Book Review by Steve Solomon

The Millennium Quartet, Book 1: Symphony

by Charles Grant

Tor. © 1997, Charles Grant. 343 pages (paper).

IT IS THE EVE OF THE THIRD MILLENNIUM, and strange things are afoot, most noticeably in the sleepy hamlet of Maple Landing, New Jersey. In the dead of night and apparently of its own accord, one and only one of three interconnected bells in the steeple of Trinity Church tolls. A little boy hears birds telling him that everyone in the town is going to die. Swarms of bees fly at night, and dead moths by the hundreds are found heaped inside locked buildings. A number of the locals hear hoofbeats, and some even see a ghostly white horse. After a long period of peace, Father Casey Chisholm, rector of Trinity Church, is once again plagued by a recurring nightmare from his troubled past. Shortly after the nightmares resume, he seems to gain the power to perform miracles.

Of course, it could be the heat. Maple Landing, like much of the east, is in the grip of a heat wave of uncommon ferocity and duration, a heat wave that is choking off the tourist trade that keeps the town alive. Animals are behaving oddly, tempers are flaring, and imaginations are running wild. There are rational explanations for everything, even Father Casey's "miracles."

Except for the bell. No one can explain the bell.

While Maple Landing tries to survive the summer, a large white luxury sedan speeds eastward toward the troubled town. In the car are Lupé, an abused and abandoned woman harboring a murderous rage at her ex and at life itself; Stan, a softspoken drifter whose good manners and shy demeanor hide a violent temper; and a mysterious third passenger known as "little one." Under the tutelage of the driver, a young woman calling herself Susan, these three commit a string of unprovoked mass murders of such scope and violence as to be mistaken for terrorist attacks. Perhaps it is not coincidental that the strangeness afflicting Maple Landing becomes steadily more pronounced, that people become increasingly locked into a symphony of destructive behavior, as the car approaches.

Perhaps it's not just the heat after all.

There is one person in Maple Landing who suspects Susan's true identity and who somehow poses a threat to her plans: Reverend Casey Chisholm. But Casey is afraid--afraid to believe what he suspects, more afraid still to face the woman who threatens his friends, his parish, his life, his very soul. And who can blame him? How can any human being do what God seems to be asking of Casey? How can even a giant of a man, even a priest--even one with the thunderous voice of an Old Testament prophet and the seeming abilitiy to perform miracles--stand in the way of Death itself? What mortal can hinder the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse?

Thus begins Charles Grant's Millennium Quartet,  a series of novels that loose the fearsome riders of Revelation 6:1-8 upon the modern world in modern guise. This is hardly the first fictional depiction of the Apocalypse or even of the Horsemen--the brief appearance of the four motorcyclists in the film The Rapture  comes to mind--but it promises to be one of the most interesting. Casting Death in the form of Susan, who to the unsuspecting eye resembles nothing more sinister than a yuppie on a cross-country road trip, is a stroke of genius and bodes well for the remainder of the series. There is no question that Grant can depict the fantastic convincingly.

But the fantastic alone cannot carry a story, not even in the genres of science fiction, fantasy, or horror. One of the hallmarks of a truly gifted author, even an author specializing in the fantastic, is the convincing depiction of "ordinary" characters. Grant shines here as well, though it took me a while to realize this. Perhaps because I have never lived on the East Coast and am unfamiliar with the sorts of "characters" who live there, I initially found some of the cast of Symphony  a bit unconvincing, even goofy. But as the novel progressed, I was surprised to find myself caring about them. Although I could still quibble with the odd rough edge here and there, the characters grew on me to the extent that I found myself shocked and sorry to see some of them meet their doom in the novel's final confrontation between good and evil. Grant had made the denizens of Maple Landing real to me without my even noticing--an impressive accomplishment.

More impressive still is the author's ability to find, and briefly fan, the spark of humanity left in even some of the most depraved characters. There is no question that Lupé and Stan become monsters once they elect to ride with Susan, and Grant in no wise lets them off the hook. Quite the contrary: The author leaves no doubt that it is their own harbored hatreds and resentments that make them susecptible to Susan's blandishments, that they freely choose to stay with her and gleefully participate in her murderous plans. They are all too willing servants of evil--and yet, there is something poignant about the tentative romance that begins to blossom between these two damaged people, because we know that romance is doomed. By the time they catch a fleeting, heartbreaking glimpse of what their lives might have been like had they not succumbed to hatred, it is already too late. They're riding the pale horse, and any chance to get off is long past.

