The Six Messiahs

Mr. Reindeer

White Lodge
Apr 13, 2022
In the Conversations book, Frost talks a few times about how he doesn’t like to repeat himself. The Six Messiahs bears this out. While a sequel to The List of Seven and, yes, another supernatural occult thriller starring Arthur Conan Doyle, the book is very different in terms of structure and tone, and takes its characters—particularly Jack Sparks—in some unpredictable (and dark) directions. While not as radical a shift as The Return is from the original Twin Peaks, there is some of the same feel in terms of expanding and redefining an existing world, refusing to present a “comfort food” retread for fans of the first book. Some reader reviews I’ve seen online could easily fit into the Profoundly Disappointed thread on dugpa when The Return aired: “I just wanted to see Arthur Conan Doyle and Jack Sparks solving a mystery and having adventures together. This is not that.” It’s interesting to see those impulses in Frost as far back as 1995, refusing to settle or play it safe in a sequel to a well-received work. One thing The Six Messiahs has in common with The Return is the expansiveness of its story. If not a stronger novel than The List of Seven (which I would argue it is), it is at the very least undeniably a more confident work. Whereas The List of Seven is a very linear work, following one character and his allies on a relatively straightforward adventure, The Six Messiahs seems to be taking its inspiration from Stephen King’s The Stand moreso than Arthur Conan Doyle (Frost has notably called The Stand the best King novel, and of course any rational reader would agree—and he also included the novel on the Bookhouse Boys’ bookshelf in The Secret History of Twin Peaks). We follow not only Doyle (whose exploits only cover roughly half the novel, I would estimate…perhaps a bit more), but a large cast of disparate characters from all walks of life and all over America, who have no link to one another except that some of them share a strange dream that slowly brings them together (these are the titular “Six Messiahs”), and others are collateral who in the course of pursuing their own agendas get swept along in the wakes of the Six. The shared dream even prominently involves a “dark tower” which plays a key role in the book (although Frost has said that he is not particularly a fan of that King series, the reference/inspiration seems almost undeniably intentional), and Jack’s brother, the evil Alexander Sparks, is in full-on Randall Flagg mode here.

We meet back up with Doyle in September 1894, nearly a full ten years after The List of Seven took place. Now a wildly successful author and a family man with two kids, he is embarking on his first trip to America, for an ambitious press tour (as the real Doyle in fact did this year). The problem is that he killed off his famed literary creation Sherlock Holmes the prior year (in circumstances mirroring the supposed deaths of Jack and Alexander Sparks in The List of Seven), having grown tired of writing him, but all anyone wants him to talk about is Sherlock Holmes! In a page taken from the actual Doyle’s life, but also pretty clearly once again Frost using Doyle as a convenient self-insert, Doyle has become deeply resentful of his Holmes fame, and just wants people to pay attention to his historical novels, which he feels have much higher literary value. The old Usenet Twin Peaks FAQ claims that this is Frost cheekily venting about his promotional tour for The List of Seven, where all people wanted to talk about was Twin Peaks, and one does not have to squint too much to see the parallel. Frost portrays Doyle’s wife (Louisa, again strangely renamed “Louise” by Frost) as ill; in reality, Louisa died in 1906 after a prolonged battle with tuberculosis, although I’m not sure if she was sick as far back as 1894. Doyle rather callously decides that, since he can do nothing to help her, and his constantly concerned presence is more of a stressor to her than a comfort, he may as well take off to America for five months. As in reality, Doyle is accompanied to America by his twenty-one-year-old brother, Innes, whose three defining characteristics in Frost’s book are his bravery and resilience due to his time in the Royal Fusiliers, his mental sluggishness, and his permanent horndog state. (I don’t know if the real Innes was this thirsty all the time, but I guess when you’re writing a twenty-one-year-old, it’s not an unreasonable supposition.)

