Luxury and debauchery leads to a frantic quest to save a soul in this historical fantasy. The opening to ‘Diary of a Heretic’ by Ross Stein immediately made me inquisitive. The strange and stealth-like actions of the characters and the impression of urgency, the appearance of a figure in a mirror raises questions as we are sent back in time to discover how Al Valentine ended up standing in front of that mirror in Damascus. When Etienne appears in a stupor at the door of Al Valentine’s shop the cogs are set in motion for Al to discover a diary detailing Etienne’s past and setting him on the path to help Etienne reclaim his soul from a demon. The plot, explained simply like that may sound far-fetched, but there’s plenty of nuance and body throughout the narrative so that the fantasy elements blend in seamlessly. As a reader I saw the tortured shell Etienne has become while hearing about the exploits, loves and losses to get him there. I grew to admire the courage of the character that, despite his struggles, faced the challenge to take back the soul he sold. As pieces of the puzzle and the path to achieving such a feat are unravelled, I marvelled at the events of that first chance encounter which brought Etienne to Al, the best placed person to help him. Perhaps it was divine intervention? ‘Diary of a Heretic’ is a richly detailed story. I felt as though I walked the streets of Paris with them, and gazed upon the same pieces of art. This is a story of love and redemption and I think it would appeal to other historical fantasy fans.
In July 1935, widowed watchmaker AL VALENTINE (75) has left his quiet, mundane workshop in Philadelphia and traveled to the city of Damascus. He is determined to keep a promise he made ten years earlier to an old friend. Sneaking into the Umayyad Mosque in the predawn darkness, Al erects a large mirror against the walls of the sanctuary and magically opens a portal. The shadowy figure of a man appears from within this portal and ominously approaches, preparing to step through. Ten years earlier, Frenchman ETIENNE ALLARD (25) crashes through the door of Al’s shop in a crazed, disheveled state. Ranting incoherently in multiple languages, he collapses exhausted on the floor. Al recognizes the young man as a customer he’d met many years prior but is perplexed to find that Etienne has not aged a single day since their meeting. Al’s wife ZOFIA (65) is wary of the stranger, convinced he is a lunatic or possibly even possessed by a dybbuk, an evil spirit. Al dismisses her fears and insists on providing some aid to the man, his Jewish values of compassion and equity compelling him to not turn his back on a defenseless person in their time of need. Together they provide a bed for the unconscious Etienne, while Al discovers on his person a lengthy handwritten diary. He begins reading this diary as the Frenchman sleeps. Etienne disappears in the night and over the course of several weeks, Al continues reading his diary in pieces and learns of the Frenchman’s sordid and unusual history. He was born in 1870 and led a life of wealth, sexual debauchery, and prideful moral depravity that saw him host elaborate orgies, gamble with abandon, and earn himself the moniker of l’Hérétique for his sacrilegious ways. This downward spiral of behavior lasts several years as Etienne’s fortune dwindles and his friends abandon him. By the age of twenty-five he is on the edge of bankruptcy and ruin. Desperately, he stakes everything he has left in a winner take all card game with a charming and corpulent Russian named KAZAKOV (45) and loses. Financially ruined, alone and seeking vengeance, Etienne’s extremely prideful mien draws the eye of a birdlike demon, ARMAN SUR, who appears and offers him seventy years of youth, bottomless wealth, and temporary immortality in exchange for his immortal soul. Succumbing to the temptation, Etienne agrees and lives the carefree life of a libertine for twenty more years, never physically aging. He gives the demon an offering, a single centime, to seal their arrangement, not knowing that a portion of his soul is contained within the coin. As Al reads the diary, Zofia falls deathly ill with pneumonia. Wracked with grief, he is brought back from the brink of sorrow when Etienne mysteriously reappears and the two form an uneasy bond. Al remains wary of Etienne’s motives and sad history, but unexpectedly Etienne shows great regret for his past ways, owing largely to his having fallen deeply in love in 1914 with a kindhearted young governess, ELENA JUBERT (24). Unknown to either of them, Etienne had previously met Elena when she was just an infant and he already a young man. When he learns that it was his own careless and prideful actions in his youth that led her to have a sad childhood and difficult upbringing, Etienne finally turns his back on his libertine past and tries to start fresh. This decision proves fatal, and the demon Sur orchestrates Elena’s sudden and violent death as a punishment. Al begins to sympathize with Etienne’s loss, comparing it to his ongoing situation with his wife, and resolves that if he can help him find peace in some way, he will. Driven to madness by the death of his beloved, Etienne wanders aimlessly for years when he again encounters Kazakov, this time in 1918, only to find his one-time enemy on his deathbed. Kazakov sees that Etienne has not aged since their previous meeting and reveals that he too made the same deal with the demon Arman Sur some one hundred and forty years earlier, but now his contract is almost expired. Before dying, he informs Etienne that he has spent his last decades trying to find a way to not go to hell and in his research, he learned of a Spaniard, JUAN CRISTÓBAL MORENO DE ZARAGOZA, who also made a deal with the devil in the year 1510, and that he had somehow severed his contract and recovered his lost soul. Kazakov tells Etienne the only way he can be reunited with Elena after death would be to reclaim his soul from the demon’s grasp the way Juan Cristóbal did. Etienne spends the next seven years in search of the lost journal where the Spaniard wrote down the details of his feat. Al learns that Etienne eventually found Juan Cristóbal’s journal and reads a translation of it for himself, discovering in the process that if his soul is ever to be whole again, he would need to pass into Hell to retrieve the centime he offered to Arman Sur when his deal was originally struck. Furthermore, the journal shows that the Spaniard used a drop of the demon’s blood to open a doorway through a mirror into Hell. This drop of blood he kept inside an old timepiece, called a Nuremberg Egg, he’d purchased in 1510 but which Etienne believes to have been lost to history. Realizing that a treasured family heirloom left to him by his uncle is indeed the watch of the Spaniard, Al works with Etienne to discover the method Juan Cristóbal used so that Etienne can follow in his footsteps, travel into Hell, recover his own lost soul, and ultimately be reunited with his beloved Elena. Charged with renewed hope for his own rescue, Etienne begins writing a new diary. The first (and only) entry concludes with Etienne and Al conducting a successful test of their theory of how Juan Cristóbal managed to open the doorway into Hell. On the eve of his journey, Etienne steels himself for the arduous task ahead, cautiously optimistic that his actions going forward will outweigh his past errors and that he and Elena will be together once again. In Damascus, Al watches with joy and awe as Etienne’s form materializes from within the portal he opened and steps into the light of day, his centime, and his soul, successfully reclaimed. After a brief embrace and all too brief farewell, Etienne flees the courtyard, never to be seen again.
|Publication date:||12th April 2022|
|Publisher:||Gray Area Press|