Anthony Samuel Policastro’s Absence of Faith
A narrative that incorporates elements of a mystery, disaster, medical thriller -- even, at times, a romance novel -- I found it a good read.
The first chapter starts with a strange experience which becomes the focus of the story. It happens to Dr. Carson, the main character, as he is driving home with his wife from a reunion of his old class at medical school. While at the wheel, he goes into something like a trance -- or is it death? It seems like he's descending into hell, is subsequently torn limb from limb by a demon dog, is subject to intense fire, and then is told by the devil himself that thus is his eternal fate.
All the while he has been driving across a bridge. The car plunges into the river, but his determined wife stairs certain death in the face, manages to get out of the submerged car, swim to the bank dragging her unconscious husband with her. His vital signs fail.
Chapter two: he awakens in the morgue.
His return to life is explainable, as it's happened before in medical history. What mystifies the doctors is the fact that his skin is evenly burned all over, accompanied by a putrid smell; as though he'd really been burning in hell.
Other people in the small religious community begin to have the same experience. The phenomenon is dubbed the Hell Fire Syndrome (HFS).
Though Dr. Carson had suffered from it, he manages to hold onto the view that it's a rare disease of some unknown sort that shocks the body into a near death state, affects the skin as though burning it, and inducing the hallucinations.
For the local community, all good religious folks, it has other implications: good upstanding members of their churches actually descending into hell and returning with burnt skin? Rather goes against sound theology, doesn't it! Mass hysteria is one of the results.
But that's not all. There are the Satanists in the area that take maximum advantage of the situation -- or are they the cause?
Has Satan won the ultimate battle between good and evil? Is it a Satanist curse? Is it a medical phenomena? That's the mystery. At the end of the roller-coaster ride, Anthony Samuel Policastro does bring it to a satisfying finish.
As a mystery and a thriller novel, it pleases. You've got your money's worth. No worries there.
Chapter One is a good intro. From there, we go for several chapters with Dr. Carson, his wife and his medical colleagues until we begin to assume this is their story. Then, we're introduced to Kyle, and then Chantress.
Kyle's introduction is quite a vivid display of textual special effects. Through a spirit medium, Kyle (and we) learn some deep dark secrets about himself that promise an interesting story.
After having read through this far and the next five or six chapters, I thought this could have been better placed as chapter two, wedged between Dr. Carson's death, and his waking up in the morgue (I think a cliff hanger after chapter one isn't too much for readers to bare, is it?). It would separate Kyle's session with the medium, from the story of him and Chantress, putting the otherworldly information in the background where it belongs, instead of inside the narrative, where we'd expect it to be fresh on his mind.
Chantress is an old hand in things New Age and Occult, whereas Kyle, despite the role he's to play, is a newby. Chantress explains at great length, the difference between Satanism (the bad, dark side), and New Age, or the light side. She considers herself the latter, and is contemplating separating herself from the other, starting a new group and inviting a few like minded friends along.
During some of the passages, unless the reader is particularly interested in what the author has to say about things, such as the reasons people choose to get into Satanism or New Age; or later, in Dr. Stoke's piece, the value of religion in providing society with hope for life; and elsewhere, the entire Sunday sermon of a Methodist minister, quoted verbatim -- I suggest skimming through to the next section, where you'll invariably find more action. The characters do tend to get long winded. It seems as though the author has a lot to get off his chest and it behoves his characters to accommodate him.
But I understand the tendency. I'm an author myself. It's the reason my first attempt at a novel will never sell unless I thoroughly rewrite it (I have another one in which it might work -- it's a different sort of novel -- but I won’t be the final judge of that).
There may also be a few descriptions and details of various characters' background that may not be necessary to the story, for instance, why the pathologist's aunt said, "Oi veh!" when his mother defended his right to choose his own profession -- colourful, but it doesn't push the story along.
At times, I didn't know whether to treat this as a New Age, Occult, or Christian Fiction piece. The intimate love scenes between Kyle and Chantress (and later with the red headed lady), told me it definitely wasn't the latter. It's not the book you'd recommend to the members of the youth group in your local church. In this respect, it does nicely as a romance novel (in my view anyway -- I'm neither a romance author nor a reader). It goes from blissful love, to betrayal, to the kind of hatred and emotion that can only happen when a perfect, dream, once-in-a-lifetime relationship has gone horribly wrong.
That's not a spoiler, by the way. The medium, at the beginning, will have already told you that would happen.
Apart from Kyle and Chantress, the other relationships seem like happy ones -- well, apart from one engaged couple where the young lady's ambitions as a journalist get in the way. She's partly to blame for the hysteria and mayhem that break out in the community.
The excitement and hysteria seem authentic. The author makes us feel like part of a community where ordinary people live, unworldly things are happening, and the population is frightened out of its skin.
As a medical thriller, it also seems authentic. I've not had any medical training myself, but Samuel seems to know the inside of hospitals well enough to write about them. There might have been one premise or two that beggared belief, but it didn't ruin the story. Fiction is like that.
But the religious community seemed to be a stereotype of Evangelical/Fundamentalist religion, where the focus is all on the afterlife -- where the only question is, whether one will enjoy eternal bliss in heaven, or eternal torture in hell; not about relieving suffering nor improving the quality of life in this world. In some congregations, it's easy to get that impression, and in a situation where something like Hell Fire Syndrome is running rampant, I suppose it could become more of an issue. However, many in the Christian community would dispute that their Christian experience has led them to such a mindset. In the narrative, however, we find the whole range of denominations, from Methodist and Baptist, to Catholic, and even a Jewish rabbi, but no sign of any difference in theology or outlook. In fact, it's the rabbi that suggests inviting Billy Graham to do a crusade in their community (I hope that was a misprint, or that a line was left out identifying the speaker)!
Another factor in the narrative is that of the Satanists -- as referring to covens with witches and wizards that dabble in the supernatural and perform blood sacrifices. It's certainly a useful literary device. Like gun slinging outlaws and KGB agents in Venice, they make for exciting stories. But does such an animal really exist? Ever since Mike Wornke released his book, The Satan Seller, it's been popularly believed that Satanists are a group that meet in covens, present themselves as witches and wizards, dress in black robes (or sky clad) around a pentagram, and cast evil spells on people. Later, a book by Rebecca Brown, He Came to Set the Captives Free, seemed to confirm the idea. However, both sources have since been discredited as fraudulent. Perhaps a better source, if one wants to study the subject is, Christ's Advocate: An Incarnational Apologetic to Satanism by John Smulo.
If Sam Policastro, has access to other sources that I'm not aware of, perhaps his blog page would be a good place to discuss it.
As far as I know, Satanists of other types do exist: Anton LeVey's Church of Satan in San Francisco is an example, but they act like a regular church, and don't attempt supernatural occult stuff. They don’t see Satan as a person, but as a concept.
Covens, with witches and wizards also exists, not as Biblical Satanists, but as Wiccans. I say "Biblical", meaning they have to rely on the Bible to understand who it is they worship. Wiccans don't worship Satan, but the pagan goddess Diana, and others in the Pantheon. They practice the magic often ascribed to Satanists, but they'd probably choose to identify with Chantress in our narrative, rather than the dark side.
That's not to condemn the story. It is fiction, after all. I write science fiction, myself, and not all of my literary devices are in the realm of "hard science". Neither did gun slingers (as we know them) dominate the old American West, but the books and movies are full of them. They make a good story, and so do Satanists and other urban myths.
Absence of Faith, by Anthony Samuel Policastro, is, therefore, a good story.
(reviewed 4 days after purchase)