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by Kathryn Mackel
Published by WestBow Press, 2005
Can the dead really speak from beyond the grave? What about mediums who claim to speak for the dead: are they real, are they charlatans, or are they too being deceived? These are some of the questions asked in Kathryn Mackel's Christian chiller, The Departed.
Joshua Lazarus is a second-rate illusionist. He and his wife / assistant, Maggie, do lounge shows at resorts in the off season. They can barely make ends meet, but they are happy. When Lazarus plays psychic to comfort a troubled woman, he hits upon gold. In a matter of months he makes it to the big time with the greatest illusion of all: the ability to speak for the dead. But the more success Joshua has, the more stress Joshua and Maggie have in their marriage. A psychic doesn't need a stage assistant, and Maggie begins to feel left behind.
In a nearby Salem, Massachusetts, Amy Howland runs Safe Haven, an after-school ministry for inner-city youth. It is hard work, but Amy is dedicated to the children she serves. Maggie Lazarus hears about Safe Haven and volunteers to help. Soon everyone is in danger. Amy and Maggie are threatened by the head of a local doomsday cult, and Joshua Lazarus is pursued by a crazed murderer. God gives strength to those who call on his name, but will it be enough to save the lives of Joshua, Maggie, and Amy?
Though Mackel, part of the screenwriter team for Left Behind: The Movie, writes with an obvious Evangelical Christian perspective, this is not your typical Christian novel. Mackel refers to the book as a "Christian Chiller," and it has everything you'd expect from a suspense novel: spooky settings, jarring encounters with the unknown, treacherous friends, and lives hanging in the balance. It is a radical break from typical CBA (Christian Bookseller Association) fiction: sex and violence, while never graphic, are certainly not taboo (though cursing still is).
The writing style is not overly-polished -- far more conversational than literary -- but is fairly typical for an adventure / thriller novel. Short chapters (60 in 314 pages) that usually end in a cliff-hanger pull the reader from one page to the next. The perspective is constantly shifting, so sometimes the reader knows more than the characters, and sometimes is left completely in the dark. There is a little bit of romance, a little bit of introspection, and lots of action, all broken into bite-size chunks by hurried conversations. For those who enjoy fast-paced stories with a little edge, a touch of romance, and a hint of the supernatural, this might be your book.
People looking for an all-out supernatural thriller, though, will want to look elsewhere. The marketing copy on the back of the book proclaims, "Unexplained voices. Desperate apparitions. A dangerous coven of witches. Welcome to The Other Side." Yet despite the ostensibly supernatural subject matter -- psychics and the occult -- in the end there is very little of the supernatural to be found. There is a hint of mystery around the minor character Endora Simon (the name a clever nod to the Biblical Witch of Endor and Simon Magus). Everything else is explained away in the last few pages, robbing the reader of any sense of surprise, and almost coming across with an anti-supernatural bias. In that respect it is reminiscent of an agenda-laden Gothic novel, and it rings a little hollow.
It was only after finishing the novel, and finding myself disappointed with what I felt was an artificially squeaky-clean ending, that I came across this: Mackel states on her Web site,
"in secular fiction, supernatural forces come upon characters unbidden and sometimes, undeserved. Evil is something to be endured, outlasted, perhaps outwitted. There is very little supernatural activity in a Christian Chiller. . . [no] fictional monsters like vampires and werewolves."Unlike the marketing blurb, Mackel's comments accurately represent the perspective of the book.
The supernatural issue aside, Mackel is brave enough to tackle a few thorny Christian issues: marriage between believers and non-believers; the balance of accountability and grace after someone has fallen but been restored; and dealing with the appearance of impropriety. The book has a clear gospel message, though it does come across a bit heavy-handed; a bit more subtlety may have helped it appeal to a wider audience. As long as you know what to expect, though, the book isn't bad at all.
Possible objectionable material: while never graphic, the book does have instances of murder, suicide, human sexuality, and violence. As mentioned in the review, though it is all explained away at the end, the book does touch on the occult. There is no course language.
— Joshua Ellis (Jan. 2005)
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