Hi and welcome back to our off-topic chat series, Lord Snow Presides! In Frank Peretti’s motherlode of bad writing, This Present Darkness, the author frequently reveals his lack of familiarity with his own tribal enemies. This time, that unfamiliarity hits its peak as he fumbles his way through a cringeworthy scene with one of the novel’s villains. It turns out that the Boss from Hell is a grade-A scenery-chewer! So today, Lord Snow Presides over the Boss from Hell in This Present Darkness.
(Please click here to find the master list of previous This Present Darkness discussions. Also, any page numbers cited come from the 2003 paperback edition of the book.)
Chapter 17 centers on Susan Jacobson. We met her way back in Chapter 1 and briefly saw her again in Chapter 3 as she pretended to take a note at her boss’ command. She’s the gothy-looking secretary character who hangs out with the fat businessman. At that time, Peretti neglected to tell us her name. Now we get one.
In the first scene of this chapter, she gets photocopies for her boss and canoodles a bit with him. That’s where we’ll be living today.
While she does that, angels outside her boss’ compound discuss her in guarded tones, implying that her life is in great danger and she wants to escape her boss. They think that her ex-boyfriend might be able to help her do that.
In the second scene, Bernice meets Susan’s ex-boyfriend, Kevin Weed, by pure chance (but not really) at a bar. The guy mentions that Susan ran into him at the carnival (back in Chapter 1). Bernice tells him that if Susan contacts him again, he needs to call her as his first move afterward.
Here, we also learn that Susan was the roommate of Bernice’s sister in college. In fact, she dated Kevin Weed at the time! Bernice’s sister (Patricia) committed suicide–or so authorities said. Bernice never believed it. She has always felt that Susan might possess some shred of knowledge that would help her figure out what happened to her sister. So Bernice feels very strongly about getting in touch with Susan.
Incidentally, there are about 42 chapters in this book. So we’re about 40% through with chapters. I keep expecting us to start whisking through multiple chapters at a time, but so far that hasn’t been able to happen.
First, Susan heads into an “office complex.” It’s really busy there that day. Secretaries type and file and do accounting while navigating around laborers helping to prepare the compound for moving. I guess, anyway. It sounds like the complex is pulling chocks (p. 162):
Outside, trucks were being loaded with the [filled] crates as more maintenance people driving little grounds tractors went about the complex, shutting down various hookups and utilities and boarding up any buildings no longer occupied.
Overall, the compound employs 200 secretaries and clerks–plus all the maintenance workers swarming over the place. Those workers are also implied to be regular employees, not temps.
Let’s just stop a moment and consider what a huge employer this compound would be in the real world. Hays, Kansas contains about 20k people. Nex-Tech, a telecommunications company based there, has “201-500 employees” according to Glass Door. This company merits a brief mention on the town’s Wikipedia page as a big employer there. Now, Peretti has consistently implied that Ashton is small. The book makes it sound much smaller than Hays. So the news of this compound’s closure should be everywhere in the town–it would impact the town’s economy like WHOA. And yet this scene asks us to believe that this is a top-secret group operating in the shadows of Ashton.
Also, Peretti repeatedly hammers home the point that this compound employs people from all races and ethnicities, since I guess that’s super-sinister and sketchy in fundagelical minds. However, Ashton sounds whiter than marshmallow fluff. In Hays, literally everyone knew the one Jewish family living there (the wife ran the Planned Parenthood). So where are these people living? Who are they marrying and shacking up with? Where are their children going to school? Where do they take their evening walks? We never see anything but white people in this book (except for token angels, of course, because angels aren’t people and representation is fine for them).
Oh, Frank Peretti. Never change.
(Who am I kidding? He won’t.)
Anyway, Susan nervously goes into the compound’s office area to get photocopies. The clerk bows to her and says, “Good morning. What does the Maidservant require?”
Who in the ever-loving WORLD talks like this? What in the world is Susan going to put on her resume when she next goes job-hunting?
But Susan takes it in stride. She says she wants photocopies, and she won’t let the clerk make them for her. When she finishes making her copies (40 pages of a “little book”), she goes to “the big stone house” in the compound.