Unsurprisingly, Jack Sparks—the Holmes surrogate and breakout character from the first book—is revealed to be alive. Rather more surprisingly, he is an utterly broken man, who found himself rendered as a clean slate after his tumble from Reichenbach Falls, void of purpose and meaning with his brother seemingly dead. After experimenting with a variety of life experiences, Sparks ultimately embraced a nihilistic worldview that has led him to commit coldblooded murder and to fall into a three-year stint in an opium den. Jack’s accounting of his past decade’s experiences to Doyle is the centerpiece of the book, and while it is maybe not quite as effective as Frost intends it to be (it can come across as a bit emo, perhaps partially by design as Frost clearly doesn’t endorse Sparks’s full-on rejection of societal norms even as he also clearly sees the value in the questioning of them), it does read as true to the character’s experiences given his bizarre and emotionally difficult life, and also feels genuine to a psychological examination of a quasi-Sherlock Holmes character. One of the more intriguing ideas Sparks explores during his years off the grid is the concept of a transferable universal consciousness, free from individual identity (Sparks becomes an eagle during an ayahuasca trip), but he draws the wrong conclusions from this and slides into a life of amorality. In this way, you get the sense how straying outside the bounds of societal guidance—something Frost no doubt encourages—can lead you into dangerous territory if you’re not careful. When Doyle angrily admonishes Jack about the life without consequences he has seemingly embraced, Sparks sadly replies, “I never claimed there were no consequences. Consequences are all I’ve been describing.” Frost’s point seems to be that we need to question and, when appropriate, reject societal norms, but simultaneously replace them with our own personal code, as opposed to rejecting morality altogether.

I was slightly lying when I said the Six Messiahs have nothing in common beyond the shared dream. They also (almost) all have some tie to a sacred text which has recently been stolen (as we’ll eventually learn, for use in an occult ceremony at the dark tower). The Six Messiahs are:
  • Jack Sparks: who has been charged by the Queen with locating the Latin Vulgate Bible, the oldest biblical manuscript in the Anglican Church
  • Jacob Stern: a New York rabbi and expert in Kabbalah—an esoteric/mystical offshoot of Judaism—whose son is transporting to him the Gerona Zohar, the earliest complete manuscript of the Sefer ha-Zohar, or “Book of Splendor,” when Jacob becomes aware of the theft of the corresponding Tikkunei Zohar, an addendum, from a Chicago colleague. The Zohar, a real esoteric text and the foundation for Kabbalah, allegedly contains the key to “unlocking” the Torah and revealing the mystery of creation and the identity of the creator (Jacob presents a rather tantalizing analogy to the way a telephone works: words are translated into electrical signals which turn back into words on the other end, just as the shapes and sounds of the words in scripture are an imperfect vessel for delivering God’s words, which can be theoretically deciphered back to their purest form)
  • Kanazuchi (“the Hammer”): a Japanese warrior who doesn’t hesitate to murder a man just to use his uniform as a disguise, but makes sure to pray afterward to thank him for his gift and to wish him a reward in the afterlife. An orphan raised in a Shinto monastery, he is charged with finding the stolen Kojiki, the oldest literary work in Japan and foundational text of the ancient Shinto religion
  • Preston “Presto” Peregrine Raipur: an English barrister, and also the Maharaja of Berar (a purely ceremonial title, as he admits, since his grandfather ceded the territory to the Nizam of Hyderabad, who promptly transferred control to the British; although this is more or less historically accurate, Presto himself appears to be a fictional character). Tapped (more accurately, coerced) by his childhood friend, the current Nizam of Hyderabad, to recover a rare manuscript of the Upanishads, he is posing as a magician while in America (hence, “Presto”)
  • Walks Alone (a.k.a. Mary Williams): a Dakota medicine woman, who shares the dream but does not have a link to any sacred text since her people do not have a written language
Astute numerologists will note that I’ve mentioned only Five Messiahs…the identity of Six is not revealed until the closing pages, and I’ll address that later. You’ll also note that I only mentioned four of the six texts required for the ritual (assuming that the two Zohars are counted as one text): the Quran is also present (seemingly no corresponding Muslim “Messiah” was given the dream for some reason), and the identity of the sixth text is never addressed (although Buddhism is an obvious exclusion: presumably Frost felt Buddhism, or at least pseudo-Buddhism by way of Theosophy, had already gotten its due in List). The concept of multiple Messiahs existing in any given generation comes from the Kabbalah (according to the character Jacob Stern; I haven’t personally researched this). They typically go about their lives with no knowledge that they are Messiahs, but every now and then the generational Messiahs are called to action (this is a bit like the arhanta concept referred to in List—recall that Jack Sparks was referred to as an arhanta by one character—although there were said to be twelve arhantas at any given time).

