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4 Stars Out Of 5
Christian symbolism in an action thriller
January 14, 2011
Even though I've read through this novel twice now, and digested it as well as I could, I still find it difficult to know what to make of The Dark Man as a whole. I could focus on only one aspect on the novel and criticize it negatively or neutrally, depending on what aspect I was looking at. But that would be unfair, because this novel has affected by thinking greatly since I first read it, giving me a new metaphor to examine my own life. It is a powerful story, though not so much in the emotional sense that people usually mean when they call a work of fiction "powerful."
Part of my difficulty with interpreting The Dark Man is that I'm unfamiliar with its genre. I wish that I had read some of Stephen King's novels, as well as the fundamental Christian speculative and spiritual warfare works by Frank Peretti and Ted Dekker. Since I haven't read any of those, my suspicion that The Dark Man may have certain similarities to the styles and techniques in those works is, of course, nothing but a suspicion. I have been calling The Dark Man paranormal, and I know that is has been compared to The Twilight Zone (some of the episodes of which I have seen). The difficulty in comparing The Dark Man to The Twilight Zone is that in The Dark Man, the paranormal elements have very little impact upon reality. There are a lot of bizarre visions, as well as the anomalous character of the dark man for which the book is named. The visions have meaning in regard to the plot line, but they never accomplish anything physical, as far as I can tell. Any possibility that the visions may be directly spiritual seems to be refuted by the story, where an important character says that the dark man cannot be a demon. Therefore, The Dark Man is not primarily a spiritual warfare novel. In fact, it is not even extremely speculative, although it has a sense of unexplainable mystery that justifies its claim to be speculative.
Most, but not all, of the content of the visions in the story could be explained as psychological phenomena. However, it's not accurate to say that they are only psychological. Nearly every major character in the novel is shown to have some sort of internal psychological dialog at one time or another. Surely they all can't merely be hallucinating! Furthermore, they share common elements in their visions. The dark man is primarily a part of Charles and is the main subject of many of his visions, but other characters also see the dark man, even if they don't know what it is. My theory is that these visions and internal conversations are abstractions or personifications. They represent the inner spiritual struggles and psychological confusion that the characters face. The characters all think they're just crazy, or simply just dreaming, and in the cases of the protagonist and the main supporting character, the internal conversations are indeed somehow related to the characters' psychological states. Early in the novel, a vision seems to be a real supernatural enemy during an intense spiritual battle. However, in both cases, I believe that the visions are only visualizations of the psychological and spiritual drama, more directed to the reader than to the fictional characters. That the characters see and interact with these visions is the mysterious paranormal element of the story, which I believe intentionally defies explanation.
Going beyond the inability to interpret the speculative elements in the context of the literal story, I think The Dark Man may be like the dream-vision literature of the Middle Ages. Not that I'm a scholar of such literature, but from the two or three examples that I have read in my high school education (and what was taught about them), the visions in The Dark Man have some of the same unearthly quality, with abstract representations of virtues and vices. There is no specific scheme of allegory in The Dark Man as in works like The Pilgrim's Progress, and even the symbolism is more general. However, the character of the dark man itself is somewhat like the personified characterizations in works like The Summoning of Everyman and The Pilgrim's Progress. The dark man is many things in this story, most of which I don't understand, but the novel directly states at one point that the dark man is the flesh, the corrupt human drive toward selfishness and sin. In the medieval dream-vision literature, the dark man's name would have been Flesh. Here, the personification is much more complicated, but it does have that same sense of direct analogy as well, which is really the only identifiable symbol in the whole book. Of course, the comparison of The Dark Man to dream-vision literature is limited, because The Dark Man has a literal story as well as abstract symbolism.
There's a whole lot more to The Dark Man than the bizarre visions. Partly because it's only slightly speculative, it could probably fit into many other categories of fiction. It is appealing to people who like the paranormal feel of the Twilight Zone and those who are interested in literary symbolism, but it is also an action thriller with espionage themes. Some of the scenes of intrigue are very, very cool. The action sequences never really cross the line to unbelievable, and yet they are often intense. The action and spy scenes are enhanced by interesting technological gadgets that give the novel the right to be classified as near-future science fiction as well. Finally, the story contains several scenes of tender romance.
The most inconsistent element of The Dark Man may be the writing style. Sometimes, the writing really drew me in and engaged me, as in the elaborate, precise description in the first part of the first chapter. That descriptive prose suggested classical mythology and Mount Olympus to me, setting me in the mood to appreciate the epic conflict that lies above and parallel to the literal conflict in the form of the visions. However, at other times the writing struggles awkwardly, such as in some of the action sequences. The writing is terse and often uses conversation phrases, which are sometimes unclear and vague. For instance, how am I supposed to imagine a "that oughta do it" gesture? Several times, the prose immediately after a line of dialog or of internal thought will put a pun or play off of what was said or thought. Too often, a single sentence is set off in its own paragraph for profound emphasis, which is a fair enough technique, but in many cases the emphasis seems unnecessary and awkward.
