You know, there are books that need to be killed, books that just need a little bit of help to be good (and are thus annoying as hell because they won't ever get there) and then there are books so awful, bitching about them is just shooting fish in a barrel.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the Left Behind series.
I shouldn't. I know I shouldn't, but I just can't help myself. I cannot bitch about bad books without mentioning the worst bestselling series in the history of Christian fiction. It just wouldn't be right.
So without further ado, let us begin.
Title: Left Behind
Author: Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins
Genre: Christian Fiction
Readability: Not Bad, but ... gah, just keep reading.
What You Need To Know Before You Buy: Starts off okay, gets progressively crazy. This is a REAL specific flavor of Christianity, REAL REAL specific, and if you adhere to a different branch you'll want to throw the books against the wall by the time you get to Apollyon. If you're not a Christian, you'll want to set the whole series on fire by Nicolae. LaHaye and Jenkins use the series as their personal soapbox and take unnecessary potshots at secular society every chance they get.
And now for the spoiler-rific cut.
Left Behind. Oh, my God, Left Behind. When I decided to do Book Bitch, I had several books in mind. Sunshine, of course, as my baseline for awesome (Have I shilled that book enough? Have you read it yet? Then no, I haven't) The Merry Gentry series for sheer crazy suckitude, and Tale of the Body Theif as an example of Why Having An Editor Is A Good Thing. I also wanted to do two books in the Left Behind series, not because the rest of the series is not deserving of a Bitch, but because they were the steamiest in this radiating pile of guano.
Then I started re-reading one of the two and realized the whole series really really deserves a Bitch. It makes no sense, it requires a virtual encyclopedia of very specific eschatological knowledge when most people don't know what that word even means, and the writing sucks. That the series got published is bad enough, but the whole thing was bestselling. For years, you couldn't walk into a Wal-Mart without finding stacks and stacks of Left Behind novels stuck between the Harlequin romances. There are millions of copies. Admittedly, millions in a fifteen book series but ... Jesus, there are fifteen books. How in the name of God (and I refuse to believe He had anything to do with this) can this even exist?
Well, I think I have an answer. It's called right place, right time, right author, right book.
Left Behind was released in 1995. Other notable things about 1995 include the founding of the WTO, a whole bunch of countries joining the European Union, the Oklahoma city bombing ... and that's just a three minute scan of Wikipedia. Go back three years (the reasonable amount of time it would take to write and sell LB and then get it into publication) and you find the founding of the EU, the Rodney King riots, the Bosnian War (which Evangelical Republican Christians went apeshit over) and the great Dan Quale Potato-e incident. Between 1990 and 1995, computers became big, Yahoo! was introduced, Windows shot Apple and it took them a decade to recover, there were lots and lots and LOTS of earthquakes, Israelis and Palestinians were blowing each other up, the millinium was fast approaching, George Lucas started planning the Star Wars prequels, Y2K started appearing in pop culture, you had Waco and Ruby Ridge and I could go on and on and on and on and ON. By the time 1995 rolled around people were already predicting the end of the world come midnight, Jan 1 2000. A lot of Christians (and I mean a LOT of Christians) half-expected Jesus Christ to descend from heaven the moment that glass ball in New York hit dirt.
Into this mix comes Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, both of whom already had minor-to-major followings prior to LB's publication. LaHaye in particular was known for his books on biblical prophesy (and interpreting that prophesy in general-yet-really-scary ways) and is viewed as a knowledgeable bible scholar. In other words, these were the two men with the means, motive and literary pedigree needed to capitalize on the end of the world. I don't remember whether or not Left Behind itself was a runaway success a'la Twilight, but by the time Apollyon came out, you couldn't go in a Wal-Mart without tripping over a case of black hardcovers in front of the door.