She lives in this house. Going to her bedroom, she puts the book into a brown-paper mailing box. Its address, Peretti tells us, is one “Alexander M. Kaseph.” We haven’t heard his name before now. (It’ll turn up again soon.) The return address, the author informs us next, is one “J. Langstrat.” She doesn’t put the photocopies into the box, only the “little book.” I’m guessing she made them for her own purposes. It really sounds like an organizer/appointment ledger like a Day-Timer. (When I was a fundagelical, everyone in my church crowd used these organizers.)
Susan readies the wrapped package for mailing, making it look as if it’d never been opened. Then, she takes the wrapped, ready-to-mail package to her boss’ office.
The Boss From Hell.
Most of us have had bosses we couldn’t stand. We might even have thought they were the boss from Hell. The phrase itself lives an exciting life in the digital world, where posts and articles abound about how to identify and deal with them.
I’ve had one of these myself. They’re not simply incompetent, not just “small-minded, petty-thinking modo[s].” Oh no. They take simple mean-spirited ineptitude and dial it to 11. They’re so bad we start thinking it’s their mission statement.
But here, Susan’s boss is–possibly literally–a boss from Hell. He might be the human guise of the Strongman, the demon even Rafar fears.
Susan’s boss wears Indian-style clothing while he meditates on “a large cushion.” His office is pretty much what a fundagelical would imagine a super-wealthy demonic businessman’s office looks like (p. 163):
The fine furnishings of a man of great prestige and power surrounded him: souvenirs from around the world, such as swords, war clubs, African artifacts, religious relics, and several rather grotesque idols of the East; a battleship of a desk with built-in computer console, multilined telephone, and an intercom; a long, deep-cushioned couch with matching hand-carved oak chairs and coffee table; hunting trophies of bear, elk, moose, and lion.
It’s an orgy of evidence to suggest that this guy is super-duper not a TRUE CHRISTIAN™.
Because TRUE CHRISTIANS™ never over-decorate their offices with lavish displays of their travels and wealth.
You know, like Republican Aaron Schock did a few years ago before pleading guilty to misusing taxpayer money and resigning his office. Or like James MacDonald did with his church’s tithes, spending USD$150k to renovate his office in 2013 while his senior staffers endured pay cuts.
He Can Read Minds!
Back in Chapter 3, we saw Susan Jacobson pretend to write a memo while riding in a limo with her boss. The memo concerned a book that’d gone missing. It turns out to be this book, and she only pretended to write that note because she knew all along exactly where it was. She’d been biding her time to photocopy it, I guess.
The boss stops meditating. He teases her about finding the book at last. He says he doesn’t actually know what it contains. Then he tells her that he can read her mind and knows she’s been feeling tense and “troubled.” Susan blames those emotions on the upcoming move. To reassure her, he tells her she’ll love their new location, especially its lovely house.
Now we learn that they were at the Carnival in Chapter 1 because Susan had snuck there to meet someone (it’ll turn out to be Kevin Weed, her ex-boyfriend from college), and her boss had followed her. He grabbed Oliver Young (the evil ecumenical Christian pastor) and Alf Brummel (the corrupt chief of police) to help find and retrieve her, and while they were at it the three men (plus Langstrat? She’s not mentioned here) had a brief meeting.
It’s a ridiculous reason to have a meeting there, and the boss’ explanation doesn’t clear matters up at all. I can see why he might have grabbed Brummel to find her–on the pretext that his aide had gone missing maybe, and he feared for her safety. But Young? What exactly was a pastor supposed to do? Or a psychology professor, for that matter?
Susan Doesn’t Get It Either.
In response, Susan asks the obvious question (p. 165):
“But why did you have to come looking for me? Why did you have to drag them along?”
His answer is laughably cringe-inducing. Seriously, just try to visualize this action without giggling:
He sat at the desk and began handling a wicked-looking ceremonial knife with a golden handle and razor-sharp blade.
Looking over the edge of the blade at her, he said, “Because, dear Maidservant, I do not trust you. I love you, I am one in essence with you [that’s a funny way to say they bonk on the regular — CC], but . . .” He held the knife up to the level of his eye and peered down the edge of the blade at her, his eyes as sharply cutting as the knife. “I do not trust you. You are a woman given to many conflicting passions.” . . .
He rose and came around to the side of the desk where other knives were stuck into the carved head of some pagan idol.
“You, dear Susan, share my life, my secrets, my purposes. I have to protect my interests.”
With that, he dropped the knife, point first, and it thudded into the idol’s head.
