Just in time for Halloween, longtime collaborators Christopher Golden and Hellboy creator Mike Mignola have successfully reunited for the illustrated horror novella, Father Gaetano’s Puppet Catechism.
The novella, largely marketed toward fans of the American television series The Twilight Zone (created by Rod Serling), takes place after a critical battle during World War II in the small, seaside Sicilian village, Tringale. Father Gaetano, a young priest, comes to the Church of San Domenico after the death of the previous pastor. However, Father Gaetano’s responsibilities extend past the requisite religious services because the San Domenico rectory has been converted into an orphanage to house the adolescent victims of war.
The novella explores the effects of tragedy on the faith of children, and whether or not innocence lost may ever be regained. The orphans of San Domenico have lost their childhood innocence and have prematurely begun to question their faith and the God they have so long believed in. While Father Gaetano delights in ministering to the children, he despairs knowing that his attempts to teach them catechism are in vain.
Experimenting with educational tactics inspired by the imaginative orphan, Sebastiano, and his puppet, Pagliaccio, Father Gaetano attempts to garner the children’s interest in his religious teachings. He does this by utilizing an old puppet theatre and puppet collection he finds in the basement of the rectory. The puppets, handcrafted by a former caretaker of the church, seem a harmless ploy to recapture the children’s interest, and eventually, their faith in God. However, in true Rod Serling fashion, the puppets come to life after dark, emerging from an ornate box without their puppet strings. These animated puppets contrast the cynicism of San Domenico’s orphans; the children are questioning their faith, whereas the puppets wholly believe Father Gaetano’s biblical stories from David and Goliath to the Genesis flood narrative. As a result from their steadfast belief in the word of God, they wreak havoc.
It seems an intentional critique of organized religion that these puppets, lost without their guiding strings, would blindly and completely turn to Father Gaetano’s Bible tales, but the reader should be left to draw his or her own conclusions. Mignola and Golden have successfully created an intelligent and frightening work of young adult fiction that encourages children to question their beliefs in a similar (albeit far more subtle and forgiving) fashion to Phillip Pullman’s acclaimed trilogy His Dark Materials.
Refreshingly, Father Gaetano is not portrayed as the stereotype of the “pedophile priest,” nor does the novella delve into cases of sexual abuse in the Church. Father Gaetano is instead painted as a man conflicted by his devotion to God and his own appropriate sexual desires for a nun his own age. This insight into Father Gaetano’s personal life enhances the novella, but is also frustrating because it is never fully realized.
Fans of The Twilight Zone will appreciate similarities to the episodes “The Dummy” and “The Invaders,” as well as Mignola and Golden’s use of Serling’s infamous “surprise” plot twists. While the conclusion of Father Gaetano’s Puppet Catechism seems inevitable and unsurprising given the world Mignola and Golden build up for the reader, the novella still manages to surprise when it is least expected.