LURID: Fear The Preacher — In Fiction and Beyond
LURID: vivid in shocking detail; sensational, horrible in savagery or violence, or, a guide to the merits of the kind of Bad Books you never want your co-workers to know you're reading.
The Preacher, black hat, dusty suit, gaunt frame, battered Bible clutched in knotty fingers, is instantly recognizable from a silhouette alone. This peculiarly American Grotesque stalks our horizons, eyes fixed on the imminent apocalypse, an Old Timey relic who refuses to fade away. He (the Preacher is almost always a man) broadcasts the roiling paradoxes of religion: agony and ecstasy; salvation and damnation; sin and redemption; oscillating between faith and fear. We’re torn too, between the desire to listen to his preaching and the instinct urging us to flee.
This charismatic push-pull has made the Preacher a go-to character in fiction, especially Southern Gothic and horror. By definition, he stands out from the herd. He has set himself – by approximately the height of a pulpit – above other sinners by claiming a vocation. Whether his hotline to God comes after a random moment of epiphany in a cornfield, or years of formal training and ordination, he has publicly answered the call, and speaks with unquestionable authority, spokesperson of the Divine in this world below.
He appeals to writers because his power lies in words, or in his particular version of the Word. He blurs the line between talk and action – what he speaks might well come to pass: miracle cures, transubstantiation, baptism, marriage or exorcism. He is potent on the page because his words are weapons, hurled with absolute conviction, formulated to inspire, browbeat and infuriate by equal turns. While other characters grunt in monosyllables, we can rely on the Preacher for a full flow monologue, a dizzying torrent of maxim and verse, hyperbole and hypocrisy – a heady mix indeed.
It follows that such an exalted individual, brimming with direct communications from the Lord, should occupy a higher ethical plane, serving as a shining example to the rest of us miserable sinners. However, in fiction as in reality the Preacher often falls short, a long way short, inhabiting the depths of whatever bottle of whiskey, pit of iniquity or heart of darkness floats his boat. The narcissism that causes the Preacher to believe he is Chosen in the first place also blinds him to his own flaws. The rules he publicly spouts from the pulpit have private caveats. So very often, all that sound and fury signifies nothing but a smokescreen, concealing appalling moral decay.
There are different types of Preachers, of course – not all men of God are cut from the same cloth. They run the gamut from purely sympathetic to pure evil, harmless to downright dangerous, from bewailing their own sin to dragging others into damnation. All of them, however, are looking to take a piece, if not the entirety, of your soul.
The Sinister Minister
He is the archetypal wolf in sheep’s clothing, spewing sanctimonious chapter and verse as foreplay to fingering little girls. He occupies a position of authority within a rigid patriarchal structure and, hoo boy, does he like to abuse his power. He’s a convert-seeking predator, eager to add to his obedient flock. To the casual observer he might present as a regular reverend. To initiates, however, he espouses a doctrine warped by sin. While he can seem like an over-the-top stereotype, his antics rarely match the depravity of his real-life counterparts: Jim Jones, Warren Jeffs, Charlie Manson, Tony Alamo, Daniel Kingston, Ervil LeBaron, May Otis Blackburn and the unnamed hordes of pedophile priests.
Henry Kane, cave-dwelling Victorian zealot, nails the look in Poltergeist 2 and 3. The actor who plays him in Poltergeist 2, Julian Beck, was suffering from colon cancer during filming (he died before the movie was completed), and his cadaverousness is all too real. Kane rises from the mass grave of his own making in search of a new follower, Carol Anne, and scares her whole family witless simply by walking up their driveway singing a hymn.
The Sinister Minister is often the figurehead for a many-tentacled institution – like Reverend Billy Lee Tuttle in the first season of HBO’s True Detective. Although he only appears in a couple of episodes, and is dead in the present time narrative, his influence is profound. Like any good Southern preacher, his focus is on profit as much as prophecy, and he has spun a money-grubbing web of churches and schools across the bayou. However, once Cohl and Hart start digging, they uncover an organization more fetid and stinking than the surrounding swamp. It’s a family thing – Billy Lee’s penchant for Biblical-style patriarchy comes from his daddy Sam – and the sprawling Tuttle clan keeps an awful lot of awful secrets hidden behind the Wellspring Schools’ facade.
