Long time blog readers will recall my habit of attempting to read books written by anyone I have met or interacted with online in a significant way (man is that an awkward way to describe “online friends” or what?). Jared C. Wilson fits in that category. I have been reading his blogging and writing for many years. Interestingly enough, when I began to interact with Jared on things literary he very much wanted to be a fiction writer. But he found his initial success writing about faith and theology (ironic, during Theology Week, right?).
Something strange is happening in Houston and its rural suburb, Trumbull. It starts with the bizarre mutilation of a farmer’s cow, sparking rumors of UFO sightings and alien visitations. It’s all an annoyance for the police, who would prefer to focus on the recent murders in the area. Mike Walsh is a journalist with a nagging editor and a troubled marriage who finds himself inexorably drawn into the deeper story creeping up on all who dare get close enough: a grizzled small town police captain, a depressed journalist, a disillusioned pastor, and a little old man. They are unlikely allies against the otherworld.
This is also a well-timed review as we just passed Halloween and have been discussing how the Christian imagination deals with death, horror, etc. OK, I have been thinking about it more than “we” have been discussing it but you get my point.
Otherworld touches on many of these themes and turned out to be an interesting fiction debut for Jared. Otherworld is a sort of Christian horror/supernatural mystery. It starts off with a potential UFO encounter, moves toward the supernatural and ends with a Christian perspective.
While I enjoyed reading it, I felt like it tried to do too much. The main focus of the story, journalist Mike Walsh, is an interesting hook/focus. A man whose life seems to have veered off course and he doesn’t know how to regain control. Mike’s wife has left him and he feels helpless to do anything about it or take steps to win her back. A childhood incident also haunts him and seems to play a role in his inability to get any traction. I like the way Jared took an “ordinary” character with everyday struggles and highlighted the choices he made and the repercussions of those choices.
There are a handful of other characters whose lives we get glimpses of: the pastor who also is wrestling with depression and a life gone off track; the seemingly cranky police captain who is in fact a prayer warrior; the sociology professor who believes in an alien invasion of sorts; the young villain relentlessly killing to appease the voices in his head.
Wilson creates some interesting characters, and I liked some of the character building involved in this story, but all the pieces and parts never quite comes together into something more. At times it feels like it wants to be a literary novel exploring the internal lives of characters and their “real” world impact. At times it wants to be action orientated; a sort of supernatural thriller with spiritual themes. But while the dark aspect of the story brings some tension, and there are some gripping scenes as the “Bad Man” stalks a little girl, the momentum never really gains steam. And while the climatic scene has some tension and action, there generally there is too much explication and not enough natural action for it to really move like a thriller.
All that said, rare is the author who knocks it out of the park with their first novel. And to be fair, I am not exactly a big reader of Christian fiction so perhaps that colors my views. I think Jared has the imagination and writing ability to do interesting things in his fiction writing so I hope he gets a chance to do more (he is rather prolific on the non-fiction side). The world needs more writers who take Christians and their world seriously and attempt to capture those characters and ideas in interesting ways. Otherworld shows promise in this even if it doesn’t quite pull it off in my mind here.