I’d never heard of Christopher Buehlman but I won’t forget him after Between Two Fires. The novel was recommended by a library coworker, and the blurbs describe it as a blend of historical fiction, horror, and fantasy, which are the genres I mostly read. It’s mostly the former two (with a dash of fantasy), taking place in medieval France taken over by the Black Plague and Hell itself. Think Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant — hostile lands in dark times traveled by characters seeking some personal redemption — and you have an idea of what you’re getting into.
When I say that Hell has come to earth, I mean that literally and quite graphically. The devils have decided to test God and see how much shit they can get away with, and so they punish the world with famine, war, and bubonic plague. People are dying everywhere, societies collapse, and to feed yourself you’re lucky if you can cobble together some grass, worms, and acorn paste. But it’s how the devils use France as their dramatic playground that yields some utterly profane and shocking scenes. I’ll get to those in a moment.
The main characters are three — a young girl (Delphine), a knight (Thomas), and a priest (Matthieu) — who make a 500-mile journey from northern France to Avignon, so the girl can meet the pope for some mysterious purpose. [Historical note: Avignon was the seat of the papacy from 1309-1376. The novel is set in 1348.] Delphine can’t reveal her purpose, but the priest trusts her and the knight feels protective of her. As a character she’s not always compelling; she seems more like an avatar than a real person, since angels speak to her and she’s apparently the spiritual key to whatever may thwart the devils on earth. It’s the knight and priest who feel real, in all their sordid flaws. Thomas is sort of like Sandor Clegane from Game of Thrones, but more refined, in the way he’s become an outlaw doing bad things, but has a slow turnaround when he meets his “Arya” (Delphine) and becomes her guardian, but can hardly utter a kind word to her. Father Matthieu, meanwhile, is a sodomite consumed with guilt, and a genuinely nice guy. One of the these two men will die on the road to Avignon (there’s a sort-of spoiler for you), and frankly it’s a wonder that any of them, including the girl, makes it to their destination.
For there are threats everywhere, most of them life-threatening. The countryside is ravaged, and the villages, towns, and cities full of desperate and vile people. (See map to the left where I trace their trek from Normandy to Provence, “S” (start) to “F” (finish).) It’s a two-month journey from August to October, five hundred miles of redundant starvation, sickness, piles of corpses, mistrust, betrayal, and — worst of all — snares set by devils who attack in unexpected ways. The devil confrontations are worth detailing, and I will now examine them, but if you haven’t read the book you may wish to stop here. Major spoilers follow.
The Castle: When the Revelers Start Reveling
The first is the snare set in Normandy by the devil Belphegor. Having departed the awful village of Rochelle-la-Blanche (where starving mobs kill each other over a religious relic), our trio spot a castle on a distant hill, with an open drawbridge and men-at-arms patrolling the walls. Wondering if the plague has somehow spared this place, they check it out — despite the warnings of Delphine, who refuses to enter. To the reader, that’s an obvious cue, but I probably would have done as Thomas and Matthieu do, had I been starving. The two men are invited in for a banquet of unbelievable food, music, dance, and sex; and a night tournament to cap it off, in which Thomas jousts.
The castle interior a phantasmagoric “paradise”, where Thomas and Matthieu begin by feeding their faces from courses like these:
Pastries in the form of a small tower were shared out until a breach formed that revealed, within the tower, a painted almond-paste statue of a nude woman tied to a stake amid “flames” of crystallized honey and ginger that were to be broken off and sucked. Fruits and cheeses came next, served in bowls painted with images of men and women copulating. Then the main course: a huge platter piled with venison and other exotic meats, and several boats of garlicky brown gravy. Peacock and pheasant feather accented it artfully, and topping it were three large roasted monkeys sitting on cedar thrones, wearing capes of ermine. They wore golden crowns, which the cook, a man with narrow eyes and very long fingers, proudly tipped back, letting steam rise from their open skulls, into which he placed elegant spoons.
The monkey brains and spoons evoke the famous scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but there is nothing cartoonish in the way this unfolds, and the lure of the nightmare is impossible to resist.
The lord of the castle is described as a “stunted but ferocious leonine man with little black eyes” and it’s obvious there’s something off about him from the get (he’s really the devil Belphegor). When one of the castle knights cracks a homophobic joke, the hurdy-gurdy player joins in the laughter and momentarily stops turning his handle. The lord rounds on him:
“Did I tell you to stop playing? Your job is to keep the plague out of this castle, not stand there and laugh at our jokes like they’re meant for you to hear. Turn that goddamned thing. And make it pretty. Or I’ll break your hands. Is there anything sadder than a hurdy-gurdy player with broken hands? Maybe a Jew who sneezes at the sight of gold.”
A few pages later, the lord makes good on his promise, seizing the hurdy-gurdy’s hands and smashing them with a pewter mug. The festivities proceed as if in a David Lynch film, and after fucking one of the castle ladies — who stinks of “garlic, fecundity, and rot” — Thomas realizes the castle is literally from Hell. He and Matthieu continue as a willing participants though, and I suppose one can hardly blame them.
