A Thumbscrew Review: The Dark Man, by Marc Schooley

Today I am pleased to bring you a review of Marc Schooley’s psychological thriller, The Dark Man.  Published by soon-to-be powerhouse Marcher Lord Press, Schooley takes aim at a dystopia future in a way few have attempted in Christian literature.  While reminiscent of A Brave New World and 1984, it delivers all the action of the movie Demolition Man (1993).

And yet, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is central and always at the forefront of every chapter.  Don’t forget that.  I’m not going to talk much about Schooley’s inclusion of scripture and evangelical material because it is simply everywhere.  Christianity and the Gospel are what drive the plot, so be prepared to be immersed in it for the duration of the novel.  For some people that’s a bonus and for some it’s a turn-off.  Hey, whatever floats your boat.  But if you have an aversion to being preached to in a novel, then you can stop reading this review right now.

The Dark Man follows the struggle of Charles Graves, a master of disguise and top agent of the government.  The world has turned over and Christianity has been outlawed.  Everything must be on the Approved List, including religion.  The Agency ruthlessly seeks out dissenting Christians and deposits them in Reclamation Centers for rehabilitation or death.  Charles is a ghost that has put more Christians in Reclamation Centers than anyone else.  But everything changes when he meets outlaw pastor James Cleveland, and Charles is forced to come face to face with Jesus and his own sin.

Now the master of disguise and top agent becomes the Agency’s most wanted man.

In taking on this type of project, Schooley delivers a breath of fresh air.  But if you’ve read any of my reviews, you know what’s coming next… an over-analyzation pointing out nit-picky flaws.  But hey, that’s how I roll!

So, let’s talk about some bad stuff… and I have four points.  The first is Schooley often uses short basic sentence structure.  That’s not bad in and of itself, but when entire paragraphs are strung together like this it starts to read, well, like a Fun With Dick and Jane book.  Here’s an example:

Charles awoke in the dark.  He sat up in a strange bed, searching for something to grab hold of.  A ceiling fan circled overhead.

He rolled out of the bed.  The tiled floor was cool to his feet.  He surveyed the room for his clothes but saw none.  Van, garage, clothes.  The images were disconnected but at length formed a picture in his mind.  He rubbed his face.

Charles peered out the door of the spare room and saw no one in the hallway.  A faint light shone from the living room, but there was no sound.  They’re asleep.  I can make it. (p. 137)

This was a distraction to me, enough so I thought I had to mention it.

There were often times where the book didn’t seem to know what era it was in.  This is supposed to be near future dystopia, right?  Well, in the near future our MC who is in his mid twenties has this thought.  “Ingraham reminded Charles of Orson Welles from his wine commercial days”(p. 33).  Really?  I’m from the present, I’m older than the MC, and I have NO clue about Orson Welles in his wine commercial days!  Later, Charles’ father Cotton Graves is in a food court area and, “To his right he saw a man resembling a young Johnny Carson…”(p. 366).  Hmm.  Just for the benefit of the doubt, maybe the early years of Johnny Carson is the only talk show on the Approved TV List.

But that’s not the only disconnects with time.  There’s a ton of technological oddities.  One character wields a pen-laser cutting device in the middle of the book, and at the end of the book pulls out a buck knife instead.  There’s a huge action scene taking place from two POVs.  In one, they’re flying in an advanced, fully computerized, automated, kick-butt Agency Gunship that will do anything by simple voice command.  In the other POV they’re making their getaway in a station wagon?  Speaking of voice commands, on one hand houses and vehicles are computer automated to do everything, such as lock doors, make phone calls, and heat your bath water.  And on the other hand, some baddies make a shoddy bomb with plug-n-play wires.  I would think a little voice recognition would be in order to disarm it, wouldn’t you?  In one scene people enter an office by retina scan ID, in another they dupe a couple police officers with a simple plastic fake ID.  Speaking of those particular officers, they also carried “billy clubs” which are at least two generations of law enforcement baton technology behind even our times.  On the other hand, the Agency is able to administer an oral GPS bug that burrows into the lining of the small intestines.  One last thing… in a society where everything is regulated and must be on the Approved Lists, somehow they overlooked basic food nutrition.  That’s right, you can still jack up your cholesterol at Johnny Tacos and drink yourself into a sloshing stupor.

