Judas With Strings
The darkness around [Charity and Roy] had taken on the hue of blood. As Charity stared, numb with fright, the blood resolved to a smoky, ingernal scarlet. With a deafening whoosh the room seemed to implode. The light went garish fire engine red as the far wall spranc up in a solid barrier of flame.
Charity screamed. Roy tried to.
Against the wall of fire, amid the choking stink, two nightmare images were silhouetted. One of them Charity knew in every detail from God-fearing childhood: the horns jutting from the narrow, saturnine head, the pointed beard, eyes like hot coals. The lashing tail and hooves. Her deepest fears incarnate.
The huge figure of Satan jerked at the chain wound on his wrist. Straining at its check, something scaly with large bat wings gurgled uncleanly and slavered at Charity. As she and Roy cringed on the bed, Satan stroed his bears with the back of one claw and smirk at his leashed minion.
“I call him Damocles because, like the mythical sword, he hangs over wretches like you..” An exquisite sneer. “Just waiting to fall. And you yourselves have cut the thread.” – Parke Godwin, Waiting For The Galactic Bus, p.67
It was spring, 1990, and I wanted something to read. I found this book among so many others, just piled up. I liked the cover – a chimpanzee with something like the Divine Hand from the Sistine Chapel ceiling descending toward it – and the title was just too interesting to pass it by. So, I picked it up to see what it might be about.
I had no idea my life would change forever.
Mixing science fiction, fantasy, religion, politics, sex, violence, ethics, and human destiny is difficult for any author. To do so in 244 pages sounds impossible. Yet fantasy author Parke Godwin did just that. Filled with humor and death, with terror and two very different brothels, a cast of characters including John Wilkes Booth and Judas Iscariot, a talking dog who used to work on Wall Street and two stranded aliens mistaken for God and the devil, this book offers a simple yet profound parable on what Christian orthodoxy calls “original sin” and what might well constitute true redemption.
Godwin is both subtle and not-so-subtle. The three main character are Charity Stovall, Roy Stride, and Woody Barnes. As I pointed out to my brother at the time, Godwin’s smacking the reader across the face with these names: Charity [S]to[v]all; Roy Stride – King or Cock-Of-The-Walk; and I do so hope that “Woody Barnes” needs no explaining about reliability and solidity. This hardly detracts from the beauty and power of this novel; in fact, it sets expectations for the reader, expectations that aren’t disappointed.
The novel begins with a graduation party. Students from a distant galaxy arrive on earth several million years ago, drunk, exhausted, and filled a bit too much with themselves. Two among them aren’t graduates. Brothers Barion and Coyul, sophomoric in so many ways, are left behind in a moment of vindictive pettiness by their fellow partiers. Stuck, the two decide to indulge their species’s basic task: life and intelligence seeding. There is abundant life on earth, including Australopithecines wandering the African plains. Barion decides too give them an intellectual boost, resulting in moroseness. Coyul, angry because what his brother has done is both unethical and illegal on their home world, decides to help out this proto-human, offering yet another boost in a slightly different spot, which alters the morose primate to one who can both laugh and find joy.
Over time, however, this basic dualism in our emotional make-up creates, um, problems, particularly after life. Because energy can neither be created or destroyed, as Coyul says, they just keep going. This results in what Godwin wittily calls “post-existent energy pools”. One, called Topside, is overflowing with the self-righteous, those brimming with the joy of a salvation usually purchased on the cheap. Among the more annoying denizens is Augustine, whose insistent demands for the beatific vision pushes Barion over the edge, offers a glimpse of how it might be possible to create an ulcer in a being who has no physical existence. Coyul, on the other hand, offers a wide variety of entertainments and scenery for those who arrive Below Stairs. After reading Dante, he even offered something like Dore’s bleak hellscapes. Still, as he tells Barion, he at least has far more colorful residents.
In to all this come Roy and Charity, two nothings from nowhere, whose coupling could, according to Coyul, create something even far more horrific than the National Socialists: A child with Charity’s intelligence (an intelligence not challenged; yet) and Roy’s fear, envy, and hatred. In a country like America, knowing it is in decline and both fearful and enraged at the prospect, such a child could very well spell doom. Deciding to intervene for the first time since that fateful afternoon at an African watering hole, Barion drags Coyul along on a well-planned conspiracy to separate Charity and Roy, allowing Roy the opportunity to destroy himself while offering Charity something she never had – a challenge.
Their adventures Below Stairs, from something like Dore’s interpretation of Dante through high rise luxury apartments (offered in a chapter entitled “This Can’t Be Hell, The Plumbing Works”) to a bar/brothel with the best food in the after life near the special hell for bureaucrats , Charity experiences it all. In particular, she experiences “The Late, Late Show”:
The child was her at age ten. She remembered the picture her new parents took when they adopted her, before her hair darkened to brown. But undeniably her in the picture, screaming for help from her dead mother.
And then not screaming at all.
The child looked up at the guard, mute. The only sound came from Charity herself, a wordless whine of empathic terror as the Paladin pointed his pistol at the tiny face. Her own child face but changed forever. More than horror in those wide yes, a terrible knowledge that there was no help anywhere, no pity or escape. For those few slow-motion seconds, the child was not mad but her eyes knew madness, swallowed it whole and recognized it as the truth of existence. Knew it as her head disintegrated and spattered blood and brains over the twisted flesh bad of her mother, and – . . .
