In the aftermath of a critical World War II battle, a priest (Father Gaetano) is assigned temporarily to a parish in the small seaside Sicilian village of Tringale. The church of San Domenico has recently lost its sole priest and this young father must step into his predecessor’s shoes to take care of this flock of nuns and the orphans the war has created.
The more imaginative among us probably have fond memories of playing with our action figures (don’t call them dolls). I had Thundercats and Samurai; Masters of the Universe and their battle cats; Dino-riders and Russian Spetsnaz. My personal memories are all happy ones. Days on end of war games and make believe. Author Christopher Golden has tapped into those childhood pasts and injected danger and peril.
I’m sure we’ve all read or watched stories about toys come to life. Pixar’s Toy Story series is probably foremost in people’s minds, but Toy Story this isn’t. Not completely anyway. Golden takes that initial idea of toys comes to life, but adds the unique twist of toys taking on the personality that you gave them during your play time. To illustrate, let’s say a little girl plays with her barbie dolls and makes believe they’re princesses having a tea party. Well, those dolls become royalty, in personality and action. Now say her brother gets a hold of them and uses them to kill half the play room; you guessed it, the previously regal become cold blooded killers, literally. Now take that idea and place it in the world of the bible where our protagonist, the priest, is teaching from. Using some puppets he finds in the cellar of the church, he dresses them up each week to help him educate and entertain the orphan population he’s found himself caring for. Imagine how tales of good and evil, angels and demons would affect the behavior of sentient puppets.
In the Beginning
The actual core story idea for the book comes from frequent Golden collaborator Mike Mignola who also returns to their team-up with a handful of illustrations littered through the novella. Most of their work together usually starts with a plot idea from Mignola who while brimming with concepts, usually doesn’t have the bandwidth to turn them all into comics (his chosen field). It’s Christopher Golden to the rescue; an excellent prose writer who comes in to flesh out the narrative into book length.
This latest collaboration was released only a few months after their other book, Joe Golem and the Drowning City, but for readers who aren’t sure which of the two to pick up, the stories couldn’t be further from each other in tone and subject matter. Joe Golem is a steam-punk detective mystery with tentacles while Father Gaetano steers fairly clear of fantasy elements by grounding the plot in the very real world and consequences of WWII.
The similarity, if it can really be called one, is in the inclusion of spirituality. In Joe Golem you have the age old idea of man dabbling in things greater than themselves; things they don’t understand. It’s the world of mediums, seances, and “pagan” spiritualism. With Father Gaetano it’s closer to home for most readers with catholic conceptions of demonology and possession. The characters in Father Gaetano are largely unaware of what’s going on with the puppets until the pot boils over — so to say. Their concerns are largely self-involved.
The story takes some time to build, but nevertheless manages to slowly insert creepy moments that just bubble and fester their way to the surface until finally, in the tail third of the book when the puppet-sized Armageddon hits, you’re not quite sure who will survive and who will live through the nightmare. Golden chose well to set the story in a small isolated town and an even smaller isolated compound within that town. A place where no one will hear your screams. When you need help the most. Locational seclusion becomes the enemy and the protagonists must rely on their faith and perseverance to survive the situation.
Speaking of Faith
The biggest idea in the book seems to be faith. This idea of believing in something you can’t see or touch. Father Gaetano questions his reason for joining the priesthood. Is God even real, will it all be worth it. He’s developing feelings for a nun at the orphanage and struggles with his natural urge to act on them. All of this distracts him from the strangeness going on around him. He’s in effect too busy questioning to see the evidence of what he’s looking for right in front of him.
The principle kid in the book goes through similar struggles having lost his family, he struggles with letting new humans into his life, lest he lose them too. His only friend is his puppet. This probably possessed object is his sole confidant and as a result, he’s missing out on the real love he so desperately craves.
In The End
As most good books do, our ending wraps up the story threads and each of our characters comes out having changed in some way. I won’t discuss specifics of what happens, but it’s a satisfying conclusion to another fascinating tale of the horrific. Another great concept from Mike Mignola and an excellent job on writing duties for Christopher Golden.
A grade for concept
A grade for atmosphere and thrills
Overall A grade for another collaborative job well done.