Not all Sinister Ministers are Southern Evangelicals. Provost Eldon Fochs, in Brian Evenson’s brutal first novel Father of Lies, is a pedophile protected by the Mormon-esque Corporation Of The Blood Of The Lamb. Fochs indulges in the rape of minors, incest and even murder, justifying his actions as God’s will. He is confident that his elevated position in the church keeps him above suspicion. Even when they do have doubts, his fellow Bloodites turn a blind eye to his activities. Their refusal to acknowledge his crimes (or their role in creating an arrogant criminal) perpetuates the suffering of Fochs’ victims and turns the already insular cult in on itself.
Sinister Ministers are legion in books and movies – you know them when you see them (while their loyal followers remain blind to their true agenda…). Other examples include Caleb in Buffy The Vampire Slayer, the Reverend Robert Wringhim in Confessions of a Justified Sinner, Jeremiah Ketchum in The Amityville Horror, Cardinal Roark in Sin City, Father MacPhail and Father Gomez in the His Dark Materials trilogy and many, many more.
The Holy Roll-Up! Roll-Up!
This type of Preacher believes religion is the Greatest Show On Earth, and that he’s the Chosen Entertainer of the masses. So he takes his carnival cavalcade on the road, complete with advance paper, giant revival tents, supporting acts and a nightly bill of never-before-witnessed wonders. He packs the Big Top with salvation-seekers, and, after a couple of rousing musical numbers have left the crowd woozy, pulls a sheep’s kidney out of an assistant’s ear. Praise Jesus! Another brain tumor vanquished by the Word! However, while the rubes are distracted by the collection plates, the Preacher seeks out new members of his true congregation, the wide-eyed and fascinated, the poor souls who, once they run away and join his circus, will never leave.
These are Preachers from the same school as G. M. Dark in Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. Mr. Dark doesn’t wear a dog collar and scoffs at the very idea of Scripture:
A Bible? How very charming, how childish and refreshingly old-fashioned…Read it! I've had every page, paragraph, and word read at me.
Nonetheless, his Word peddles a path to immortality, offering to cure people of whatever ails them with a couple of spins on his merry-go-round. In return, all he asks is a little faith – which he usually converts into the payment of a monstrous price.
Dark’s influence can be seen in the Rev. Jacobs in Stephen King’s Revival. Jacobs has a similar fondness for electrical storms and wowing a crowd – and similarly terrible things happen to individuals who seek his miracle cures. Unlike Dark, who appears out of nowhere on a three a.m. antique train, Jacobs has a traceable tragic history. He starts life as a small town Methodist preacher, but a horrific accident precipitates a crisis of faith and turns him to the dark side. His faith – and his ability to communicate his faith – becomes warped, transformed into a sinister instrument for entrapping the unwary and damning them to Hell on earth, and quite possibly beyond. Jacobs switches to the carnival circuit, honing his crowd-pleasing skills with his “Portraits In Lightning” sideshow, before reinventing himself as C. Danny Jacobs, faith healer extraordinaire, with a cable TV show and a tent revival roadshow. However, there’s nothing sanctified about his obsession with ‘secret electricity’ or unlocking the ‘world beyond the world’, and, as might be expected from King, the narrative culminates in Lovecraftian horror rather than salvation.
The brotherhood of the Preacher and the carnie king is also explored in HBO’s Carnivàle, which tracks the gradual convergence of the forces of Light and Darkness in the form of Brother Justin Crowe and traveling man Ben Hawkins. At first it seems that Crowe is the true holy man, inspired by visions to start his own church, drawing a burgeoning flock via his radio sermons. He’s the one flexing the power of the Word while escaped convict Hawkins sojourns with freaks and geeks. But Hawkins is also on a pre-destined path – it was no accident that the carnival showed up to collect him – and he has his own healing ministry. Like G.M. Dark, however, each of his ‘miracles’ has a significant negative cost.
Whether he presides over a state-of-the-art megachurch or a ragged circus tent, the Holy Roll-Up is a slick businessman, trading spiritual salvation for chunks of cash. Perhaps his greatest trick involves concealing what those donations are spent on – private jets, tacky mansions and high-class whores.
The Bad Ass
Not every Preacher is corrupt. Some are ultraviolent sociopaths with a deep reverence for kicking ass in the name of the Lord. Their Word is supported at every turn by their fists, boots and guns, deployed when heathens don’t immediately get the message. The Bad Ass Preacher is too volatile to stick with one congregation for very long, and prefers to stay on the road. Inevitably, there will be souls to save in any given direction. He’s unconcerned with petty personal morals and focuses instead on the big picture. You’ll find him at the epicenter of any Good vs. Evil conflict worth its pillar of salt.