A strength of this novel is its cast of characters. The reader comes to know several of them very intimately through their abstract visions. The character of Cleveland is particularly well done and entertaining. The protagonist, Charles, is intentionally not as distinctive. His role is that of an Everyman figure that the reader can not only sympathize with, but to some degree identify with in his quest for personal identity. In his relationship to the main supporting character, Charles is also a Christ figure, I think. The main antagonist is also a very colorful character. He is not a very sympathetic villain, but he is believable. The important characters are dynamic, not only in the typical sense in that the characters develop and change as a result of the conflict, but the reader's perception of at least one major character changes drastically as the plot unfolds.
As I conclude this review, I should mention that the external formatting is sometimes problematic, and that it was occasionally an annoyance or distraction while reading. The thing that annoys me the most is the inconsistent use of italics. I wish all the characters' specific thoughts were always italicized. As it is, characters' thoughts are in normal roman text without quote marks, sometimes making it difficult to see specifically what sentences are internal dialog, which is a huge part of the narrative in this novel. There are some places were italics are used, apparently randomly. In one place, a line of dialog within a vision is both quoted and italicized, perhaps for extra emphasis.
That complaint aside, The Dark Man by Marc Schooley is intriguing and memorable. It may not be an extremely refined and polished read, but it is profound and sincere, as well as exciting. It has the ability to help us view our selfish inclination in a way that can prevent us from being discouraged by it while not giving in to it.
Charles Graves is a futuristic Saul persecuting the Church in this dystopian thriller. But unlike the Biblical account of Saul, Schooley gives us a more 3-dimensional look at Charles. Charles is more than the master of disguises; the ghost chasing those who follow Christ. Charles is a man facing demons of his own: demons of his past, demons of his present, and the ever-present Dark Man who is forever inside his head. The world tends to see Charles as a man with a mission, when, in fact, all of Charles' life is confusion.
Julia, Charles" love interest, is also a well-developed character. She too, has her demons, though we know less about how they got there. But since this is really Charles' stories, it's enough to know she has the scar without knowing more about them. Julia fights a constant battle between her love for Charles and the safest course of action.
Cotton Graves is rather 2-dimensional, but I think that is intentional as that is how Charles sees him. It is only towards the end that the reader discovers along with Charles that there is a lot more to Cotton Graves than just the self-serving, shallow politician.
Schooley could have done a little more development with the characters of Cleveland and Farris. Our introduction to Cleveland shows us a man wallowing in despair and gives some depth to his character, but the rest of the book he tends to be just too good all the time. Farris on the other hand, is a little too evil. He has some brief moments of doubt that save him from being completely 2-dimentional, but I would have liked to see at least one small redeeming quality in him.
A frequent complaint about Christian fiction, is that the endings are always too perfect, too easy. Everything always works out exactly the way the hero wanted it to. Real life isn't like that, even the Christian life, or perhaps, especially the Christian life. Schooley did not give us the too perfect ending. Instead, we get an ending that is both tragic and triumphant. Charles wins the eternal victory but falls short of winning all of his earthly battles.
This was not a perfect book. Interior monologue dizzied me, morphing into hard-to-follow interior dialogue. A dearth of contractions made the actual dialogue seem stilted in some places. A few scenes were improbable; others strangely saccharine.
I loved it.
Despite its flaws, despite its glitches, despite even the format in which I read the book (PDF), this book captivated me. Charles, Julia, Cleveland, CottonÃ¢â¬âeven Fah-reeseÃ¢â¬âwere vivid and believable characters. I suppose this was partly because of their internal conversations. The realism that the dark men (and woman) lent to their respective characters more than compensated for the clunky nature of the back and forth.
The relationship between Charles and Julia made the book come alive. After the somewhat contrived conversion scene, the book zoomed along to a highly emotional climax that left me feeling bittersweet. In the end, Charles's love for Julia, for Cleveland, and for his father made me forgive all of The Dark Man's faults. Another winner from Marcher Lord Press.
In this near-future psychological thriller, undercover agent Charles Graves is working to bring down the last remnants of Christians in Texas. Charles is capable of the ultimate disguises, like the kind that Tom Cruise uses in the Mission Impossible movies. Charles assignment: bring down Reverend James Cleveland, the one remaining influential Christian leader in the US.Just before Charles can arrest Cleveland, he hears Gods voice through the Reverends message. Charles surrenders his heart to God right there and goes awol. Now Charles is working against his former colleagues, including his own father. Charles dark past continues to haunt him in the form of a wooden puzzle from his childhood. This dark man argues with Charles, urging him to look out for Charles and Charles alone. As Charles tries to serve his new God, he must continually stand up to the dark man of his past.I thought this book was excellent! It started out with a fascinating slow-pace that, for some reason, reminded me of when I read 1984. I think it was the way Schooley created his future world. It was as if anyone in the government could be watching you, waiting to arrest you for the smallest infraction.When Charles converts to Christianity, the story turns into a chase. Charles ex-comrades are seeking to bring him down, but Charles needs to rescue some people and avert a major disaster without being caught. I liked how everyone had a voice in their head, I thought it was an interesting way to look at how people struggle with decision making and temptation. This is a deep, thought-provoking novel and well worth a read.