Horror, Abuse Scandals, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame

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‎”Dost thou understand? I love thee!” he cried again. “What love!” said the unhappy girl with a shudder. He resumed,–“The love of a damned soul.” —Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame

I have gone on record many times (most recently here) to promote the particular genius of the horror genre as a tool through which Christians can confront the realities of evil and (when the genre is at its best) defy them through Christ’s love, either explicitly or implicitly. So, when I read the article “Now is a Perfect Time for Catholic Horror” by Stephen Wingate, in which he calls for a revival of the Catholic horror novel as a means of confronting the recent abuse scandals, I naturally agreed that he was on to something. But until such time as modern writers are able to produce work that engages the “difficult literary interrogation between Catholicism and evil… [and] provides a necessary look into how the church has become the horror for some,” we would do well to remember that Victor Hugo already gave us such a novel. More and more, it seems to me that The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a book for our times.

It may seem spiritually dangerous to turn to a novel that was once listed on the Church’s Index of Forbidden Books to help make sense of the current scandal,* but if we’re going to speak honestly about written works that pose spiritual dangers for Catholics, the Philadelphia grand jury report would be near the top of the list. In a world where the faithful have already been scandalized by villain-priests, there is no way to protect our souls from characters like Archdeacon Claude Frollo. We have already met such men in the flesh. We have seen the horrific effects of secrecy and denial; and if we owe it to the real victims to bring priestly crimes to light, we also owe it ourselves to revisit the prophetic novel that sought to do the same nearly 200 years ago.

When Victor Hugo wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame, he was not “anti-Catholic,” as so many critics like to call him. What Hugo believed shifted radically and often during the course of his life, but at the time he published Notre Dame, he had not yet begun dabbling in spiritualism, nor embraced the kind of secular rationalism that characterized his later years. The Hugo of 1831 still identified with the faith of his baptism, even if he had become critical of the ways in which he often saw the faith abused among the clergy. It’s a spiritual space that many Catholics today will find achingly familiar.

However, the state of Victor Hugo’s soul when he composed Notre Dame is not only unknowable, but also irrelevant to a discussion of the work itself. The story is so powerful that it has endured across centuries and been translated into nearly every language of the globe. And what is that story but the interplay of light and darkness, faith and doubt, love and betrayal, within and through the Church?

The original French title of the book is Notre-Dame de Paris; the cathedral is the title character and, arguably, the protagonist of the novel. The chapter titled “Notre-Dame” is devoted to the cathedral’s architecture, a song of praise to the building and a lament for the stupidities of man that, over the centuries, ruined certain aspects of its design. The cathedral is “a sort of human Creation, mighty and fertile as the Divine Creation, from which it seems to have borrowed the twofold character of variety and eternity.” This architectural depiction serves as a literalization of the church’s role in the novel; and not merely of the small-c church, Notre Dame, but also the capital-C Church, Catholicism. For Hugo, both are capable of bridging the gap between the temporal and the eternal, but man’s caprice has “brutally swept away” so much of what made them beautiful.

In the fifteenth century world of the story, the church still has most—but not all—of its grandeur intact. On the morning when the deformed child who will become known as Quasimodo is discovered in the porch of the church, Hugo is careful to tell us that this porch used to house statues of St. Christopher and Antoine des Essarts, a saint and a sinner, which had both been thrown down some fifty years before. Both saints and sinners have already become targets in the slow degradation of the Holy.

Yet the church is still intact enough to provide refuge for outcasts. The monstrous child exposed on the bed for foundling children is reviled by all the “good” Christians, but the young priest, Claude Frollo, chooses to adopt him. It is an act of true charity performed by a young man who has already taken on the guardianship of his baby brother after the death of their parents. This young Frollo is a rising star of the Church and a brilliant scholar. He names the foundling Quasimodo, which means half-made, “either to commemorate the day on which he found him [Quasimodo Sunday], or to express the incomplete and scarcely finished state of the poor little creature.”

Quasimodo Sunday is another name for the Second Sunday of Easter. It is taken from the opening words of the Introit, or Entrance Chant: Quasi modo géniti infántes, rationábile, sine dolo lac concupíscite, ut in eo crescátis in salútem, allelúia. This is a paraphrase of 1 Peter 2:2, and in the current English translation of the Missal, it reads, Like newborn infants, you must long for the pure, spiritual milk, that in him you may grow to salvation, alleluia. This translation has lost the sense of “half-made,” that we are not merely infants but incomplete beings, who can only be made whole by receiving the “milk” of Christ. But Hugo understands the Latin well; for him, it is only the half-made “apology for a human being” who is able to accept the Church’s invitation.

