cover image Unholy Fire

Unholy Fire

Whitley Strieber. Dutton Books, $21 (336pp) ISBN 978-0-525-93415-8

The plot of this tale of satanic possession is an unholy mix of the moronic and the divine. Strieber ( Communion ; Wolfen ) endows his demon with a chilling omnipotence, the personality of the Joker from Batman and a fondness for the flammable. His humans pale by comparison. Old Father John Rafferty finds the gasoline-soaked body of parishioner Maria Julien in the sacristy of his Greenwich Village church. The police think that Father John and Maria were very close but John knows that his young curate, Frank Bayley, had succumbed more fully to Maria's sexual powers. Kitty Pearson, a lapsed Catholic NYPD lieutenant, suspects Father John of sex and cover-up violence until more bodies turn up toasted. She and the pastor barely escape immolation when they come too close to the truth. John is pressured to hand over his church to Father Frank but ends up confronting the menace in the nave by himself. Weak and whining priests, unsympathetic victims and often idiotic dialogue give the demon the best role by default and lead to a roaring but confusing and dissatisfying resolution. $100,000 ad/promo; Literary Guild selection; author tour. (Mar.)