Also, people weren't reading this stuff as if it were only fiction. Remember, LaHaye was considered a bible scholar. These books were seen as biblically accurate by a lot of people. They took this shit seriously. Previously sane human beings began preparing for the Rapture. LaHaye and Jenkins made a VHS tape, later ported over to DVD, intended for people left behind so they could know what to do. And I am not making that up. I know two different relatives who both own copies. One relative owns several copies. They still sell it in Christian bookstores. Jerry Falwell, not a bastion of sanity himself, said "In terms of its impact on Christianity, it's probably greater than that of any other book in modern times, outside the Bible." In most Southern Babtist denominations, the question is not do you believe in the rapture, but wheither or not you are pre- or -post millenialist, and pre-or-post trib. That is how big an impact Left Behind made in Christian circles. That is why I've spent several paragraphs trying to explain this series before I even start bitching about it. I want you to appreciate how fucking big this thing was. This was Twilight, if after reading the last book in that god-awful series, your mother started saying prayers to the Volturi and carrying most towelettes so she could find out if it was vampire or body glitter.
Now, I am NOT re-reading the whole fucking series for the blog. I'm depending on memory and Wikipedia for everthing up to Glorious Appearing, and borrowing that and the later crazy from a relative. But it is REALLY scary how much of this I remember.
Left Behind opens with Rayford Steele, who is nominally our main character and not bad, if a little on the Sue side of the ledger. He's flying a plane ... and contemplating an affair with blond stewerdess Hattie Durham, because his wife has been too much of a Christian lately and isn't giving him enough sex. If you want subtlety in this series, you are so very fucked.
Also aboard the plane is Cameron "Buck" Williams, a hot-shot reporter (and god help us, that's how he's described) who has just come back from interviewing Chaim Rosinwig, Jewish scientist extraordinare who just won the Nobel Peace Prize for turning the Israeli deserts into a jungle. He also experianced ... something, a war that ended when all the planes exploded I guess. This is supposed to be the Hand Of God At Work and Buck is willing to accept this, but not Christianity. He's writing up his interview. Suddenly a woman across the seat from him breaks him out of his writing trance. Her husband, it seems, has been gone for a while. Would Buck mind looking for him? Oh, and take a blanket, please. Apparently Hubby got up without his clothes.
Back to Ray. Hattie appears and says that several passengers have gone missing, leaving their clothes behind. Every child under the age of twelve is gone. Parents and family members are panicking. Hattie is scared and doesn't know what to do. Ray goes out and finds ... yup, clothes but no people. He radios the control tower, and prays (to nobody in particular) that it's just his plane. Because his True Christian Wife just told him about the Rapture, he instantly connects this strange event to something he doesn't believe in, at all. When he lands, he discovers plane wrecks, multi-car pile ups (because all those pilots and drivers just went poof) and news stories showing women in labor suddenly becoming un-pregenant. Buck calls his work desk and discovers the same thing, and immediately starts interviewing people and trying to get to New York. Rayford tries to find a car to go home and find out if Irene, his wife, and Chloe and Ray jr, his kids, are okay.
This scene is actually really cool in retrospect. It reminds me strongly of what 9/11 was like. It's a realistic reaction to millions of people going poof, and ham-handed early characterization aside, you can buy most of what the characters do. It's also manipulative as fuck, though god knows what TLH and JBJ were going for. Scare the pants off impressionable readers, maybe. I remember praying that God would time the Rapture so that no Christians were flying planes or driving because of this opening scene. I actually did this.
Anyhoo, Buck charters a private jet, mulling over the disappearance of Obvious Christian Co-worker, whose name I can't remember. He relates this tale to his pilot, Ken Ritz, who is one of the cooler characters in the series. Ken thinks aliens did it.
Ray goes home, finds his wife's empty nightie and his son's empty clothes, gets out his wife's Bible and starts reading and weeping on the floor. After the world's most hideous emotional build up, he heads out to Irene's SuperChristian church, where everyone except the secretary, assistant pastor (because you gotta have somebody with theological training to explain all this shit) and assorted recalitrant, unrepentant relatives are gone. Bruce Barns, another awesome character, walks Rayford up the Roman Road (in. fucking. detail.) and we have our first onscreen salvation experance. Ray's daughter Chloe appears and refuses to accept that God did it. They argue back and forth.