[Quasimodo’s] cathedral was enough for him. It was peopled with marble figures of kings, saints and bishops who at least did not laugh in his face and looked at him with only tranquility and benevolence. The other statues, those of monsters and demons, had no hatred for him–he resembled them too closely for that. It was rather the rest of mankind that they jeered at. The saints were his friends and blessed him; the monsters were his friends and kept watch over him. He would sometimes spend whole hours crouched before one of the statues in solitary conversation with it. If anyone came upon him then he would run away like a lover surprised during a serenade.

As long as he remains within the church, Quasimodo is happy. Yet the part of the church that makes him happiest—the bells which he is assigned to ring—also make him deaf. “Thus the only gate which nature had left wide open between him and the world was suddenly closed, and for ever. In closing, it shut out the only ray of light and joy that still reached his soul, which was now wrapped in profound darkness.”

It seems to me that Hugo isn’t quite consistent here. By making him deaf and closing the gate to the world, the cathedral has prevented Quasimodo from ever again being subject to the world’s scorn, or at least from hearing it voiced. He becomes even further encased in the church that has been “his egg, his nest, his home, his country, the universe.” Hugo wants to have it both ways: Quasimodo’s joy is both in the church and in the world to which the gate is now closed. But he is not clear about what light Quasimodo ever received from the world; the hunchback experiences nothing but abuse every time he leaves the church.

For Quasimodo, the cathedral fulfills Christ’s promise: Come to me, all you labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Father Frollo—who baptizes him, teaches him to speak, and gives him a purpose in life as the cathedral’s chief bell-ringer—serves the genuine role of a father. If the story had ended before either of these men ever laid eyes on Esmeralda, it might have been a happy tale.

In the years since he adopted Quasimodo, Claude Frollo has turned his scholarly pursuits away from theology first toward true science, then toward alchemy and sorcery. Rather than pursuing the Truth of God, he has idolized human knowledge, twisting the virtue of his keen intellect into a vice. The Claude Frollo who meets Esmeralda is a very different man from the one who first met the helpless child Quasimodo.

Esmeralda is a young gypsy dancer, physically as unlike Quasimodo as it is possible to be: lithe, beautiful, entrancing. Yet, like the hunchback, she is a lost child in need of a parent, a lost soul in need of succor. Esmeralda was stolen from her cradle to be raised among heathen strangers. But this time, Father Frollo cannot love the outcast enough to bring her into the church’s grace. Esmeralda stirs in him the same impulse toward love that Quasimodo did, but Frollo is no longer capable of anything but “the love of a damned soul.” He seeks not to shelter, but to possess; not to give, but to take. The Father has become an inversion of himself: no longer one who gives life, but one who takes it. Frollo is even able to acknowledge these changes:

And when, while thus diving into his soul, he saw how large a space nature had there prepared for the passions… he perceived, with the cold indifference of a physician examining a patient, that this hatred and this malignity were but vitiated love; that love, the source of every virtue in man, was transformed into horrid things in the heart of a priest, and that one so constituted as he in making himself a priest made himself a demon.

Frollo believes what we in the 21st century will recognize as a common argument: that the Church’s insistence on clerical celibacy, the denial of natural passions, is the root cause, or at least one of the root causes, of clerical sexual abuse. Frollo believes this argument, but his story does not illustrate its truth.** Lust is hardly Frollo’s only, or even his primary, vice. He does not chase after every skirt he sees, nor are his sins primarily driven by the desire for physical gratification. Rather, Frollo punishes his body, often working without food or sleep toward his goal of transmuting matter into gold. Frollo’s sin is the same as Adam and Eve’s: he covets knowledge that will make him godlike. His desire for Esmeralda has less to do with sex than with possession, because she—like transmuted gold, or Eden’s apple—is beautiful, forbidden, and unattainable.

When Esmeralda rejects his advances, Frollo destroys what he cannot possess. He turns her over to be hanged for a crime she did not commit. But Quasimodo has learned well from his father, and he follows the example of the younger, better Frollo; he adopts the orphaned child. In the novel’s most iconic scene, he snatches Esmeralda from the gallows and gives her sanctuary in the cathedral.

