Moved by the Spirit of the Lord, Frank Peretti Writes Theological Thrillers That Sell to High Heaven

updated 06/18/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/18/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

In Frank Peretti's first novel, This Present Darkness, the fictional hamlet of Ashton is no ordinary dot on a road map. Within its seemingly cozy borders, the war between good and evil is being waged on an epic scale. Intent on taking over the little college town, the malevolent Omni Corporation has unleashed a mind-control campaign and sulphur-spewing demons (yes, demons!) with long talons. The forces of good, led by two journalists and the local pastor, combat this menace with the power of prayer.

If this reads like Stephen King under the revival tent, there's a good reason. Author Frank Peretti, 39, is a former associate pastor of an Assemblies of God church on Vashon Island, Wash. He's also one of the biggest surprises in publishing. This Present Darkness, published in 1986, and last year's sequel, Piercing the Darkness (about a global occult conspiracy), have held the top two spots on the Christian best-seller lists for more than a year. And it's not only churchgoers who are buying up Peretti's theological thrillers. Big retail chains such as Walden-books have begun to stock Peretti along with such secular favorites as Elmore Leonard and Robert B. Parker, attesting to his crossover appeal. Peretti's sales, which have topped 2 million, "are similar to a very successful mainstream author," says Otto Penzler of Mysterious Press in New York City. Even some Hollywood producers are converts: Last March a group that includes Howard {Raiders of the Lost Ark) Kazanjian scooped up the film rights to the Darkness stories.

Still, not everybody has seen the light. Critics and even theologians have taken issue with Peretti's terrifying visions of evil incarnate—of demons occupying people's souls and bloody sword battles in the heavens. But, says Peretti, "you crack the Bible open, and there're all kinds of accounts of angelic visitations and supernatural things going on. I took what the Bible has always had in there and just adapted it into a fast-paced genre story."

Peretti discovered the power of a well-told tale early on. One of four children of Gene, a Boeing assembly-line worker in Seattle, and his homemaker wife, Joyce, Peretti was born with a tumor in his jaw and tongue that required several operations to correct. After the surgeries, "I learned how to talk with my tongue outside my mouth," he says. "It was a big ugly thing with scabs." But despite this disfigurement and speech impediment, he could enthrall the neighborhood kids by telling gripping tales of monsters. "They were ugly and so was I," Peretti says. "I envied the fact that they were strong and people were scared of them."

At age 12, Peretti was retrained by a speech therapist to speak with his tongue inside his mouth. "Life was a lot nicer to me after that," he says. Chief among the new blessings was Barb Ammon. They met in church shortly after his father moved the family to Vashon Island in 1968 and became pastor for the Assemblies of God church there. Frank was 19 and playing banjo in local taverns; Barb was 16. In 1972 they were married and went on tour with a pop band called the Kimberlys. But Frank soon realized that "it's a life based on dreams, on the big break that never comes." Always a religious person, Peretti says, "I knew God had better things for me to do."

The path, though, was not entirely clear. First he joined a Christian music group. Then in 1976, he enrolled at UCLA to study film. But again, he found the film world "shallow" and at odds with his Christian beliefs. So he accepted his father's offer to return to Vashon Island and help out with pastoral duties. Between 1978 and 1983, he tended the flock, taking construction jobs to make ends meet. Speaking to kids at church camps rekindled his interest in storytelling. "I began to use it as a means of communicating spiritual truths," he says. Nights and weekends, he wrote children's stories, as well as This Present Darkness.

In 1985 Crossway Books, a Christian publisher that had bought one of Peretti's stories, agreed to look at This Present Darkness. By that time, Peretti, who in 1983 had decided he lacked the stamina for pastoring, was working in a local ski factory. "That was a real time of testing and deepening my character," he says. Crossways published Darkness in 1986, but without promotion, it sold poorly until 1987 when contemporary Christian singer Amy Grant began touting the book to her audiences and hooked Peretti up with her management team. By 1988 Peretti was selling 40,000 copies a month and had started a sequel.

Frank and Barb now look forward to moving out of the cramped 25-foot trailer they've called home since 1980 and into the three-bedroom house they're building on Vashon Island. They've set up a charitable foundation with some of the book profits, but otherwise, they say, their lifestyle won't change much. They'll still raise their 14 chickens, tend the garden and entertain friends. And Peretti will continue to write books that try to show "that there really is a line drawn between good and evil," he says. "The line is there, and you can't ignore it, and you can't place it wherever you want it to be." Then, for a former preacher, he says something strange: "Oh, Lord help me, I don't want to preach at people. But I just want to say, from my personal convictions, that God does have something to say to us today."

—Andrew Abrahams, Joni H. Blackman on Vashon Island

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