David Pinault’s new novel Providence Blue: A Fantasy Quest (Ignatius Press, 2021) is a portal into places and times both factual and fictional that combines action and foray into myths ancient and modern that are exciting, intriguing, and intellectually compelling from start to finish.
Beginning with the ambitions of none other than the infamous and oft-maligned horror master, H. P. Lovecraft, the tale winds through history as a diverse cast of characters work to unravel the mysteries surrounding the beings encountered by renegade preacher Roger Williams on his historical journey that ended with the founding of Providence, RI. While Lovecraft—who in the story is an accomplished and impish “Magus”—believes these beings to be the forerunners to the armies of Cthulu and the Old Gods, other characters aren’t so certain.
As the tale unfolds, and the nature of these mysterious beings becomes more clear, the modern day descendants of the Magus clash with a handful of characters who find themselves swept up by events that defy explanation. An anxiety-filled former punk-rocker, a drifting Athenaeum employee, and an entire cast of unique and well-developed characters find themselves thrown into a puzzling and some harrowing ride around Providence, back through time, and even to the edge of mortal existence.
Providence Blue delivers a fantasy experience that rivals some of the modern greats like Jim Butcher and Brandon Sanderson. Pinault’s storytelling draws deeply upon his obvious wealth of knowledge, and readers will likely find themselves pausing frequently to research a topic or time period. The author’s careful research and attention to historical detail serves to polish and shine what is already a highly original and exciting premise. The author’s Catholic faith is evident throughout the story, as each character seeks redemption and an ultimate answer to the myriad sufferings of mankind.
Among the supernatural excitement, the themes explored in this tale serve to lend their weight to the larger story. Depression, addiction, loss, hopelessness. All of these concepts add a sense of gravitas to the story that will keep the reader hooked until the very last sentence.
Pinault is a Professor of Religous Studies at Santa Clara University, and a native of Providence. He has published several books, including the non-fiction The Crucifix on Mecca’s Front Porch: A Christian’s Companion for the Study of Islam, also available from Ignatius Press.
He recently answered some questions from CWR about his novel.
CWR: H. P. Lovecraft is as notorious and controversial these days as he is well-known. Was there any particular reason that you decided to use a fictionalized version of this horror-master in the book?
David Pinault: Lovecraft was a Rhode Islander who set many of his stories in Providence, which also happens to be my birthplace and hometown. His fiction caught my interest as a child, and in my teens I visited many of the Providence haunts that feature in his tales. Many factors inspired me to write this novel; but Providence Blue is, among other things, my attempt as a Catholic and as an adult to come to terms with the stories and the authorial persona I first encountered so many years ago.
CWR: You acknowledge in the Afterword that you have taken some ‘speculative liberties’ regarding the nature of Angels and their place in Creation. Was there a particular mythos or concept outside of orthodox Christianity that inspired you to explore this ‘What if?’ scenario?
Pinault: One mythos or concept I explored is the idea of “fallen angels”. In Providence Blue I speculate about the possibility of such beings experiencing repentance and seeking to do penance here on earth.
Let’s meditate on this for a moment from various perspectives. First, it’s important to emphasize a quality of angelology in Christianity that differentiates it from Islam: in the Muslim faith, there are only 2 volitional races: humans, and jinns. The Qur’an says both humans and jinns have to choose whether to convert to Islam and become Muslims; and so the Qur’an has Allah say: “I will stuff hell full of men and jinns.” But angels are radically different from humans; Islamic theology asserts that angels are NOT classified as volitional beings: they have no choice but to worship Allah.
Christianity is different, of course: angels share with humans the option of obedience or disobedience; they share with humans a rational nature that makes them capable of both moral action and sin. As Father Richard McBrien says in his book Catholicism: “Since they are intelligent creatures with freedom, angels have the capacity to reject God, as we do.”
But if this is true, then might it not be possible that, just like us, angels could also be capable of experiencing remorse and penitence after their sin?
On the one hand, we have to acknowledge what’s stated in 2 Peter 2.4: “God did not spare the angels when they sinned, but condemned them to the chains of Tartarus and handed them over to be kept for judgment.”
But on the other hand, we also have the intriguing statement in 1 Peter 3.19-20: “For Christ also suffered for sins once, the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous, that he might lead you to God…Put to death in the flesh, he was brought to life in the spirit. In it he also went to preach to the spirits in prison who had once been disobedient.”
Now who exactly are these “spirits”? My new edition of the Catholic Study Bible offers this commentary: “They may be the spirits of the sinners who died in the flood, or angelic powers, hostile to God, who have been overcome by Christ.” So this Catholic Bible commentary inspired in me a speculation: If Christ did in fact preach to the “angelic powers,” is it possible that some of these fallen angels listened, and listened hard, to what Jesus preached in hell, and perhaps experienced as a consequence the pangs of remorse and the desire to do penance?