[He clasped] her closely in his arms, against his angular bosom, as his treasure, his all, as the mother of that girl would herself have done… at that moment Quasimodo was really beautiful. Yes, he was beautiful—he, that orphan, that foundling, that outcast; he felt himself august and strong; he looked in the face of that society from which he was banished… the human justice from which he had snatched its victim; those judges, those executioners, all that force of the King’s, which he, the meanest of the mean, had foiled with the force of God!

But the image of the triumphant outcasts wrapped in the consoling mantle of the church is not to last. The church is still Claude Frollo’s domain. He is the first to assault Esmeralda’s sanctuary, and Quasimodo cannot bring himself to kill his father in her defense; Esmeralda must wave a blade at Frollo herself. Her gypsy friends come next in an attempt to save her, which Quasimodo mistakenly foils because he cannot hear them speak their intentions. Then the King orders the sanctuary violated for the sake of ridding his kingdom of the supposed “sorceress.” The church’s ability to protect the powerless proves to be fleeting. As the king’s army closes in, Frollo alone has the power to save the girl, and he offers her a choice: life as his lover, or the gallows. Esmeralda replies, “I feel less horror of that than of you.” She goes to her death rather than submit to his lust.

I can only imagine how many real victims might see themselves reflected in Esmeralda. How many came to the Church looking for refuge, only to have their pastors, bishops, or archbishops issue fresh attacks by ignoring or disbelieving their accusations? How many faithful Catholics have felt like Quasimodo, carrying our wounded brothers and sisters into the bosom of the church for protection, only to be scolded and threatened by the very men we looked upon as fathers? How many predatory priests have used their power to issue ultimatums as appalling as the one given by Frollo to Esmeralda?

Frollo is true to his threat. Esmeralda dies on the gallows. An enraged Quasimodo pushes Frollo out of the tower of the cathedral where the two of them have watched the execution, and though Frollo catches himself on a pipe, the hunchback refuses to save him. As for Quasimodo:

About a year and a half or two years after the events with which this story concludes, when search was made in the vault of Montfoucon… they found among all those hideous carcasses two skeletons, one of which held the other in its embrace. One of these skeletons, which was that of a woman, still had a few strips of a garment which had once been white, and around her neck was to be seen a string of adrezarach beads with a little silk bag ornamented with green glass, which was open and empty. These objects were of so little value that the executioner had probably not cared for them. The other, which held this one in a close embrace, was the skeleton of a man. It was noticed that his spinal column was crooked, his head seated on his shoulder blades, and that one leg was shorter than the other. Moreover, there was no fracture of the vertebrae at the nape of the neck, and it was evident that he had not been hanged. Hence, the man to whom it had belonged had come thither and had died there. When they tried to detach the skeleton which he held in his embrace, he fell to dust.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a difficult book for Catholics. It calls into clear relief the potential horrors of trusting a Church that is led by a man or men as corrupt as Claude Frollo. It is a lesson that we cannot afford to ignore, yet the book leaves us with very little hope. I choose to read the ending as an intimation that perhaps Quasimodo, Esmeralda, and Esmeralda’s mother (represented by the empty bag) have found union as a family after death, but it is also legitimate to read the ending as one of pure despair. According to the novel, a hopeless grave is the sentence the Church has imposed upon those who trusted her, whom she betrayed. I have no doubt there are many who believe it, and we ignore this conclusion at our peril.

Yet there is one element missing from the portrayal of the Church in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and it is the most important one of all. Jesus Christ is hardly mentioned, and certainly never active. If the cathedral itself is the protagonist, it is a very humanized cathedral. It has “borrowed the twofold character of variety and eternity,” but it remains “a human Creation.” It is endowed with characteristics of the divine, but not the Divine Presence Himself. Quasimodo communes with statues and bells, but he never receives the “pure spiritual milk” his feast day calls for. The true warning we ought to take from the book is not merely that sexually corrupt priests pose a significant danger to the faithful. We hardly need a novel to tell us that. The real tragedy of The Hunchback of Notre Dame is that Quasimodo places his faith in the Church as an institution, not in Christ, her head. No human institution—not even one established by God—can ever be worthy of such faith. Those stone saints whom Quasimodo befriended failed to do what all true saints do; they did not lead him to know and love the living Jesus. Quasimodo is, unwittingly, an idolater; the church is his god. If there is anything we Catholics must be clear about in the context of our current scandals, it is that we do not worship idols. We worship the One who suffers with and for us. It is Christ, not the clergy or the Church, who will save the Esmeraldas and the Quasimodos from their graves—and, in His mercy, He will reach out a hand to the Claude Frollos while they plummet, too.

