Yes or No

Reading about demonic possession is enough to scare you away from ever using a ouija board.  In fact, I’ve never played with one; growing up my strict religion would’ve prevented it in any case, and already as a child I’d been warned of the dangers.  During my research for Nightmares with the Bible, I’ve been reading quite a bit about ouija.  Originally a species of divination, the ouija, or spirit board, became popular during the growth of Spiritualism.  Spiritualism is a religion based on the idea that the dead still communicate with the living, ensuring believers that life continues beyond death.  It still exists, but not with the numbers that it boasted in the early days.  Among the solemn admonitions of Ed and Lorraine Warren (about whom I’ve posted much in recent months) was that ouija boards opened doorways for demonic entities.  Some of their stories are quite scary.

Image credit: Mijail0711, via Wikimedia Commons

Whatever else you can say about America, a fact beyond dispute is that if something can make a buck it will be marketed and sold.  So it was with ouija boards in the 1970s.  I remember seeing them on the shelf with other games at local department stores.  Even then I knew they weren’t a toy and I wondered how anyone could be promoting them for general consumption.  At Grove City College—that bastion of undergraduate conservatism—stories circulated about how students (usually coeds) were attacked in their locked rooms after playing with ouija boards.  This is, I was later to learn, a staple of collegiate urban legends.  At the time, however, I took it very seriously.  

Thus it’s strange when I find out that others my age were more curious about them.  Recently at a party with friends around Valentine’s Day, the question naturally came up of how some of us met our spouses.  One of the women mentioned that before she’d met or even heard of her future husband (who has an unusual surname) a ouija board spelled out his name.  She later met and married him, not on the board’s recommendation, but she remembered that years before she’d been given a hint.  Now these friends are not cheats and liars—they’re not even Republicans.  They’re people we trust.  On our drive home that night my wife mentioned she’d used a ouija board once, with friends, back in her high school years.  She asked the name of her spouse (long before we met) and came up with Sam.  I’m no Sam, but when we first met in grad school I was still going by my stepfather’s surname and my initials were S-A-M.  Coincidence?  Probably.  My future wife did not pursue me; indeed, it was the other way around.  Even so, there in the dark on the nighttime highway I felt a familiar frisson from childhood concerning a form of divination that seems to know more than it should.

The Desert

Now, I’m fairly certain Athanasius of Alexandria didn’t have access to CreateSpace, or even an Amazon Prime account.  He did write the classic Life of Antony (or Anthony), which I took the opportunity to read recently.  I’m not going to go into this life with great detail—Athanasius does that, in as far as he can—but the reading of this book raised the perils not only of demons but of easy self-publication.  As usual, there’s a story behind it.  Antony was famous for being an early monk who fought demons so effectively that they feared him.  His story wasn’t written in English, seeing that the language had not yet evolved.  When I tried to find an affordable copy that I could access quickly, I found the edition pictured here.  It was fairly obviously a conversion, likely from a PDF (based on my own so doing, in the line of duty).  A minimal cover was applied and it was offered cheaply on said Amazon (with free shipping).

Those who work in publishing know how to spot a print-on-demand title.  That means the book is printed when it’s ordered, or, printed a few copies at a time so that the overhead of offset printing (how books were traditionally made) can be avoided.  Self-publishers can name themselves a press—this one Beloved Publishing—and anything in the public domain can be reproduced and sold to rubes like me.  When a scholar, erstwhile or while, approaches a book s/he wants to know certain facts about it.  Who was the translator?  What was the original language?  When was it written?  Who was (in this case) Athanasius?  Some of this I knew simply by dint of studying ancient texts for most of my adult life and having attended and taught in seminaries.  Still, an introduction of some sort would have been appreciated.

This edition appealed to me because the Life on Antony is a short book.  Most mainstream publishers bulk books like these up with hefty introductions and notes and charge four times as much for it.  They usually put in other works too, since this one weighs in at less than a hundred pages, even with loose typesetting.  Sometimes you just want the contents, with minimal introduction.  So let it be with Antony.  Or so I thought.  This edition, which has a few quirks, contained Athanasius in English, which is what I needed.  The translator remains unknown.  It is print-on-demand.  It is also affordable.  In case any readers of this blog wonder why I sometimes tend not to engage with the contents of the books I review, I would point out that this is what my own books are for.   A guy has to try to make a buck somehow, now and again.  (Antony forgive me!) 

