I have just finished preparing a class on Witches for my University of Prince Edward Island class today. It’s Hallowe’en, so evoking the Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in the Christian Studies department is not altogether unwelcome. It should be a good discussion, and is less about witches and witch burning and all the madness of history than it is about what we do when we create the idea of the Witch (or the Inquisitor, or the Church, or the Woman, or the token Gay or Asian character). I’m looking forward to it.
It was a bit hard for me not to talk about demons, being as it is Hallowe’en and the class is on Christianity. I went with witches–I could also have done monsters or saints or the Day of the Dead–but my mind has gone back to my favourite Hallowe’en book, The Gates of Hell by John Connolly. Except for The Book of Lost Things, I probably wouldn’t have read Connolly without being forced. It’s just not my genre. I am, though, always open to Screwtapian works, and the artwork of the original hardcover of The Gates caught my eye. Most of all, I was given this book by a student who had already struck me as having a critic’s eye, so I thought I would give it a try.
I have, since that time, read The Gates four times and I have used it often in discussion groups. I absolutely love the book, especially when it goes by its original full title: The Gates (of Hell are Open… Want to Peek?). The audiobook is also very well done–not an easy task when one of the main characters is a hapless loser demon who isn’t very good at demonness.
At its simplest, The Gates is the story of Samuel Johnson and his critically intelligent and almost priggishly detached dachshund, Boswell. Samuel is a peculiar boy, under-appreciated and misunderstood in his little English town of Biddlecombe. His core strangeness and accompanying intelligence is demonstrated in how we meet Samuel. He is trick-or-treating at 666 Crowley Road—you have to watch for things like that—except that it is only October 28th. He wanted to get a headstart on Hallowe’en, and is met with confusion by Mr. Abernathy, the guy who writes self-help books to make other people’s lives better, but who hates his own life. I think this exchange captures the heart of the book’s style:
Mr. Abernathy looked from the dog to the small figure, then back again, as though unsure as to which one of them was going to speak.
“Trick or treat,” said the small figure eventually, from beneath the sheet.
Mr. Abernathy’s face betrayed utter bafflement.
“What?” said Mr. Abernathy.
“Trick or treat,” the small figure repeated.
Mr. Abernathy’s mouth opened once, then closed again. He looked like a fish having an afterthought. He appeared to grow even more confused. He glanced at his watch, and checked the date, wondering if he had somehow lost a few days between hearing the doorbell ring and opening the door.
“It’s only October the twenty-eighth,” he said.
“I know,” said the small figure. “I thought I’d get a head start on everyone else.”
“What?” said Mr. Abernathy again.
“What?” said the small figure.
“Why are you saying ‘what’?” said Mr. Abernathy. “I just said ‘what.’”
“I know. Why?”
“My question exactly,” said the small figure.
“Who are you?” asked Mr. Abernathy. His head was starting to hurt.
“I’m a ghost,” said the small figure, then added, a little uncertainly, “Boo?”
Best Hallowe’en moment. Ever. And it was only the 28th.
Now, poor Mr. Abernathy is not alone in his befuddlement. Mr. Hume, Samuel’s teacher, finds it difficult to follow his thoughts. And Reverend Ussher, the vicar of St. Timidus Church, is only able to respond to Samuel’s questions with milk-toast theological answers. And while this annoying feature will ultimately set up Samuel as the unintended hero of The Gates, it does not land him early Hallowe’en booty. Indeed, Mr. Abernathy is too busy re-enacting an awkward séance to be handing out treats. It is an innocent activity: chanting around a pentagram and reading an ancient book that speaks directly to Mrs. Abernathy’s mind in the basement of 666 Crowley St. What could go wrong?
As it turns out, lots can go wrong. In the séance, the Abernathy family awakes The Great Malevolence (aka, Satan), who uses the Large Hadron Collider (from Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons, though it also exists in real life) to open The Gates of Hell, and create a multidimensional porthole that will allow Satan to finally conquer earth. Samuel stumbles on to the plan, and though he tries to tell the adults in his world no one will believe him. Samuel is then left to save the world, accompanied only by Boswell and his two middle school friends, Tom and Maria.
Of course, the plot throws out from there. It is a funny book, written in a mocking didactic tone with winding paths into theology, philosophy, science, the origins of the universe, the nature of evil, and particle physics—sometimes all on a single page. I highly recommend this book for a Hallowe’en read.