Faster and faster the loop ran: Charity at ten, screaming, then no voice left to scream, only her own eyes lifting to the gun, knowing what a child shouldn’t have to know but so many did and had and would. . . .
Until at last the film froze on the eyes and their final recognition of horror. The child, with one second, one century or an infinity to exist, would never again look on anything or anyone unshadowed by that terrible knowledge.
Obscene . . . I never used that word, always thought it meant dirty movies. But this is obscene. I could scream from now until the end of time, every dirty word I ever knew, they wouldn’t be as obscene or dirty as this. No that you kill a child, but that you could put such a knowledge into her. (pp.127-129)
This is the heart of this book: A naked look at the truth of existence, a truth we deny at the peril not only of our own sanity, but at the peril of all existence. In that moment, Charity sees in the eyes of this child – herself as a child – a truth she recognizes but had refused to acknowledge or name. In that moment, she assents to this terrible truth, knowing that the only real security we have are the tenuous ties of love, ties that are so fragile yet so necessary. Ties that defy our all too human need to draw lines around who’s in and who’s out, who’s good and who’s bad. Only when we see ourselves in the faces of the victims of our collective desire for security can we ever begin to realize how fake that security really is, and at what a terrible price it is purchased.
Now Roy has a bit of a different revelatory moment, courtesy of Barion.
Reeking of smoke and burrito, Roy Stride booted open the door to Coyul’s salon and invaded with Drumm behind him. He’d left his Luger behind, not trusting any weapon that read BANG instead of doing it. Right now his fury was a more formidable threat.
“Where is he?” Roy fumed. “Where’s the Devil?”
“Ah, Mr. Stride. Just a moment.” Coyul paused to feed a notation to his computer with two fingers, orchestration with the remaining three. “We were expecting you. Good of you to be prompt.”
Roy dismissed the ineffectual little man with one contemptuous glance. “I got no time for you, pussy. Wanta see the Honcho, you got it? The Devil.” . . .
Two men entered the salon – one dark, about Roy’s size, who looked like he didn’t have a single spot in his body without steel springs, the other big as a Redskin lineman in jeans. One of those blond college jokers he always saw in soft-drink commercials, making out with prime tail. Fucking big fag with muscles. He sat down across from Roy. . . .
“You said I ain’t dead,” Roy blurted. “I don’t get it. What’s all this about?”
“Shut up. You’ll get it. Believe me, you’re going to get it.” Barion’s tone chilled Roy to the bone. His skin began to crawl under that merciless scrutiny. The son of a bitch looked like . . . eternity. . . .
. . . “Like higher math to that monkey at the water hole. His whole cosmos is drama, magic, fable. A vision of Christ and salvation awash with melodrama, God as a white man, himself as hero. Minorities for villains. But he’s going to believe it.” . . .
Coyul ran an arpeggio into a Gershwin phrase. “I did this with a snake once. Ready or not, Mr. Stride – it’s magic time.” . . .
[Roy] was pure mind, pulsing in space, no division between sight and comprehension. He saw the solar system, then the galaxy dreaming through its eon-slow revolution. His view pulled back and back to encompass the unimaginably vast, wheeling universe, video-split with the movement of atoms within a molecule. Clear, painful intellect himself, he saw everything Coyul or Barion had ever seen – world men would not contact for thousands of years, if ever. Civilizations, concepts of God undreamable by humans. He knew horrors beyond simple brutality or destruction, complex beauties, a peace in being one with the universe, and the loneliness of being inexpressible small, apart and insignificant. . . .
Roy’s cry of horror filled the universe, more horrible for the indifferent silence that swallowed it up. He wept with double pity, for himself and a knowledge of tragedy too huge for expression; whimpered in his smallness and fear, shrieked through the soundless void –
– put his hands to his face, shattered in the chair while the Devil played Gershwin and God spoke quietly to him. (pp.206-212)
The novel winds down with Barion going back home to face punishment; Coyul stays behind, trying desperately to hold Topside together; Judas is left behind to run Below Stairs, only to have his Second-In-Command arrive, an old friend he hasn’t seen in two thousand years, with a wry smile and a chessboard in tow; Roy chooses the ignorance of death to the madness of life, all the action provided for him to keep him from breaking the furniture. Charity? Well, Charity arrives where it all started, a McDonald’s in her home town, Woody waiting for her, a chance to live a quiet life without too many expectations and certainly no fears other than the banal ones we all face.
We live in a historic moment when the Roy Strides of the world demand a hearing. Some of them are even running for President. So many reject the vision of reality both Charity and Roy come to know. Yet how can we deny it? Our politics, our churches, our world all suffer because far too many would prefer the bliss of blindness to the weight of the light. The deaths of others are the blood sacrifice they make to keep the truth from shattering their own fearful lives.
Godwin offers that most rare gift – something that both offends everyone yet can enlighten everyone if given half a chance. It’s available at Amazon. Treat yourself if you dare. I bet you won’t be disappointed.