Book Review: The Profane by Vincenzo Bilof

“In another’s hands, this juxtaposition of disparate elements may not work at all. But, in Bilof’s hands, they blend beautifully to deliver a unique and rewarding reading experience.”

 

He has worn many hats in the publishing industry, including Editor and Publisher. But, first and foremost, Vincenzo Bilof is an author. The evidence is in the list of “Other Works” preceding his latest work. Fourteen previous books spanning the horror genre, from Nightmare of the Dead (Severed Press, 2012) to The Violators (Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing, 2016) he has tackled everything from zombies to sea monsters to dinosaurs and even Vampire Strippers from Saturn (Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing, 2015). And this doesn’t include short stories and poetry he has had published along the way. A few years may have passed since his last novel, but the sheer amount of work he has published in just seven years says a great deal about his work ethic and would make even the most prolific writer green with envy.

The Profane opens with a prologue, introducing us to Father Dacius, a priest who is nearing fifty and who has been summoned by his superiors. Through a heated debate, it becomes clear that they are the architects of some grand plan, with Dacius at the centre. He is responsible for recruiting a young woman called Lana for their mission and, even though he knew it would be dangerous, he has only recently discovered the full extent of the harm, both physical and mental, facing Lana. Although the story is merely hinted at in this opening, Bilof utilises his skill with characterisation and great discretion to tantalise the reader. We are immediately hooked, totally invested in these characters, thanks to the compassion we feel for Dacius in his plight and the mystery of what is to happen to Lana.

It doesn’t remain a mystery for long, as the cast of characters quickly expands. The target of Dacius and his superiors is a religious order of Luciferians led by Father Willard, a hell-priest, and Father Michael Ricci, who was once a member of the Catholic priesthood, apprentice to Dacius. They have captured Lana and held her captive, Willard planning to exorcise the angel within her and use its power for evil. The preferred method for this is prolonged and agonising torture, Willard’s speciality. So far, so simple. But this narrative is anything but straightforward. The author has proven more than adept at constructing a multi-layered and absorbing story with so many connections being revealed between characters on both sides.

One of the ways he has achieved this is by using an intricate structure which includes the story as it unfolds interspersed with flashbacks, very short italicised chapters which can be read as diary entries or the inner monologue of Lana, and scenes which take place completely within Lana’s “inner garden”, a meditative state she has been trained to retreat to for refuge. Could the story have been told in a more simplistic A to Z manner? Possibly. But it would have lost much of what makes it work, the continual unravelling and discovery of the relationships. From the first moment Lana and Michael met when she was serving food in the soup kitchen of their destitute town and he was a lost and troubled youth living on the street and running with a dangerous gang, to their blossoming romance. She, abandoned on the doorstep of the monastery home of Dacius, raised in the way of the church by her adoptive father-figure. Then Michael joining the parish, under the direct tutelage of Dacius. Going even further back in time to Willard’s childhood and being found by the grotesque and unsettling Pa.

Pa isn’t the only unsettling aspect of the story; Bilof doesn’t hold back when describing the action, blood, guts, and all. But he wields the more gruesome and bloody descriptions like an artist with a brush or a pencil, sketching them in to give us much needed context for the bigger picture, but never covering the entire canvas in crimson. What he does is never gratuitous, but only serves to further expand the story and the characters. Whether it is the despicable Cardinal Augustus, or the aforementioned Pa, or even Willard as he simultaneously tortures the pure soul of Lana and recounts the terrible circumstances that led him to Pa.

The flourishes Bilof adds to his story don’t begin and end with the bloody descriptive language; the setting is equally bleak. The larger setting is an unnamed town which boomed thanks to the advancements of the industrial age, with factories and smoke stacks in the large industrial park casting a shadow over the town and its inhabitants. But, with the closure of the park and the loss of jobs, the town quickly slumped into a recession, leading to orphaned and forgotten children and parents gone, either permanently or lost to depression. Given the author’s hometown of Detroit, it would be reasonable to speculate about the inspiration for the setting, though this is only conjecture on our part. But it would certainly go some way to explaining his ability to create such a vivid image of the place in our minds, and the accompanying sense of foreboding. Especially as it is only referenced slightly throughout, most of the action itself taking place within the walls of the Luciferian castle. Complete with towers and dungeons, the building should be out of place in the larger setting. But, given the fantastic elements of angels and demons, ravenous creatures from a black abyss and the sorcery wielded by the Cardinal to create an abomination, the gloomy and gothic castle makes for the perfect setting for the story.

Given everything mentioned above, it may seem strange to suggest that this is actually something of a love story. Maybe that isn’t the main theme of the narrative, but it is certainly one of those layers that the author successfully weaves into the story. Through the flashbacks of both Lana and Michael, we see their story from both perspectives, from their first meeting to Michael’s ultimate betrayal and disappointment of Lana. Even though there are hints that they are each not completely over the other, Michael continues to do terrible, heinous things in his role as assistant to Willard, and Lana wrestles with her emotions until the very end. Take away the fantastic elements and this could be the story of any real-life star-crossed teenage lovers. Dacius even fills the role of disapproving parent. It adds another dimension to the story and helps us to relate with the main characters, not an easy feat given the violent nature of the story.

It is a multi-layered story featuring priests both Catholic and Satanic, neither purely good or purely evil. Words and passages often drip from the pages like free-flowing blood from an open vein and the violence smacks the reader in the face, but it always reads like rich, dark poetry. Emotions often run deep throughout the story, especially when Lana recounts her discovery of love and loss of innocence and, in another’s hands, this juxtaposition of disparate elements may not work at all. But, in Bilof’s hands, they blend beautifully to deliver a unique and rewarding reading experience. What at first glance may seem to be a disturbing book that lies somewhere out of your comfort zone demands and deserves the attention of those brave enough to embrace The Profane.

THOMAS JOYCE

Publisher: Source Point Press
eBook: 223 pp
Release Date: 8 April 2019

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