I’m a sucker for Christmas.
You wouldn’t think it, would you? It goes against my curmudgeonly nature, my cynical contempt for most things human conceived and generated. But around mid-December, my icy heart thaws (a little) and I begin to harbor a few (tentative) good feelings toward the sentient bipeds inhabiting this planet.
The mood and setting are critical:
Fireplace. Blazing away. The tang and pop of pine wood. The temperature outside plunging but do we care?
Booze. Hopefully someone will bring along some single malt scotch (Glenfiddich or Glenmorangie would be lovely) and, if not, there’s wine and Guinness beer, a little something for every thirst.
Gifts. I take gift-giving very seriously. Nothing frivolous, everything carefully considered. Usually that means the right book to the right person. My track record there is pretty good.
Tree. Must be real and decorated with the minimum of ostentation. Home made ornaments and family mementos. Our ragged ass angel stuck at the top.
Programming. The essentials: the Vienna Boys Choir and Gene Autry crooning in the background and, in the evening, on TV, “Charlie Brown Christmas”, the original “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”, “The Muppets Christmas” and, in the last few years “The Trailer Park Boys” Christmas show (hilarious and surprisingly touching). A few years ago I improvised, adding “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” but that didn’t go over well. Some people just don’t appreciate cinematic excellence.
Laughter. This hundred year old house shuddering on its foundations, howls and yodels of mirth rattling the windows.
Christmas, at the Burns residence.
* * * *
A couple of past posts relating to Christmas:
Click here to read “The Gospel of St. Nicholas“, based on recent archaeological digs in the Middle East. I discovered some startling new evidence on the historical figure of St. Nicholas that contradicts previous theories regarding the life and death of the man who would become Santa Claus. Shocking stuff.
And, finally, a few Christmases back I posted a Christmas story starring my two beloved occult detectives Cassandra Zinnea and Evgeny Nightstalk, featured in my novel So Dark the Night. “Finding Charlotte” is a case from the early days of their partnership, a missing person report that turns out to be more complicated than initial appearances.
Happy holidays to readers and regular visitors to this blog.
Best wishes for 2015 and here’s hoping there’s better times to come.
A few years back I provided some background into the real story of St. Nicholas…
…and let us not forget the Christmas tale I wrote employing the two main characters from my supernatural thriller, So Dark the Night. “Finding Charlotte” is a case from Zinnea and Nightstalk’s early days and it’s available for free download and reading.
To my friends and readers, everyone who follows my work:
And each time I’ve tried to explain that I after I finished So Dark the Night, I fully expected to write more accounts of my partners in crime…but it just didn’t happen. I could no longer hear Nightstalk’s voice and, after awhile, moved on (with regret) to other things.
But a few weeks ago, my old friend Evgeny Nightstalk dropped in for a visit. Not an extended stay, I could only pry a short story out of him, a case from their first months together, an affair (wouldn’t you know it), set around Christmas time. Maybe Nightstalk was cutting me some slack for his long absence.
Here’s the first part of “Finding Charlotte”…if you’d like to read the rest, click on the link and you’ll find the complete PDF. Free reading, I should add: read it, download it, share it with friends. And if “Finding Charlotte” strikes your fancy, have a look at So Dark the Night. It’s a grand adventure, my two supernatural detectives involved with all manner of Lovecraftian monstrosities and occult-oriented schemes. A fast-paced yarn, I think you’ll love it.
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Finding Charlotte (A Zinnea & Nightstalk Mystery)
Cassandra Zinnea called them “C.O.N.C.s”. Cases of no consequence. She could be snooty like that sometimes. I told her once, hey, even Sherlock Holmes realized they can’t all be Studies in Scarlet or whatever. When you get handed a lemon, y’know, make lemonade.
She didn’t buy it. She got bored pretty easily. Very Holmes-like that way. Only she had different diversions than a seven per cent solution of cocaine. It’s debatable if they were any healthier in the long run but, well, that’s a discussion for another time.
The affair involving the disappearance of Charlotte Bednarski didn’t have a promising beginning and you’ll have to decide for yourself if everything worked out for the best in the end. I’m not what you would call big on analysis. That’s my partner’s domain. Smart and gorgeous, the complete package. Miss Marple and a Victoria’s Secrets model all rolled into one. As kind and decent a human being as you’re likely to encounter this side of Heaven. And that’s why it was nearly killing her giving the Turnbulls the bad news.