Paris: When the Saints Come Knocking
The next diabolical attack comes in Paris. It sort of reminds me of M. Night Shyamalan’s film The Village, in which forest creatures come knocking at night and splash red paint on the home doors of the villagers. In this case, those who come knocking don’t always stop at the door, and they would rather draw blood and kill than throw paint around for a few scares. Thomas, Matthieu, and Delphine are taken in as guests in the shop/home of a woodcarver named Jehan, and his sweet wife Annette who practically wants to adopt Delphine on the spot. She doesn’t get the chance. Both man and wife pay dearly for sheltering their guests when an animated statue of the Virgin comes knocking the following night, in a truly terrifying scene:
The door opened on a six-foot statue of the Holy Virgin with a high crown, holding a scepter in one hand. But where the Holy Infant should have been cradled in the other, her stone hand held the ankle of an infant who dangled upside down with the purplish skin of a plague victim. He had been dead for some time. Flies buzzed around them. His milky eyes saw nothing. And yet he opened his mouth and cried.
“Help my baby,” the statue said, its mouth moving jerkily. It ducked its crown and stepped into the room with the sound of a millstone grinding, and everyone recoiled from it. Now it flung the infant at Thomas so hard it knocked him backward. Delphine gaped at it; when it moved, it somehow seemed like a statue seen in glimpses; it moved fast, but choppily. It was impossible.
The fight was awful. It was hard to see in the near-darkness of the candlelit workshop. Delphine shook her head, trying to wake up from what couldn’t be happening. The unholy Virgin had Annette by the arm. The arm broke. The Virgin bit something off her face and spat it at Jehan. Then it stove her head in with its scepter.
“No!” Delphine tried to scream, but it came out like a kitten’s mew.
Matthieu pulled Delphine behind him, saying a Pater Noster, but she looked around his robes. Thomas had flipped his sword, holding it near the point, bludgeoning the living statue, making sparks and chipping at it, but he could not stop it. It wanted the woodcarver now. Jehan’s mallet knocked a point off the crown, but then it lowered its head like a bull and gored him against the wall, again and again, shaking the building with the force of it.
Thomas, Matthieu, and Delphine barely manage to escape the fate of their hosts, with the Virgin-parody croaking after them, “You didn’t help the baby.” (Said she who just threw the goddamn baby like a rock.) As they flee Paris they are accosted by many more statues — “saints, kings, and apostles, their limbs and faces spattered with blood” — and poor Saint Paul has been co-opted in quite an obscene manner: “holding his stone book in one hand, and, with the other, dangling a limp boy-child aloft by the head as if the saint were being fellated.” The apostle then unloads a deluge of shocking vulgarity on Matthieu, mocking the priest’s lustful desires, and it’s amusing to imagine what the historical apostle would make of this.
Auxerre: When the Dead Start Rising
The trio eventually come to Auxerre, where the devil Raum and a German boy are stirring up mobs with incendiary preaching and obscene miracles. Everywhere this preacher duo come to (they began their itinerary in Germany), they convince the town to crucify one of their citizens in order to appease God. The boy, to me, is one of the novel’s most entertaining (and tragic) characters, and his accent has a lot to do with it:
He was quite credible as the herald to a prophet, with his eyes of northern ocean blue and his dimpled smile. Even his German accent, normally a hindrance in these xenophobic times, lent him an air of exoticism; after all, if some holy cure were to come to Auxerre, it would not come from Burgundy. Why not the piney forests of the north?
“Wait!” he said, capturing his audience with an up-pointed finger and a theatrical tilt to his head. “I believes I hear them. But perhaps you will hear them, too, if you make der Alleluia.”
“Children of Gott, make der ALLELUIA!”
“ALLELUIA!” they cried, and a drum began to beat a simple march.
And with that, a mob of self-flagellating Penitents appears, marching up the street into view:
Threescore farmers, carpenters, wives, and daughters who had all been converted by the beautiful boy. They were naked from the waist up, like the boy, all wearing simple skirts that had once been white but had been marched in and bled on until they were the color of earth and as stiff as leather. The crowd gasped at the sight of them; the women’s bare breasts, the old blood drying, the new blood trickling. Some of the Auxerrois even fell to their knees wailing, thinking Judgment Day had come, here, now, and soon Christ himself would split the sky and part the damned from the saved.
The preacher’s miracle follows. He calls himself Rutger and looks like a muscular Saxon, but he’s really the devil Raum. He beats his drum faster until the Penitents “bloodied themselves with their whips and branches in time to the rhythm, ending in an orgiastic frenzy that actually sprayed droplets into the crowd”. The madness catches on, and makes more Penitents on the spot, and then Rutger raises a man from the dead — a perverted Lazarus-like resurrection that’s more like reanimation, since the corpse comes back with an evil mind. At this point Delphine makes a surprising intervention, revealing power that she has, by kissing the man and returning him to death. She also kisses the preacher-boy (who had been a victim of the plague in Germany until “raised” by Rutger), and he too is granted the mercy of release. Rutger is furious and things get even more nasty.
