F. Paul Wilson. The Dark at the End. Gauntlet Press, 2011.
Monsters have always been with us.
Terrorists. Big Government. Communists. Nazis. The Yellow Peril. Papists. Romans. Carthaginians… The list extends into the mists of human history. As long as humans have survived, one group has focused upon another as the source of all ills, all fear, all evil. The names of these heartless creatures are invoked to scare the children and to control the masses.
Yet from the perspective of the Bad Guys, the Good Guys are anything but. Gun banners see only gun nuts. Socialists see only heartless capitalists. Collectivists see only atomistic individualists. Who is the Enemy and who is the Ally?
In Repairman Jack’s world, such a question is not an idle one. The primary agent of the Adversary — Rasalom, a.k.a. Mr. Osala, a.k.a., the One — seeks to transform the earth into a heaven for him that is a hell for all others. The Ally of Jack is no ally, at all. Abandoning them without investigation should a single sign — the Lady — fade from its awareness, the Ally offers nothing tangible in support of those supposedly on “his” side. The Defender/Guardian/Paladin — Glaeken — is fading into oblivion while the Heir — Jack — struggles to grasp the enormity of the task that has been set before him.
In The Dark at the End, F. Paul Wilson brings together disparate threads in the penultimate tale of the “Secret History of the World” that leads to the final confrontation detailed in Nightworld. Anyone and everyone who does not appear in the latter story is at threat in this novel. So skillfully does Wilson construct his story, that I found myself sitting up late into the evening furiously turning pages to discover what happens between Jack and Rasalom, despite my knowledge that both must appear in the final volume. (How the revised Nightworld will reconcile recent additions to this saga with the original denouement will be revealed in 2012.)
The Dark at the End begins with an almost literal bang as Jack fends off yet another attack on the Lady (a.k.a., Mrs. Clevenger), the nonhuman entity that is all that stands between our reality and its transformation into the Otherness spearheaded by Rasalom. Jack, his childhood friends Louise “Weezy” (Myers) Connell and her brother Eddie, Glaeken (a.k.a. Veilleur, a.k.a. Old Man Foster), the Lady, and others feverishly wrestle with options on how to forestall the Change. Even the annoying Dawn Pickering holds a pivotal role in this drama as she seeks the location of her tentacled baby, spirited away at birth by Rasalom. Since without Rasalom the takeover by the Otherness would be impossible, the focus of this small band of people — or more precisely, Jack’s focus — centers on how to destroy the One.
But killing a being who is nearly superhuman in his abilities is no easy task. Jack, however, is not one who lightly surrenders to the “inevitable.” His friend, Abe, owner of the Isher Sports Shop, provides him with equipment Jack hopes will literally obliterate the One. Teenaged Jack’s one-time employer, Ernst Drexler of the Septimus Order, forms a crucial link in the chain drawing the Repairman ever closer to his elusive target.
Unfortunately, even an excellent repairman cannot fix — or anticipate — everything. Many factors and many enemies work to thwart Jack, a.k.a., John Tyleski. Hank, a.k.a., the Kickerman, and Septimus Order hitman Szeto have personal scores to settle with this mysterious interloper. Drexler is primarily out to protect himself, regardless of the cost. Rasalom’s driver, Georges, and Gilda, Szeto’s mother and Dawn’s former caretaker, unwittingly try to derail Jack’s hastily concocted assassination plot. Supposed-ally Dawn also continues her usual, blindly self-centered course and threatens to tangle Jack’s plans into a hopelessly knotted mess. Last, but hardly least, the vagaries of nature and random chance do what they can to frustrate Jack’s risky actions.
As is evidenced by this review, few characters in this story are simply who they are. Aliases pile upon noms de plume. People act in ways diametrically opposed to their usual behaviors. A common refrain from Weezy is, “You don’t know Jack”...sometimes not even Jack. Situations that seem superficially clear and precise are convoluted and twisted in and around themselves. Not only does the world have a secret history, but so do the people here who contend for a goal they barely comprehend.
For some, the goal — the end — is worth whatever it takes to achieve. For others, a prime and often vexing question is whether the ends ever justify the means used to obtain them...even if the goal involves the utter destruction — or salvation — of the world as we know it.
What happens to us when we appeal to our current set of monsters to anoint in righteousness the despicable behavior we ponder to “save” ourselves? How are our souls perverted when we attempt to transform a wrong into a right simply because it seems “easier” to do at the time? Can we hide behind the hideous facades of those monsters to conceal the monsters we, ourselves, have become when we do “whatever works”?
As Jack says, “How do you fight that? How do you resist something that sneaks up on you and gets into your head and changes your perspective?” (p. 230)
Glaeken replies, “With great difficulty. Because you don’t feel it. You think it’s right and natural. You think it’s you. And in a way, it is. There’s a darkness in all of us that will gladly use the end to justify the means.” (p. 230)
For the Romans, the evil that was Carthage “justified” murdering innocent men, women, and children, justified destroying an entire nation, justified dismantling a city and salting the very earth upon which it sat.
Today, the evil that is “terrorism” (not even “terrorists” but the even more abstract “terrorism”) justifies the PATRIOT Acts that subvert our Constitution; justifies invading a country that actually opposed those behind the atrocities that happened on 9-11-01; justifies the deaths of tens-of-thousands of innocent men, women, and children in that lopsided war; justifies impersonally killing civilians in yet another country by our drones (...such an appropriate name…); justifies simultaneous conflicts on three fronts; justifies a (self) transformation in our culture and our society far more radical and stifling and repressive than our enemies could ever have hoped to achieve on their own.
Again, Jack has it right: “What you call ‘darkness,’ I call the brain… But then there’s the mind…” (p. 230)
As Walt Kelly of Pogo comic strip fame said in a different context, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Rasalom and the Otherness would stand not an iota of a chance at success without the complicity of a hoard of humans acting badly throughout history. Our modern-day monsters — terrorists — have been elevated — by us — from a ragtag bunch of thugs living in caves into a “threat” that will end civilization as we know it unless we act ruthlessly, with a “singleness of purpose” (p. 230) that defies morality, defies common sense, defies the reality of who are enemy truly is and how ineffectual they would be without our help.
The true danger to the world in the Adversary Cycle comes from those who were “willing to sacrifice strings of innocent villages in order to win a single battle.” (p. 231). The true danger to our world comes from those who become “nearly indistinguishable from those we were fighting.” (p. 231)
Self-awareness is what we need, but it is that very same necessary awareness that is contorted and repressed by appeals to “fight the monsters,” fight the terrorists, fight the unpatriotic, fight those who want only to “preserve the real” (p. 231) us, the actual values and principles that define a free and moral people.
As noted earlier, the monsters never think of themselves as monsters. Whoever opposes them and for whatever reason, those constitute the true Enemy, an enemy that must be contained and obliterated “whatever it takes.” Nuke ’em all and let god — or the Ally — sort them out.
But as Jack knows, in the final confrontation, we fight not for abstractions but for ourselves, for our loved ones — our own versions of Jack’s Gia and Vicky and Abe and Weezy. As the cliche goes, freedom isn’t free…and the events in The Dark at the End — unfair, unjust, un-right though those events may be — certainly bear out that warning and that dark promise.
But to defend and preserve freedom,
to reach — or to restore — that bright dawn, one must first understand
what freedom is...otherwise, how will one recognize it in the first
place? Repairman Jack may not always know Jack...but freedom and love
and friendship, those he understands with utter certainty and