I first read J. Mulrooney’s work when he sent me a copy of his story The Day Immanuel Kant Was Late. I loved it. I also recently review his novel An Equation of Almost Infinite Complexity. He’s back with more original work, a short collection of “Pious Tales,” (some of which are entirely graceless, be forewarned) that I’m happy to share with you all. First, a few questions, and then one of the Pious Tales.
Are these tales all entirely original? Or are you working from older legends and putting your own creative spin on them?
“Original” is always a loaded term, especially for a writer mining a tradition. I’m always tempted to answer, No, I use the same old words everyone else uses, I just arrange them a bit differently.
To answer the question in the simplest way, I guess they’re entirely original. I’m not aware of any fourth magus stories, or a story in which Judas is released from hell, for instance. I can’t remember if Aleksei Remizov – a mostly out-of-print 20th century Russian who wrote some wonderful stuff – did a devil’s confession. He may have.
On another level, the depth of the stories – the way they’re able to say more than the actual words on the page – is that they’ve got deep hooks into traditional stories that are embedded in the mind of the reader, your impressions of devils and angels and heaven and hell, the Christmas story and the Passion story – stories that have been around longer than any of us have been alive, stories that were old before our great great great grandparents were alive. I think that’s why things like “The Devil’s Confession” or this new “Magus” story can stick in your memory even though they’re such small things. If they succeed, it’s not so much my work, it’s that I’m tapping into music and smells that you knew before you were old enough to defend yourself against knowing. So in that sense, I hope I’m not original.
Are there any short story collections that have inspired you?
So many! But for these pious tales in particular, I’d say three specific areas. First, Bible stories and the Grimm Brothers. Those are, I think, the bedrock, the deposit of stories for me. I should probably put “Lives of the Saints” in there as well.
Second, there are specific writers who are on a similar wavelength. Here I’m thinking of Hawthorne’s Tales of the Puritans: “Young Goodman Brown”, for instance. Remizov. Isaac Bashevis Singer’s stories about pre-WWII Jewry in Polish shtetls. The George Bernanos of “Sous le soleil de Satan”. Stories in which the faith life of the characters is not distinct from the physical world but instead permeates it. The strong border between the natural and supernatural is blurred, as we sing in the Exsultet at the Easter Vigil – a night “when heaven is wedded to earth”. Charles Taylor would say stories in which the world is still enchanted. It’s a world in which temptation is seen as courting between you and the devil – will you marry or not? – instead of the rationalist’s conflict of inner psychological states.
Third, there are the wonderful magical realists – Jorge Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Italo Calvino. This “Fourth Magus” story is reminiscent of Borges’ “Three Versions of Judas”, for instance, though of course I don’t use the scholarly weight Borges loved.
These being “Pious Tales,” are you looking to impart a moral?
A good story always has an implicit moral, so I don’t worry about that, even in the Pious Tales. If a story is any good, if it’s a real story and not propaganda, it opens up the world beyond a narrow moralism. Said in a better way – saints aren’t moral people, they’re people who love God. Stories remind us of that. Life has never been about being right, and it’s even less about avoiding wrong. Like the Baltimore Catechism says – “Why did God make you? God made you to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him in the next.” Morals are piffle next to a promise like that. A story works when it reminds you of that promise.
An excerpt from Pious Tales:
Three Legends of the Fourth Magus
YOU HAVE HEARD about the three wise men, Balthasar, Gaspar, and Melchior, kings who traveled from distant lands to see the Christ-child and pay homage to the King of kings. They brought with them three gifts: frankincense that betokens Godhead and rises to the heavens as a prayer; gold, the incorruptible, which never rusts and betokens kingship; and myrrh, the oil that betokens suffering and anoints the dead in their final rest. But there was a fourth wise man, Alcazar, who traveled with the others but did not come to Bethlehem. Why did he turn from his course? What temptation waylaid him? What gift did he carry that the Christ-child did not receive? There are many versions of the tale.
Some say that he was slowed on the journey because his wife, from whom he would not be parted, and who traveled with him in his golden carriage, was overtaken by labour pangs along the road and he stopped for her sake. When she was delivered of a male child and his heir, they continued too late, for the great syzygy had sundered and he lost his way as the stars now pointed in several directions. So that when he at last came to Herod, that king knew already that he had been betrayed by the fleeing magi, and he laid hands on Alcazar and all his party. Herod’s soldiers quartered Alcazar’s newborn son, for he said, “As my ancestor Solomon was to split the baby between two rival mothers, so I have quartered this child to spread among the four magi.” In that way Herod began the slaughter of the innocents, despatching every male child born in the previous two years.
The gift the fourth magi brought was the olive branch, taken from the ancient tree that survived the flood, the tree from which the dove once brought a branch to Noah. His gift betokened peace. And so in another telling, the magi encountered many strange adventures on their long journey following the star, and in one country they found red-eyed war. Their caravan was met by weeping women who begged the magi for succour. For that country had been so long at war there was nothing left but the two armies, and neither side could defeat the other and it seemed that the war must go on until all were slaughtered. But meanwhile the mothers wept for their dead sons and husbands, and the children were orphaned. And so it was agreed that Alcazar should turn from the path with his gift of peace, that he might heal that land. After a journey on which his caravan was threatened by both armies, Alcazar came to the border where the dispute had begun. There he planted the olive branch, his gift to the Christ-child. The olive – because it had come from the time before the flood – was still strong with the Word that created the world, and it grew into a mighty tree so that the soldiers were amazed and left off their strife. But Alcazar came late and empty-handed to Bethlehem, and the life of the Christ was without peace, for Alcazar’s gift had been given along the way.
Still others say that the fourth wise man was a coward, and that, coming to Herod with his three companions, he fawned on the feckless king of Judea. When Herod and Alcazar lay drunk together in Herod’s banquet hall, Herod told the magus that he sought the child born under the crown of stars, not to do him homage as overlord, but to murder him as a rival. And he told Alcazar that friends of this new king could be no friends to Herod.
When the sun next arose and the three magi were to continue their journey to its end, they could not find the fourth, for Alcazar hid himself and sent a slave to the three to tell them he would not be coming. “Tell them I am ill, and beg them to go without me.” And so the three left, and Alcazar was feasted by Herod, and sent home with many gifts. In this telling too, Alcazar brought the olive branch to give to the Christ-child, but when he betrayed his charge, he decided to keep it for himself, for he was a man without courage.
He returned to his own land. There he found that another king had seized power during his absence, and Alcazar was arrested and his eyes put out. He was thrown into a dungeon far beneath his erstwhile throne. Then indeed he found the peace that his ungiven gift promised, for he lived the rest of his days untroubled by wars or the doings of men, seeing no more of this sad and fallen world, alone and blind in the pit where he was utterly forgotten.
J. Mulrooney is a Canadian writer who was baptized by Father Breen and took piano lessons with Mr. Pengelly. His earliest writing job was to print “I will not be disrespectful in class” fifty times on a sheet of paper. Since then, his plots have improved considerably. Mr. Mulrooney was a finalist for the 2017 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. If he has not died he is probably still living in western New York.