“—so terribly sorry,” Cassandra said, standing in front of our shared desk, her voice quaking with emotion. “It’s official policy and I’m afraid there are no exceptions. We don’t handle missing persons cases or divorces. We’ve found they both involve too many…complications. You say you’ve already been to the police—”
Dennis Turnbull snorted. “Fat lot of good they were. Wouldn’t give us the time of day, would they, hon? What’s this world coming to?” He was chubby, forty-ish, some kind of nerd. Baby fat and large, soft features. Likely cried during sappy movies and was good about helping with the washing up. A “girly man”, as my buddy Arnold would say.
I was hearing warning bells. The cops in Ilium may not have been top drawer in many respects but they tended to ramp up their game when there were children involved. “How long did you say your kid’s been missing? Two days?” They nodded, tired and discouraged, leaning into each other. The wife seemed older, utilizing a full palette of makeup to disguise her true age. Offhand, I’d say she applied it with a trowel. But they were nice people, just addled, desperate. “You gave us the impression she was quite young…”
“Around nine, I would say,” Cheryl Turnbull confirmed, “but small for her age.”
That sounded funny but at that point Cassandra jumped in. “So this isn’t any ordinary runaway. She’s under-aged, alone out there…” She choked up. Mrs. Turnbull nodded, the two of them close to blubbering.
“That’s what we tried to tell the police,” she croaked, “but they wouldn’t listen.”
I could see my partner wavering and decided enough was enough. “Yeah, that’s, uh, definitely strange and if I were you I’d, uh, definitely go back there and get them to put out an A.P.B. on your daughter and—”
Dennis Turnbull was shaking his head. He tapped his wife’s leg and they rose together. “We’ve been humiliated enough, thank you very much. That Detective-Sergeant or whatever he said he was. Snowden…” I glanced at my partner. “You must know the man. He’s the one who told us to come down here. ‘The court of last resort’, he called you.”
“He’s an idiot,” Cassandra said.
“What she says,” I added.
The Turnbulls helped each other on with their coats. We could only stand there and watch.
“I have to correct you on one point, Mr. Nightstalk.” Dennis Turnbull tugged brown leather gloves over his thick fingers; it was a cold night, a week ’til Christmas, the wind off Lake Erie downright lethal. “Charlotte wasn’t our daughter. My wife and I are childless by choice.” She offered us a thin smile. Not entirely by choice, it seemed to say.
Now I was really confused. “So…she was a niece? A neighbor–”
“Oh, no, she lived with us.”
Cassandra and I exchanged befuddled looks. “Adopted?” she ventured.
“No, she was there when we moved in.” She saw our bafflement. “She came with the house.”
Nope, still didn’t get it. But Cassandra did, I could tell from her spreading smile. Suddenly the case had become much more interesting.
I blundered on. “She was living there? Like…squatting?”
“No, Nightstalk,” my partner corrected me. “She’s always lived there.”
The Turnbulls smiled at each other. “She’s the reason we bought the place,” Cheryl Turnbull confided. “The location is nice but the backyard is far too small for our tastes.”
“We both like to garden,” Dennis chimed in.
“But once Charlotte made herself known to us…we knew we couldn’t let it go.” They were standing by the door. “It’s been ten years now and we’ve never regretted it a moment.” They clasped hands. Forming a common front.
Cassandra’s demeanor had undergone a radical transformation; all at once she was in full hunt mode. “Now that we’re more fully apprised of the situation,” checking with me for confirmation, “I think we might be of service to you after all.”
“Just don’t call her a ghost,” Cheryl Turnbull pleaded, crossing toward us, holding out her hands, a big purse looped over her wrist. “That awful Snowden man kept saying that. I hate it. Ghosts are feeble and sad and pathetic. Charlotte is none of those things. She has a personality, a—a—”
“Easy now, dear,” her husband coaxed her, “we’re among friends here.” He regarded us hopefully as he patted her shoulder. “It’s nice to be with folks who don’t make you feel like you’re, y’know, coo coo.”
“We’ve lost friends, even our families won’t come to visit.” Cheryl Turnbull managed to look hurt and defiant. “Just because we set an extra place at the table or put on her favorite show when it’s time. What’s that to any of them?”