Avignon: When the Pope Speaks
At first I was worried that the papacy was going to be caricatured, and my bowels almost burst when Pope Clement VI reversed his historical attitude towards Jewish people. In two papal bulls, Clement had condemned attacks on the Jews and exonerated them from causing the Black Plague, and while in the novel that is acknowledged, Clement now retracts those bulls, declaring:
“Our late words in defense of a certain quarter were, we now believe, in error. Many men, wiser men than we once thought, have said that we cannot drive the rat [Muslim] from the granary while the mouse [Jew] steals in the pantry. I tell those of you who wear crowns to ready yourselves and your kingdoms in secret; soon we shall recall our bull Sicut Judaeis, in defense of the Hebrew race, and issue another which shall grant any Christian whatsoever the right to turn his hand against any Jew, and to take from such whatever goods he desires, even his house and chattel. Very soon now, from the feast day of Saint Martin of Tours [Nov 12], the murder of the Hebrew shall no more be a sin than the hunt of a stag.”
Sicut Judaeis was the bull issued by Calixtus II over two centuries earlier, in 1120, in response to the slaughter of Jews during the First Crusade (1096-99). The bull stated that the Jews are not analogs to the Muslims; they are God’s chosen and thus Christians are forbidden, on pain of excommunication, from harming Jews, forcing them to convert, taking their property, and disturbing their festivals. This bull was reaffirmed by countless popes all the way through the 15th century, including Clement VI. In Buehlman’s fiction, however, Clement plans to nullify that bull and his own two recent bulls, as he summons a perverted form of a crusade. I thought this was a cheap shot — that the author was trying to malign Clement VI, or he just didn’t know his facts — until I realized how stupid I was being. For this isn’t the real Clement, of course, but a devil impersonator; the devil this time being Beelzebub, the worst of the lot.
Beelzebub’s agenda is to incite hatred and violence against the Jews from the chair of St. Peter, and he keeps a plantation across the river in Villeneuve where animated corpses toil in the vineyards, making wine that causes people fall under his spell when he speaks.
The Apocalypse: When the Lord Gives Answer
The devils’ war in heaven and on earth finally breaks out at Avignon, ignited when the real Clement is rescued from his imprisonment (by Delphine) and confronts the false Clement. Literally all Hell breaks loose, and God responds by sending his angels led by Zephon, Uriel, and Michael. It’s a climax of (again, literally) biblical proportions, and a most satisfying scene involves Thomas splitting the false Clements’s head down the middle. The fly-head of Beelzebub grows and replaces it immediately, and at this point I was thinking more than ever that Between Two Fires needs to be made into a film.
I can’t finish without addressing Thomas’s fate. Not only does he go through hell (figuratively) all throughout the story (his legs are broken at one point and he is tortured close to death), and gets a taste of Hell in the places described above, he goes to Hell for real when he dies in the apocalyptic showdown. Aside from Dante’s Inferno, I’ve not read a more compelling view of the afterlife of the damned:
He went from one torment to another, starting with bodily pain and going on to heartbreak. He was skinned and then made to drag his skin behind him, and then made to sew his skin back on himself, with the dirt and gravel it had picked up now under it. He was shredded slowly, crammed with thorns and made to eject them, crowded in with naked thongs and scalded, made to fight for cool water or a glimpse of sky, and when they saw that he liked fighting, they made him fight again and again for everything, for years, until even his rage was broken, and he wept and succumbed when confronted. He was murdered and betrayed by those he loved, and then made to murder and betray them, then desecrate them, cannibalize them, regurgitate them.
Nothing was left out. No weakness was overlooked.
For pride in his strength he was made a plaything. For his carnality he was rendered sexless.
He was made to live each oath he’d spoken, no matter how ridiculous, lapping Christ’s wounds, drowned with Christ in shit, boiled in Mary’s sour milk, sodomized by the cocks of the Apostles, until he had been stripped of his capacity for laughter or even the capacity to disbelieve the outrageous. They took his humor from him not because they themselves were humorless — they most certainly were not — but because it so offended them that man had been given this too.
Hell was mutable and hard, banal and shocking, painful and numbing, burning and frozen, but mostly it was real.
Hell was real.
I don’t know that Hell is real, and I tend to doubt it. But if it is, and if it’s anything like what’s presented in Between Two Fires, then God help me and probably us all.
Between Two Fires is one of those novels you’ve never heard of and wonder why. Buehlman has an arresting imagination, and he can write, unlike many novelists who make the bestseller lists. I’ll surely read the book again at some point. It’s a bleak story but not nihilistic; there’s a redemptive arc suggesting a glimmer of hope in a world where disaster and evil too often get the upper hand.
Rating: 8 ½ stars out of 10