 

* The Church removed The Hunchback of Notre Dame from the Index of Forbidden Books in 1959.

** I’m not convinced that Hugo believed Frollo’s argument that celibacy must, by its nature, corrupt the priest—or, if he believed it in 1831, he had certainly changed his mind by the time he wrote the unforgettable portrayal of Bishop Myriel in Les Misérables.

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

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How Monster Stories Can Be Good For Our Souls

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I have an essay in The Federalist this week, which is a little preview of my talk at Doxacon on November 3. Just in time for Halloween, “How Monster Stories Can Be Good For Our Souls.”  Enjoy!

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

Chilling Tales from Living Catholic Writers

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Ask any group of reasonably well-read Catholics to name a living Catholic horror writer, and, since the death of William Peter Blatty early last year, the only one they can usually come up with is Dean Koontz. (I should know. I’ve made the experiment on multiple occasions.) But during the past decade or so, as we have seen a small but intentional movement toward the cultivation of Catholic fiction, a few brave authors have begun to delve into the darker side of the spiritual realm and still emerge with their faith unscathed, or even strengthened. If you’re looking for good stories to send shivers up your spine that will not leave you in the depths of atheistic despair, the authors below are worth checking out.

Tim PowersTim Powers is an acknowledged master of fantasy with dozens of novels and short story collections. His work has inspired spin-off video games and even the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean film. He’s also a practicing Catholic. At a talk he gave last year, which I attended, Powers said, “Any reader who goes looking for specifically Catholic fiction would be a bit at a loss with my books.” He went on to say, “What fantasy fiction does is to literalize metaphors… To un-literalize all of our stuff defeats the purpose of the genre… but of course, any story can serve both purposes.” In other words, you may have to do some metaphorical thinking to find the Catholic themes. Powers writes primarily “secret histories,” that is, history reimagined as if the real events had in fact been shaped by supernatural forces. Just skimming the list of his novels, you’ll see words like voodoo, zombies, psychic vampire, magic, werewolf… in other words, a little something for every creepy taste.

Eleanor NicholsonEleanor Bourg Nicholson is one of our former editors at Dappled Things. Her novel, A Bloody Habit, was released by Ignatius Press this summer. My full review is forthcoming in our next issue, but suffice it to say, it’s Victorian skepticism and Dominican vampire slayers at their best. As Nicholson said in a recent interview with Catholic World Report, “If evil isn’t evil, and sin isn’t sin, and vampires aren’t vampires, the thrill of the Gothic is reduced to lame angst. I find angst very boring indeed.” There is nothing boring about A Bloody Habit, and I’ve heard rumors that she’s working on a sequel with werewolves!

Andrew SeddonAndrew Seddon is an author who comes highly recommended to me, but whose work I have not yet had a chance to explore. However, the brief glance I took at the samples available on Amazon convinced me that I need to move him up on my To Read list. Seddon is the only author featured here who has not written a vampire novel. (What can I say? Vampires drink blood to achieve immortality. It’s a trope that resonates with Catholic imaginations.) Instead, Seddon prefers good, old-fashioned ghost stories. He has two collections of spooky short stories, Tales from the Brackenwood Ghost Club (2017) and What Darkness Remains, just released last month. He also writes science fiction, historical fiction, and devotionals.

Lastly, there’s me, which I mention because if you go looking for work in this tiny niche of Catholic-themed horror stories, my name will probably come up. My own contribution to the genre is my 2015 novel Jennifer the Damned, published by Wiseblood Books. It’s about an orphan vampire raised by nuns. Like Nicholson, I’m not a fan of modern quasi-vampires. Jennifer kills people. Things get messy. Metaphors are literalized.

If you know of Catholics or other Christians who are writing quality chilling tales, please share them with us in the comments! (I’m looking at you, Orthodox brothers and sisters. Vampires came from your neck of the woods.) The realm of the Gothic is fertile soil for the Christian imagination, but for a reader, it can be daunting to try to find the wheat hidden among the detritus of chaff. I hope this helps.

Happy haunting!

