The image of the baby Jesus lying in a manger, surrounded by livestock, and His parents, Mary and Joseph, is an enduring one in our culture. Most people also know the story of the three wise men, or magi, who followed a star to bring the child gifts. But who were the three wise men? They are barely mentioned in the bible and after visiting Jesus the vanish from the narrative. What if they weren’t wise men at all? What if they were murderous thieves on the run from King Herod of Jerusalem and merely stumbled upon the family in a stable in Bethlehem?
This is the clever premise of Unholy Night, Seth Grahame-Smith’s third novel. Smith has made a name for himself with the high-concept genre mash-ups Pride & Prejudice & Zombies and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. With Unholy Night, Grahame-Smith takes one of the most well known stories in the world and turns it in to an ultra-violent action/adventure thriller. The concept is intriguing, but the execution leaves much to be desired.
Balthazar is a thief. Known as the Antioch Ghost, he has bedeviled the Roman empire and Judea for years and successfully eluded capture. That all changes during one failed heist and he is thrown in Herod’s dungeon with two other thieves, Melchyor and Gaspar, to await execution. Through a ruthless subterfuge, the men escape the dungeons and run for the lives. Their paths cross with Mary and Joseph and their newborn son and the atheist Balthazar ends up becoming their protector after witnessing Herod’s men brutally murdering the new born babies in Bethlehem. The six fugitives make a run for Egypt. Incensed with rage at the baby and Balthazar eluding capture, Herod entreats Augustus Caesar to assist in their capture. Caesar sends a young officer, Pontius Pilate, and an army in pursuit. Balthazar, Joseph, Mary, and the rest must learn to trust each other in order to evade the pursuing armies of the world and Balthazar must regain something he lost years ago: his faith.
This is the first book I’ve read by Grahame-Smith and when I first read the premise for Unholy Night I thought it would be more of a satirical comedy like a Christopher Moore or Terry Pratchett. But Grahame-Smith plays the scenario absolutely straight which is both a strength and a weakness. At it’s heart, Unholy Night is the story of Balthazar’s redemption. He is a man driven to avenge the death of his young brother and the hands of a Roman Centurion years before and he has bloodily cut a swath through the Roman empire to do it. This is an incredibly bloody and violent narrative. I’ve read plenty of horror novels and Unholy Night stands shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Stephen King’s early works. Balthazar is well skilled in murder, as are his cohorts, Gaspar and Melchyor. Limbs are hacked off, entrails are spilled, locusts eat men alive, violent torture ensues, this is not a story for the faint of heart.
Which is too bad because I think if the violence were toned down the book would be more accessible. There is an interesting story here but the gore overshadows the moral to the point where it is absolutely obscured. Herod is portrayed as diseased in both his body and mind. He openly defies the God of Abraham and declares war on Him. While God seems to help our heroes occasionally, there is an immense amount of pain and suffering for all of them before they reach the end. I have no idea what Grahama-Smith’s religious beliefs are but I wouldn’t be all that surprised to learn he was atheist. This is not a loving and caring God, it’s a pissed off vengeful deity that is still barely a match for the evil of powerful men and ancient dark magic. While God seems to give Balthazar super-human strength at a key moment it is obvious the humans are basically on their own to rescue themselves.
Unholy Night‘s alternate and dark take on the first Christmas is worth reading, but the moral and narrative are buried under a tidal wave of gore and conflicting tone. The best way to describe it would be as an ultra-violent Raiders of the Lost Ark. In fact there are a couple of scenes in the book that are a direct homage to Raiders which ended up being pretty amusing.
Recommended but you better have a strong stomach.