Hot on the heels of And Hell Followed we have another religiously-provocative anthology, The Big Book of Blasphemy. The volume includes a total of thirty stories, including the Best Short Story finalists “Norwegian Woods” by Jeremy Wagner and “Angelbait” by Ryan Harding.
The anthology opens with “Faith”, a short piece in which the late Charlee Jacob gives a typically poetic, dreamlike and opaque treatment of the blasphemy theme. She takes the topic of martyrdom as a prism through which to examine male violence against women and children, the sex lives of saints, the concept of free will, and the idea of a mother goddess. All in all, a good introduction to the collection and its recurring motifs.
There are devils aplenty in The Big Book of Blasphemy, from the disfigured nun who welcomes a doomed army ambulance driver in Lucas Magnum’s “Sister Scar” to the demons in Ryan Harville’s “Selling Salvation” who take on the forms of a grotesque male predator and an unearthly temptress to put the faith of two Christian teenagers to the test. Angels are present, as well, if not always in reassuring form: “Sweeter than Honey, More Precious than Diamonds” by Mark Mills is a brief, surreal story that opens with the sentence “The rest of the congregation wanted to rape the angel before they ate it, but Fenton was having none of that” and continues along similar lines.
Members of the clergy are prone to getting caught up in this divine crossfire. “The Judas Portal” by John Urbancik is a mood piece that follows a character as they pursue a harassment campaign against a priest, surrounded by a richly gothic atmosphere; meanwhile, “The Confession” by Matthew Warner has a priest meet an unnervingly familiar penitent in a story that is structured as a joke, complete with iconoclastic punchline.
Many of the stories depict religion in terms of repression and abuse. Edward Lee’s “Scriptures”, for example, is about a girl living on the streets after escaping her abusive family – headed by her father, a paedophilic minister. In Jacqueline Mitchell’s “Born Again” a fourteen-year-old girl who belongs to a churchgoing family (the sort that deliberately shuns a local woman because she was divorced) joins a Christian youth camp and becomes infatuated with the youth pastor. She wins his heart – but he learns the hard way that she is not as pious as she might seem.
“David” by Eddie Generous is themed around the guilt and shame brought on by teenage lusts, as the title character’s wet dreams and unfortunately-timed erections earn him punishment from his devoutly Christian parents and the scorn of his schoolmates. Placed under increasing stress, David begins seeing what he takes to be apparitions of Christ, and commences a path to a destructive supernatural revenge in a story that amounts to a gender-swapped reworking of Stephen King’s Carrie.
Ray Garton’s “Wailing and Gnashing of Teeth” is about a serial killer who was shaped by a repressive Christian household, a physically abusive father, a sexually abusive religious schoolteacher and a fear of hellfire and brimstone, finally pushed over the edge when the local pastor tried to exorcise him. The story’s bitterness is directed at a community that not only created this monster, but which fails to recognise that it has done so.
The collection’s abusive fanatics do not always inspire murderers – some of them are murderers. Ali Seay’s “Jesus or Jacob?” is about a group of religious fundamentalists who shoot up an LGBT support group, and turns out to be more thoughtful than it sounds: the story is told from the perspective of a gunman with a gay son, who finds himself contemplating two different faces of God – stern Yahweh and compassionate Jesus. Wrath James White’s “Messiah of Sin” pits two negative aspects of religion against each other as: a preacher, who desires the power and sex that come from being a charismatic spiritual leader, ends up on the wrong side of a gun-toting extremist and must test the limits of his newfound power.
Perhaps the most brutal and nihilistic of the collection’s murderous-fanatic stories is “R.I.B.—Rest in Blood” by Paolo di Orazio (translated by Daniele Bonfanti). The main character is a pastor who – in the belief that he is following God’s orders – murders his alcoholic wife with a hammer before tracking down his transgender daughter, a victim of his past abuse and now a drug addict. He grills her about her gender identity (“Tell me about her… The one who took possession of my son’s body”) and then proceeds to try and drive out the female demons he believes is possessing his son. The story’s portrayal of merciless violence being inflected upon a character who has already lost so much is devastating.