Troubled Trilogy

The quest for the truth is never-ending.  New information keeps emerging and our poor brains have evolved to survive the perils of weather and wild animals, not to receive all available information.  It’s the fear that I might’ve missed something that has me going back to a place I’d rather not go.  Andrea Perron’s account of what happened in Harrisville, Rhode Island is the only real published source by eyewitnesses that’s readily available.  Her three-book account, however, is a deeply personal ramble that isn’t easy for the fact-finder to follow.  A couple of months ago I posted on volume one, intimating that I would probably have to go back and read two and three.  There’s a compunction about completion that humans have.  An economist once told me not to measure a venture by sunk funds.  The same applies to books, I guess.

In my ongoing research into demons, and particularly the work of Ed and Lorraine Warren, I felt I had to continue with the troubled trilogy.  Volume one barely mentioned the Warrens.  Volume two finally revealed some of the story.  It took 260 pages to get there, but finally, an eyewitness account!  It has plenty of gaps, of course, but it is, as they say, different from the movie.  You have to understand that a certain sector of the internet was buzzing like flies in January over The Conjuring.  Based on a true story, it was a sympathetic treatment of the Warrens’ work that it was hoped would give credibility to the demon-hunting duo.

House of Darkness, House of Light in total is well over a thousand pages long.  I know, I know—“caveat emptor.”  Nevertheless, I’ve always felt that long books owe it to their readers to deliver on the promises.  I want my haunted house books to be scary.  Or at least moody with a gothic sensibility.  I do understand the desire—the compunction—to approach life philosophically.  Were I ever to put my life out there on display, beyond the occasional forays on this blog, I would hope to do it in a way that left readers wanting more, not less.  Biography is a dicey subject.  Autobiography even more so.  The traditional publisher steps in with an editor firmly in hand.  I know because I’ve been doing this for about a decade now.  The writer and the editor, like the farmer and the cowman, should be friends.  It’s tough, painful even, when someone takes a pen to what you’ve carefully crafted.  The results, when they work, give the reader what s/he wants.  The quest may indeed be never-ending.  At least trilogies have only three parts.

Desert Demons

After reading many popular books, coming to a scholarly tome can be a shock to the system.  This is especially the case when said academic volume contains lots of information (not all do, believe me!).  David Brakke’s Demons and the Making of the Monk: Spiritual Combat in Early Christianity has been on my reading list for quite some time.  One of the perils of being a renegade academic is that you have no university library at hand and I’m not sure I want to reveal this side of myself to the local public librarian yet.  In any case, it would be difficult to summarize all that Brakke covers in this insightful treatment.  One of the elements that struck this reader, however, is the protean nature of the demons with which the eponymous monks wrestled.

Keep in mind that although demons appear throughout the Bible in various forms there is no single definition of what they are.  They appear to be spiritual monsters, in short.  Some passages seem to suggest they are fallen angels.  Others that they are foreign (primarily pre-Christian) gods.  Later ideas add the possibility that they are children of the Watchers, or even, as Brakke explains, evil thoughts.  The desert monks didn’t dwell on trying to discern their origin myth—they were out there to purify their souls, not to do academic research.  The Hebrew Bible does suggest that demons were creatures of the desert.  As monasticism began, appropriately in Egypt, one natural resource found in abundance was wilderness real estate.  The mortgage, however, was a constant struggle with demons.

Many of these demons developed into the seven deadly sins.  Not surprisingly, men living alone in the desert found themselves the victims of sexual temptation.  This led to, in some cases, the demonizing of women.  We’d call this classic blaming the victim, but this is theology, not common sense.  Anything that stood between a monk and his (sometimes her) direct experience of God could, in some sense, be considered demonic.  Brakke presents a description of several of these early desert-dwellers and their warfare with their demons.  Much of their characterization of evil would be considered racist and sexist today.  Brakke does make the point that during the Roman Empire—the period of the earliest monks—race wasn’t perceived the same way that it is in modern times.  Nevertheless, some of this book can make the reader uncomfortable, and not just because of demons.  Or, perhaps, that’s what they really are after all. 

Deliverance

Ed Warren died in 2006, effectively ending the cooperative ghost-hunting venture with his widow Lorraine.  The Warrens rose to prominence after being among the first to investigate what is now known as the “Amityville horror.”  Not being writers, the Warrens hired those more talented in the literary arts to recount some of their more famous adventures.  Their books were a hot commodity in the 1980s, selling well through commercial publishing houses.  These accounts then went the way of out-of-print books, settling into used bookstores and attic corners.  With the release of the horror movie The Conjuring, these titles came back into demand and enterprising publishers licensed the content in order to resurrect the books.  The latest effort was Deliver Us from Evil, written by J. F. Sawyer and published after Ed’s death.