Another critique I have is that the characters sometimes do things at odds with their personalities.  Julia Jenkins, a computer geek who has only always helped Charles by remote support from the office, doesn’t think twice about grabbing a gun and single-handedly facing down a roadblock of armed police officers.  Cotton Graves, a selfish greasy politician on the run, suddenly decides he’s the only one who can go diffuse a bomb.  And finally, our master of disguise Charles, masquerades as a man bigger than himself in a situation where he might not survive… but he doesn’t wear a vest.  What, they don’t have Kevlar in the near future?  Besides, the added bulk would help with the disguise, right?

And finally, the plot is fragmented into two sections.  To me, this really is the most damaging critique of the book.  In a manuscript with 398 pages, the Primary plot is resolved on page 325.  A Secondary plot is introduced on page 218 just before the first climax, but not addressed until the Primary plot is over.  We spend the last 73 pages on a Secondary plot that is less exciting, a little anti-climatic, with a rather unfulfilling end.  In my opinion, this Secondary plot should have been removed and made the subject of a sequel, where it could be fleshed out and given the attention and word count it deserved.  I would have been fine ending this book on page 325, and would have really looked forward to the sequel.  I might have liked The Dark Man more, too.

I present those four critiques to say that I felt disconnected from the story and unable to suspend my disbelief and really absorb the words.  And though captivated at first, it lost me after page 325 when the Primary plot ended.

But you know what?  I want to balance those four things by talking about four really good things that I enjoyed.  Like I mentioned at the beginning, this future dystopia concept for a Christian thriller is a breath of fresh air.  Sure there are plenty of “what-if” books out there about Christianity being outlawed, some current day and some futuristic, but Schooley does not concentrate on the difference between that “what-if” and our current world.  In The Dark Man the dystopia simply is, and the story is told around it not about it.  It’s a story about Christians in a dystopic world, not about the dystopia.  This focus is what sets this book apart from others in its genre.

Schooley has created a great and likeable main character in Charles Graves.  He also created an equally great and likeable leading lady in Julia Jenkins.  But better than that, he gave them great chemistry.  I’ve often found that characters in my books tend to do what they want.  I can suggest a love interest, but I’m not that good of a match maker even in my own fiction.  The interaction between Charles and Julia is fluid, organic, and believable.  They work well together, engage in believable dialogue, and they just look like a good couple.  You can really feel the chemistry between them, and honestly that’s not easy to do.

The Dark Man is billed as a psychological thriller, and it is filled with all kinds of psycho stuff.  If you don’t like the strange, avant-garde, or weird experimental directing, then the head games in The Dark Man aren’t for you.  Personally, I loved it.  I loved seeing psychosomatic visions taunting our heroes, and I loved seeing them interact with their hallucinations.  No, the characters are not crazies, it’s all just plot device.  But it’s the kind of plot device you don’t see much in literature and is isolated to the most experimental films like Barton Fink.

And now for that final praise and the subject of our book title… the Dark Man.  The Dark Man is really cool.  It took me a little book time to get used to it and settle in to what was happening, but once I did it became an enjoyable feature of the book.  At the risk of giving a little away, I feel like I need to explain what the Dark Man is.  Schooley uses a physical presence of a man, voices in the head, and other small things to give embodiment to the sinful nature of man.  Each character has a Dark Man who speaks to them, advises them, and comforts them.  It is that inner selfish person we all have.  This embodiment of the Dark Man sets the tone for Schooley’s story of inner struggle.  At first I thought this Dark Man that Charles kept seeing and talking to was a demon.  But I realized that I was giving too much credit to the fantastic and not enough credit to Schooley’s portrayal of what it means to be a fallen man.  And if you think that the Dark Man goes away once a person is saved, think again.  Just like in our own lives, our characters struggle with the Dark Man throughout their experiences.  Even the pastor, James Cleveland, has to struggle with his own Dark Man.  It’s a wonderfully dark and accurate portrayal of the struggle of the sinful nature of our inner selfishness, and for this concept alone Schooley earned his publication.

Though not the glowing example of literary excellence I’ve been looking for from Marcher Lord Press, this book certainly has a presence in Christian Spec Lit.  If you like a little sci-fi, a little action, and a little horror all wrapped up in a nice evangelical presentation, then you should definitely take the time to read The Dark Man.