The early chapters build to the central plot slowly, with Doyle’s trip across the Atlantic being initially filled with various storylines that don’t really lead anywhere: the obnoxious reporter Ira Pinkus who shadows Doyle throughout the journey but then completely disappears from the narrative once they reach New York, and a séance involving famed medium Sophie Hill (as far as I can tell, a fictional creation of Frost’s). The séance feels very deliberately like a callback to List, almost like Frost is repeating himself, perhaps to throw the reader into a false sense of familiarity before changing things up. Although Doyle makes a big deal about wanting to disprove Hill’s methods, it seems that her abilities are truly genuine, and she (by way of the spirit speaking through her) gives a brief tease of the main plot before she disappears entirely from the book. Interestingly enough, Doyle here says he believes the dead do not truly communicate through séances: rather, any correspondence received is comparable to a “footprint” left behind in the world by the deceased, due to an abrupt and/or spiritually confused departure. This seems to be at odds with Doyle’s experience in List, and certainly with the real Doyle’s beliefs. Doyle finally gets roped into the story proper when he meets Lionel Stern, Jacob’s son, on board, transporting the Gerona Zohar.

Frost faced a dilemma with Alexander Sparks. He was such an intriguing villain in the first book, the reader naturally wants to see him again, and any substitute would likely come up short; but allowing both Jack and Alexander to survive the fall in Switzerland could come off as cheap. The solution Frost landed on—to have both suffer grievous consequences of the fall, both physically and mentally—works much more effectively than it has any right to. Alexander has amnesia, allowing him to become an entirely different character with no memory of his past—albeit still drawn inexorably to evil. This is, from a moral/philosophical standpoint, perhaps my biggest issue with the book. Frost discusses in Conversations how he believes Alexander makes a conscious choice to be evil, and how Leland on Twin Peaks is morally responsible for his actions, etc., and yet just as with the ambiguity surrounding Leland in Episode 16, I question here whether Frost is really properly executing the idea he claims he had in mind. If Alexander is a blank slate after going over the falls, and again is naturally inclined to evil, I question whether he had any choice in the matter at all, or if it was just his nature by birth? In the duality between Jack and Alexander, we see a more intriguing exploration of this with Jack, who swings over to the amoral/immoral side before righting himself, but poor Alexander never gets to even consider being good. Even taking up the cloth and assuming the identity of Reverend A. Glorious Day (a terrific name, by the way), his intentions are never anything but the consolidation of power and the awakening of evil, the same motivations he had in List. (In the prologue to Messiahs, set five years before the main body of the novel, he realizes that if he is going to pose as a Reverend, he’ll probably have to read the Bible; he later reveals that he stole the preacher outfit off a man he killed in South Carolina.)

As in List, a major theme in the book’s philosophical digressions is mankind’s fall from grace, and even Rabbi Jacob theorizes that the Creator of this world must logically also be a “terribly wounded and incomplete being,” in exile with the rest of us and “stumbling on his own path toward spiritual perfection,” if the world was created in his image. Walks Alone articulates the Native American belief that the white man has brought about a rift with nature, and a division between mind and heart, leading to the world becoming sick. Relatedly, the questions of free will and why God would place the potential for evil in man prove key to the book’s plot, particularly when Reverend Day’s plan is revealed. Jacob views evil as a test to be overcome in order to strengthen us, to correct our brokenness. Reverend Day instead believes that the potential for evil was placed in us so that we could use it to defy God’s rules, move beyond conventional morality, and thus become godlike ourselves—the Reverend views God as “plagued by doubt,” “a parent losing control of its children as we outgrow the need for His protection.” He believes the flawed nature of our world is evidence of God’s imperfection, and that God himself planted the key to his own defeat in the holy books—albeit subconsciously, as he can’t consciously acknowledge his failure. The Messiah Day seeks to awaken is “the one angel too pure and selfless for the likes of God,” the Archangel (presumably Lucifer, although Lucifer is never specifically named as an archangel in the Bible).