I could only manage a sickly grin so they focused their attention on my lovely colleague. She, in contrast, gave off waves of understanding and empathy.
“Come over here and have a seat. We’ll start again.” Signaling me. “My associate, Mr. Nightstalk, will take down the particulars. Give us a bit of background and talk about the day she went missing. All the details you can think of, no matter how inconsequential they might seem.” I found my steno pad and a pen. “Let’s see if we can get to the bottom of this…”
To read the complete story, click here: Finding Charlotte
And, please, folks, during this magical time of the year, let’s not forget the true meaning and origin of Christmas.
I confess it: I love it every time December 25th rolls around, and Christmas morning still sees me scrambling down the stairs, bright and (too) early, poking under the tree, pestering my wife to hurry up as she makes us her customary scones. It’s ridiculous, I’m pushing fifty and there’s no excuse for such silly behavior.
But I was the kinda kid who avidly followed reports from CKOS-TV (Yorkton) on Christmas Eve, an announcer glibly informing gullible dopes like me that our military radar (Canada’s famed Distant Early Warning System) had picked up Santa’s sleigh as it departed the North Pole and his stupendously improbable round-the-world odyssey had begun. And, yes, later on, I’d be in bed, straining for the sound of hooves clattering on the roof. Swear to God. So I guess you can see why so much of my fiction tends toward the fantastic. It comes honestly.
Both my sons are in high school now so there isn’t that buzz around Christmas that there was in the old days. We even wrapped their presents early, hoping to draw them like inquisitive ferrets but, well, Sam’s been rehearsing and performing in the school play and Liam wrestles four nights a week these days so they’re quite preoccupied with matters other than rattling boxes and guessing their contents.
Not that it would do any good—I’m a devious wrapper, cleverly disguising even the most modest gift so that by the time I’m done the Amazing Kreskin couldn’t tell you what’s in there.
Christmas is a time of kicking back, reading, relaxing, watching movies…which reminds me, I’ve got to dig some of the classics out of the basement storeroom: “Charlie Brown Christmas”, “Muppet Christmas” and, it goes without saying, “Santa Claus Vs. the Martians”. Lots of family time, lots of time in front of the fireplace, lots of…turkey. Turkey, turkey and more turkey. That is absolutely mandatory.
Editing on my western novel has been especially intense for the past three weeks. I wanted to have a good draft of The Last Hunt by Christmas Eve and it looks like I’ll achieve my goal. That will make it easier for me to take a few days off, rest and recharge before I do a final polish of the novel in the New Year. Everything on schedule, nothing to get uptight about. Easy, boy, easy…
Here’s wishing you a cheery, laughter-filled holiday season. Remember to spare a thought or two to those less fortunate, drop a few bucks in the hand of a street person, send a check to the Stephen Lewis Foundation, do what you can with what you have to make this world a little more humane and compassionate.
Oh, and, ah, KEEP READING.
And, please, folks, during the holiday season let’s not forget the true origins of Christmas.
With all the consumerism and hedonistic behavior that accompany this time of year, I thought it important, nay, essential, to remind everyone there really was a St. Nicholas and the above link tells his inspiring life story, a moral lesson for us all.
Have a Merry one!
It’s been two years now, and a lot of posts in that interval, so maybe more recent readers haven’t seen my review of the legendary Gospel of St. Nicholas.
I love the notion of these “lost gospels” that keep cropping up. One of these days, I’m hoping they’ll uncover some indisputable ur-text that begins with the words: “Jesus and his buddies were pissing it up one night, tossing around ideas for a really cool religion…”
Enjoy the review and from the Burns family to all of you:
Merry Christmas and all the best in 2010.
The Gospel of St. Nicholas
Translated and edited by Randolph Carter
(Miskatonic University Press; 2007)
Ever since a couple of farmers stumbled across a treasure trove (over 1000 pages) of ancient scrolls just across the river from Nag Hammadi (Egypt) in 1945, we have been captivated by the notion of “hidden” or heretical texts, suppressed by church leaders, lost to the ages. These texts would, some think, overthrow prevailing church dogma and reveal the “true” message of Christ. The Gospel of Thomas caused a bit of a stir some years back and then a few scraps purporting to give Judas’ side of the most infamous betrayal in human history were recently unearthed and published in the pages of a certain world-renowned magazine…
But the ancient texts always end up promising more than they deliver. Thomas turned out to be a series of sayings and aphorisms that wouldn’t have been out of place in a fortune cookie. Judas failed to lead to a mass reinterpretation of the basic tenets of Christianity and after an initial surge of public interest, dropped off the radar screen. Neither succeeded at rising above the level of what they were: apocrypha. Frankly, one can see why the early church fathers decided to pare them out.