As strong as Grant's other characterizations are, they are all eclipsed by Father Casey Chisholm, who is nothing short of a triumph in the fictional depiction of Christian clergy. In my experience, the entertainment industry seldom creates credible clerics. Instead, it falls back on stereotypes, typically making men and women of the cloth either unbelievably good or unbelievably bad. And in addition to stereotyping the personalities of ordained characters, fictional depictions of Christianity also tend to vastly oversimplify the religion itself. The vast spectrum of Christian belief, tradition, and practice is reduced to a few types the entertainment industry feels certain that even the most secular audience members are familiar with: (1) Roman Catholicism (whether well or poorly understood, it is too large an organization to overlook); (2) Fundamentalist and/or Charismatic denominations (vocal, political, and much in the news); and (3) a homongenized, generic, Mainstream Protestantism (depicted so blandly and vaguely as to run no risk of identification with any exisiting denomination). Fictional depictions of Christianity and its clergy seldom probe any deeper or venture beyond these stereotypes.

Casey Chisholm, however, breaks the mold: he is clearly identified as an Episcopal priest--if a rather unconventional one--and he is not a walking cliché but a real, flesh-and-blood human being with hopes, fears, and desires. He prays, he believes, he doubts, he struggles. In making Chisholm real, Grant also makes him a man who has experienced the life-changing grace of God: Casey is a priest because a prison chaplain had the faith to see something positive in a young man who was serving time for attempted robbery. That chaplain got Casey out of prison and into seminary. The ex-con graduated and became a man of God of great compassion and deeper faith than he himself realizes. It's refreshing to discover an author of fiction who takes the grace of God seriously, and Charles Grant does just that.

That said, I must admit that I was nonetheless somewhat disappointed in Symphony's treatment of certain theological questions. One of these is the status of death in the Bible: Is death a normal part of the created order (at least since the Fall), or is it an enemy that Christ has conquered? Or is it somehow both? Symphony  would seem to be an excellent device for examining this theological conundrum, but sadly, the author does little more than touch on it. Casey notes that dealing with Susan and her "friends" would be simpler if they were demons, because he could just abjure them by the cross to return to Hell. Death, however, seems to have as much right to be in Trinity Church as Casey himself does, because both of them have "the same boss" (p. 314). The strong implication is that Death is not truly evil; it's just doing its job. But if that is the case, why does Susan tempt Lupé and Stan to sin? For tempt them she does, as surely as if she were the Devil rather than Death. If Death isn't evil, why does it so enthusiastically promote human evil?  

A closely related question concerns the whole concept of opposing the Apocalypse: If it is God's will to end the world, is attempting to preserve the world the correct course of action? If Casey and Death both "work for God," then why would God command Death to do things He commands Casey to try to prevent? Grant hints at some possible answers, but I find them contradictory and unsatisfactory. Perhaps I ask too much. Symphony  is a horror novel, not a treatise on systematic theology--after all, the Horsemen don't even appear in the biblically correct order--but given the author's otherwise thoughtful treatment of religion, I expected better. 

Finally, Casey's attempts at dealing with Susan reveal an odd omission: He never once mentions the Resurrection, never says with Paul that "death is swallowed up in victory," never asks, " 'Death, where is thy sting?' " Rather than standing on the Word of God, Casey chooses--or has thrust upon him--quite a different way of dealing with the supernatural visitation. Casey's method, though not entirely without biblical precedent, does have the effect of short-circuiting what might otherwise have been some interesting theological speculation.

There are also a few non-theological glitches, minor and major: On one occasion, a family that is mentioned as being in the Moonglow Diner somehow ends up across the street in Arlo Mackey's bar, without any mention that they ever moved. When the Moonglow's owner/cook is bashed in the hip with his own guitar by an enraged girlfriend, he inexplicably bleeds from his head. On two occasions, Grant expends considerable time and ink seemingly in grooming a character for a major role in Maple Landing's private Armageddon--only to make little or no use of that character when the time comes. A local villain with links to organized crime simply vanishes, his whereabouts unknown at the close of the story. Perhaps Grant will tie up some of the loose ends in subsequent volumes, or perhaps some of the apparent inconsistencies are intentional attempts to be mysterious. However, they feel more like simple oversights--odd failings for an experienced author like Grant, who has written at least eighteen published books and edited at least six others.

All criticisms notwithstanding, Symphony  is an enjoyable read that treats theological topics with more depth and understanding than is usual in fictional works. It creates a memorable and believable clergyman and through him presents the Christian faith in a positive light. Its characters come alive, and its depiction of the apocalyptic heat wave is convincing enough that I was glad to be reading it in the winter on California's Central Coast rather than during a summer in my native Nebraska. Symphony  is also probably the only novel ever to use musical metaphors for the Apocalypse. I look forward to reading the second volume, In the Mood,  and the rest of what promises to be a fascinating series.

Edited February  29, 2000. Revised May 26, 2000.

Copyright ©2000 by Steven R. Solomon. All rights reserved.
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