David L. Howells,
Vanessa: All Heaven Breaks Loose
(Protea, 2002)

David L. Howells takes his story of the ghost-assisting Fitzgalen family to a whole new level in this third book of his fascinating Vanessa tetralogy, giving Vanessa: All Heaven Breaks Loose a complexity and intellectual depth far surpassing that of its predecessors.

The first book, Vanessa, focused primarily on a specific event wherein a number of Civil War-era ghosts were assisted by the family in crossing over to the spiritual realm; Vanessa: Family Tree dealt with the aftermath of the stunning events of the first book as well as another confrontation with a troubled spirit. While there are a few ghost-assisting missions described in this third book, one of which raises troubling implications of an afterlife of punishment for certain troubled souls, the heart of the story centers around the ethical and moral implications of the work the Fitzgalen family is doing.

With two ghost-assisting interventions already broadcast worldwide, the reality of the group's work cannot but be expected to raise hackles among religious leaders suddenly having to field all manner of questions from confused churchgoers.

The country's most powerful trio of churches sends representatives to meet with the Fitzgalens, each representative having been given his own special agenda by the leader of his respective church. Proof of the ghostly presence of Vanessa, the spiritual matriarch of the group, and the deceased lawyer Gustaf are sought and received, and potential conflict is turned into an unusual camaraderie as the religious representatives suddenly begin to rethink their own beliefs. Flexible thinking is not so forthcoming from the heads of the respective churches; one leader in particular is convinced that the family is doing Satan's work and that the mysterious Ryan, of whom almost nothing is known, may in fact be the Antichrist. In the terms of his beliefs, action must be taken immediately. The family has meanwhile returned to Milledgeville, the setting of the first novel, to witness the marriage of two family members and to bury the physical remains of a fallen comrade. Vanessa has secret plans of her own that are not revealed until the later stages of the tale; I did not care particularly for how this part of the novel played out, but its significance cannot be questioned.

The conclusion of this novel is action-packed and nothing short of shocking, striking a tone unlike anything encountered in Howells' earlier novels. The entire Fitzgalen family finds itself in grave peril, as a Christian paramilitary group sets its sights on eliminating what they believe to be the Antichrist and his demonic followers. There are no real bad guys, as both sides fight for their own version of the Good, but the end result of the holy battle will change not only the Fitzgalens, but also organized religion and, to some degree, the very world itself.

Howells bravely injects a certain amount of religion into this third novel. I personally do not agree with the type of theology that takes form here, one in which men and women of all religions are eligible for salvation, nor with the relative ease with which several Christian ministers in the novel seemingly turn away from their most innate beliefs and teachings, but this does not take away from my enjoyment of the novel. I hesitate to even bring this rather minor theological issue up, as I do not want to turn anyone away from such a fascinating book, but I think potential readers, particularly those of a fundamentalist Christian strain of mind, should be aware of this important element of the novel.

Whatever your personal religious beliefs, though, Vanessa: All Heaven Breaks Loose is a stimulating novel full of goodness, humor, heroism, tragedy and redemption. There are still some unpolished elements to the narrative alongside spots of artificial dialogue, but overall I found this to be a much more impressive novel than Howells' preceding ones. The ever-growing number of principal characters borders on the unwieldy, but Howells knows how to tell a good story, and any stray moments of narrative weakness seem to be due to overenthusiasm on his part and, as such, do little harm to what is really a quite fascinating, unique, and far-reaching story.

- Rambles
written by Daniel Jolley
published 14 February 2004

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