Secret history isn’t alternate history, but it can still be fun to read. While alternate history involves authors changing history as we know it, secret history keeps history as it, only the motivations and reasons for certain historical events are changed or, to put it another way, the true reasons are revealed. The scholarly side of this genre is known as “historical revisionism“. There scholarly historians reinterpret the historical record and show how parts of our history is based on misconceptions, propaganda or even lies. Things get a little murkier when you start running into people who believe that history has been influenced by ancient aliens, time travelers, secret societies and other supernatural beings/events. Massive cover ups by authorities also go hand and hand with these theories. Again these ideas from authors are fun when it comes to fiction (in fact, there are many excellent science fiction and fantasy stories which just such a premise), but problems emerge when the authors actually believe these things.
In the case of Tales from the Vatican Vaults edited by David V. Barrett, we are luckily talking about the former (I assume, I haven’t read all of the bios of those involved). Tales is an anthology that has a unique premise. All of the 28 stories are set in a timeline where they are allegedly true events that happened in our history, but were suppressed by the Roman Catholic Church. This changed, however, when Pope John Paul (I), who didn’t die in 1978, opens the Vatican Vaults to the world as part of his reforms to create a more open church (other reforms include liberalizing the Church’s stance on contraception and improving relations with the Anglican Church). The editor of the anthology writers in his introduction and the blurbs that come before and after the stories in the character of a scholar who is part of a team studying what the Vaults have to offer. Nevertheless, this is the extent of the alternate history of the anthology. The meat of Tales is secret history.
Of course, like I said earlier, that doesn’t stop it from being a fun read. Tales creates a universe where non-human sentient beings roam the Earth alongside humans in secret, magic is still practiced, extraterrestrials visit us routinely, pagan gods struggle to survive against monotheism, all while angels and demons battle for our souls in a war that spans the heavens themselves (but it all might be staged as well just to give humans the illusion of free will). Although at times the stories do contradict themselves, it works within the logic of the universe Barrett has set up, since in the introduction the editor said there is a good chance some of these stories could be hoaxes, or just different groups having different interpretations of the same events that get distorted over the ages. While there are many stories where we learn the Church suppressed this information in order to protect their position and power, I especially liked how “Miserere” by Sarah Ash for taking a different approach. In that case the Church is actually trying to save people’s lives by suppressing information, while those who are trying to expose it are doing so only for their own greed and selfishness, giving the anthology a fresh perspective that differentiates itself from many of the other stories in Tales. I also liked “The Island of Lost Priests” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch (who is also the author The Enemy Within, which I reviewed for this site), which managed to show the real emotional and mental damaged caused the priest sex abuse scandal, even from someone who may not have been hurt by the Church directly.
There is still one story, however, that I felt I really needed to go into greater detail about, even if it means spoiling the ending. That story is “Chasing Charlemagne” by John Grant and it is both the cleverest story in the anthology…and the most flawed. It tells the story of a retired time traveler who has exiled himself to the flooded and abandoned ruins of New York City (something to look forward to I guess) because he can’t take the stresses of his job anymore, but that changes when his boss tracks him down. It turns out his former employers (the New Vatican) have been losing a lot of their travelers who venture into the Dark Ages. Entire armies have gone to that era and are never heard from again and the New Vatican is worried that there is something dangerous lurking there. They want to investigate, but don’t want to waste anymore assets, hence why they tapped our protagonist who they consider expendable. Our hero, however, is only convinced to go in when he learns his ex-girlfriend, who is obsessed with Charlemagne, has been lost in that era in order to meet the Frankish king. Instead of heading straight to the 8th century, our time traveler first goes to 11th century France in order to recon the area and see if he can figure what may be waiting for him in the past.
Now at this point “Chasing Charlemagne” is still rather intelligent. Time travel as described in the story would not only be taxing on the traveler, but also dangerous, especially if they are relying on historical records that are based on misconceptions or outright lies. The fact that he is scouting things out instead of just jumping into the past guns blazing, is also smart and something you don’t see in many stories, so kudos to the author for that. Now let’s see how he drops the ball (and I’m about the drop some major spoilers so skip to the last paragraph if you don’t want to hear them).
Our hero, disguised as monk, finds work at a monastery (circa 1040 AD) that is involved in a massive project to preserve the past. The traveler gets work as a copier and its there that he eventually stumbles upon the secret of why all the time travelers who travel to the Dark Ages are disappearing. Turns out that time period doesn’t exist at all. A Pope and a Emperor decided in the late 600s that it would be great for the emperor’s reign to begin at the year at 1000, so they just told everyone to move their calendars up a few centuries. Fearful, however, of what it would mean for a Pope to be wrong, the Church decided to make up the history of the missing centuries, including the people who come from that era. Thus anyone who tries traveling there will end up in the wrong time period. Due to the nature of time travel, most travelers would assume something was wrong with their device and thus wouldn’t attempt to return to their present out of fear they would be transported to the wrong coordinates and end up in hard vacuum (because remember the Earth is moving through space as well as time, thus traveling through time means you would also be traveling through space). The traveler finds himself in the same predicament when his devices malfunctions and he is left stranded in the past, helping to fake the same history that trapped him there in the first place.
Do you see the big issue with “Chasing Charlemagne”? Admittedly it is somewhat believable that the farther you go in the past, the less reliable the records become and thus it would be easy for what is only legend/myth/lie to be treated as fact. Nevertheless, the size and scope of the cover-up pushes plausibility to the limits, especially since it ignores other ways we learn about the past (like archaeology). The biggest issue that I have with this story, however, is that the scheme to just make up centuries of history would only apply to Europe. Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and other non-Christian peoples with written languages who don’t follow the Christian calendar, would have no reason to lie about their own history. Thus all the contemporaries from those regions of the globe would not be fictional. Heck, even other Christians would likely not go along with such a plan. I know the Great Schism would still be a few years off from the setting of the story, but I don’t see how the Pope could convince the Patriarchs and Bishops of Eastern Europe to go along with moving to calendar up. Even Christians outside the control of Rome (like Nestorians and Copts) would have no reason to play along either. Its a huge plot hole that is never addressed and undermines what otherwise would be a good story. Perhaps if the scope was smaller, it may have worked, but it wasn’t and I’m surprised no one who read this story before publishing it noticed the issue.
Regardless of my problems with “Chasing Charlemagne”, Tales from the Vatican Vaults was an enjoyable and entertaining read. An anthology of short stories told from the point of view of someone from an alternate history is a unique concept that we will hopefully see more of in the future. Just try not to take any of the stories inside too seriously.