Who knows? One can only speculate.
Hans Urs von Balthasar also explores this topic in his anthology of writings by Origen of Alexandria. Balthasar quotes Origen’s commentary on the Letter to the Hebrews, where the epistle states: “But we see Jesus, ranked lower than the angels for a little while, crowned with glory and honor through the suffering of death, in order that by the grace of God he might taste death for the sake of all.”
Von Balthasar summarizes Origen’s thought as follows: “Christ is not only the Savior of the whole human race, he has also become incarnate in all levels of being. And because, according to Origen, no angel remained wholly without fault, he [Christ] offered himself up also for all spiritual creatures. He even died on the cross for them.”
Here’s what Origen himself has to say, as quoted and translated by Balthasar:
The Savior became ‘all things to all’ that he might either ‘gain all’ or make them perfect: he became a human being to the humans and an angel to the angels. Christ is the great high priest (Heb. 5.14) who offered himself as a sacrifice once and for all not just for human beings but for all rational creatures…He died not just for human beings but also for all other reason-endowed beings. The more blessed beings which are persuaded by the Word and do not need suffering are made perfect by the Word alone. But the others, not persuaded by the Word, need suffering so as to be able, after suffering and making progress, to be made perfect by these doctrines.
CWR: One of the major themes of Providence Blue is hope of salvation, particularly hope that salvation may find us no matter how far into the darkness we may have fallen. Have you had any personal experiences with the temptation of hopelessness that some of your characters struggle with?
Pinault: Yes, I have, as I suspect many, if not most, individuals likewise have from time to time (whether consciously or unconsciously). To counter such temptations, I think it’s vital to develop spiritual disciplines that help lift us from pits of immobilized bleakness.
One source of temptation is to think ourselves to be utterly alone in what we suffer. Currently I’m reading a book by the Jesuit Ryan G. Duns entitled Spiritual Exercises for a Secular Age, which is good medicine to counter such temptations. We can undertake day-to-day ascetic practices, explains Father Duns, that heighten our awareness of the created world around us as a gift that fills us with astonishment, a gift infused with Christ’s sacramental presence.
I would add to this—drawing here on my own earlier book, The Crucifix on Mecca’s Front Porch—that when we’re reminded of Christ’s presence, we realize we’re not alone in our suffering, that Christ has always been there before us as a pioneer in whatever anguish we experience.
With regard to the temptation of hopelessness undergone by some of the characters in Providence Blue, I’ll also add that I often pray to Mary Untier of Knots for help in moments of spiritual perplexity. In my novel I try to show how—with the invisible but powerful help of Mary and Christ Jesus—individual souls can extend themselves and become “untiers of knots” for others, for those around themselves in need.
CWR: The characters in the book come from a vast array of diverse backgrounds and perspectives, yet they all find themselves drawn into the same struggle for a common good. Were there any characters with whom you identified the most? Were there any who were particularly difficult for you to relate to?
Pinault: An interviewer once asked Mark Twain which characters in Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn he identified with the most. He replied that he put at least a little of himself in all his characters. That’s an answer with which I resonate!
Nonetheless I found myself especially caught up in the thought-worlds of Joey Bonaventure and Fay MacConnell. As for characters that were not so easy for me to relate to: that would be Alicia Wheatley and H. P. Lovecraft. Nonetheless the way to meet such a challenge is simply to listen, to think imaginatively: How does such a person see the world? How do they justify the things they do? Your job as author is, in part, to serve as stenographer and scribe as these characters live with you and seek to explain themselves.
CWR: In the acknowledgments, you mention the discovery of some bird illustrations by yourself and a staff member of the Athenaeum as you took a closer look at the Egyptian Cabinet while doing research for the book. Would you care to elaborate on that story and on what you discovered there?
Pinault: Several years ago, while researching scenes for Providence Blue, I knew I wanted to include the Egyptian Cabinet in my story; I just wasn’t sure how. When a staff member of the Athenaeum generously allowed me to examine the cabinet up close on one of my library visits, at my request she opened the cabinet’s drawers one by one. The bird illustrations we found therein surprised us both; but what intrigued me more—and what inspired a significant segment of the novel—was the discovery of a dried bug-husk in a drawer. With this in mind, keep a close eye on the discouraged-and-dessicated beetle Melville in the story.
CWR: Some of the characters in the book, especially the intriguing Father Jim Cypriano, seem to hint that they have had other encounters with the bizarre or supernatural. Do you think that readers may some day see more tales from Providence that bring back characters from this book?
Pinault: It’s entirely possible! In the meantime, readers with a taste for angels and archaeology might want to read my earlier novel Museum of Seraphs in Torment: An Egyptological Fantasy Thriller, available on Amazon.
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