The best creative collaborations are the ones which result in a truly unified voice, the kind of work in which you can’t pick out who wrote what. Stephen King and Peter Straub achieved this with The Talisman and its sequel, Black House; just last week I wrote about the duo of Jack Ketchum and Lucky McKee, who’ve successfully melded their talents with both The Woman and I’m Not Sam.
If the names Christopher Golden and Mike Mignola don’t immediately spring to mind when I mention successful creative partnerships, they should. Separately, these two have both produced amazing bodies of work; Golden with countless novels and short stories, and Mignola with his long-running comic series Hellboy and its vast array of spin-offs. Together, they are building a library of titles that pull from their respective strengths to fulfill a voice and vision that could only come from the two of them working side-by-side: Baltimore, or, The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire; Joe Golem and the Drowning City; and now Father Gaetano’s Puppet Catechism. The long, unabashedly pulpy titles alone are enough by now to set their books apart.
Catechism takes place in the shadow of World War II, in a little Sicilian village called Tringale. The war has ravaged the village and its citizens, and a handful of children have found themselves left in the care of a hastily-organized orphanage run by the Church of San Domenico. To this church comes Father Gaetano, a young priest who is about to have his hands more than full.
Gaetano is unlike any other priest in San Domenico’s history. He is young, for one, carrying the bespectacled countenance of a scientist rather than the stern brow of an older, more authoritative leader. He is also conflicted about his path to priesthood, wondering often if it was a path he chose more to appease his mother than to appease some higher inner calling. It doesn’t help when he immediately finds himself attracted to Sister Teresa, one of the nuns who helps with the orphanage. His blossoming friendship with the sister is one of the great accomplishments of Golden and Mignola’s work here, in that they are able to make it feel so real and natural in such a short space of time.
As Gaetano settles in, he comes to realize that he isn’t the only one struggling with his faith. Almost immediately the children begin to bombard him with difficult questions, wanting to know how a loving God could allow war to take their parents and siblings away, and how such tragedy could possibly fit into some sort of master plan. Gaetano decides that in order to rebuild their faith he must do so from the ground up, and begins teaching them about the Bible from the very first book of Genesis.
He’s not making a lot of headway, but one day he discovers that one of the boys, a bright young fellow called Sebastiano, carries with him a puppet made by a former caretaker. There are other puppets and a puppet theater that the caretaker had also constructed, and Gaetano thinks that these might be the tools he’s been looking for to help the children find their faith again.
What Gaetano doesn’t realize is that the stories the children tell of the puppets visiting them at night are more than imagination, more than the skill of the former caretaker at bringing these characters to life. The stories are true, the puppets are more than puppets, and Gaetano is about to learn more about the nature of God, magic, and evil than he ever wanted to know.
There are so many big ideas packed into this compact novella that it easily could have run twice as long without running out of steam. The pure power of belief, the possible depths of grief and regret, the almost unavoidable conflict between creator and creation…it’s heady stuff blended with pure storytelling, and you’ll find yourself racing through the pages to see what happens next even as your brain begs you to slow down a minute and think about what you just read. Well, there will be plenty of time for that once you’re done. Father Gaetano’s Puppet Catechism goes beyond fluff to provide entertainment with substance, an all-too rare treat in our disposable times. Kudos to Golden and Mignola for their work – now, gentlemen, what’s next?
Order Father Gaetano’s Puppet Catechism.
Blu Gilliand is a freelance writer of fiction and nonfiction. He covers horror fiction at his blog, October Country (http://theoctobercountry.wordpress.com), and contributes interviews to the Horror World website (www.horrorworld.org). Follow him on Twitter at @BluGilliand.