‘Harry Potter’ Inspires a Christian Alternative

G. P. Taylor, an Anglican vicar, onetime roadie for the Sex Pistols and former all-around sinner, was roaring across the Yorkshire moors on his Yamaha XV1100 in a lightning storm when the idea for his hit Christian children’s book, “Shadowmancer,” came to him.

Like some other committed Christians, he had been disturbed by the amount of witchcraft and the occult in children’s literature. “Harry Potter,” for instance. The best-selling author J. K. Rowling gives too much power to the forces of evil in her books, he told parishioners. Well, one congregant replied, why not write your own book then?

So Mr. Taylor created a story deeply imbued with Christian imagery and set on the 18th-century Yorkshire coast in Britain with its rugged cliffs, hidden caves and smuggler’s legends. It is about an evil vicar, Obadiah Demurral, who tries to take over the world but is thwarted by three teenagers and a smuggler.

When “Shadowmancer” was first published in Britain last year, it was soon dubbed the Christian alternative to “Harry Potter” and surged to the top of the paperback best-seller list, outranking its secular rivals, the “Harry Potter” books, for 15 weeks in a row. And in May when “Shadowmancer” was published in the United States by G. P. Putnam’s Sons, it beat “Harry Potter” for six weeks straight on the children’s chapter-book best-seller list of The New York Times. There are 300,000 copies in print, and now booksellers are eagerly expecting a similar success when the sequel, “Wormwood,” is published here in September.

Some of those sales have been fueled by the Christian media, which has hailed the “Christian Harry Potter” for its religious references and its celebration of God’s power. Mr. Taylor’s American promotional tour not only included the predictable appearance on the “Today” show, for instance, but also an interview with Pat Robertson on the Christian Broadcasting Network’s “700 Club.” A reviewer for Pluggedin.com, the online magazine of the conservative Christian group “Focus on the Family,” wrote, “It could be just the thing to counter Harry Potter’s magic.” And while Christianity Today magazine was more critical, it nonetheless credited “Shadowmancer” for showing “something that some of the others do not — characters relentlessly calling on God to shine his light into the shadows.”

That was what attracted Anne Pouns of Houston, who describes herself as a born-again Christian. She had not allowed her children, who are now teenagers, to read “Harry Potter” when they were young, and hadn’t read the series herself. “I don’t desire to have it in my hands because of the witchcraft,” she said.

But Ms. Pouns said she found “Shadowmancer” to be “a very fascinating book. It reminds me of `Lord of the Rings’ and C. S. Lewis. If you have a knowledge of Scripture, you will realize how much he has interspersed the story with it.”

Michelle Black, who works at His Way Christian Bookstore in Eldersburg, Md., said she also tried to avoid books containing references to the occult or to gods and goddesses, and appreciated the Christian message of “Shadowmancer.”

In the beginning, for instance, an Ethiopian boy, Raphah, washes up on the coast bearing a fragment of the ark of the covenant. “He’s willing to sacrifice his very life to prevent the darkness from overtaking the world,” Ms. Black said. “It’s like when Christ said, `Greater love hath no man than this, that a man should lay down his life for his friends.’ “

Yet Mr. Taylor, who says he was influenced by the X-rated rapper Eminem as well as Jesus, insists he didn’t set out to write a book against “Harry Potter.” He has never even read the “Potter” books, he says, though he has seen the films. “I liked parts of them,” he said on the telephone from Yorkshire, “though I found some of them theologically a bit difficult to handle.”

” `Shadowmancer’ isn’t an alternative to `Harry Potter,’ ” he says, adding that he was simply writing “as a Christian.”

Still, Mr. Taylor describes himself as a committed Christian who has ministered for two decades to those involved in the occult. “Shadowmancer,” he says, shows that the true power in the universe is God.

Mr. Taylor, 46, was not always moved by evangelical fervor. Much of his youth was spent, he said, in the precincts of “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.”