We’re left to consider how his plans to birth “the Beast” fit into the mythology of List. If (as implied in the epilogue of List) Alexander has already managed to rebirth the “Dweller on the Threshold” into an infant Adolf Hitler, is the Beast he’s trying to revive here a separate entity? Both seem to be pretty definitively linked with the Judeo-Christian Satan. Is that last beat in List just a gag that we weren’t meant to take as a serious part of the plot?

One of the more interesting passages, for Peaks fans, is the scene where Walks Alone tries to “heal” Jack by removing the evil/sickness inside him. She claims that, “The soul is able to travel far but must then find its way back,” and that in Jack’s case, the soul’s place was stolen by a windigo or demon. But what makes it really interesting is the description of the ceremony, which bears more than a bit of similarity to the Woodsmen’s ritual in Part 8 of The Return:

Another dreadful scream broke Jack’s lips and his body bridged off the floor, taut as a bowstring. Realizing his cries could be heard up and down the length of the car, Doyle thought to close the compartment door, but he could not respond to the impulse when he saw something appear in her hands as she quickly raised them from Jack’s chest:

A wobbly transparent mass of pink-and-red tissues about the size of an oblong grapefruit, a hot black jellied nugget burning in its center, mottled all around with curved bands of a sickly gray substance that like ribs seemed to give the object structure.

Something fetal, a larva, more insectoid than human, thought Doyle. He turned to Innes; his face had gone white as an egg. Doyle felt strangely reassured; at least Innes was seeing it, too.

The woman’s hands continued to agitate, vibrating at such an impossibly high rate it made it impossible for them to determine whether the queasy handful was being shaken by her or animated by its own odious energy.

Eileen Temple, Doyle’s love interest from List, is given her own substantial subplot here as she falls unwittingly into Rabbi Stern’s orbit, and she comes across as a much more fully-formed character than in the prior novel. Although Messiahs doesn’t quite pass the Bechdel Test (the only woman Eileen has a conversation with is herself, and most of her internal monologues center on men, sex, and finding a steady partner), it’s a realistic portrayal for the period anyway, and her characterization is both poignant and funny. Having fled England following the events of List, a decade on, Eileen is a disillusioned aging actress touring America in a third-rate road production of The Prisoner of Zenda (with the hilariously named Penultimate Players and their equally ludicrous impresario/star, Bendigo Rymer—who tells anyone who will listen that his great Broadway career was derailed by a jealous Edwin Booth, brother of John Wilkes). Frost, who had a substantial stage background in Minnesota both during and after college (producing, directing, writing, acting), and whose parents had lived the “theater gypsy” life, had some fun with theater culture in List, through Eileen’s character and particularly in the chapter featuring Bram Stoker, but in Messiahs he really goes to town, lovingly satirizing the absurdities and overbearing personalities of the profession.

(Continued in next post due to character limit)
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Mr. Reindeer

