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Angel scare.


After collecting 14 rejection slips from 14 publishers, most factory-workers-turned-novelists would pack in their typewriters and retreat to the assembly line. But not Frank Peretti. When a small press in Westchester, Illinois, agreed to take a second look at Peretti's dog-earred book proposal in 1986, the novelist revved up his antiquated keyboard, pounded a wooden wedge in its broken left margin, and began to type. And type. And type.

The 400-page opus that emerged, a chiller called This Present Darkness, has sold more than a million copies and was nosed out of its No. 1 spot on the Christian bestseller list only by its sequel, Piercing the Darkness, also a million-plus seller.

The irony of the story behind the story is that the often-rejected book, full of airborne angels, winged demons, and ghostbusters in the sky, has caused at least 14 editors to munch crow. At the recent national convention of the Evangelical Press Association in Colorado Springs, the word spread quickly: everyone wants Peretti, or at least a Peretti clone. "We're looking for big fiction," said one enlightened publisher in search of more Darkness. Fumbling for a better description, he added, "You know, we want Peretti fiction."

The in-demand writer laughs at suddenly being the yardstick used by editors to measure what are known as "page-turners" in the publishing business. But he doesn't gloat.

"I can't blame them," Peretti says, recalling the deluge of rejection slips. "I wrote This Present Darkness at a time when Christian fiction meant prairie romances and biblical biographies. I came along with a wacky, off-the-wall book that bounces back and forth between the natural and spiritual world and illustrates a battle between angels, demons, and real people. Nobody had ever done that before. It could have been the turkey of the year."

It nearly was. In the first year of release, This Present Darkness sold a modest 4,200 copies. Then Christian singer Amy Grant read it and gave it rave reviews at her sold-out concerts. The stampede was on. Readers found that Grant was on target; not only did this wacky book have a legitimate message, but it had action, intrigue, and an incredible plot that somehow came off as true.

The story, played out in the sleepy little town of Ashton, begins like a Carl Lewis sprint and escalates to the ultimate battle between good and evil. The heroes are a crusty newspaper editor and a prayerful pastor who get a lot of help from a hierarchy of heavenly types that perch on rafters and hover over rooftops. On the dark side is a network of prominent citizens in cahoots with a swarm of scaly, sulfur-spewing, yellow-eyed demons. At stake is Ashton, and the implication is that as Ashton goes, so goes the nation. The lines of skinnish are clearly drawn.

But as all readers know, you can win a battle but not the war, especially if a book about the war is popular enough to prompt a sequel. The story must go on. The vicious tide that was turned in Ashton crests in Bacon's Corner, the far-from-the-interstate setting of Piercing the Darkness, Peretti's second blockbuster. Here, the town's residents are so distracted by scandals, feuds, and other demon-inspired hanky-panky that they fail to recognize their real enemy until it's almost too late. Once again it takes a gathering of angels, fresh from their victory at Ashton, to take on the taloned fly-by-nights. The second book is even longer than the first, but like its predecessor, it moves at the now-predictable Peretti gallop.

"We live in a video culture," Peretti says. "People want stories that grab and hold their attention. I try to write in almost a cinematic style, so when you read my books you can see a movie playing in your head. They're highly visual stories, and the action cuts from scene to scene."

Two years of film classes at UCLA helped. However, Peretti's real training as a storyteller came much earlier. Reared in the Pacific Northwest, the son of an Assemblies of God pastor, he was a frail child who was often shunned by his peers because of a bizarre birth injury that resulted in a tumor on the lymph nodes of his neck. He amused himself by reading books and by concocting stories about super heroes. Then he tried to imagine what the heroes' lives would be like. Such activities helped to pass the hours of treatment in the hospital.

"The doctors have a huge word for this weird kind of tumor I had," Peretti explains. "The problem spread, and my tongue swelled up as big as a potato and wouldn't fit inside my mouth. I went through a lot of surgery, but for years my tongue was stuck outside of my mouth all of the time. It was one of those traumatic, adolescent, self-image kind of struggles."

After the condition finally was corrected, the young man had to learn to speak all over again. Once that was accomplished, he found he had a lot to say. He often gathered the neighborhood kids under the back porch and mesmerized them with his fanciful stories. So responsive were his audiences that he later made the rounds of summer Bible camps where he was expected to teach something meaningful to a circle of sometimes bored, often homesick teenagers.

"I found that a regular three-point sermonette doesn't work with kids who have grown up with TV and have the attention spans of hummingbirds," Peretti jokes. "So instead of dumping a whole bunch of messages on them, I went for one big effect."

It worked. Each morning he would add another installment to his ongoing saga of the week. When the action had all the campers sitting on the edge of their logs, he'd call it quits and remind everyone to tune in tomorrow. In the evening he would review the day's "chapter" and give it some kind of biblical application.

"Years later, I'd bump into these kids," he says. "I wouldn't remember them because they'd be all grown up with deep voices, jobs, and cars, but they'd say, 'Hey, aren't you the guy who told us that scary story at camp?' Then they'd repeat the whole thing. I learned something from that: I learned that storytelling is an art, and a good yarn doesn't happen by chance. A writer has to plan lots of action and a plot that makes sense. Also, he shouldn't tell readers anything too soon. The pace has to be right."

Peretti tested this strategy when his first book, This Present Darkness, was still in incubation in his head. He spent two years outlining the story and plotting the action on graph paper. Each scene had to maintain the tension, and the pace had to slowly and steadily build to a climax. He looked for spots in which to plant information, and occasionally he would drop in what he calls "zingers"--twists and turns of the story line that keep the reader turning pages. Scenes end just as something is about to happen, and the action cuts to another thread of the plot. In the end, everything ties together.

"It's sort of like doing a jigsaw puzzle," the novelist says. "You know how you start a puzzle by finding all the flat pieces and putting together the frame? When I write a book I have the framework--I know how it's going to begin and how it's going to end. All I have to do is fill in the middle."

Peretti says he's getting better at it. Since Crossways Books took a chance and published This Present Darkness, he's had no shortage of success. No longer does he rotate shifts at the ski factory with hours at the Royal; he and his wife, Barb, have moved out of their 25-foot travel trailer, and rejection slips are now the stuff of old anecdotes. Film rights have been negotiated, he recently recorded the book on audio tape, a series of children's books is out, and a third thriller is in the outline stage. He hopes this one will show his growth as a writer and the growth of Christian fiction as a whole. Inspirational writers haven't always been allowed to mirror reality, or even to hint at it. He wants to change all that.

"When you write for Christian readers you have to avoid certain factors," he admits. "I always want to be respectful of my audience. I'm not going to push them, but I'd like to stretch them, not in what they will tolerate, but in what they are willing to deal with and think about."

Peretti has had some difficulty in carrying out that task. One of the key characters in his first book was Marshall Hogan, a worldly type whose choice of expletives most likely would be a shade stronger than "drat," or "shucks." Peretti struggled to put words in Hogan's mouth that wouldn't offend but would smack of realism.

"Once I inserted half of a swear word," Peretti recalls. "Marshall was about to say 'damn.' I put in 'da--', and then I had him correct himself and say 'darn' instead. Even that was edited out."
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Title Annotation:Christian suspense writer Frank Peretti; includes excerpt from 'This Present Darkness'
Author:Miller, Holly G.
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Sep 1, 1990
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