Bad Ass Preachers have an actual Biblical role model in Elijah, the traveling warrior-prophet who takes his orders directly from the Lord. Elijah establishes the tradition by showing up out of nowhere in 1 Kings 17. He warns King Ahab he needs to clean up his act, quit the Baal worship, and keep his queen, Jezebel, under control, otherwise there will be… consequences. When Ahab takes no notice, Elijah presents a direct challenge: My God vs. Your God.
They build two altars on Mount Carmel and stack each one with firewood and a sacrificial bull. Elijah then challenges the 450 assembled prophets of Baal to call down fire from the sky to ignite the blaze on their altar. Despite their loudest prayers and even an offering of human blood, nothing happens. Just to make his point, Elijah soaks his altar with water before calling down a lightning strike that burns the wood, the bull and even the stones beneath. As a victory lap, in case his badassery was in any doubt, he orders the death of the 450 prophets. After many more adventures (which include raising the dead, parting the waters, and sustaining himself on literal manna from heaven), he ascends into the sky in a chariot of fire.
Fast forward to the 1990s and Garth Ennis’s comic book creation Jesse Custer also hits all the righteous spots. Jesse features in the Preacher series (currently being made into a TV show by AMC), alongside his true love (and hitwoman) Tulip, and his best buddy Cassidy (an Irish vampire). He’s on a mission, not to kick ass for the Lord, but to kick the Lord’s ass, once he can find the coward, who has abdicated all heavenly responsibility and gone into hiding. The narrative whips back and forth between Jesse’s early upbringing in a house of horrors presided over by his religious maniac grandmother, to his present day battles against invincible gunslinger, the Saint of Killers, and the elite international conspirators of The Grail. Thanks to the divine entity residing in his head, Jesse has a superpower. When he chooses to enforce it, anyone who hears his Word is compelled to obey (even if the Word is formed into a sentence like “Go fuck yourself”…). Most of the time however, Jesse, like the rest of his Bad Ass brethren, solves problems with physical violence.
You’ll find other Bad Ass Preachers in forgotten corners of America. Like the knights errant of old, they go where they’re needed, where they represent the last and only hope: Clint Eastwood as the quintessential Preacher with No Name in Pale Rider, defending villagers from a greedy mining company. They’re often up against supernatural forces: Father Adam in John Steakley’s Vampire$ (the basis for the movie John Carpenter’s Vampires and its sequels) follows his calling (and remains in the employ of the Vatican) alongside former DEA Agent Jack Crow, hunting down and destroying the undead.
While some Preachers undergo years and years of Scriptural study, ending in official ordination, others opt for on-the-job training. All you really need to proclaim yourself a Preacher is a vocation, the personal belief you’ve been called by God to spread the Word. Then, all you need to do is start preaching.
The call can come to even a four year old – or at least that was the story peddled by the parents of Marjoe Gortner, born in 1944. They trained their cute-as-a-button baby boy to deliver sermons (actually memorized, although they claimed the Word flowed through him direct from God), perform marriages, and preside over the mumbo-jumbo of a tent revival roadshow. Audiences, particularly in the South, couldn’t get enough of the pint-sized preacher and bought whatever holy rubbish he offered to sell them. Marjoe generated a fortune of almost three million dollars before his sixteenth birthday – when of course his holy rolling father ran off with the cash.
Later in life, Marjoe regretted all the carny-style tricks he had played on the faithful and agreed to collaborate with filmmakers Howard Smith and Sarah Kernochan on a backstage film of his tour that would expose the worst deceptions of his trade. The resultant documentary, Marjoe, won an Academy Award in 1972.
Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood is set against the same post-war grasping at straws that defined Marjoe’s early ministry. In Wise Blood, anyone who wants to, anyone who thinks they can make some quick cash, get laid, get some respect, get a discount at a squalid rooming house, declares himself to be a Preacher. The protagonist, Hazel Motes, is an avowed atheist, turned off religion by his old timey, fire-and-brimstone spewing Grandpa. Nonetheless, as he searches for a place and a role after leaving the army, he’s drawn to the idea of preaching – it sings in his blood. So he proclaims the doctrine of the Church Without Christ (“there's only one truth and that is that there is no truth”).
