John R. Dougherty started his first novel, Holy Terror, more than 25 years ago, but life kept getting in the way of finishing it.
A preacher in the Church of Christ since the age of 20, he was, as he calls it, a “weekend warrior,” taking to the pulpit for various churches in need of a pastor while also raising three children. Oh, and his day job was in computer information systems. “I started writing my book all the way back in 1996, when I originally had the idea. Clearly, it has been a labor of love for some decades.”
Finally, though, Holy Terror is a reality, bringing together Dougherty’s love of crime thrillers and his deep knowledge of the Bible and religion. In the book, two police detectives investigating a series of gruesome murders cross paths with a vengeful angel named Thumos. Fed up with evildoers in the world, he’s killing them off, and Holy Terror treats readers to an ultimate examination of good vs. evil.
The author’s love for writing dates back to his early adulthood. By age 16, he was writing sermons—based on the ones his own pastor delivered on Sundays—and by age 20 he was preaching in his own church in Springfield, Missouri, where he was earning a computer science degree at Southwest Missouri State University (now Missouri State University). “That launched me down this part-time patch of preaching at small Churches of Christ, mostly in rural southwest Missouri. Many of those churches don’t have a full-time minister, so I was giving sermons almost every Sunday.”
He was also contributing content to church bulletins and magazines, but his writing time was limited since he was beginning an IT career, which has so far lasted more than 37 years. “At that time I wasn’t really thinking someday I’d want to write a full-fledged book, let alone a novel,” Dougherty says.
But in 1996, at age 32, he came up with the idea for Holy Terror, jotting notes about characters and storylines in a spiral notebook (something he still does to this day). He worked on the book slowly but surely, setting it aside for a while but always coming back to it. “I started looking into what it took to publish things, and the task just seemed very daunting,” he says. “Back then, you didn’t have all of the self-publishing options you have today.”
Around 2015, Dougherty, now newly divorced and the father of three grown children, contacted Melody Bussey, a writing coach in Florida, on the advice of his nephew, who had published a fantasy novel with her help. “She is the reason I finally got this done,” Dougherty says.
Bussey worked with Dougherty over the years, during which he went to work for Unbound, a nonprofit in Kansas City, Missouri, with close ties to the Catholic Church. Though Dougherty has since left Unbound for another job, he ended up converting to Catholicism, so he no longer preaches.
In 2022, Dougherty published Holy Terror, a novel with religious themes born of his Christian background, his love for the work of C.S. Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia series), J.R.R. Tolkien (The Lord of the Rings trilogy), and business authors with a spiritual bent such as John Maxwell, Simon Sineck, and Stephen R. Covey.
He’s also a fan of the Star Wars series and all things Marvel, as well as author Frank E. Peretti, whose work his writing coach introduced him to. “Like me, Peretti writes a lot of things having to do with good vs. evil, demonic influences, stuff like that.”
In Holy Terror, veteran cop Ian Jelani is paired with Lane Madigan, a young detective who is at a spiritual crossroads. “He has been a cop long enough that he’s frustrated by evil and bad things that happen to good people,” Dougherty says of Madigan. “He’s fed up with what he sees as a failing system, and he’d like to obliterate all the bad guys and not necessarily follow the letter of the law.”
But someone is already doing that, as Jelani and Madigan realize when they begin to notice similarities in gruesome killings around the country. They eventually discover it’s the work of the rogue angel Thumos, who is “executing really bad guys,” the author says.
In its review of Holy Terror, Kirkus Reviews says, “The pacing is brisk, and Dougherty’s narrative reads like a thriller, high intensity throughout with action-packed scenes from beginning to end.” That tension is evident in scenes such as this one, when Satan, surrounded by his minions, tries to recruit Thumos:
Satan knelt beside him, motioning the others to step away to give them some space. “I desperately want to help you with your quest. You know the Children’s old saying ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’? I can help you.” He reached up to pull away Thumos’s hands from his head, saying, “We can help each other. If we just joined forces, we could accomplish far more than you ever imagined. We could just put all the Children out of their misery, not just the bad ones. We would be unstoppable!” Satan’s voice rose in excitement as he punctuated his last statement with a clenched fist.
Dougherty has always had an interest in angels: “Knowing all the Bible stories and understanding what I consider to be the angelic world, plus knowing unfortunate real-life stories where people do terrible things to each other and sometimes get away with it, I remember thinking if an angel got hold of these people, they wouldn’t stand a chance. So my main character became this vigilante angel who was involved in a lot of those biblical stories, and it gets to a point where he’s tired of sitting and watching bad things happen to people and decides he’s going to do something about it.”
Though angels from the Bible—Michael, Raphael, and Gabriel—are mentioned in Holy Terror, Thumos is fictional. “I’ve taken some liberties, but he’s basically what’s referred to in the Old Testament as the angel of the Lord,” Dougherty says. “My Thumos is the ultimate warrior. He’s executing people in ways people were killed in the Old Testament. People say it’s so violent and gruesome, and I say, ‘Have you read the Old Testament?’ ”
Holy Terror is filled with Scripture and biblical references, so the author has written a study guide that, chapter by chapter, leads readers to the applicable books of the Bible.
Dougherty has more plans for his Holy Terror characters. “I’m starting in the middle of a trilogy. The next book is roughly halfway written. I’m doing a Star Wars or Indiana Jones thing, starting with the middle story, then doing a prequel, and then I have a sequel in mind.”
He sees Holy Terror not only as an exciting thriller and crime drama but also as an extension of the preaching he once did almost every weekend. “It has definitely been a fun project for me, but ultimately I do see it as maybe some kind of tool or something that helps refocus people toward spiritual things, toward God, toward his work. Part of why I did this is it’s a kind of a ministry of mine.”
Alec Harvey, a former president of the Society for Features Journalism, is a freelance writer based in Alabama.