the table.

This is stab-your-eyes-with-a-fork bad. It’s go-back-in-time-to-steal-Frank-Peretti’s-note-card-written-plot-points-instead-of-wasting-time-on-killing-various-historical-figures-as-babies bad. (Okay, maybe not that bad. But lordamighty, it’s bad.)

Like what was the kid gonna do if Hogan refused to dance on command? Was he not gonna get Sandy from the car? Was he planning to smirk and say “Ah, I see. Well. We’ll be in touch soon, Mr. Hogan,” and then get up and leave?

(Mr. Captain, reading this quote: “JFC. I’d’a murdered that kid.” And he wasn’t even raised in New York.)

Another Wasted Plotbunny.

Oh well. I guess we can chalk Marshall Hogan’s real backstory up there with all the other stories in This Present Darkness that sound interesting and well worth exploring–but that Frank Peretti remains incurious about. I’m keeping track of them and we might have an episode just about that.

Nor is Peretti interested in the least in Sandy’s meet-cute with Shawn, past their introductions to each other. Nor is he interested in Sandy’s reunion with her parents. Those all sound like interesting scenes. But they don’t fit into the extended-length Chick tract that Peretti wanted to write.

These omitted scenes don’t just represent wasted plotbunnies, though. They represent wasted points of human connection. And to me, that’s the bigger sin Peretti commits in his writing.

Another Wasted Chance to Connect.

Evangelical Christians themselves display a stunning lack of interest in the same thing: human connection. They preach at us, they seek to control us, yes. Oh, they adore condemning us and speaking over us. And they lie to us to our own faces to make themselves feel better.

But what they do not do is connect with us. We’re not even people to such Christians. We’re victims, marks, projects, and annoying problems-to-solve. But we are not living breathing human beings. They come into our lives for brief spans (usually), and we connect and touch-and-go again like the little girl’s spirit in Poltergeist rushing through her mother. All we have is each other. And evangelicals have rejected that connection as not good enough for King Them.

Sometimes I remind Christians of that truth, when they get obnoxious online. They never understand. I might as well be screaming into a hurricane wind. They need me to be a prop in the movie that is their life. My actual life story and humanity get in the way of their desires to use me as a plot point in the extended Chick tract running 24/7 in their own heads.

So of course Marshall Hogan’s behavior shifts on a dime and doesn’t even halfway support Peretti’s stated characterization of him. He’s a literal prop in a story. And Peretti needs him to act in certain ways to make the story happen.

Ugh. If it weren’t for evangelicals’ super-low standards, this book would have come and gone and been forgotten.

Today, Lord Snow Presides over a plot event in This Present Darkness that reveals evangelicals’ own hopeless lack of curiosity about human connection.

NEXT UP: A scary question for Christians. See you soon!


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Lord Snow Presides is our off-topic weekly chat series. Lately it’s focused on the 1986 Christian fantasy book ‘This Present Darkness.’ I start us off on a topic, but feel free to chime in with anything on your mind. Pet pictures especially welcome! The series was named for Lord Snow, my recently departed white cat. He knew a lot more than he ever let on.

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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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