I have been remiss in updating my blog over the past year. There are about fifteen or so ideas I have in mind ready to put down on paper (plus musical references). The reason is that I have devoted the time to completing my manuscript, a Christian historical fantasy and allegory titled Mazeppa the Wolfhound, and searching out a publisher and/or literary agent. Tough work for a newbie. There are very, very few Catholic fiction publishers, and whether they are Catholic, Christian non-Catholic, or secular, fiction publishers prefer contemporary stuff that appeals to a good-sized market. Mazeppa may not be as fashionable as I once thought. I have learned a new meaning for the term “rejection.”
I have not yet given up. Tuscany Press, a relatively new small Catholic publisher, asked those who have submitted their works in a competition (mine was rejected) to opine on various themes in their weekly blog. The current theme: “Catholic Imagination and You.” Following is my submission as posted in the Tuscany press blog. I even received some comments! Only the first half was published so I decided to post the entire thing below.
Playin’ With The Angels Again!
I cannot imagine the useful employment of my God-given faculties without the word “Catholic” preceding all. However, that’s the crux of the matter—being Catholic adds a layer of burden on top of an already difficult one. It makes me a worry-wart. Typically after finishing a paragraph, I check off the last box on my checklist by wondering, “Will this get me the Nihil Obstat, or will I be condemned for heresy?”
Consider Glinda’s words to Dorothy in the movie, Wizard of Oz, “…are you a good witch or a bad witch?” On what basis does Glinda claim to know who and what is good or bad? In the same way, what makes a “good” Catholic writer or a “bad” Catholic writer–is it that the subtext of their writing remains true to Catholic faith and morals? Presumably, a “bad” Catholic does not like being called bad because they believe they are good. But what if the subtext, for example, is the theology of abortion, the notion that a greater moral good is achieved with the murder of the unborn? Pretty bad stuff if a person claims to be authentic Catholic. Then the question becomes, “Should we admit the bad guy (or woman) into the Good Catholic Writer’s Guild?”
Then there is the question of how Catholic writers fit into the broader culture. Good culture makes for good art; likewise, bad culture makes for bad art. I am inclined to think that our culture will get far worse before it gets better, which bodes ill for Catholic inclusion in the thought processes. The temptation to abandon the straight-and-narrow and to conform is great. I understand now Peter’s denial; he is the perfect model for weakness under pressure. It was only when I betrayed my Faith countless times did I discover the true meaning of words. So I say, “Be steadfast. Walk away. Get a day job and light a candle in the catacombs.”
What is Catholic writing without the pursuit of Christ, without the inspiration that transforms a sinner into a saint? It would be nothing more than breathing, eating, and bed-wetting, a repetitive exercise in the art of existence, without hope of a better place to come. It would be like the Apostles after the Resurrection, wondering what to do next. What if the Paraclete never came? I picture one of them saying to another, “Well, that’s that. I guess I better get back to the boat. The nets need mending.” In other words, Catholic writing would become indistinguishable from other writing, redundant, and boring.
Now, up until this point you may think that I am all doom and gloom, even a bit jaded. I could have expounded upon the possibilities that Catholic writing offers (to illumine the world) as opposed to what it shouldn’t be (to glorify evil and encourage conformity). But Catholicism is not a psychological or scientific experiment; it teaches that Absolute Truth and Absolute Evil exist, even if pure truth and evil cannot be measured in the normal ways. We believe that the glass is both half-full and half-empty and we can discern the difference. We believe that there is a way out. The Beatitudes pull me in, so does Mary in all her perfection, so do Paul and Augustine, tough guys ready to rumble.
(This is where Tuscany Press cut off.)
My current manuscript, Mazeppa the Wolfhound, dwells on the aforementioned themes. By genre, it is a Christian historical fantasy and allegory. The inspiration came in various ways: the unconditional love of my Saluqis, a fascination with ancient history and pagan/nature worship, the propensity of many humans to take delight in degradation and baseness. These things helped me form the “dark” plot lines, what I would call the half-empty parts, some of which are illustrated in the short excerpts that follow.
I was of a mind to provide the resolutions, the half-full parts, since what follows may be harsh to sensitive readers. (Maybe one day I will find a publisher and you can read how each character winds up!) On second thought I decided against it. If what follows offends, that is a good thing. On occasion the placid mind must be jarred.
There weren’t many of Nutter’s kind left. Born to a lifetime of shackles, he demonstrated far too much of his free mind. The story goes that in his slave days Nutter, or Jim–that was his birth name–was one ornery field hand, never meeting his quotas, always misbehaving, and being stubborn about the simplest things. They scarred his back and pulled his teeth out, and lit sticks under his fingertips and toenails ‘til he couldn’t take it any longer and pled for mercy at the feet of the overseer. Not only did they break his body but his mind too. What was left after all the discipline, that is, after Jim confessed his “sins” and repented, they gave a new name too, “crazy ol’ Gummy Jim.”