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

What Was In Lady Vivienne’s Poison

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I almost never post the kinds of things fans seem to want from an author: short story spinoffs of novels, cut scenes, behind-the-novel glimpses into how a story evolved. I suppose it’s because I’m not a very good fan myself. I want to read a book (or watch a movie, etc.) and judge it on its own merits. I want it to be complete unto itself, to satisfy my appetite for story in its own right, and I don’t much care what else might be out there to supplement it, especially because the supplements are usually of lesser quality. I don’t begrudge anyone for being a fan. To find something you like and desire more of it is far more sensible than my approach. It’s just not an approach I know how to take.

Not surprisingly, I write the way I want to read: with an aim toward creating the most complete, satisfying work I can, which needs no supplementation. If I cut something, there was a reason, and it needs to remain cut. If I left out a piece of information, it’s likely I don’t know it any more than you do. You can ask me until the cows come home how Helen turned Jennifer into a vampire in Jennifer the Damned, and my answer will always be the same: Jennifer doesn’t know, therefore she never told me.

But I do know what was in Lady Vivienne’s poison in Cinder Allia, and I’ve decided it’s time to let my fans know, too.

If you haven’t read Cinder Allia, fair warning: there are spoilers ahead!

If you have read it, you know that much of the plot centers around the fact that the invading Darrivant army is using poison-tipped arrows that steal the Arman soldiers’ free will and turn them into mute slaves who must fight for the enemy cause—and it is Allia’s wicked stepmother, Lady Vivienne de Camesbry, who brews the poison. In the book, I never told you how she did it because there never seemed to be an appropriate moment when Vivienne—the only person who knows—would dare to mention it, even to herself. The secret is far too valuable.

Prince Raphael conducts experiments to try to distill the poison’s secrets. “He was certain the potion contained iron, granite, nightshade, and traces of some creature’s blood, but none of that information put him closer to understanding how it worked.” If he had only had a way to identify from which creature the blood had been procured, he would have found his answer.

It came from a fairy.

Lady Vivienne has never shrunk from murder. Exactly how she killed a fairy… I suppose that’s the stuff of the kind of spinoff I usually never write, isn’t it? Since I haven’t written it, I don’t know the answer. But I do know that she only had access to the blood of a single fairy, and therefore she could not have continued producing the potion forever. There was always a time limit on her decision to either defect to the Darrivants or to secure her place among the Armans by selling the secret of her potion… and, of course, blaming her stepdaughter for its existence.

The only magic in Cinder Allia is fairy magic. The fairies themselves only employ it for good, even if they are not always successful in achieving their aims. It takes a human with murder in her heart to appropriate such a pure gift for an evil purpose.

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

Reading Without Pictures

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For the past eight years, my husband and I have been enveloped in the world of communication disorders because both of our children have difficulty comprehending language. However, it is only in recent weeks that a particular symptom was brought to the forefront as a factor in our children’s difficulties: they don’t visualize what they hear or read. Words don’t form pictures in their heads, or at least not very vividly.

When I heard this, I thought, So what? I don’t visualize words, either. I listen to them.

It shocked me to discover that the speech-language community views this as a symptom of poor language comprehension. I’ve scored at the top of every verbal aptitude test I’ve ever taken, earned a master’s degree in screenwriting, published two novels, and I have the privilege of being the managing editor of Dappled Things. I think it’s safe to say that my language comprehension is just fine. Nevertheless, I cannot deny that my children inherited this particular symptom from me.

I took an informal poll of some of the smartest people I know, and as I suspected, I am not alone. I don’t know how many of us are out there, but there is a small percentage of people who do not experience language through visualization, yet we are strong, avid readers. Our experience of story is just as vibrant and affecting as the imagined movies that most strong readers report seeing in their heads. However, we experience this sensory immersion primarily through sound. For the sake of posterity, or curiosity, or just because I’m still trying to figure out what, if anything, all this means, I’ve decided to try to articulate to the visual-dominant world what it’s like to be an aural-dominant reader.

I do not have aphantasia, or “mind’s eye blindness,” a condition in which someone is unable to form any mental visualizations. I can bring to mind pictures of things I have actually seen as well as the next person. I can close my eyes and still “see” the computer on which I am typing this, complete with all the clutter on the desk around it. The breakdown for me enters with language: words do not usually translate into pictures. If you say, “cat,” I can picture a cat if I want to, but the word itself does not trigger the image. “Cat” to me is a symbolic representation of an abstract idea, much like a number.

What do you picture if you see

1 + 1 = 2?