By the way, the Roman Road is pasted into the book verbatim. Because there is a chance someone non-Christian will read these books. And you can't, like, stick it into an appendix so they can read it later. It has to be in the text.
At this point my memory gets fuzzy because the book wandered a lot. Chloe and the other unrepentant characters are portrayed as Too Stupid To Live right up until their salvation experience, and I think JBJ does this on purpose. The only notable thing that happens in this section is Nicolae Carpathia is introduced to the world. He is the president of Romania, handsome and ... um, twenty four. What the hell? This charismatic young man gives an overwelmingly positive speech to the EU and UN, and he is summoned to America where an emergancy session of the world leaders is meeting to discuss what to do. Everybody likes him. Everybody. You get the feeling the female ambassadors were flinging underwear with their cell phone numbers attached at his head.
So now, and I can't remember how, everybody winds up in New York. Ray, Chloe, Buck, Bruce Barnes, Hattie Durham, Nicolae and a couple of others I don't think I ever cared about. Hattie hooks Buck up with Ray because Buck wants to interview him and Bruce Barnes about the disappearances/Rapture. Rayford spends the interview preaching at everybody, and Buck thinks it makes sense but doesn't buy in. Chloe bitches the entire time. Buck repays Hattie by introducing her to Nicolae. She gives him her card because she can't take off her underpants in public. Bruce Barnes lays out the biblical prophesy, and when Buck goes to a meeting with Carpathia he realizes that Bruce is right, God did it, and that he is sitting in the same room as the antichrist: Nicolae Carpathia. And thirteen-year-old me saw that coming a mile away.
Nicolae appoints people to different titles in his newly formed regieme, and gives his mentor (whom we never meet onscreen until RIGHT NOW) and his best bud the same title. He passes over Buck completely because Buck is now saved and has angelic protection. The only reason Buck is there is to let us see the meeting. Because having a non-Christian viewpoint in Christian fiction is wrong. I guess.
Nicolae then has his mentor stand up and sit down, and has one of Mentor's minions kneel so that their heads are aligned. Nicolae takes a gun from a guard and shoots both men in the head, getting blood and brains all over his best buddy, Leonardo Fortunado and Chaim Rosenwhig. This is also described in great detail. He hypnotizes everyone into believing that Minion killed Mentor and then shot himself (even though a half-assed forensics unit would figure out there was only one bullet fired) except, of course, for angelically protected Buck.
Buck goes running back to Ray, the now-saved Chloe and Bruce Barnes. Nicolae trades Chime Rosenwhig's magical jungle formula for a peace treaty between Israel and the rest of the world, thus kicking off the Tribulation and all that nasty stuff Revelation talks about. Nicolae is voted to the head of the New World Order (twenty-fucking-four years old) and the book ends with Buck, Rayford, Chloe and Bruce Barnes doing the textual version of that team shot action movies love so much, and Bruce proclaims that the end of the world has begun. It's like a male version of Samara from the Ring starts speaking, except it's Seven Years (/spooky voice) instead of seven days.
IDK how non-Christian audiences would absorb this first book. True Christian audiences, though, apparently loved it to little bitty bits. I found it rather boring at thirteen, but even then I had learned the value of skimming through the vague stuff. What kills it is a lack of subtlety combined with Google Earth syndrome (named after the moment in Bone Magic when our heroine finds the bad guy's lair by googling his address), those small details that throw the reader out of the book. I never knew, for example, that Nicolae was twenty-four. I know they tried to emphasize his charisma ("Look, he's so good even his young age is no barrier,") but it wasn't believable at all.
Overall, Left Behind is a mediocre product with a great sales team and (theoretically) a message audiences will love. And it delivers what it promises. Evangelical zeal combined with a fair pace and rough-but-readable characters and a plot that doesn't make your eyes bleed. Even the Google Earth moments aren't bad.
No. They saved those for book two.