The Oath is an allegorical 1995 contemporary Christian fiction horror/fantasy novel by Frank E. Peretti. The recipient of the 1996 ECPA Gold Medallion Book Award for Best Fiction, The Oath is one of Peretti's most critically acclaimed and layered novels, having sold over one million copies worldwide. The story centers around the fictional mining town of Hyde River, the gruesome deaths of many of the townspeople, and an "Oath" that the residents of Hyde River have taken up to hide the secret behind them.
The novel opens with an excerpt from a diary entry from 1882 during the founding of Hyde River.
Twenty-seven people died that I know of, and I can only guess that the others fled with whatever they could carry away. I could hear the screams and the shooting all night long, and I dared not venture out. The Reverend DuBois was left hanging in Hyde Hall until this afternoon. I informed Ben that I would not attend the signing of the Charter until the body was removed, so Ben ordered him cut down, taken out, and buried with the others. By late afternoon, the men who remained in Hyde River were back in the mines as if nothing had happened, and I also attended my business. After nightfall, we gathered in Hyde Hall under the cover of darkness and signed the Charter. With the signing of our names, we took the oath of silence, so I cannot speak of these things, but only write them secretly. The trouble is over, but I am no happier. I am afraid of what we have done. I am afraid of tomorrow.
There are several other archived letters, diary entries, and writings from the townsfolk scattered throughout the book, each of them relating to accounts of the mysterious deaths in Hyde River and of residents being beaten by a group of hooded figures for breaking the "Oath". Many of the stones of these clues are overturned by the protagonists later on in the novel.
The book's plot begins after a nature photographer, Cliff Benson, is confirmed to have been killed in the woods, with his head and torso missing and remaining body parts torn open and mangled. His wife, Evelyn, is found covered with blood and half-crazed on a logging road and taken to a hospital, where she only has vague recollections of the events that transpired. Sheriff Les Collins is quick to close to case and pin the blame on a rogue bear. However, Cliff's brother, Steve, quickly finds holes in the theory and refuses to drop the matter. Joining him in his investigation is Sheriff's Deputy Tracy Ellis, who has seen enough cases swept under the rug by authority to know that something is amiss.
Meanwhile, Harold Bly, owner of the mining company that keeps the struggling town afloat and looked on as the head authority of the town, kicks his wife, Maggie, onto the streets. As a black, painful rash grows on the skin near her heart and spreads across her body, she takes refuge in the home of Levi Cobb, a Christian mechanic who is looked down upon by the rest of the townspeople. As Steve questions her, he learns that she and Cliff had an affair. After a hooded cult member writes her name on a piece of paper in an old building known as Hyde Hall and burns it as part of a ritual, the rash overtakes Maggie's entire body, and her initial fear gives way to lightheartedness up until her disappearance.
Steve learns from Tracy that it is believed by the townspeople that a giant dragon is responsible for the deaths, and that Harold Bly has the ability to control it. As another victim of the rash, Vic Moore, stumbles into an abandoned town near Hyde River, Steve follows. He, too, disappears without a trace. Steve learns that the town, Old Town, was the original location of Hyde River, and that Hyde Hall is a cursed building where the dragon supposedly snatches up its victims. His and Tracy's initial disbelief fades after they spend a night in Old Town, chasing the dragon in an attempt to hunt it.
Charlie Mack, owner of the local bar/restaurant urges Steve to kill the dragon after he sees with horror the rash on his chest. Harold Bly is perplexed by Charlie's death, as he apparently never commanded it, but seizes the opportunity to take control of his business, furthering his progress in the town. Steve, meanwhile, confronts the dragon in its lair. His shotgun proves to be a hopeless attempt to kill the dragon, and he barely makes it out with his life before the dragon sets him free, apparently with the desire to finish him at his timing.
Shaken from his experience, Steve decides to listen to Levi Cobb, who gives him copies of old letters and diaries from the town's forefathers. He learns that the town was purged of religion in the late 1800s, and any Christians taking residence in the town were either martyred or driven out of town. Those remaining in the town moved from Old Town and reestablished Hyde River after signing a character. The sordid bargain of the town charter, "If this be sin, let sin be served," gave the dragon reign of the town. It began at an unthreateningly small size but grew quickly to a length of forty-five feet. The town's founder, Benjamin Hyde, was believed to have control over the dragon, and was the grandfather of Harold Bly.
Steve tells Tracy everything that he has learned, and, despite the fact that she is married, the two make love that night. Both of them awake with the rash on their chests that morning.
Meanwhile, Harold Bly is upset with the fact that the dragon has been killing people he wanted to remain alive and ignoring his instructions to kill others. After noticing the mark on him, he decides that the dragon wants Tracy and Steve removed from the town. He arranges for Sheriff Collins to murder Tracy, but she kills him in self-defense. Steve arranges to meet Harold that night at the bar to make peace. There, he learns that both Harold Bly and all of his henchmen wear the mark and that Harold never did control the dragon at all, but that the dragon is actually sin and draws people in through sin.
Steve is told that his beer has been drugged, then passes out and awakens tied to a ritualistic stone table in Hyde Hall to await being sacrificed to the dragon. He is freed by a bleeding Levi Cobb, who has been shot by Harold Bly. As Harold and his followers purge the town of Christianity as their ancestors did years ago, Levi tells Steve that he must have Jesus on his side to have a hope of defeating the dragon before taking his turn in death. Tracy convinces Steve to flee the town, but, on their way out during the night, and despite Steve's efforts, Tracy embraces the apathy that all of the previous victims did before their death and is eaten by the dragon. Filled with grief, Steve vows to destroy the dragon and returns to town after injuring it with explosives (destroying its wings in the process).
Steve attempts to distance himself from growing accustomed to the rash and entering the final phase of the horrible deaths. On his way into town, he prays to become a Christian. He then puts one of Levi's plans into action and confronts the dragon using a long sword that Levi kept in his garage. As Harold Bly and his followers watch in awe, the dragon beats Steve mercilessly, but Steve does not die or retain any bruises or marks. Frightened by the power of Jesus, the dragon is helpless as Steve plunges the sword through it. The dragon dies, but not before violently taking Harold Bly with him. The other townsfolk, upset with Steve, swear that they will get revenge on him for killing their dragon. Steve corrects them, pointing to their hearts, and tells them that they still have their dragon inside of them.
Frank Peretti hopes to soon make The Oath into a film.
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