It’s like Demolition Man meets Face-Off meets The Purpose Driven Life.  And if that doesn’t make you curious, then I guess Christian Spec Lit isn’t for you.

Connect with Marc Shooley on Facebook

The Dark Man on MLP

The Dark Man on Amazon

About Keven Newsome

Keven Newsome is an musician, theologian, and a bit of a nerd. He enjoys a variety of musical genres, from Christian rock to movie soundtracks to KPop. A former band director, he plays about a dozen instruments, given a couple of weeks to practice up. His theological work has included a book on multi-generational ministry and a thesis on the theology of communicating with the dead. As for his nerd-card, he enjoys the fandoms of The Legend of Zelda, Doctor Who, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and Lord of the Rings. With a music degree from William Carey University and a theology degree from the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, Keven actively serves in ministry as both pastor and worship leader.

16 comments on “A Thumbscrew Review: The Dark Man, by Marc Schooley

  1. Awe, no mention of his wonderful bad guy, Farris? I thought he handled that character rather well considering how such characters have been handled in similar books.

    I agree with you that some of the media references were a bit archaic and I think I mentioned that to Marc Schooley in an e-mail, but you actually suggested something that could be the solution, and perhaps Marc just could have explained it better in his book, and that is that perhaps these are part of what’s on the limited Approved List.

    When it comes to preachy books, I’m really not a fan of those and outside of the Left Behind books have avoided them like the plague. I got The Dark Man because of the concept of a Master of Disguise hunting down Christian cell groups who had this puzzle box that talked to him. That just intrigued me to no end and caused me to get that first for Marcher Lord Press’s season two line-up over StarFire which I would have gotten first otherwise. Once I started reading it, the preachiness sort began to turn me off, but then I got into the story and was hooked! I know you may not have liked the secondary story, but I thought that the secondary story was in there for a bit longer than you gave it credit for. It was more a part of the overall story for me and added a lot of flavor to it in my opinion which allowed the book to end as it did.

    Overall, I am looking forward to more from Marc Schooley and this future he has created. I know that I will be one of the first to place an order for his next book as soon as it’s out. 🙂

    • The Secondary story unfolded precisely how I outlined it. I went back and double checked page numbers before I started writing. It’s mentioned just before the first climax, addressed only after pg 325, and the book ends at pg 398. It really seemed like an afterthought to me. Sorry.

      Yeah, the puzzle box was cool and I wish he’d have done even more with it to make it more prominent. Fah-reese seemed a bit caricature-ish to me, because he was so different from the norm of the rest of the characters. Kinda seemed out of place. But very well written and very well portrayed.

      • Since I don’t have my copy handy I’ll have to check things with the plot you’re referring to, but I’m pretty sure that it’s one that was practically started nearer to the beginning of the novel and was just another part to the Charles Graves story, just given more of it nearer to the end. When I get my copy back from who borrowed it, I’ll check to make sure. And it’s just possible we may be thinking of different things for some reason, but probably not.

  2. Hey Keven,

    Thanks for the review! What a pleasant surprise this was.

    The four points are appreciated. You could add one more and be a Calvinist reviewer, something like limited authorship, or something 🙂 The feedback is great, so thanks for taking the time, especially with the sentence structure bit. I’ve got my eye on that one.

    I notice from your bio that you’re pursuing an MA in theology with a focus on apologetics. Good for you. I do quite a bit of that myself, so maybe we’ll cross paths some day. Otherwise, great review, man. Much appreciated.

    @ David:

    Be encouraged, my friend!

    “I think I mentioned that to Marc Schooley in an e-mail,”

    You most certainly did, and I’ve kept that advice in mind in some things I’ve done since. Thanks…

    • Wow! That’s cool, Marc. You’re quite welcome, and thanks for noticing my comment. 🙂

    • Thanks Marc! I’m really glad you’re a good sport about this. When I do reviews I tend to go into a bubble and be a little hyper-critical. I’m working on being more gracious!

      Apologetics is the broad focus of what I plan to study. My actual emphasis is not really an official one of the school. I’m going to work with my advisors and develop a more specific conentration of Supernatural Theology.

