‘The Religion’ was made into the 1987 movie The Believers, starring Martin Sheen, and directed by John Schlesinger.
Nicholas Conde was the pseudonym used by Robert Rosenblum, who, along with Robert Nathan, wrote another novel that dealt with the confrontation between modern life and ancient religious customs, ‘The Legend’ (1984). ‘In the Deep Woods’ (1992) was suspense / crime novel.
As ‘Religion’ opens, Cal Jamison, an anthropology professor, has moved to New York City from Albuquerque, along with his 7 year –old son, Chris. Jamison is still recovering from the tragic death of his wife due to a household accident, and sees the move from New Mexico to the city as an effort to start anew.
While walking through Central Park on a Summer afternoon, Cal and Chris stumble upon a grisly scene of ritual sacrifice involving animals. His professional and personal curiosity piqued, Jamison begins to study the source of the sacrificial tableaux – the ancient religion of Santeria, imported into the environs of the Big Apple by Puerto Rican and Caribbean immigrants.
Jamison’s curiosity leads him into a new and disturbing direction when he chances upon a murder scene in a slum neighborhood. McTaggert, the jaded, cynical, world-weary cop investigating the murder, reveals to Jamison that it involved the ritual disembowelment of a young boy – and that five other such murders have taken place in various locations in the city.
Jamison is stunned to learn that a malevolent form of Santeria is being practiced in the modern metropolis. As he pursues his scholarly investigations into Santeria, he agrees to provide McTaggert with any information that might help illuminate the cultists behind the child murders.
As the narrative unfolds, Cal Jamison’s decision to learn more about Santeria gradually leads him to contact otherwise rational, cosmopolitan residents of the city who practice the religion as part of a clandestine ecology of Believers. These interactions, as well as the advent of supernatural events in his own life, erode Jamison’s skepticism and replace it with a vague, but growing, fear.
For there is to be a seventh and final sacrifice…and his son Chris may have been selected by the Gods to be the offering…….
As a modern horror novel, ‘The Religion’ does some things well. It’s an interesting portrait of New York City in the early 80s, as the Big Apple sank faster and further into decay. As Whitley Streiber did with his 1978 novel The Wolfen, Conde presents the urban wasteland of the South Bronx as an abnormal, cancerous territory embedded in the surrounding metropolis, its abandoned tenements the site of primitive customs and unholy acts carried out under the ignorant noses of the population of Manhattan.
The initial chapters of the novel are well-paced and allow the reader to share in Cal Jamison’s discoveries of Santeria and its customs, all the while gradually building an awareness that underneath the herbs, candles, charms, and artifacts is a real, and potentially deadly, supernatural power.
Unfortunately, the middle chapters of the novel are less engaging. Conde devotes too much of the narrative to belaboring the psychological trauma that grips Jamison, as he discovers his atheism crumbling in the face of the supernatural forces that are acting on him in accordance with the whims of the Gods from ancient Africa.
The narrative regains momentum in the final 75 pages, as the confrontation with the Believers grows in intensity and Jamison finds he must fight the occult with yet another form of the occult. The novel does end on an ambiguous note, but it is not contrived, and stays in keeping with the overall tenor of the story.
[I remember seeing The Believers back in the late 80s and thought it a good film, although it differs in some aspects from the novel.]
The verdict ? I doubt ‘The Religion’ will find many adherents among modern horror fans. As a novel from the early 80s, the book lacks the intensity and graphic violence that marks modern horror media like Saw, Hostel, The Walking Dead, and The Strain. But if you’re a more patient reader, who is willing to tolerate some degree of over-writing and melodrama, then ‘The Religion’ well may be worth investigating.