His father, Frank, was profoundly deaf, a shoe repairman or, in Mr. Taylor’s words, “a mender of soles.” (“I am a mender of souls,” the large and jolly Mr. Taylor likes to say.) His mother, Mary, was severely hearing impaired and worked in a cafeteria. As a child, Mr. Taylor learned to communicate with them by watching them talk to each other in sign language.

The family, which included two sisters, lived in a government housing project. When he was 13, Mr. Taylor was expelled from school. “I hung a friend out the window,” he said, “set fire to the desks. I’d taken a radiator off the wall, dyed my hair bright red.”

At 15 he moved out of the house, lived with a girlfriend and became part of the punk rock scene, imbibing quantities of drugs and alcohol. “It was good fun,” he said. “But it was stupid and dangerous.”

When he was 21 Mr. Taylor found God. He was working in a community center for the deaf and elderly. “I had been searching for the truth,” he said. His co-workers began talking to him about the power of Christianity.

“Very gently and very slowly they dismissed every argument I had,” he said. “I didn’t become a born-again Christian. It wasn’t like Saul on the road to Damascus. Over a period, I realized this was the way I should follow.”

In 1983 he married Kathy, a policewoman who dressed as a decoy prostitute in the Yorkshire Ripper case, which terrorized northern England during the 1970′s. The couple have three children: Hannah, 16; Abigail, 13; and Lydia, 5. The two oldest have read “Harry Potter,” Mr. Taylor said, and “they love it.”

In 1986 Mr. Taylor became a policeman himself in Yorkshire. He attended night school at St. John’s College at the University of Durham, earning a postgraduate diploma in theology and ministry. Then, in 1995, he was severely beaten by a gang including a man he had arrested. He lost part of his hearing, developed a benign tumor in his throat and was forced to resign the force.

He was now a full-time vicar. One of his churches, St. Mary’s in Whitby, was said by Bram Stoker to be the site of Dracula’s grave. Each year thousands of people dressed as vampires converged on the graveyard. Mr. Taylor tried to convert them to Christianity, he said.

In “Shadowmancer,” Mr. Taylor turns the power of the occult celebrated in “Harry Potter” on its heels. Demurral is a sorcerer who uses witchcraft to carry out his devilish schemes. But Raphah (the name is from the Hebrew for “healer”), and the two teenagers who join up with him, Thomas and Kate, defeat Demurral through prayer and the intervention of a savior figure named Riathamus (a Latinizing of a fifth-century British word meaning king of kings.)

In writing the book, Mr. Taylor said he wanted to emulate the adventure tales of Robert Louis Stevenson. It took him eight months to finish, he said. He sent it to an on-line editorial service, but got back a nasty letter, he said. He figured it would never be published, so he sold his Yamaha and used the money to print 2,500 copies himself. Another parishioner sent a copy to her uncle, David Reynolds, one of the founders of Bloomsbury, publisher of “Harry Potter” in Britain. Mr. Reynolds sent Mr. Taylor a letter predicting it would be a best seller, and the name of an agent.

Faber & Faber bought the book for about $13,000; later he made a three-book deal with Putnam’s for $500,000. The sequel, “Wormwood,” from the falling star in the Book of Revelation, is about a comet hitting 18th-century London and a kabbalist, an angel and a servant girl who set out to save the city.

The film rights were optioned by Lisa Marie Butkiewicz, of Fortitude Films, a leader of Women Influencing the Nation, formed to support Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ,” which was criticized for being anti-Semitic.

“It is my hope that Mel Gibson would direct the film,” Mr. Taylor said. Fortitude has just sold the rights to Universal for $6.2 million, and has also taken an option on “Wormwood.”

He is now at work on the third book, “Tersias,” about a boy whose mother blinds him so that he can become a beggar. The boy has the gift of prophecy, and “all sorts of elements want him,” Mr. Taylor said.

Mr. Taylor has resigned his church post, but will remain an itinerant vicar. He has moved out of his shabby vicarage into a four-bedroom home near Scarborough that he describes as modest. And he will still tithe 10 percent of his income to the Church.

“Oh yes,” Mr. Taylor said, “I’m a 10 percenter.”

Read the New York Times Books Section online

Comments are closed.