Do you picture one apple, or one person, or one piano, which then has another apple or person or piano added to it? Or do you understand that there is an abstract concept corresponding to the symbol 1 that your brain can access without the need for concrete imagery? If the latter, then you can understand my response to “cat.” I access it as an abstract concept, not an image.

But words do not only exist as single entities; the genius of human language is our ability to combine these abstract symbols into infinite permutations of sentences, paragraphs, and longer works that convey everything from tax codes to the divinely-inspired Word of God. Understanding the one-to-one symbolic equivalence of

cat = a four-legged furry creature that says “meow”

is called decoding, and it is only the first step to comprehension. There are other technical skills, such as fluency and sight-word recognition, that must be learned to facilitate reading, but I want to focus on the more mysterious skill that allows a reader to feel transported by a book, especially a work of fiction. This skill allows us to experience life through the characters’ “eyes” and be fully absorbed into the world of a story. It is usually called visualization, but I would like to propose a less sensory-specific term: immersion. To become immersed in a story is to experience it at the deepest level of the imagination. But despite the visual roots of the word “imagination” and the lack of an aural-equivalent English word, this immersion does not necessarily have to happen through pictures.

The ultimate goal of fiction—the true benefit of immersion—is empathy. Countless authors, readers, and critics have emphasized this across centuries:

“The only effect I ardently long to produce by my writings, is that those who read them should be better able to imagine and to feel the pains and the joys of those who differ from them in everything but the broad fact of being struggling, erring human creatures.” – George Eliot

“That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald

“We all suffer alone in the real world. True empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with their own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside. It might just be that simple.” – David Foster Wallace

The goal, then, is not to see what the character sees, or to experience the majesty of an unfamiliar time period, country, planet, etc., although these can certainly be part of the pleasure of reading. The true goal of immersion is to feel what the characters feel and to find in them some glimmer of one’s own self. For an aural-dominant reader—or at least for me—this experience of empathy is very similar to finding an emotional connection to a piece of music. The imagined sounds of the words, combined with my abstract knowledge of their meaning, create a soundscape through which I experience all the highs and lows of human drama. I hear the text as if a world-class voice actor were reading every word, highlighting rhythms and cadences, a symphony of elongated vowels and clipped consonants that sweep me along at the exact tempo of the action. The literal meaning is important; without 1+1, I cannot reach the conclusion, 2. The concepts behind the words provide the structure, but the emotion is built into the sound. The way I felt after reading The Book Thief was very similar to the way I felt after hearing a live performance of the Shostakovich tenth symphony. Both were exhausting in the most glorious way, as if my soul had run a marathon using my ears as propulsion.

Immersion is not possible for me if the language does not have cadence, rhythm, and tone. I cannot become immersed in clunky prose no matter how glorious the story it attempts to convey. I also cannot become immersed in language with too many minute visual details. Much of what visual people call “description,” I call “breaking up the flow.” Perhaps it is my screenwriting background more than my aural dominance, but INT. JOE’S APARTMENT — DAY is adequate scene-setting for me. Any details an author chooses to include must reveal the tone of the story or the characters’ interior lives, or else reading them is like listening to the same boring I-IV-V-I chord progression over and over again.

I do sometimes create pictures in my mind when I read, but doing so requires conscious effort, and I use the strategy only as a last resort. If I stop to visualize, it means I’m confused. The language has become too focused on pictures for my aural/ abstract processing to handle. I can build images in my mind’s eye, but they are strictly functional. Take the blue coat; layer it with gold embroidered flowers; add a ruffled collar and a head protruding from it that bears a handlebar moustache. It’s tiresome work and, for me, it does not produce immersion. It creates the new concept file of “what this character is wearing,” but that’s all. Sometimes these files are necessary for comprehension; sometimes they’re a lot of excess fluff. Either way, they require work to build, and they inhibit immersion. Any attempt to describe a foreign or fictional country in map-like terms might as well be written in Greek. Or twelve-tone. My brain doesn’t know how to listen.

What about the fun stuff? Pirate ships and hoop skirts, Gothic spires populated by gargoyles, desert wastelands and tropical jungles, wizards with pointy hats, talking trees, disembodied aliens? It’s all fun stuff to me, too. If I had lived in a time before movies and television, I suppose it’s possible that I would have been unable to form reasonable concept files to access these kinds of images, but here in the twenty-first century, they’re all duly tagged and stashed away. If I did not have those ready-made pictures, perhaps I would have been a less avid reader. Or perhaps I would have done the tedious work of visualization. Or perhaps I would have been perfectly happy not to know what such things looked like, because after all… Gothic spires populated by gargoyles. Isn’t it music?