      I’m quite sure we’ll cross paths in the future. For one, I’ve got my eyes on MLP for my book! Now if only I could get Jeff to agree. 😉

  3. Keven, Marc is a literary writer. At the risk of showing bias in discussing a colleague’s work, may I suggest that you might better look at primary and secondary resolutions reversed from the way you’re placing them?

    Charles’s deepest wish is expressed in the sex scene, where he confesses his deepest desire to Julia (p. 81), though we can see him wrestling with it right from the opening sentence — which is itself a cue that the action plot is not primary. The reason for what you’re seeing as the secondary resolution is also the reason for conveniently omitting the Kevlar, a necessity of device in this case (so is the booze). I would call p. 389 the primary resolution, leaving a mere 9 pages of denouement. The action resolution is preliminary to it, and a driver for it — essentially, the true primary cannot occur without the psychological resolution Charles finds at p. 325.

    If you were critiquing a more commercial work that was primarily about the action, your assessment would be dead on, but this is not one of those. It’s literary in a pop package. With that in mind, there’s all the more power in p. 398. Take another look. It’s really cool.

    Trust Jeff’s instincts…he knew what he was doing when he put this one out the way it is. It’s just completely different than a straight-up action plot, much as Marc is also a strong action writer.

    I agree with you on the anachronistic cultural references, disagree on the attack helicopters versus station wagons — it makes sense for Charles to have access to the attack chopper, but what would we expect a down-and-out pastor to be driving, a Batmobile? Anyway, it didn’t hit me as out of place. Some of those things have V8’s under the hood.

    All that said, I have indeed kicked this writer’s butt over mechanics in craft discussions we’ve had…those choppy sentences, fortunately, do not comprise the sum of his storytelling ability by the slightest stretch, something he’s made brilliantly clear as a guest blogger at Scita > Scienda. And I do believe he’ll only get better with time. I expect to see him really hit his stride somewhere around the third or fourth novel he puts out. Marc is C.S. Lewis meets Stephen King, and he’s only just gotten started. Can’t wait to see what else he does.

    As a small note in my defense, my bias existed on the merit of the man’s work before I became acquainted with him professionally, and it’s on that basis of merit that he’s a guest writer at Scienda.

    A generic note on “preachiness,” a perennial rant topic of mine: When you come from the Christless background that I do, you write the Gospel loud and clear without apology because you know what life is like without it. And you find yourself not giving a care whether people think it’s stilted, because you hope somebody, somewhere — maybe even a loved one who’s living without any eternal hope — will take a second look at Christ, the door to eternity, if you only just say something. Time ends. It ends fast. God have mercy on us if we should be silent for the sake of our entertainment value to those living comfortably within the fold.

    • Thanks for an insiders look! I recognize the literary quality in his writing, and I thought I made it clear… maybe I could have done better. My critique about the plot points is mainly based on the fact that half the book is devoted to the “Rescue Operation”. There’s so much focus there that this book should have ended with it. I’m not saying that the secondary bomb plot should be done away with, but I’d like to have seen it fleshed out even more and seen Marc run with it as the focus for a sequal.

      As for the station wagons… well, here in good ole 2010 they’re already antiquated. My point was, in a near future story we have on the one hand advanced technology and on the other hand antiquated technology by our own standards. Hope that at least clears my point, though you’re welcome to continue to disagree! 😉

      • See, this is why Marc has no problem with your review. He has to put up with me, and I’ll see your picky-bubble and raise you a picky-armoured-artillery. 😉 That, and he’s just always been that easygoing and gracious. Must be the southern manners.

        I know it, the action plot is so highly dominant, and getting to that p. 325 left me wondering “what else can there be?” So I totally get the feeling you’re talking about. Maybe the difference is in that I have a stronger love for literary than action, so I find that part of it satisfying enough in its own right. I never even considered seeing it as a bomb plot! It’s the plot of getting rid of the Dark Man, in my mind, and the bomb is just the excuse that brings it all together.

        What are we going to do with him and his anachronisms? He’s absolutely incorrigible about strange asides, and all he’ll say is, “if someone really wants to know, they’ll look it up.” Sigh. Kick. May I recruit you into the Wile E. Quixote-wrangling reserves, Keven? Watch for the Warner Brothers symbol lighting up the clouded skies on a stormy night…

  4. The anvil is dead. Long live the anvil.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: