Apocalypse Now/Move Over, Harry Potter
A series of novels about the 'end time' is the latest publishing sensation

THE ANTICHRIST has been resurrected and is ruling the Earth with renewed evil. As a result, the heroic Tribulation Force must struggle ever harder to stay alive and save souls. Who will survive? Who will stay true to the cause, and who will be tempted to betray it?

Those are among the gripping questions addressed in The Mark, eighth in a blockbuster series of novels, which is to be released next week. "I'm waiting with bated breath," said Annie Alfieri, who works at a Coram bookstore and already has devoured the first seven books. "Nothing has grabbed me as much as this."

"It's a great story," said David Tue, a technical specialist who lives in Hauppauge and long ago put in his order for the newest installment. No wonder "The Mark" is making its debut with an initial printing of 2.5 million, and the publisher has already ordered a second printing of 300,000 copies. That puts the novel slightly ahead of average first printings for John Grisham, Stephen King and Tom Clancy, though still behind the 3.8 million initial printing for J.K. Rowling's latest Harry Potter book.

Meanwhile, Left Behind, the series' first book, which features a plotline in which millions of people suddenly disappear from the planet, is still on paperback best-seller lists. All versions of the books, including audio and a children's series, have sold 30 million copies. A movie of Left Behind, starring Kirk Cameron (former teen heartthrob of TV's Growing Pains), was released on video last week and is also a top seller, having hit No. 1 on Amazon.com.

But wait—there's something else that sets this series apart. These are Christian evangelical novels, guided by a prophetic interpretation of the Bible. Their sales in Christian stores are phenomenal, but their crossover success—making it to the top of mainstream fiction best-seller lists that don't even count the Christian market—is unprecedented.

They tell, in fictional terms, what the authors believe will happen during what is termed the Rapture, when those they perceive as good Christians are taken directly to heaven (leaving only their clothes behind), the ensuing seven years of Tribulation, during which the Antichrist reigns, and succeeding events (including the conversion of 144,000 Jews, who become evangelists and whose converts become martyrs), right up to "The Glorious Appearing" of book 12, which will be the last of the series. The publishers want a prequel, too.

"It's been quite a ride," said Jerry B. Jenkins, who writes the books, based on theology provided to him by co-author Tim LaHaye, a minister and nonfiction writer who came up with the idea.

"We thought we could do the whole thing in one book," said Jenkins about the project's beginning, just five years ago. But the first novel covers only about a week in the lives of airline pilot Rayford Steele, who finds dozens of passengers gone from his 747 in midair; his alluring flight attendant, Hattie Durham; plucky daughter, Chloe, and dashing passenger, Buck Williams, a hotshot investigative journalist. Other characters include a Romanian leader named Nicolae Carpathia, who displays hypnotic charisma and a flair for murder. THE STORY just wouldn't fit into one volume, said Jenkins, a jolly-sounding 51-year-old, who jokes that he wanted to call the current volume about the Antichrist's return "No More Mr. Nice Guy."

The first book, too, has its winking, humorous touches, which may help account for its appeal: Carpathia, during his rise to power as the Antichrist, is named Sexiest Man Alive by People magazine; Buck wonders, as things get weirder and weirder, if he isn't "living in a science-fiction thriller." Well, yes, he is, though the authors and many readers see the underlying ideas as far more than science fiction.

Jenkins, a prolific writer who has co-authored best-selling books with sports figures Orel Hershiser and Nolan Ryan, spoke by phone from a small office building he recently built next to his Colorado Springs home, which sits on five acres that also hold a racquetball court and riding stables ("everyone here has riding stables"). Co-author LaHaye, 74, lives in Rancho Mirage, Calif. By now, Jenkins said, his readers include people who pick up the book in, say, Barnes & Noble, and are unaware of what they're getting into theologically. But the authors have gotten very little criticism from those in other religions, who they believe will never get to heaven if they don't accept Jesus.

"We certainly don't intend to offend," said Jenkins. Some Catholics, he said, have complained because several villains are Catholic (although far more are Protestant, Jenkins said). He quoted the biblical passage in which Jesus says, "No one comes to the Father except through me" and added, "If we are to call ourselves evangelical Christians, we believe that."

The authors have heard more from evangelical Christians who don't agree with their order of end-time events, said Jenkins, and from other Christians who believe the Book of Revelation, on which much of the Left Behind series is based, was intended to be symbolic or an allegory about the Roman Empire. The fundamentalist beliefs espoused in the Left Behind books have been around a long time but haven't entered the arena of "public discourse" probably because Christian publishing has largely been "a world unto itself," said Trace Murphy, a senior editor at Doubleday who specializes in religious and philosophical books. (Rabbis contacted for comment about the books had either never heard of them or had not read them.)

Murphy admires the series, he said, as "good popcorn reading. It takes you along the story pretty briskly." Although its success is "a singular event" in the fiction field, there has been a renewed interest in apocalyptic literature and in the book of Revelation both in Christianity and in popular culture, he said, fueled in part by year-2000 millennial interest.

The Left Behind publisher, Tyndale House, also has been savvy about marketing since the books became popular, he said, producing special displays and getting the books into such large arenas as Wal-Mart, Costco and BJ's, where thousands of copies are sold. (The movie, made by Cloud Ten Pictures, has a marketing device that's ingenious: At the end of the video—which isn't nearly as compelling as the book—the star tells viewers how they can sponsor the movie on a big screen after its theatrical release on Feb. 3.)

The excitement seems to have started not with advertising, however, but with word of mouth, said Murphy. "Some books just strike a chord. That's the intangible element in publishing. Nobody can predict when it will come into play."

"Every publisher dreams of striking gold," agreed Lynn Schmitt Quinn of Brightwaters, who has worked as an editor at Simon & Schuster and more recently as managing editor at Crossroad, a publisher of Catholic and other religious books. "Like Harry Potter, it can come out of nowhere, as well as from a best-selling author: a book you can pick up with confidence, thinking, I'm in for a great read."

Other Christian-themed novels also have shown solid sales, she said, including works by Frank Peretti and Joseph F. Girzone, and religious themes have been addressed in mainstream best-sellers, such as thrillers by Andrew Greeley, a Catholic priest, and John Grisham's The Testament. And Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth, a nonfiction apocalyptic book, was a huge crossover best-seller in the 1970s.

But there's no doubt, Quinn said, that the Left Behind series is a phenomenon fueled by interest in the "end time" and "the right authors who can speak to that interest." She doesn't agree with the books' theology, however, and sees danger in introducing an Antichrist from Romania: "Once you're picking any kind of nationality to be the Antichrist, you're labeling that group."

The books' treatment of Jews, Catholics and Romanians doesn't seem to concern the fans, however. And they come from many different backgrounds—as the multilingual official Web site, www.leftbehind.com, attests.

"I've seen people getting lit up, they're really excited" about the series, said Rex Ugorji, who is in charge of sales at New Life, a Christian bookstore in Jamaica with a majority of African-American shoppers. Both black and white customers buy the books, and the store also carries a Spanish version. A friend from London told him the books are selling briskly there, too.

The dramatized version of the audio book, taken from a radio series, is a big seller at New Horizons Christian bookstore in Coram, said saleswoman Jeanne Lun. "I have a lot of customers who are always waiting for the next book to come out," she said, and she has a hard time keeping the kids' series, which features teenage heroes, in stock.

"It's really excellent, really scriptural. This is what a lot of Christians go for…. And if you're not a believer, it's still a good read," she said. Annie Alfieri, who works at the same store, began reading the series before she started there eight months ago. She found them first at Borders. "I was intrigued by the covers, the titles. One day I picked one up and started reading it. I couldn't put it down."

Her 12-year-old son and 16-year-old daughter have gone through the entire children's series, she said, and her daughter has started on the adult books. "The characters just became so real, so much a part of my life. I want to find out what happens to each of them." She likes the decoder kit for the kids, too. Ginny DeMille, a co-owner of The Olive Branch, a Christian bookstore in New Hyde Park, where the series is a top-seller, said she was most moved by the experience of customer Tony Santangelo and his wife, of Franklin Square, who started going to Bible classes at their church after reading the books. "A friend from Texas sent us the first one," said Santangelo, a 47-year-old electrical engineer. "Then we read the whole series." And they joined a class at the Lutheran Church of the Resurrection in Garden City, which brought them closer together. And then, Santangelo's wife, Rosemarie, died unexpectedly last year at age 43 during routine surgery. "My wife pushed…[the books] more," said Santangelo. "Maybe she knew something." Reading the books and then getting more involved at church helped him, he said: "I know she was going to a better place."

David Tue started the books less than a year ago, but couldn't find them all in the Commack Borders near his home. "Now they have them stacked up," he said. He recently bought all the paperbacks at BJ's for his church, Brentwood Presbyterian. Many members read them, "and it was life-changing for two or three. This is a wonderful method of spreading the word."

He can understand, he said, why some people "have a hard time with the concept that there is one way to heaven, through Christ, period. Some people think, I'm a nice person, so I'll go. They don't understand that a relationship with Jesus is the only way, and that comes through in the book."

And that's what the authors want. When he first started writing, Jenkins said, "I remember asking Dr. LaHaye, are we writing to believers, or to persuade or show others the way? He said, 'Both.'"