Book World: In Seth Grahame-Smith’s ‘Unholy Night,’ a biblical story is reimagined

All the spirit of Seth Grahame-Smith’s previous mash-up – the turgid, entrail-splattered “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” – was in its title. At least that counts for the mind if you’re still split over the author’s bestseller, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.”

So here is Grahame-Smith’s new novel, ‘Unholy Night’, which claims to give us the untold story of – wait for it – the Nativity of Jesus Christ, the Three Wise Men, Herod’s massacre of the Innocents and the flight of the Holy Family in Egypt: a knee-jerk from the New Testament if there ever was one. I approached the novel with all the enthusiasm of a Skid Row regular entering a Salvation Army meeting.

I left a convert.

Those with weak constitutions and high literary standards be warned: Grahame-Smith abandoned neither graphic gore nor cheerful historical and religious revisionism.

This is a novel in which the hero, an unrepentant thief who has taken refuge in a stable, introduces himself and his accomplices: “Joseph? Married? My name is Balthazar. It’s Gaspar. . . it is Melchyor. We don’t want to hurt you. . . we are just looking for a place to rest. But Joseph? If you don’t put that pitchfork down, I’ll take it from you and stab you to death in front of your wife and child. Do you understand?”

“An Unholy Night” by Seth Grahame-Smith. (Grand Central Publishing)

If you can get past the notion of a pitchfork-wielding Joseph (yes, this Joseph) in a manger (yes, this eat), you’ll find “Unholy Night” a surprisingly touching and sweet story of bravery, magic and salvation, based very, very, very loosely on events familiar to many in Sunday School or, perhaps, Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

Along with his fellow scoundrels, Balthazar, a legendary Syrian thief known as the Ghost of Antioch, escapes the dungeon of evil King Herod by murdering three wise men and donning their robes.

In Bethlehem, the thieves reconnect with another trio fleeing Herod’s soldiers: carpenter Joseph, his 15-year-old wife, Mary, and their newborn son. All witness and barely escape Herod’s horrific slaughter of infants and toddlers, after which Balthazar agrees to escort Joseph and his family to safety in Egypt. Herod’s soldiers give chase, along with Roman troops led by an ambitious young man named Pontius Pilate and an evil magus in the service of Emperor Augustus Caesar.

Grahame-Smith manages to have fun with this material while (mostly) staying true to its original narrative. His Herod is truly a villain for the ages; Pilate, at 22, is already a conflicted seeker of truth. The Holy Family is depicted with warmth and humor. It’s up to Balthazar, still guilty of the death of his little brother decades earlier, to bear the brunt of modern cynicism and revenge, while remaining open to redemption. He also wields a wicked sword.

This novel has a high body count, though it pales in comparison to its source material. In “Unholy Night,” Grahame-Smith pulls off the trick of providing a satisfying and moving new ending to a story that’s been told from untold times.

One is tempted to call this a miracle.

Hand’s new young adult novel, “Radiant Days,” about poet Arthur Rimbaud, has just been released.

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