A Brunch Book Review: Unholy Night by Seth Grahame-Smith
A Fake history of dubious history.
Unholy Night by Seth Grahame-Smith is a book that is very apropos of the current season. You probably, by the title alone, know the outline of the tale, three wise men, following a spectacular celestial event, happen upon a couple in a stable. They supply gifts, and provide counsel to the poor couple, having only recently given birth to a bright-eyed, calm baby boy. You know, I assume, that the bouncing baby boy is not born of a traditional family. His father is the God of Abraham, and his mother an illiterate 15 year old girl. Her husband Joseph is a willing cuckhold. It is the child of a god after all, and what was Joseph going to say? Those are the outlines of the Christmas story many of us know, if somewhat less reverentially relayed by my synopsis. And that basic outline is the jumping off point for the author.
If you know anything about Seth Grahame-Smith, you know that his literary trick is to take some old tale, or historical figure and put some kind of modern horror twist on the familiar tale, or history. Pride and Prejudice becomes Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The story of Abraham Lincoln attempts to make sense of the great man's life by adding a secret life-long battle, and becomes Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. This is a tricky literary conceit to execute. I never did read Pride and Prejudice and Zomibies, because no matter how many zombies the book contained, I thought it would probably contain too much Jane Austin. His trip through the Civil War South with hero Abe Lincoln sustained me for the first two thirds but flattened toward the end (still the book looks like a masterpiece compared to the movie it spawned).
That brings us to Unholy Night. In the Grahame-Smith telling of the birth of Christ and the trials that follow, he reveals that the three wise men, weren't really wise men, but something closer to wise guys. That is to say the wise men were escaped convicts fleeing the dungeons of Herod. The leader of the wise men is Balthazar, a notorious thief, and our hero. He travels rather too proudly by the name of the Antioch Ghost, and has been a thorn, minor to be sure, in the side of Rome and a larger thorn to Herod the Great. He is the most interesting and well developed of the three "wise men." Indeed he is the most well developed character in the entire book. Mary and Joseph fare a little better than other characters and while not explored very fully they are each given interesting vignettes wherein their faith is tested and explained on the foil of the predictably atheistic anti-hero of Balthazar. Can you guess what will happen to Balthazar's godless convictions by the end of the book? Of course you can.
Grahame-Smith could have mined that rich field of human emotion much more than he did. Instead he just sticks to familiar and the predictable. Herod is the monster that he is in at least some of the Gospels. Pontious Pilate figures prominently in the book, leading an army of Roman soldiers after the unborn child, and the Antioch Ghost. His depiction is a narrative mess, first thinking that he would gain promotion and fame by going after our protagonists, only later to wash his hands of the of the blood in a obvious foreshadowing of a later hand washing 32 years in the future. Grahame-Smith gives us the slaughter of the innocents, straight from the gospel of Matthew, in graphic detail. The slaughter jarred me out of the novel. Which is too bad because it actually forms a very compelling bit of story. However, I know too much of the history. The slaughter of the innocents appears not to have happened. This problem of really real history crops up again, when Grahame-Smith uses the Roman Census as a plot point. The census described in the Gospel of Luke, where everyone had to return to the lands of their ancestors also never took place. Its possible that the writer of Luke was referring to the census of Quirinius, but that took place in 6-7 CE. Its the only census that even comes close to working. But if the writer of Luke was referring to that census, then the writer of Matthew must be wrong about Herod the Great being an early enemy of Christ as he died in 4 BCE. But if Luke is right, that places Jesus' birth closer to 6 or 7 CE. Or if Matthew is right, and Herod was actually an enemy of the baby Jesus, then that opens the window of time for jesus to have been born several years before he was supposed to have been born. Odd no? No doubt the historical inconsistencies of the New Testament won't bother every one as profoundly as it bothered me while they read Unholy Night.
And, to be quite honest, it wouldn't have bothered me that much either. But there is an over all flatness to Grahame-Smith's tale that lets any excitement, suspence and concern bleed out. This is too bad because I think the source material was rich with possibility for embellishment. The novel never quite feels fun, and never quite feels scary. Its use of deus ex machina to further the goals of both its protagonists and antagonists is lazy. In short the novel never gives a reader with any knowledge or familiarity with the original tale, religious, or historical any reason to become invested in the characters, their lives, or their historical context.
Though the occasional window to into ibex life and philosophical rumination is nice, it isn't enough to make me want to recommend this book.