What, was this nitwit going to flat murder her at the Carnival? That’s the implication. If I were Susan, I sure wouldn’t want to stay around this guy. He’s obviously a dangerous and megalomaniacal kook.
(Poll: Anybody else getting a quick flashback of James MacDonald stabbing the poster depicting the face of one of his recently-departed employees?)
Bad Acting That Starts Looking Like Over-The-Top Kinky Roleplay.
As I read the scene, though, my mind began to wander. I began to re-set it as a totally consensual roleplay session between two actors who were well aware of how silly it might seem to normies but were enjoying themselves all the same.
Seen that way, it almost starts becoming okay.
However, this new re-imagining runs completely contrary to how Frank Peretti meant the scene to come off. He’s deadly earnest and serious with it.
We’re supposed to perceive that Susan only pretends to be the utterly-controlled plaything and aide-de-camp of this powerful-yet-evil man. And we’re supposed to put together that the photocopying happened as part of her plan to escape him. Most of all, we’re supposed to fear for her safety. As we’ll see next week, the angels themselves certainly have that fear.
It’s just so over-the-top, moustache-twirling silly that I can’t take it seriously.
If she needed to hide having made photocopies, why did she use the boss’ facilities on-campus? Why not go to the college to make them? Or to a quick-printer? In a college town, nobody at such a business would bat an eye at a goth-dressed woman making copies of a book.
If her boss can read her mind so well, why does he not notice the multiple instances of rebellion she’s exhibited so far? He only suspects. He doesn’t trust her, but it sounds like he really doesn’t trust anybody. So far, he doesn’t know for sure that she’s done anything.
He’s very obviously one of the big leaders of the Cabal of Satanic Wiccans (or Wiccan Satanists, Whatevs) (CSWWSW). And yet it comes to this: either his psionics rolls are the most unlucky imaginable, or else this Cabal isn’t anything to worry about.
Nobody talks like these people talk. Nobody. Ever–except maybe in in bad movies. And cults.
Cults love meaningless, cringe-inducing titles and overly stilted, formal ways of interacting with others.
I’ve seen all kinds of bizarre titles for the leaders of fundagelical churches, like Prophet (a pastor who’s extra-anointed by Jesus; this one’s common in black evangelical churches as a synonym for powerful pastor) and Vision pastor (basically someone who tends a church congregation’s emotional growth but is not the real pastor). The myriad titles fundagelicals leaders invent are both nonsensical and seemingly endless.
And having been a fundagelical myself, I can look back at some downright weird ways we interacted with each other. We used formal titles very often (I was basically “Sister Cas” and we used “Pastor Daniel” and “Elder Rose” and whatnot). Though we didn’t act as formal as these weirdos in the scene act, we definitely could have been called stilted.
Outsiders thought we were entirely too formal, and they were right to think so. If they’d seen the self-important way these narcissistic power-grabbers acted in private, they’d have been downright alarmed.
So this scene represents what fundagelicals think their enemies act like.
But in reality, it sounds a lot closer to how they themselves behave. They themselves behave in overdramatic, histrionic ways; they themselves threaten their underlings. And they themselves are given to lavish over-decoration to display their wealth and power.
Plus, we could make a damn fine case for fundagelicals themselves being duplicitous and treacherous, seeking to undermine their leaders at every turn. And of whistle-blowers exposing them more and more often these days.
(Thank goodness for decent people like Mancow, the DJ who outed James MacDonald! These whistleblowers may get abuse from the fundagelical community for exposing the wrongdoing of their leaders, but we need them to help reveal this theocratic political movement’s true nature.)
So as usual in this book, every element assigned to the villains actually belongs to the “good guys” who read and loved the book.
Today, Lord Snow Presides over an ooh-la-la roleplay session that backfires hard on its author by exposing his villain’s weirdly formal, stilted, scenery-chewing behavior–in a scene that accidentally highlights the bosses from Hell in fundagelicalism.
NEXT UP: Saddle up! The Unequally Yoked Club rides again! See you tomorrow!
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Lord Snow Presides is our off-topic weekly chat series. Lord Snow presides over a suggested topic for the day, but feel free to chime in with anything on your mind. We especially welcome pet pictures! The series was named for Lord Snow, my recently departed white cat. He knew a lot more than he ever let on.