White Lodge
Apr 13, 2022
Of particular note to Twin Peaks fans is a cameo by Denver Bob Hobbes. Denver Bob was a character Frost originated while role-playing with his buddy Charlie Haid (Renko on Hill Street Blues and the pornographer in Storyville—in fact, Haid was the one who first set Frost up with Hill Street creator Steve Bochco, as all three men attended Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh at different times). Frost was Denver Bob and Haid was Wayne Chance, and the two riffed on these characters just for fun. Bob and Wayne turned up years later in The Secret History of Twin Peaks (where they disappear without a trace in Washington State sometime in the 1870s), but here, Denver Bob appears years later chronology-wise, in a Yuma hobo camp. Denver Bob is one of only two Twin Peaks characters to have crossed over to another work (the other being Frost’s reporter character Cyril Pons, who appears in Storyville). Denver Bob is given some backstory here: a working stiff from Ohio who came west pounding rails in the 1860s, he found himself picking potatoes in Idaho when he swore off working (Frost writes a fairly extensive, and very entertaining, passage here about the hobo philosophy and code), eventually becoming an expert on economic exploitation of the working man, marching on Washington with Kelly’s Army and becoming a sort of elder statesman in the hobo community. Denver Bob has some great dialogue while trying to reason with the enigmatic Kanazuchi, such as, “Work? Well, that feeling comes over a man from time to time. He don’t know whether to shit or wind his watch; it’s like a fever, see; best thing is to lie down, have a drink, and wait for it to pass.”

Other prominent supporting characters with their own arcs include: Dante Scruggs, a Chicago serial killer who hears Voices and was quietly discharged from the U.S. Army (with honors) after his barbaric performance at Wounded Knee; and “Buckskin” Frank McQuethy, a frontiersman and former deputy of Wyatt Earp in Tombstone, who has been serving time for murder after drunkenly shoving his girlfriend, a showgirl, from a fatal height, but is given a provisional chance at release when Kanazuchi beheads a bunch of railroad cops, and Frank is seen as the only tracker in the Arizona territory who can find the “Chinaman.”

Frost lived in New York as a kid, and his portrayal of late-19th-century NYC feels well-researched and fun for me as a native New Yorker, with its steamed clam vendors and young girls selling corn on the cob, as well as a harrowing rooftop chase through the Lower East Side, taking our heroes through a slum called “the Gates of Hell” (evocatively and nauseatingly described by Frost) and finally onto the elevated subway tracks. The slum passage is contrasted against a later sequence when Doyle observes the “self-serving monuments” the rich built for themselves along Fifth Avenue, another Frostian sociological look at class discrepancies. Frost also gets some good comic mileage out of Doyle’s American publicist, Major Pepperman (a Frost invention), a gregarious Virginian and former circus promoter who becomes apoplectic as Doyle blows off his tour duties and behaves increasingly erratically.

There are some weird gender politics, which for the most part can be attributed to the antiquated views of the characters having the discussions, although one still has to question why the author chose to have the characters pontificate on the subjects at all. In particular, a discussion between Doyle, the perpetually randy Innes, and Presto regarding the distinctions (or lack thereof) between harems and “well-kept wives” in America goes to some bizarre places and doesn’t really amount to much ultimately. And references to Presto’s eighty-year-old grandfather fucking a fifteen-year-old and Jack Sparks having an affair with a sixteen-year-old are a bit too luridly described as something desirable.

One complaint I could imagine being leveled at this sequel is that it’s less action-packed than the prior book, but the tradeoff is that Frost feels more in control of the narrative here. While a longer book than its already-long predecessor, Messiahs never drags (as List did toward the end, for me), and builds artfully to a stunning climax.

In the climax of the book, all the main players converge on The New City, a religious community Reverend Day (Alexander) has built in the Arizona desert, where the entire city functions as a hive mind through his mind control powers, which he calls “the sacrament” (apparently gained as a result of his fall, in conjunction with his memory loss). His followers build the colossal dark tower that the Six have dreamt about, under which the Reverend plans to wake the Beast (from the Book of Revelation) who slumbers below, by slaughtering his entire community (over a thousand people) and burning the six holy books. In the meantime, the members of his cult are forced to dress identically and abstain from alcohol, possessing money, and most other secular pleasures, although for reasons that are never really explained, they have built a massive theater and invited the Penultimate Players to perform (maybe Reverend Day is just a massive Prisoner of Zenda fan? By the way, the choice of play is another chronological cheat by Frost…the novel of Zenda was only just published in 1894, the year Messiahs takes place, and the first stage adaptation wouldn’t come out until the following year). Whereas the climax of List felt rather flaccid to me, this one is great: tense and fun; all our main characters, in various configurations (the team-up of Kanazuchi and Buckskin Frank, two complete badasses with very different skillsets, is particularly exhilarating), descending on the church and racing against time as The New City burns. Maintaining the book’s somewhat darker tone, while the heroes succeed in preventing the awakening of the Beast, they are unable to prevent a great deal of civilian casualties, as the Reverend’s plan to slaughter the townspeople as a sacrifice is carried out. Doyle estimates that only a quarter of the thousand perished, due to the heroes’ intervention, but still a substantial loss. My only complaint is why Lionel would bring the Zohar (which it turns out is the last book the Reverend needs to obtain for the ritual) to The New City. I understand the characters’ hesitance to let it out of their sight, but bringing it straight to the man they know has been trying to steal it seems like the worst possible decision, and is born more out of plot convenience/suspense-building than sensible actions by the characters.