So great was Luhki’s despair that for a time she abandoned all that she knew and chose to live like an animal. She befriended a roving wolf pack and learned their ways and language. She tore the clothes off her body and ran naked through the woods in the sun season, and skinned the hides off of dead bears and elk to warm her in the cold. She ate the wild things that grew in the trees, grubbed underground, and trapped small game. She’d kill with one swift slice of her blade, and if necessary, with bare hands around a throat or teeth in the back of a neck. She gutted what she trapped and ate the meat raw unless she came across a wild fire and roasted her kill. If she wanted more than blood or water to drink, Luhki sucked the warm milk from a nursing she-wolf. Even the mountain tribesmen who came across her by chance fled at her approach. They believed her to be half-human and half-animal and that she embodied the evilest instincts found in both, an evil omen sent by the Creators as a warning to those who wished to do harm. To look into her eyes meant an agonizing death, shredded by hungry wolves.
Perkle volunteered his way of thinking. “Well it’s like this ya see. This here ol’ gal used to be my best hunting dog, best hunter around. But she’s gettin’ past her prime, slowin’ down real fast, leastways when I seen your dog run. She has a good pedigree goin’ back a ways. So I thought I could get some of those fast genes out of your dog into her while I can, and get me some decent huntin’ dogs, as long as they keep their scent.” Perkle smiled broadly and spattered a glob of tobaccy juice on the front lawn. “I’ll even give ya a pup out of the litter if ya want it, at no charge.”
Jonathan grimaced at the loutish old brute. Seeing him in person only confirmed in his mind Swayne’s reputation as someone to avoid. He knew what “keep their scent” meant—if any of the pups lost their instinct in the breeding, they would be shot in the head. Twelve weeks was enough time to know…
Luhki kept the Hashaim in her prayers more than three hundred years after their cruel deaths. She remembered their courage, their unshakable faith. The Hashaim did not turn apostate as they were led to the hanging place and nailed to planks of wood. She sickened to see the nails bite into their living flesh and the blood burst forth; she quaked with every mallet stroke knowing that it meant indescribable pain and slow death. The Hashaim hung from their crosses for days, shamed upon being stripped of their garments. The blood dripped down and caked their bodies. They’d lean forward exhausted, wheezing and gasping for air, then push up on the nails embedded in their feet and wrists for breath. Each push or collapse worsened their agony. Their groans became like the sounds of screeching animals trapped in a vise, and blood and water gurgled from their mouths. Worst of all Luhki could no longer sense their thoughts, as if they had descended into a dark void where thoughts did not exist…
One day, a new arrival came to the Home, someone that looked oddly familiar to Mama, a very old, sickly woman with a hollowed-out face. She sat in her wheelchair and stared out into space with a desperate tormented look, the kind of look you see sometimes on folks when their eyes are drawn inward and they are unseeing of what is right in front of their noses. When the time had finally come to meet Death face-to-face, and there was no better companion to be had. Mama inquired of the nursing staff.
“Why, that’s Mrs. Esther Harris. She had a stroke some time ago, and even with all her money, they couldn’t heal her the way like she was before. You know, some say she lost everything in that stock market crash. Now, I can’t say anything for sure about that, but I do know that her children refused to take care of her and sent her to us. Seems like they were too busy with more important matters, like divvying up whatever she left behind, thinking she wouldn’t be coming home.”
After a time the liquor made him forget his white-folk trouble and look across the room to his other ones. Max shakily pointed a finger at Pattycakes and ruefully smiled. She’d be sitting there grinning into space and squealing happily at some imaginary event she made up in her mind. Playin’ with the angels again, Max reasoned for about the ten-thousandth time in his life. I guess any response is better than none.
Max pulled his chair over in front of Pattycakes, recited her favorite poem and played her favorite hand game:
“Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, baker’s man;
So I will, master, as fast as I can:
Pat it, and prick it, and mark it with a B,
Put it in the oven for baby and me.”
Pattycakes uttered something unintelligible as she played along with Max, mimicking all his motions, patting at an imaginary cake. It was always the same, she could halfway mumble something or halfway do something, but Pattycakes never had a clue why. It always ended halfway. When she liked it, she got Max to do it again by squealing out in delight “Pah cay now!” over and over until Max had enough and cried out, “No more!”
(End Tuscany submission.)
We tend to think that the great evils are consigned to the past and that they could never be repeated. How I wish that were true! Slavery, torture, ruthlessness, and barbarism still exist, perhaps in different guises than before. So too despair, loneliness, and the plight of the mentally ill and elderly. Each new generation redefines the old ways.
It is why I am amazed at the Catholic Church. Despite its failings, its human weaknesses, it is stalwart against the evils of this world. The Church has remained so over two thousand years. It must be true that the gates of Hell will not prevail against it. A miracle that should make all of us believers.