His new religion hits several important markers for an aspiring Preacher. He converts a believer (Enoch Emery, a troubled teenager), inspires a copycat (the Holy Church of Christ Without Christ) and acquires a fifteen year-old girlfriend (daughter of rival Preacher, Asa Hawks). Other wannabe Preachers might be content with that level of achievement, but Motes descends into murder, madness and self-mutilation. Perhaps his fate is inevitable? Mark 3:29 warns,
But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation.
Eternal damnation doesn’t seem to bother Harry Powell in Davis Grubb’s 1953 novel, Night of the Hunter. Powell is another self-proclaimed preacher, finding it convenient to combine spreading the gospel with his other great passion, serial killing. He roams up and down the Ohio River in the late 1920s, preaching – his trademark sermon incorporates the ‘LOVE’ and ‘HATE’ tattooed across his knuckles – and leaving a trail of battered female corpses in his wake. When he lands in state prison for stealing a car, his cellmate is a condemned man, a bank robber who has never revealed where he hid the $10,000 loot. Ben Harper goes to the hangman, but Powell is released, whereupon he seeks out Harper’s widow, Willa. He courts Willa in this guise, presenting himself as ideal second husband material – the former prison chaplain who was her husband’s final confidante.
Mostly, Willa and her adult friends are convinced by his performance, especially as marriage to Powell represents her only alternative to Depression-era penury. The Preacher strikes all the right poses of piety and respect, singing hymns in a mellow baritone, and quoting Scripture on a picnic. However, her young son, John, remains suspicious (“I am more afraid of him than I have ever been of shadows or the thunder”). He sees the menace beneath the Preacher’s platitudes, and the older man engages him in a sneering cat and mouse game, mixing Biblical lessons with not-so-veiled threats. John’s reluctance to believe the holy rolling act eventually saves his life – but not before the Preacher has wreaked havoc in the community. The sadistic, murderous Powell is one of the most memorable villains of the twentieth century – the 1955 film version, with Robert Mitchum, was widely acclaimed, and remains a staple of many ‘Best of…’ lists.
We can never tell exactly what is going on in the self-proclaimed Preacher’s head. Is he a genuine mystic, haunted by the Holy Spirit and compelled to serve God? Is he a cynical conman, out to fleece his gullible flock? Or is he plain crazy, hearing voices in the night? Or, quite possibly, a combination of the above? Aimee Semple McPherson heard the call to become a preacher during a severe illness in 1915. The voice told her to get out of her hospital bed and spread the Word, so she did, and was cured. After touring her Pentecostal tent show, she settled in Los Angeles in 1918 and took advantage of developments in mass media, founding the Angelus Temple of the Foursquare Gospel. She wowed the crowds with her radio preaching throughout the early 1920s, extending her congregation by using the new technology in innovative ways. Then, in 1926, she disappeared off Venice Beach, reappearing five weeks later with a lurid tale of kidnapping and escape from a shack in the Mexican desert. The press had a field day, accusing her of faking it in order to hide an extra-marital affair, perhaps even an abortion. McPherson insisted she was telling the truth, and took her stand in front of a Grand Jury. The trial fell apart through lack of evidence in January 1927, but rumors of McPherson’s illicit lovers and general lack of morality dogged her to her grave.
McPherson was so enigmatic and iconic she inspired a host of fictional versions – there are several movies, plays, and even a musical about her epic life. Evelyn Waugh was so fascinated by her that he referenced her twice in his novels, once as Mrs. Melrose Ape in Vile Bodies, then again as Aimee Thanatogenos in The Loved One. McPherson was also the model for Big Sister in Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust and Sharon Falconer in Elmer Gantry. While evangelical women rarely transcend their role as homemaker/baby factory (thanks, Biblical patriarchy!), when they do step up to the pulpit, however, they make their mark on both religious and secular culture.
Whether a con artist or an anointed holy one, a sociopath or a savior of souls, the Preacher is fundamental to the history (and mythology) of the United States. This nation was founded by angular, black-clad men whose Bibles never strayed far from their right hands. Centuries later, the Preacher is still a staple in the stories we tell. Even if we never set foot in a formal house of worship from one year’s end to the next, we shudder at his silhouette. At best, he wants to take a tally of our sins. At worst, well… better say your prayers!
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