Empathy through fiction comes to me as darkness. I hear the roaring tempest of my new friend’s thoughts as he tries in vain to sleep. I hear the cries he is too afraid to utter. I hear his conscience like a pedal tone, unchanged despite the long cacophony of sin that has deafened him to its pitch. I hear the hallowed whispers of his joy. Empathy comes to me as warring melodies that fight to be heard, as discord, as harmony, as suspended chords that may or may not resolve. Empathy comes to me as conversation. I hear you, my friend. Sometimes, it seems as if you can hear me, too.

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

Cinder Allia – Finalist in the 2018 Next Generation Indie Book Awards!

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Cinder Allia has been named a finalist in the 2018 Next Generation Indie Book Awards, the largest not-for-profit awards program for independent books, namely those that are self-published or from small presses. This is in addition to being tied for the best fantasy novel of 2017 at Catholic Reads.  I am honored to see my little fairy tale take wing. If you haven’t read it yet, what are you waiting for?

Cinder Allia has spent eight years living under her stepmother’s brutal thumb, wrongly punished for having caused her mother’s death. She lives for the day when the prince will grant her justice; but her fairy godmother shatters her hope with the news that the prince has died in battle. Allia escapes in search of her own happy ending, but her journey draws her into the turbulent waters of war and politics in a kingdom where the prince’s death has left chaos and division. Cinder Allia turns a traditional fairy tale upside down and weaves it into an epic filled with espionage, treason, magic, and romance. 

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Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

Being Lazarus

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In my parish, every year we read the “Optional for use with the RCIA” readings for the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Sundays of Lent, which means that this past Sunday, we heard the story of the raising of Lazarus. Lazarus as presented in the scriptures is a bit of an enigma. He might be the titular character, but his sisters Mary and Martha get most of the screen time, so to speak. Lazarus only appears long enough to stagger out of the tomb “bound hand and foot”—a feat of amazing dexterity, especially for a guy who’s been dead for four days. Lazarus never responds to his miraculous comeback. The scriptures do not record his gratitude to Jesus, nor perhaps his criticism—because who is to say that Lazarus wanted to come back? St. John did not record the answers to the questions Lazarus must have gotten tired of hearing. Where were you? What was it like? How did it feel to come back? Why don’t you write your memoirs and solve this whole question of the afterlife once and for all?

Of course, St. John knew his business, which was to bring his readers to know and love Jesus Christ, not Lazarus. He may not have satisfied his readers’ curiosity, but neither did he distract us from the central character with wild subplots. He left that up to less important writers like me.

Of all the characters in the story of Lazarus, Lazarus himself is the one with whom I most easily identify. I have had my opportunities to play Martha and Mary, weeping over the death of a loved one, “Lord, if you had been here, he would not have died.” But I also have entirely too much experience being Lazarus. I have not spent four days rotting in a tomb, but I have come a good deal closer to death than most living people—twice.

During my first semester of college, at age eighteen, my appendix ruptured, but I did not realize what had happened. I spent two weeks in my dorm burning up with fever, too weak to walk across campus to the infirmary. I thought I had the flu. Finally, I asked my parents to take me home and then said, “Mom, you’d better call a priest.” Yes, I asked for a priest before I asked for a doctor. A doctor could not have helped me at that moment. There comes a point when only Jesus can say, “This illness is not to end in death,” because the body has no resources left with which to fight. I knew instinctively that I had reached that point. Our parish priest anointed me that afternoon, a Sunday. On Monday, my father took me to the doctor, who sent me to the hospital, where I had surgery on Tuesday.

By the time I actually went under the knife, I had already recovered. The fever had broken, all of my other symptoms had disappeared, and the doctor remarked how silly he felt wheeling what appeared to be a perfectly healthy eighteen-year-old into the O.R. What he actually removed was not my appendix but the hard shell my body had formed to contain the pieces after it ruptured. There was no infection at all. “There are no recorded cases of anyone surviving a ruptured appendix without surgery,” my doctor said, “And there still aren’t because I operated on you. But you would have lived regardless.” I have never seen the expression my doctor wore that day on any other person’s face before or since. I don’t think he used the word “miracle,” but those were the eyes of someone who has beheld an event that he cannot explain.