Which brings us to the latest “find”, words composed by one of the early disciples of Jesus’ ministry, a man (if we are to believe him) who was intimately acquainted with the Master and privy to special knowledge not shared with the others (“I will tell you what no eye has ever seen and no ear ever heard” —Nicholas Ch. 1:2).
The Gospel of St. Nicholas has provenance, no question. It was specifically alluded to at the Council of Nicea (325 A.D.), and early church leaders Irenaeus and Eusebius both rail against it, the latter referring to it as “a perverse text (that) slanders the character of our Lord and Master” and calling Nicholas “a bad egg”. There’s a single reference to Nicholas (“a magus, more properly a scoundrel”) in Josephus’ The Jewish War as well as a disputed letter some attribute to Paul that speaks of Nicholas as “that drunken oaf, a laughing stock of a follower…”
And now along comes Professor Carter with this translation of a gospel long rumoured extant (held in a private collection, it was whispered, a prize treasure of the Sultan of Brunei or one of the Rothschilds, depending on the telling) but never publicly exhibited. Professor Carter is notably vague as to how he actually came into possession of such a rare artifact. There was a feature article in the Biblical Archaeological Review relating one version of the story, involving a shady character known only as “Joel Cairo” and a hasty transaction that took place in an airport bathroom in Istanbul (it is not disclosed what Professor Carter offered in exchange for his prize). When I contacted the professor at his home outside Arkham, he was cagy, neither confirming or denying the essentials of the BAR account.
Others have taken him to task for hoarding the Nicholas material, refusing to share his find with fellow scholars, a criticism that has also been leveled at other great “scroll scholars” (see: Roland de Vaux and John Strugnell). By not offering even scant portions of Nicholas to colleagues so they could aid in the authentication and translation process, Carter left himself open to charges of academic fraud and willful self-deception.
All that said, what I personally take exception to is Carter’s translation of the Gospel of St. Nicholas. Yes, I know he devotes nearly half of his lengthy (tendentious) introduction to the necessity of maintaining the tone of the original text. Apparently Nicholas composed his reminiscences in a rather obscure and crude form of Aramaic, employing a surprising amount of slang. Thus we have Jesus rebuking his disciples (Professor Carter’s translation):
“What a bunch of whiners. How many of you braying horses’ asses were born of a virgin mother? Peter? I didn’t think so. So shut your gobs and pay attention…” (Nicholas 3:7)
Does this sound like the Jesus you learned about in Sunday school?
“What do you all have against women? Why do you think so little of our mothers and sisters? Do you not see they are God’s creatures too? I say unto you, give me the presence of a dozen women (of questionable morals?)…(missing fragment)…rather than a bunch of repressed … with tiny, withered…” (fragment breaks off) (Nicholas 4:9)
Nicholas makes it clear that Jesus is not an elitist and wasn’t one to turn down a glass of wine even if it wasn’t strictly for sacramental purposes.
“Jesus roared, slapping his brother James on the back, causing him to spew water and food matter at Simon…..barely restraining himself, Jesus declared ‘laughter smites the staunchest foe; none may withstand its entreaties’…to which Judas belched, provoking more (merriment?)…” (Nicholas 3:5)
Well, we always knew from the four Gospel writers that Jesus wasn’t one to hold with tradition: He broke Sabbath and wasn’t averse to sitting down at the table with sinners, whores, even tax collectors.
But where are the world-shaking epiphanies, passages that refute Christ’s divinity or tell about how He survived His crucifixion and was spirited off to parts unknown?
Well, Jesus does confide to Nicholas that He has little respect for the spiritual toughness and intellectual depth of his fellow disciples. Peter comes in for particular abuse, Jesus clearly employing venomous sarcasm when He calls him “the Rock”.
“What wisdom hath the Rock for us today…” (Nicholas 3:8)
“The stones cry out but the Rock merely stares…” (Nicholas 3: 10)
“Brothers, cast down thy tools, we have the Rock to aid us!” (Nicholas 4:1)
We knew there were strong divisions between the early Christians but this is out and out character assassination. And it begs the question, are these Jesus’ words or, even more likely, the rejoinders of a disgruntled follower?
