Tales from the Vatican Vaults

Tales from the Vatican Vaults, ed. by David V. Barrett (Robinson, 2015)

It’s a little known fact that Pope John Paul suffered a heart attack in 1978, just 33 days into his reign. Fortunately his personal secretary made an unscheduled visit to his chambers that night and immediately summoned medical attention. John Paul of course recovered and went on to become the longest-ever reigning Pope, clocking in 32 years and 2 months on the throne of St Peter before dying in 2010 at the age of 98. His reign famously cleaned up the Catholic church, finally banishing the shades of financial corruption and abuse of the vulnerable that had dogged it for centuries, and unleashing an age of liberalism such as had never been seen before. He even managed to reconcile the Roman Catholic and Anglican communions with a clever bit of theological jiggery pokery that worked for those who wanted it to. And as part of this theological glasnost, John Paul threw open the Vatican Vaults – the repository of all those weird and wonderful reports that didn’t quite (or even nearly) fit into the official narrative of Catholic theology.

A small selection of which is published here, with linking commentary.

In short, this is the Vatican X-Files.

That at least is the back story, and it works a lot better than the incoherent mishmash of alien technology, conspiracy etc ad nauseam that ties the TV X-Files into such impenetrable knots. A big strength is that editor David V. Barrett has enough of a theological background to weave it together in a way that makes coherent, internal sense, rather than just hand-wavy wishful thinking. But still, like the original, the collection is at its best if you regard it as a series of standalone tales, each clever in their own right but not trying to be anything bigger.

It’s a good, chunky collection with 28 authors: most of the usual suspects of good short story fiction, and a couple of first timers. Some stories stick closer to the brief than others, being the kind of thing that could plausibly end up in the Vatican Vaults. Some feel like the kind of story the author would have written anyway, meaning that the linking text has to work a little bit harder to fit it into the narrative.

There are two main types of alternate history: where the timelines diverge because of outside intervention (time travellers, alien invasion), and where it happens because it just happened. The former lends itself much more to science fiction; this collection is the latter type. So, the stories are generally somewhere on a spectrum between outright fantasy and non-fantastical, counterfactual material.

With the former, the theme is often the contrast between the supernatural powers attributed to pagan religions, and the truth claimed by the church, with or without reason. Thus, in Jaine Fenn’s ‘The Sky Weeps, the Earth Quakes’, a young Conquistador has to face up to the reality of the powers of the Inca religion – and to do him credit, does his best to take it on board. In Storm Constantine’s ‘The Saint’s Well’, a holy well in 1950s Wales, attributed to a saint, is clearly empowered by a much older spiritual presence.

But there is enough variety to break up the theme. At the counterfactual end of the spectrum, Lionel & Patricia Fanthorpe do what they do best and give us a tale of Bérenger Saunière, Rennes-le-Château and Saint-Sulpice. David V. Barrett’s introductory ‘The Tale of Pope Joan’ is exactly what it says it is, but fleshing out the bare bones of a rather insubstantial legend with actual characters and motivation and background. Easily the best of this crop is Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s ‘The Island of Lost Priests’, a response to contemporary church scandals, dealing with the Catholic church’s historical insistence on policing itself rather than handing over to the secular authorities, and the bonds that may always exist between abuser and abused.

One notable exception to the rule – in other words, good old science fiction – is Marion Pitman’s ‘Encounter on the Rhine’: a Close Encounters explanation of the visions of Hildegard of Bingen from the point of view of a twelfth century monk.

Now I have to I plead an interest: my first professional sale was to a David V. Barrett collection, so I paid especial attention to the debut authors he has found here. Geraldine Warner’s ‘The Missing Journal of Captain James Cook’ gives the real story of the explorer’s last days, extending beyond the generally accepted date of his death. Cook, a product of the Enlightenment and a certain English class, with a traditional C of E upbringing, grapples with very different spiritual forces on the island of Hawaii where he met his end. The tension and joy of the story is the mismatch, read between the lines, between how a man of Cook’s background feels he should be thinking, and what is actually happening to him. One man’s heaven can easily be another’s hell.

Meanwhile, in Stephanie Potter’s ‘Gardening’ we get the story of an innocent nun who inadvertently uncovers an alternative version of the Garden of Eden story, and is of course treated exactly as you would expect the church of the 1930s to treat an uppity nun who insists on discovering inconvenient truths.

Because of the fantastical / counter-factual dominance, it would be interesting to do a second volume, Tales from the Vatican Vaults 2500, or even 3000: David V. Barrett could bring his theological sights to bear on a future Catholic theologian’s appraisal of the technological developments of the previous 500 (or 1000) years. You’re welcome.