Mysterion: Rediscovering the Mysteries of the Christian Faith edited by Donald S. Crankshaw and Kristin Janz
Enigmatic Mirror Press (July 2016)
300 pages; $16.99 paperback; $9.99 e-book
Reviewed by Kevin Lucia
Writers grappling with faith through the trappings of speculative fiction isn’t new. George MacDonald, C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, J. R. R. Tolkien, Madeleine L’Engle, Russell Kirk, William Peter Blatty and others did it long before now. There are many industry greats—such as Dean Koontz, Anne Rice and Stephen King, only to name a few—who have also written powerful works which address both the inspirational and also terrifying aspects of the Christian faith.
It’s a tricky balance, however, honestly grappling with these questions without proselytizing in the fashion of a preachy “Sunday School Lesson Wrapped Up in a Story.” All too often, “Christian” fiction errs too much on the side of “doctrinal correctness,” “proper theology” and an almost Puritanical “cleanliness,” completely missing out on the transformational power fiction has to impact humanity by sharing deep tales of the human experience and what it means to believe, hope, grieve, sacrifice, and trust in a higher power.
Mysterion: Rediscovering the Mysteries of the Christian Faith is the most recent effort to collect stories of faith which refuses to look away from the problems which grieve us most, and, most importantly, are well-written and address the human experience as a whole.
I say most recent effort because in the last few years, several anthologies have blazed this ground. First in my memory (and of course I’m prejudiced, as you’ll soon see) was The Midnight Diner, published by The Relief Journal. The first edition attempted the same thing as Mysterion, but more from the perspective of horror, crime fiction and dark fantasy. The series received decent reviews, and featured several established names in the horror/dark fantasy field—Ed Erdelac, Dan Keohane, and Brian J. Hatcher to name a few—as well as jump-starting the careers of several writers, such as supernatural/inspirational author Mike Dellosso, Christian horror author Greg Mitchell, horror/urban fantasy author Mike Duran, and, well, yours truly.
Following were two anthologies edited by fantasy/science fiction/horror writer Maurice Broaddus and editor Jerry Gordan, Dark Faith and Dark Faith: Invocations, both published by Apex Publishing. These anthologies collected dark stories from some of the best writers in the horror, crime, fantasy and weird fiction field—Tom Piccirilli, Nick Mamatas, Douglas F. Warwick, Richard Wright, Alethea Kontis, D. T. Friedman and Brian Keene—and again sought to grapple with the concepts of faith, the end of the world, grieving, death, madness, Christianity and other faiths as well.
Now comes Mysterion, and in my opinion, it’s an absolute success. One of the things which drew me to this collection in particular is that it’s a collection of “speculative fiction.” Like the Whispers magazine edited by Stuart David Schiff and its “Best of” collections, there’s no “theme” past speculative stories grappling with elements of faith. Stories in Mysterion range from fantasy, to mythic horror, horror, urban fantasy, historical speculative fiction, science fiction to dystopian fiction. All of them well-told and well-written, grappling with different elements of the Christian faith, but not proselytizing or preaching. My favorites in this collection are:
“The Monastic” by Daniel Southwell—The tale of a priest attempting to pursue the monastic life after a crisis of faith (and drug abuse) drives him to a nervous breakdown. The island he’s chosen boasts a long history of priests pursuing solitude in prayer and study, but what he doesn’t know is that they didn’t pursue this life alone. Other things laid claim to this island long before the priests came, and they don’t react kindly to Father Kyle’s arrival. The realization that there’s “more to heaven and earth” than what’s provided by his faith doesn’t shake his beliefs; it actually serves to strengthen them more than ever.
“When I Was Dead” by Stephen Case—A short and powerful tale ruminating on heaven, hell, purgatory, and what may lie in between. What happens when we show up in the afterlife and the person we’re most waiting for never follows us? Are we content to stay? Or do we risk an even further unknown to search for them?
“Forlorn” by Bret Carter—A wonderfully twisting tale of mythic horror about regret and pain, and the Nothingness which feeds upon it.
“Golgotha” by David Tallerman—An engrossing bit of historical speculative fiction about a missionary bent on saving the souls of natives worshiping pagan gods. His quest brings him face-to-face with the deity these natives serve, and the awful truth that, to win these souls from their deity, he must assume an awful responsibility he wasn’t prepared to.
“A Lack of Charity” by James Beamon—In this bit of horror, a man is forever bound by his anger and thirst for vengeance for the brutal slaying of his wife and daughter, forever searching for the culprit, hoping the next person he kills is the one, and that the demon driving him will finally be satisfied.
“Yuri Gagarin Sees God” by J.S. Bangs—A creative re-imaging of Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space, and what he may have seen there which Communist Russia hides under layers of lies and subterfuge.
“Confinement” by Kenneth Schneyer—The story of Mary being chosen by Gabriel to bear Christ is always related with Mary’s penitent, submissive and grateful obedience. But what if being chosen by an archangel for such a task is far more horrifying and demanding than beatific?
“The Angel Hunters” by Christian Leithart—An entertaining and fast-paced urban fantasy about the dangers in tracking, tangling with and trying to trap otherworldly beings.
“Cutio” by F. R. Michaels—An intriguing epistolary story told through emails and texts about an artifact discovered in the ruins of a Spanish Catholic church, an artifact which can sense a person’s hidden sins, and dispense justice upon them…without any of God’s mercy.
“St. Roomba’s Gospel” by Rachel K. Jones—An entertaining fable about the divine musings of a roomba as its goes about its ministry cleaning the floors of a Baptist church.
“Yuki and the Seven Oni” by S.Q. Eries—A heartwarming fable in Japanese mythology, dealing with the power of loving prayer, and acceptance of those different from us.
“A Recipe for Rain and Rainbows” by Beth Cato—A country-Gothic tale about a woman with a strange power: baking her emotions—either love or kindness, hate or menace—into pies, and the transforming power of forgiveness, even to those who deserve it least.
“Ascension” by Laurel Amberdine—A touching, melancholic story about a trip to Jerusalem which doesn’t go as planned, and the unexpected encounter with something divine in the trappings of something humble and mundane.
“Cracked Reflections” by Joanna Michal Hoyt—Another piece of historical speculative fiction dealing with the conflict of religious faith and politics during a time of war and prejudice—one which is more applicable to our world than ever.
“The Physics of Faith” by Mike Barretta—A disquieting dystopian tale about a future world in which a person’s ultimate destiny is decided by a test score. Score high enough, and you’re guaranteed college and a future of ease in a gated community; score too low—even by half a point—and you’re relegated to the working class, regardless of your drive and determination to succeed. And in this world full of drug users willing to surrender to a powerful hallucinatory drug which literally drains the body of its essence, a new gospel of peace and rest is being covertly preached—through fire, and wreckage, and head-on collisions with bridge abutments.
Mysterion is highly satisfying on multiple levels: in its ruminations about faith and belief, and in its well-told stories featuring fully-drawn human beings grappling with love, pain, regret, hate, madness, loneliness, grief—the full spectrum of the human experience. As one of the blurbs states, general readers will enjoy the stories, and those who enjoy stories of faith will definitely be pleased.