In Nicholas version of events, Jesus does not go to Jerusalem to be sacrificed and fulfill ancient prophecy but because He has heard there are some “people of merit inhabiting that place…generous lodgings thereabouts…Judas says we should qualify (?) for a group…rate(?)”.
We know that significant efforts were expended at various points in time to erase the embarrassing memory of some of Nicholas’s antics (in a “letter” Jesus supposedly wrote to King Agbar of Edessa, the Son of Man playfully alludes to Nicholas’ talent at the ancient Judaic equivalent of the “hotfoot”). Immediately following their Master’s death, the other disciples convened a meeting and according to their aggrieved brother (Nicholas 8:12) “cast out and excommunicated the one known as Nicholas…blameless except for that he was best-loved by the Lord and the other…bastards (according to Carter’s footnote the literal translation is ‘goat-humpers’) resented it”.
In the end, the man who will one day be St. Peter is merciful to his old colleague and merely exiles poor Nicholas, sending him on a one-way mission to preach the word of Christ to the residents of Ultima Thule “a blasted and forsaken place…a godless heathen wasteland so complete the pagans knew nothing of Rome…and ridiculed… (fragment missing)…my attire provoking the northern equivalent of ‘girlie man’…”
Clearly it’s hard-going for Brother Nicholas as he plunges through the forests and rough, merciless terrain, cursing his misfortune all the way. We’re led to believe he reached the Baltic Sea. There the narrative abruptly ends.
“Christ, it’s cold. Any maniac who lives in such … (fragment missing) …rubbing seal fat all over themselves, grinning like ghouls… God, I despise these filthy people…tomorrow I shall … and rebuke them for their worship of vile demon gods…”
That’s the last we hear from Nicholas and legend has it he was martyred out of his misery on or about Christmas Day, A.D. 43.
After his prospective parishioners had killed and eaten him, they divvied up his worldly goods. The practice of giving gifts around that time of the year gradually caught on and all this leads, in a very roundabout way, to a fat man in a red suit trailing after a team of reindeer and distributing booty to one and all.
All part of the celebration of a man that Professor Carter assures us was the most “human” of all the disciples. His translation presents Nicholas “warts and all” and makes no excuses for the misanthropic ramblings of this early pariah.
Jolly old St. Nick? Hardly: “Jesus agreed with me that most men are oafs. He favors forgiving them their trespasses (but) I say they should have their nuts nailed to their foreheads” (Nicholas 2:4). Or how about: “Gentiles? Jews? I could give a fig for either. As long as I have a warm cloak and a belly full (food? wine?), Caesar can do as he pleases…” (Nicholas 10:3)
The original Santa Claus turns out to be a rebel, an apostate, a sinner. He was judged unworthy by his colleagues, his rather spotty, uneven gospel consigned to the rubbish heap of history long before the bishops, at the behest of Constantine, sequestered themselves at Nicea. And there the matter would have rested, except for rumours and vague allusions. Enter, the mysterious Mr. Cairo…
There’s more to this strange and remarkable tale than meets the eye and more than enough gossip, innuendo and intrigue to keep Biblical scholars happy…well, until the next lost gospel surfaces. Perhaps it will be fragments of the original Book of Enoch, to supplant the only copy we have, a corrupted text from the Medieval era.
Will any lost text seriously affect the faith lives of over a billion Christians around the world? Doubtful. More to the point, these texts offer us a fuller, more complete picture of the debates and conflicts that shaped the early church. Each new fragment is important, historically moreso than theologically. It has become manifestly clear, thanks to discoveries like Hag Hammadi and Qumran, that strong personalities were influential in forging the premises and tenets of Christianity and eradicating other, less doctrinally sound, voices and witnesses. We see stark evidence of just how fraught and heated those times were. and how ruthlessly the losers were treated.
Gospels like Thomas, Mary and Nicholas weren’t “lost” so much as discarded, expunged from church records. Keep in mind that venerable axiom that it is the winners who write history—in this case, they also forged a faith that has defied the centuries, endured schism, committed atrocities in the name of its God and today shapes the sensibilities of nearly a fifth of the world’s population.
I wonder what Nicholas would make of that.