John Whitbourn, “To Build Jerusalem” (1995) – An alternative title for this one could be “Fear of a Protestant Planet.” English fantasy writer Whitbourn once described himself as a “Green Counter-Reformation Anarcho-Jacobite” (you can see why I made a point of tracking his books down). This was back in the eighties or nineties, before we would automatically assume such a person is just trying to find a way to avoid self-describing as fascist. Whitbourn’s ideas frame the worlds he writes, and they’re animated by a pulpy horror/fantasy sensibility with substantial Lovecraftian overtones.
This one in particular takes place in a world where the Reformation failed, the Catholic Church runs things in a manner reminiscent of the Emperor in Dune, and magic exists, mostly wielded by priests. Like I said when I reviewed the first book set in this world, “A Dangerous Energy,” if Whitbourn is trying to convince people that the world would be better without the Reformation, he’s found a funny way of doing it. The world is dark, cramped, and run by tyrants. It’s the late twentieth century and much of the world is unmapped and they’re just figuring out trains. To the extent Whitbourn can be said to pitch it as a “good” world, you could argue it’s more orderly- people know their place in the world and stick to it. Not my thing, but ok.
But Whitbourn is pleasingly non-didactic, and the actual point of the world seems to be that it’s a good jumping off point for horror and adventure. The main character is an enforcer for the Church, a sort of Catholic janissary named Adam. He’s sent to England because there’s a disturbance in the force- some kind of entity in the sphere of magic that is making the spells not work good. Wizards often summon demons, but it turns out, the demons they summon are small-fry compared to a big (and very horny) demon from a realm of evil beyond even the evil-realm the wizards can access. The many layers of unknowable and unholy power that exist beyond our ken are reinforcement for the idea that we need a stable order watched over by a perennial source of spiritual power…
Spoiler alert- the demon lord (never named) manifested itself to the Gideonites, the underground remnants of Protestantism in England. They bargained with it to kidnap the King and the papal legate and do a bunch of other mayhem. Whitbourn depicts the Gideonites as similar to (a conservative picture of) militant leftist movements in our timeline (including references to “democratic centralism” lol). Their overweening pride and desperation over being owned by the Church and its armies all the time leads them to believe they can use this demon-lord to bring about the End Times and hit the reset button on the whole thing. Not only that- but they’re getting into enclosure! The venal lords of England, never really faithful enough, start doing capitalism against the wishes of the church, kicking good pious peasants off the land and raising sheep for money. Both the demon’s antics and enclosure are treated as equally heinous, offenses against the sacred order of things.
The book’s a lot of fun. Naturally, our Leninist-Puritans can’t control the demon-lord, who does all kinds of nasty things. Adam develops a fun Holmes-Watson thing with a provincial English yeoman-soldier. Whitbourn throws in a lot of fun details and a real sense of place, namely Surrey and Sussex- apparently he has whole collections of macabre tales about them. The ending was kind of a cop-out. There’s some fun battles in the demon-lord’s own dimension, but they end with a literal deus ex machina (or deus ex coelum). It’s consistent with Whitbourn’s beliefs and with his vision of our world at the mercy of extra-dimensional powers above and below… but it kind of took the wind out of the book’s sails. Still, definitely worth checking out. Also, someone claiming to be Whitbourn commented on my review of his earlier volume. If you’re reading this, Mr. Whitbourn, thanks for getting in touch, and I hope your straits aren’t actually dire! I did go out and buy this book, and encourage others to do so if they like quality weird history/fantasy/horror fiction. Maybe we can do an interview? Let me know! ****’