You wouldn’t believe me if I told you how nonchalantly I received his news. Nor did the doctor, who kept trying in vain to elicit some kind of reaction from me beyond a shrug. What he said wasn’t news to me, except in the medical details. I already knew when and by Whom I had been healed. True grace comes very much as a matter of course. Miracles are inevitable in the light of God’s true love.

The second time I almost died was just a year ago, in March of 2017. I had surgery that was supposed to be minimally invasive, usually done as an outpatient procedure. It did not go as planned. I lost a great deal more blood than I should have, but no one told me that when I woke up. All I could find the strength to say was, “It hurts to breathe.” This prompted my nurse to pump me full of painkillers. All through the night after my surgery, I woke up every four hours or so to say, “I can’t breathe. It hurts to breathe.” Then I was given narcotics to put me back to sleep. I didn’t know what was wrong with me, but I knew the drugs were making it worse, even though I was too weak to say so. There came a moment when I received the latest dose and as I drifted off, I knew: I’m probably not going to wake up.

It was a moment of pure peace.

As in my other brush with death, the worst had passed before the doctors did what was necessary to save me. I was conscious and breathing without pain by the time the morning nurse came in, looked at my chart, and called the doctor to say, “Have you seen her numbers? I really think you should give her a transfusion.”

I did not experience cardiac arrest or brain death on either occasion, although I know I was very close. I did not have the “near death experience” of walking through a tunnel of light toward the open arms of Christ or my loved ones. I never saw any visions or heard any voices. But in my moments of greatest weakness, I learned that the veil between this world and the next is imperceptibly thin and easier to slip across—from both directions—than we care to admit when we’re healthy. I do not know if everyone experiences death the same way, but I know that I experienced near-death the same way twice. I shall be terribly surprised, the last time I go, if it is different.

In my experience, the approach leading up to the veil is a terrifying darkness filled with pain, but there is a kind of event horizon beyond which fear and suffering have no meaning. They simply don’t exist. There might be a medical reason for this, that the brain is too weak to produce the necessary chemicals to perceive those emotions, but on both occasions when I realized I was much more likely to die than to live, every care I had ever known dissolved in pure surrender. There was no danger on the other side of the veil. The toil and heartache are all here, in this world, in the months of excruciating recovery and the trials of life yet to come. It is not exactly true to say I didn’t want to come back. But it is true that the only answer I could give—the only answer I would ever want to give—to the peace of that surrender is, “Yes.”

Writing those words frightens me. I do not want to die. I have a husband and children who depend on me, family and friends who would grieve, books I still want to write, places I still want to visit, things I still want to accomplish in this life. I’m only thirty-eight. I’m too young to die—a ridiculous fallacy, but one I cannot shake despite all evidence to the contrary. It does no good to admit, either silently or aloud, that I know I really will be better off when I’m dead. It sounds like lunacy, even to me. But this is nothing compared to the lunacy of believing that a passage through the veil is The End. The veil is only the threshold of something unequivocally beautiful. That, over there—that is life. What we call life here is not even its shadow. It is the shadow of a shadow of a shadow.

Coming back from that state where I could “see” (for lack of a better verb) beyond this life, I am changed, but perhaps not in the ways one might expect. Death is not magic. I’m the same person now that I was before, with all the same strengths and weaknesses and failings I cannot seem to overcome. I am grateful to be here again, but the primary imprint the experiences left on my soul is not gratitude. It is mission. I did not get up and walk out of my metaphorical tomb by myself. I had no power to do so. Like Lazarus, I was called so that others “will see the glory of God.” It’s a far less dramatic mission than it sounds. My assignment is still the same as it ever was: to love the Lord my God with all my heart and to love my neighbor as myself. If it is marginally less difficult to do that now, it is only because I have less doubt about the outcome. I do not claim to have no doubt. My experiences are, after all, unverifiable, and for the second one, I was heavily drugged. Nevertheless, the testimony of my senses asserts that the hope of salvation is not hoped in vain.

For me, the knowledge of death is irrevocably linked to the knowledge of God’s eternal love. I have known that love here on earth in many ways: through the love of others, through the sacraments, through prayer, but it was in dying that I knew Him best. Rising back into this world is, by comparison, a tepid anticlimax. Perhaps that is why Lazarus never wrote his memoirs. Perhaps, like me, he could only shrug at the miracle. I AM is, and His words are true. Beside that knowledge, no miracle could ever be astonishing.

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.