The book ends strongly, with the revelation that Alexander himself is actually the Sixth Messiah. Jack, seemingly through sheer force of will, manages to break through and get Alexander to recall his identity. Jack then provides forgiveness on behalf of their deceased parents and sister, whom Alexander had murdered, and a weeping Alexander dies in Jack’s arms after helping the Six repel the Beast. It’s a surprising and moving way to end the book and Alexander’s arc, and is more than a little reminiscent of Cooper shepherding Leland into the light in Episode 16. This forgiveness thing is clearly a big deal to Frost.

This book’s Special 19th Century Guest Stars include:
  • Teddy Roosevelt, who approaches Doyle at a party, expressing some rather brash views about the “morally bankrupt”—including his own brother who died of alcoholism/suicide complications weeks earlier—as well as America’s responsibility to run the “civilized world,” and some denigrating views about the “red man.” Clearly not Frost’s preferred Roosevelt EDIT: In The Greatest Game Ever Played, Frost describes Teddy as “a rare leader—good, decent, and honorable,” and puts a much more positive spin on Teddy’s imperialism than what I took from his brief portrayal in Messiahs, so evidently I was reading a bit too much negativity into Frost’s portrayal of the complex, colorful, and controversial younger Roosevelt here
  • Thomas Edison, who sort of acts as “Q,” in a James Bond sense, for Jack Sparks, providing him with several useful gadgets. Frost also uses Edison’s appearance as an opportunity to pay tribute to the dawn of film, with Edison displaying several of his early movies, although once again Frost has to fudge the facts a bit in order to make the dates work for some of the films referenced, such as the 1898 train tunnel film and the 1896 “Little Egypt” belly dancer film, which wouldn’t have been shot yet
Other real-world historical figures and phenomena appearing include: San Francisco Chinese gang leader Fung Jing Toy, better known as “Little Pete” (rather awkwardly, Kanazuchi murders Little Pete’s bodyguards but lets Pete himself live—after a gruesome punishment—a concession to historical realism, as Little Pete didn’t die until three years later); the legend of the golem; the Hanseatic League, a medieval Germanic merchants’ guild that died out with the consolidation of German government, but which in Frost’s world survived and evolved into a secret mercenary-for-hire organization; New York street gang the Houston Dusters (Frost says Ding-Dong Dunham has been their leader for nine years, fudging the age of the gang—they are first documented around 1890—and their leadership: Ding-Dong was a real member, but never the leader); Harry Houdini, who is briefly depicted meeting Doyle at a party (in reality, Doyle and Houdini met in 1920 and were good friends, until they had a much-publicized falling-out over Houdini’s insistence that the mediums Doyle so admired were all smoke and mirrors…Frost has said that if he ever did a third Doyle/Sparks novel, it would revolve around Doyle’s relationship with Houdini); and the Parliament of Religions at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, which was attended by both Jacob and Reverend Day.

A couple of other Peaks-related notes to finish up:

The importance of owls in Native American culture plays a role in Walks Alone’s first scene, with her late grandfather (also a medicine man) communicating with her telepathically through an owl.

Doyle stays at the Palmer House (no, not that one; the historic Chicago hotel).
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