Seth Grahame-Smith: “Unholy Night”

05/04/2012 § Leave a comment

Until now, I’ve always sort of casually dismissed genre mash-ups and religious satires — you know, none of that Christopher Moore stuff for me, none of Seth Graheme-Smith’s previous novels, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. I just assumed they were gimmicks, and not clever ones, as you find in the work, say, of Jasper Fforde’s meta-novels. At the same time, however, I’ve been digging on the trashiest of cheap-book-to-slightly-more-expensive television — as with The Vampire Diaries and True Blood — and I’m a long-time reader of fantasy novels, so I think I’ve just been subconsciously justifying this disdain so as to avoid adding to my reading list. Now, mind you, Unholy Night isn’t Literature, what with Serious Themes and Deep Introspection. But neither is it a lightly dashed-off novel about demons trying to kill the newly born messiah in 2 BC; unlike Dan Brown, who pivots from plot to plot with some creaky explanations between those moments, Grahame-Smith is a detailed writer, and though the miraculous arrival of locusts descending from on high to rescue our heroes is a matter of convenience, the graphic descriptions of their consumption (from the insides-out) of human flesh are not. And while the author could lazily interpret characters — the heroic magi, sent by God to save Joseph, Mary, and Jesus — he chooses more interesting stakes: Balthazar, Gaspar, and Melchyor reluctantly protect the manger out of self-preservation, pursued as they are by the armies of the mad king Herod the Great and his so-called Roman puppeteer, Augustus, having narrowly escaped execution as thieves, now dressed in the purloined robes of priests.

Where the novel falters is in the final third, shortly after the introduction of the “magus,” the last of twelve remaining dark sorcerers, who has been tasked by Augustus to collaborate with Pontus Pilate in the locating and killing of the Antioch Ghost and the newborn he’s protecting. Grahame-Smith’s writing is at is strongest when it strips the splendor away from history, and the insistence upon actual magic — outside of dream-sequences and fortuitous coincidence — ironically takes some of the shine from that true grit: “While the great painters would likely commemorate the occasions in grand fashion, with both men striking impressive poses in impressive outfits, the reality was far less attractive. Balthazar and Pilate were both covered in dirt and sweat and flecks of blood, both doing their best to beat the others’ brains out, punching and grabbing and pulling at each other.” Herod’s leprous physicality and twisted mentality, too, are enough for two villains — especially when described in his deluded close third person (“But first, he would enjoy her [dead] body one last time”) — and Grahame-Smith ends up over-narrating as he broadens the cast of characters that he zooms in on. Moreover, while Sela is an integral addition to the story, in that her well-timed flashbacks conclude Balthazar’s transformation from pickpocketing waif to semi-heroic naif and explain his hatred toward Romans and God, she’s poorly developed in the rushed finale: ditto for Gaspar and Melchyor, and especially for Mary and Joseph, both of whom are used mainly as foils for Balthazar’s anti-religious barbs (which, in turn, are the book’s lightly philosophical musings).

It’s no surprise that Grahame-Smith’s novels are being adapted for the big screen; Unholy Night, at least, reads cinematically and is packed with far more action and knotty plotting than with deep thoughts and character development. And yet, these inventive twists on familiar tropes keep you turning the page, and it’s not every writer who can bring new poetry to a fight sequence: “[The fist] was driven there with so much force that his own teeth were briefly weaponized and turned against him, cutting clean through his top and bottom lip from the inside.” That’s the sort of wit you expect of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, so lesson learned: just because it’s a casual book, that doesn’t mean it has to have been casually written.

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