Continuing the theme of repression, the collection includes a couple of fundamentalist Christian dystopias. “A Strong Man’s House” by Stephen Kozeniewski imagines an America in which the red and blue states have split into two separate countries. In the red states, former blue citizens are forced to wear “purity rings” that give them electric shocks when they commit sinful acts like swearing, and sent to re-education centres where they witness Disneyworld rides repurposed for propaganda. (This is an interesting contrast with the social justice dystopia of is Delphine Quinn’s “Six Degrees of Separation” , seen in And Hell Followed). “The Cursing Prayer” by Lucy Taylor depicts a society where the Internet is banned, atheists are gunned down in the streets, and a schoolteacher finds her pupils reciting blasphemous rhymes taught to them by a newcomer in town – who claims to be Jesus.
A number of the entries in the collection rewrite familiar Bible stories. Brian Keene’s “The Guy from Nazareth” begins with the line “Shortly after his resurrection, Jesus Christ discovered that he was really good at giving hand jobs.” What follows is a revisionist version of the Gospels, establishing that Mary was impregnated by “this dude named Cleon” who wore fake wings to look like an angel; that Jesus healed the sick while simultaneously blighting them with new ailments (“He healed a mute man, but then gave him a voice that sounded like two cats bucking with a barbed wire condom”) and forced his disciples into bizarre sexual acts.
Regina Garza Mitchell’s “And You Shall be Adored” is a story of Mary’s pregnancy, depicting a graphic sex scene between her and an angel followed by a prophecy rather different from the one described in the New Testament. “Watchers” by Monica J. O’Rourke is set in an antediluvian world and tells the story of two Nephilim who commit the crime of eating human flesh and must stand before their father: an angel named Gilgamesh. The Biblical subject matter gains a human element through a tale of generational conflict and strife within a close community, and reaches a twist ending that reinvents a well-known tale from Genesis.
Some of these revisionist pieces work by extending the biblical narratives into the present day. In Laura Blackwell’s “His Love Like a Flood”, another Nephilim story, a smalltown woman falls pregnant with a baby so abnormally large that she has to undergo a caesarean section; she insists that the baby is divine, and refuses to divulge who the father is – leading to gossip about incest. The birth turns out to be inevitably bizarre, although the protagonist has an oddly flippant response in a conclusion that is both surreal and poignant. David G. Barnett’s “When a Baby Cries” goes over similar ground, opening with a bloody reimagining of Christ’s birth; it then skips to the present day as a young woman moves into a small town where the local church has an extremely disturbing relic – and an even more disturbing sacrament.
Gerard Houarner’s novelette “The Adversary” places Jesus into a modern urban milieu, sending him to a nightclub where – surrounded by sexual pleasures – he meets Satan, Lilith, Kali and Krishna. While looking back upon his life (and death, and resurrection) Jesus is faced with the greatest temptation of all: an existence away from God. The story works in a significant amount of symbolic musings alongside its more visceral Bosch-meets-Barker sexual imagery.
Christian history, as well as scripture, gets rewritten in The Big Book of Blasphemy. “The Salty Virgin” by Alessandro Manzetti (translated from Italian by Daniele Bonfanti) depicts the weird visions experienced by Joan of Arc as she is executed – including, amongst other things, a Cthulhu-like Jesus being sexed by angelic servants, and two lesbian saints giving Joan a temporary respite by briefly urinating on the fire.
Some of the authors have taken the theme of blasphemy as an opportunity to explore strange new sects and heresies, emphasising that sacrilege is in the eye of the beholder. In Robert Allen Lupton’s “Oven of the Flaming God” we find a religion based around pizzas – and a turbulent religion at that, with violence breaking out between such sects as “the dreaded Domino cult” and “the followers of the Papa brothers, John and Murphy” over what choice of toppings is holiest.
