(2015) David V. Barrett, Robinson, £9.99, pbk, xi + 561pp, ISBN 978-1-472-11165-4
Robinson Press are now running the Mammoth Press series, and you know what to expect from most Mammoth titles. The Best ‘Robot’ stories, 'New Zombie’ stories, 'Best New Erotica’, ‘Steampunk’, etc. Tales From The Vatican Vaults might confuse readers into expecting Catholic Theology but the collection is actually centred on ‘alternative history’ with stories that are often science fiction or fantasy or horror.
The connecting premise for the stories is that Pope John Paul 1st did not die barely a month into his reign in 1978, but went on to reform the church, and directly address issues such as child molestation, etc. He also went on to open the Vatican’s secret archives, and release articles the church had previously suppressed and censored. The 28 histories in the book are presented as highlights of the material offered.
The stories run chronologically from the year 850 to 1978 itself. As with many such collections, the stories vary in quality and length.
There are lots of historic personages here, from John Dee to Mozart, Captain Cook and Salvador Dali. The stories include ecclesiastical encounters with aliens, heretical cults surrounding thinkers who advocate the Big Bang Theory and evolutionary ideas way ahead of their time, and the discovery of gods far older than Judaeo-Christianity being mistaken for saints or angels.
As the stories get more contemporary, some start dealing with characters finding much older records and files plunging the reader back to the past again. You feel as though you are drawing closer to home and then taking two steps back for each step forward. For example, Sarah Ash’s 'Miserere' is supposed to be about events in 1970, but much of it concerns events in 1770, when Mozart hears and memorizes a sacred composition that cannot be performed outside the Vatican, because each time it is performed someone dies. The church knows Mozart has copied the score but it isn’t found again until the 1970 characters stumble upon it and tangle with the investigators.
Some stories are variations on established yarns. The editor’s opening story 'The Tale Of Pope Joan' reworks a myth that is already a popular George Bernard Shaw play, but Shaw never considered making her a shape-shifter. I am sure he would have if he had considered it.
Barrett book-ends each story with an intro' and a closing summary of how the record came to vanish into the Vatican archives. Many stories involve their narrators vanishing or suddenly meeting sinister church officials who stop them saying more, or they are simply never heard of again.
Kleo Kay’s 'The Gifts' has alchemist, John Dee discover that Jesus used a specific mixture of the Magi gifts of Gold, Frankincense & Myrrh to become immortal, thus escaping death on the cross. Lionel & Patricia Fanthorpe’s 'Sauniere’s Secret' parodies The Holy Blood & Holy Grail conspiracy theory to claim that the Priory Of Zion / Rennes Le Chateau mysteries point to an amphibious alien rather than the bloodline of Christ.
The simplest stories work best. Alex Bell’s 'The Confession' is a terrifying look at a priest going insane after taking a confession, from Jack The Ripper. Should he tell the world despite the confidentiality rules? Gary Kilworth’s 'The Watchers' is also frightening and has Spinoza starting to question just what shepherds are really watching as well as their sheep? He speculates on why they were invited to witness the nativity and if they represent some kind of secret service? We never find out just what the Shepherds are doing but the intense paranoia of the story makes them as scary as the shark in Jaws. Beware of shepherds!
There are let downs, such as Terry Grimwood’s 'The She', in which an Odette-like British female intelligence agent is sent to help French Resistance fighters but then finds that her contacts really want to initiate her into a cult dedicated to Lilith (Adam’s first wife). The recruitment is so important that even Winston Churchill turns up in the ruined house surrounded by Nazis, to show his approval of her conversion. I just read this thinking ‘What? Eh? How?’ throughout.
Fortunately such work is more than counterbalanced by such gems as Patrice Chaplin’s 'The Mountain Wind' in which the church has steadfastly collected any documents relating to a Spanish portal to another dimension referred to though history. However, when it might or might not be painted into Salvador Dali’s (very real) painting Perpignan Station, subtitled ‘The Centre Of The Universe’ the church is left wondering whether to suppress it or not as the painting’s surrealism may not lead most people seeing the work to the right interpretation. Dali may or may not have been through such a portal himself.
Overall, an excellent if rather dry series of What If’s, given in a unique framing context. I hope it is successful enough to encourage more secret files to surface and who knows what the real Vatican Vaults will tell us if their contents ever are genuinely made public.
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