Father Gaetano's Puppet Catechism by Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden
World War II Sicily is home to much hardship. The church of San Domenico has just lost its priest so young Father Gaetano is assigned. The parish rectory has been converted to an orphanage that is supported by nuns from the next-door convent. The children (a mixture of boys and girls) are taught by the nuns but catechism class falls to Father Gaetano. He has trouble connecting to the children until he discovers a puppet theater with plenty of puppets. A former caretaker left them behind. Most children are delighted to see them again, especially Sebastiano, who keeps the clown Pagliaccio as his favorite. He talks to the puppet at night when his roommates are asleep. The puppet talks back, but naturally only when children are around. While the clown is benign, the other puppets take to their roles a bit too literally. Father Gaetano transforms the puppets into biblical characters. Noah worries about the ark, David and Goliath fight. Things take a disastrous and macabre turn when Father Gaetano changes a puppet into Lucifer, who takes his role too seriously.
The "puppets come alive" trope in horror has been done many times before. Even though it is familiar, the authors do a good job building tension and crafting a great finale to the story. I enjoyed that part very much.
On the other hand, the theology is distractingly sketchy. The authors get some details wrong, like the scene where Father Gaetano is surprised by one of the puppets and takes the Lord's name in vain. Then he feels humiliated "at his breaking the Third Commandment." [p. 91] While different denominations in the Judeo-Christian tradition divide up Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 differently, in the Catholic tradition, "You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain" is the second commandment, not the third. The nuns are called "Domenicans," which at first I thought was a made up order, though perhaps they are named after the Orphanage of San Domenico or the authors just don't know how to spell Dominicans. Father and the children have many discussions about free will but they are all superficial and unsatisfying. Worse yet, the discussions are barely connected to the puppet horror story, a missed opportunity.
Mignola's occasional drawings (mostly of the puppets) are fun and do give a boost to the puppet horror theme. The ultimate fate of the characters (both human and mannequin) is exciting and satisfying. Some judicious editing and rewriting could have made this a great, rather than an average, book.