Kristopher Triana’s “Goddess of Gallows” sees two depressed men getting embroiled in a cult that worships Ixtab, Mayan goddess of suicide by hanging; its rites range from sexual orgies to a bizarre antinatalist baptism. This cult shows utter contempt for more orthodox faiths: “She isn’t a god that goes unseen, who doesn’t answer prayers because he’s too busy letting children be raped in his own place of worship”, says one of the two protagonists. “She doesn’t promote bigotry or encourage terrorist attacks. She’s not a demanding goddess, she’s a merciful one.”
The heresy subgenre allows pointed criticism of religious orthodoxy. “The Anatomical Christ” by Joanna Koch is written in a scattered, disoriented style and tells the story of Aurora, a woman with a gunshot wound who challenges a statue of Jesus to heal her. The statue answers, offering salvation, although Aurora remains sceptical (“Nothing for her. Someone else’s deity, binary prototype imposed by hatred of female bodies who steal creation from the jealous male god”). She instead turns towards a feminine vision of the divine, becoming a gender-bent messiah who faces off against a sect of militant feminists.
Alternative theories of the afterlife also crop up in The Big Book of Blasphemy. In Simon Clark’s “When you Lie Screaming in your Grave” two born-again Christians lose their friend Victor, who is buried with a mobile phone; they then get a call from the grave, and hear Victor screaming down the phone. When the friends come with with an explanation for this, it rocks their faith to the core. Although the core idea is not new (it was used in a Doctor Who episode a few years ago) the execution is strong.
Along the way, the reader will come across the occasional story that is relatively light on the blasphemy theme and fits into a broader horror mould. Joshua Chaplinsky’s “Playing Doctor” is about a mortician who tends to the body of her former classmate while reminiscing about the sexual explorations they partook in as children; the blasphemy here is of a relatively non-literal sort – the violation of a body’s sanctity – and the story would have been at home in any splatterpunk collection.
Heading over to black magic territory we find “Black Wings” by Gabino Iglesias, about a hitman who takes out a child sex-trafficker. Only too late does he find that one of the pimp’s clients is a magician in touch with dark forces. The anti-hero resorts to desperate measures for assistance: “When you’re dealing with blasphemous, evil shit, you sometimes have to get help from blasphemous, evil sources.” The story is inspired by Caribbean witchcraft beliefs more than organised religion: if it is blasphemous, this is through the implication that hero’s Catholic faith will not save him.
There is an obvious commonality shared by almost all of the stories in the collection. From the cover art of a crucified banana to the various depictions of monstrous virgin births and fanatical pastors, The Big Book of Blasphemy is overwhelmingly about Christianity. Its stories are not necessarily anti-Christian – some put the blasphemous content into the mouths of villains, for example – but they nonetheless take the religion of Christianity as their focal point. Even Robert Allen Lupton’s story gives its pizza-worshippers Catholic trappings, with send-ups of Communion and the Lord’s Prayer.
There are exceptions, with a few of the stories making shots at non-Christian faiths. Charlee Jacob’s feminist piece is aimed more at male-dominated religion as a whole, mentioning Allah, Buddha and Krishna alongside Jehovah and Satan; Wrath James Wright’s story takes swipes at hypocritical religious leaders from a range of spiritual paths; and Monica J. O’Rourke’s Genesis-set story has a generally Abrahamic rather than specifically Christian backdrop. The most significant exception to the general rule is Kristopher Triana’s story, in which acolytes of the Mayan goddess make a point out of blaspheming all three of the main Abrahamic faiths: characters, scriptures and symbols from Christianity, Judaism and Islam all merge together in a sacrilegious orgy.
On the whole, however, Christianity is the book’s fall guy, and so it could be fairly argued that the anthology has chosen an easy target. While the The Big Book of Blasphemy is packaged as a taboo-breaker, it is questionable as to whether any of the contributors have put themselves on the line in quite the same way as Salman Rushdie or the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists.
If you want a selection of stories that explore strange and unnerving avenues of Christian imagery and narrative, then The Big Book of Blasphemy is well worth a look; but it is hard to ignore that its transgression is confined to a rather narrow avenue.