Peretti: Stalking His Own Image

Frank Peretti thinks it might be fun if his next novel is a real howler.

No, this doesn't mean that the fantasy superstar who many insist on calling the "Christian Stephen King," wants to build his next bestseller around a holy war between saints and werewolves. No, Peretti is pondering a different plot twist.

"I could go any which way," he said. "I really don't think that my next one will be a horror book, at all. Hey, I might write a humorous book, something that's really off-the-wall and funny. Wouldn't that be a scream?"

After all, Peretti is known as a witty public speaker who constantly spins out wacky tales and wisecracks about modern life. It would be natural for him, a banjo player turned preacher, to consider writing humor.

But there's a problem. A Peretti comedy would inspire howls, but they might be screams of horror from Christian booksellers. Truth is, "Peretti" has become a commercial label. More than 5 million of his books are in print, led by "This Present Darkness," his breakthrough saga about spiritual warfare. Peretti is a franchise and it's hard to mess with success.

"I guess it's all just a result of free enterprise and big business. One way or the other, you end up as some kind of Christian superstar," he said. "If they're going to sell something to Christians that means they need some celebrities. ... Beyond that, it's all numbers and labels and sales and marketing."

Millions of readers want "Peretti books." They expect his plots to ricochet between the natural and the supernatural. They expect sinners to die horrible deaths and for a few imperfect, but courageous, believers to stand tall. They expect scenes to rush past at the pace of an Indiana Jones movie.

The writer's new novel, "The Oath," delivers the goods. It was handled by a secular New York City editor, but the sermon between the lines remains pure Peretti. The plot centers on a string of horrific deaths near Hyde River, in the American Northwest. Long ago, the mountain town's founders lynched a preacher who tried to clean up the place and, thus, made a pact with evil.

The town charter says it all: "We are the masters and makers of our own destiny. ... If This Be Sin, Let Sin Be Served."

Sin shows up as a dragon, a cross between a Medieval monster and the shimmering aliens that battle the Arnold Schwarzeneggers of this age. Wildlife biologist Steve Benson fights the dragon on equal terms until he slides into adultery. Then the dragon starts reeling him in, just like the folks in town.

"They were skeletons," thinks Benson, stranded in the dragon's filthy lair. "Even while they ate the food, drank the beer, played the games, laughed it up, and talked about anything and everything, they were dead. Nothing but bones. ... I'm standing in hell. I'm seeing my future, and it's not that different from my present."

As usual, Peretti is offering a modern variation on old themes of sin, pride, repentance and salvation.

"This dragon is sneaky and likes to hide. ... Sin is like that," he said. "All those things that Hollywood and popular culture keep saying are so great all have a price. You mess around with that kind of sin and there's going to be a price to pay. It's going to leap up and bite you, before the story is over."

"The Oath" has sold 510,000 copies in a matter of weeks. Now it's time to think about the future. Thus, Peretti sits at his computer in his log home in rural Idaho, trying to decide which of the images buzzing in his brain will see print.

"I have always lamented the fact that it seems like Christians have to keep come up with their own version of whatever the world is doing," he said. "Why do we do that? It seems like we hardly ever get to come up with something that's truly original, something we can really call our own. We're always following other people's trends. Kind of makes you wonder, doesn't it?"