It is December 28 today, the feast of the Holy Innocents. For Catholics like myself, we remember this day as the death of babies and children in Bethlehem at the time Jesus Christ was born. The order for execution came from Herod, the old and ailing king of Jerusalem, who hoped to terminate the "king" who will supplant him and his dynasty from ruling Jerusalem. In catechism, I learned that an angel saved Joseph, Mary and Jesus from the slaughter by helping them flee from Bethlehem to Egypt. This is the biblical version. Modern day fiction has another.
In Seth Gahame-Smith's Unholy Night, the Holy Family was aided by Balthazar, a cunning thief who escaped his own execution, to leave Bethlehem. Together with Melchyor and Gaspar, the trio defended the Holy Family from Herod's men and out to the desert. Balthazar, Melchyor and Gaspar are names associated with the three wise men who gave gold, frankincense and myrrh as gifts to the baby Jesus. In Grahame-Smith's fiction, the three men are wise indeed, but not in a scholarly manner to which the Bible described them to be. They are thieves and criminals out to save their own skin from Herod's fatal punishment. This the conceit to which the book was built upon. Blasphemous? I say it's a work of genius.
I've often asked who were the Wise men, the Magi. At the feast of the Epiphany, our parish priest would make us all believe that they were scholars from the East who understood the meaning of the messiah's coming. In my own imagination, I see the wise men as sages, astronomers, philosophers who knew something else was going and average people have no knowledge of this. They remain mysterious, if not, mystical men of history. Grahame-Smith filled in this gap and defined the Wise men as great sinners who found redemption not from guilt, but from acts of justice, remorse, forgiveness and love.
I like it that Joseph and Mary were depicted as real people subjected to weakness but strong in faith. This is the strength which assaulted Balthazar internally. Grahame-Smith provides his hero a rich back story to bring out this internal struggle. Using the child Jesus as a metaphor of hope and blind belief, Balthazar came to forgive himself in the end. As for Melchyor and Gaspar, their redemption came, thirty three years after.
Pontius Pilate and the Roman Army were given a moment to shine as well. Pilate is yet another enigmatic character I hope some fictionist would unravel. Herod was characterized as the ultimate monster king. His evil deeds are enough to set the backdrop of a world in constant chaos. Thus, Jesus' coming to this world, quiet and with no fanfare, remain a puzzle I of the Catholic faith so continuously try to solve.
Grahame-Smith's violence and gruesome narrative did not offend me, in fact, I found it entertaining. Perhaps I was still angry at something or someone to have enjoyed it. It was therapy reading the book. There are some events in life like death and injustice that need to be experienced to see truth and peace. Like the journey to the desert and into Egypt, such an experience is not an easy one to take. This is where we need, not just guts and toughness, but a lot of courage. A lot of faith.
What did not work
The inclusion of magic seemed off, like the warlock from the west. The angels appearing in a dream were fine by me. The warlock came out of nowhere. Grahame-Smith tried to cross genre, but I found this piece misplaced in the novel. It would have worked for me, if Herod was assisted by one of his own priests to glamor up himself and do a trickery on Pilate's army.
Over all, it was a good read. I like Grahame-Smith's bending of history. Here in Unholy Night, he new enough of religion and faith to respect Joseph, Mary and Jesus. I think I am ready to read Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.
Grahame-Smith, Seth. Unholy Night. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2012.