Now, if you’ve been following the thread of my posts on these books you’ll know they were never belles lettres to begin with.  Many of them are disturbing to read, regardless of whether you believe in the supernatural or not.  Deliver Us from Evil, which is subtitled True Cases of Haunted Houses and Demonic Attacks, reads like a collection of juvenile ghost stories.  Unlike many of the other books in this informal series, it doesn’t go into detail of how the Warrens investigated the cases.  Although it doesn’t state this directly, it seems that since Ed couldn’t narrate the procedures and outcomes, the stories are simply left to stand on their own.  There isn’t much glue between them and the accounts themselves, which occasionally eerie, lack the conviction that a self-convinced Ed apparently gave to the other exemplars.

Since my follow-up to Holy Horror (which just arrived on my doorstep) deals with movies about demons, I have been eager to read the entire Warren oeuvre.  There are two remaining books, as far as I’m able to determine, and one has become a collectors’ item and is priced that way.  This is, it seems to me, an odd but working-class way to do research.  Books, even if not by academic publishers, are part of the public record, and as such, deserve consideration of some kind.  Yes, many books can simply be dismissed.  Nobody has time to read them all.  Nevertheless, it’s true that to be informed a researcher should put aside prejudice and see what the public record states.  Deliver Us from Evil was a quick read from that record with no real plot and a kind of haunting ending.  I wonder what Ed would’ve thought.

Long Nights

Before I really knew who Ed and Lorraine Warren were, I watched a made-for-television movie called, I think, A Haunting in Connecticut.  Unlike many television movies, it was actually quite scary.  Fast forward several years and I find myself writing a book that involves the Warrens.  I felt obligated to read all the books they “wrote”—all of them ghostwritten—and I’d been holding off on the one titled In a Dark Place, which is the story behind this television movie which was subsequently made into a theatrical movie.  The book is by Ray Garton and the parents of the family involved (Carmen Reed and Al Snedeker) are also credited.  The story is indeed a dreary one, not something I expected would bring any holiday cheer.  About that I was correct.

Why do I do it, then?  A concern with veracity drives me.  Throughout history enough people have told stories like this that either we have to lump our species together as a bunch of lying attention-grubbers, or there might be something to what they say.  The academic and official responses have long been to state that such things can’t happen, so they don’t.  When compared with how we come to know other things about life, we quickly realize that it involves experience.  In cases where experience is anomalous we tend to dismiss it.  We are great conformers.  What if there really was a demon in the Snedeker house?  Others have told similar tales.  If there’s any reality to it, shouldn’t we know?

As a former academic, I always thought that if we really wish to learn the truth, no subject should be off-limits.  That’s not the same thing as credulousness.  We don’t have to believe everything overwrought people say, but the subject should be worth consideration.  Of course, those who ghostwrote for the Warrens claim that they were given liberty to stretch the truth to make a better story.  They also tend to claim that the basic elements of the story are true.  When someone’s writing a book, there’s likely some hope of remuneration involved.  And sometimes the truth isn’t quite flashy enough for major presses with the bottom line in sight.  Still, the question of what really happened is left open.  The internet is a place where credulity reigns.  We can seek truth there only with great caution.  Maybe that is the lesson to apply to books like this as well.  Although In a Dark Place is scary, there was money at stake, and as the wise say, money changes everything.

Residual Thoughts

I feel compelled to say that this book was not among the overwritten tomes I mentioned in yesterday’s post.  Indeed, although the title reflects the outlook of the author, you need to get to the subtitle to find out what the book’s about.  Although I work at an academic press, I disagree with academic book pricing models.  Graham Twelftree’s previous book, Jesus the Exorcist, had to be picked up in a paperback reprint edition before it could be affordable to the likes of mere mortals.  After reading it I learned that Twelftree had written a more popular book on the topic—Christ Triumphant: Exorcism Then and Now.  Putting much of the material from the previous book in less technical terms, this version goes on to ask questions that can’t be put into a standard dissertation, such as “should exorcisms still be done?”

The academic is necessarily a skeptic.  One of the biggest problems our society faces is the open credulity of those who haven’t been taught to think critically.  Twelftree is a rare academic who keeps an open mind while approaching the material with a healthy skepticism.  Often it’s too easy to suggest that disregarding that which doesn’t fit a theory is the only way forward for an academic.  Sweeping off the table that which we don’t like.  The word Twelftree uses is “residue”—that which remains after the majority of possession cases have been explained medically.  The usual response is to disregard this small fraction of anomalous material and claim “case closed.”  In this book Twelftree dares to go further.

The supernatural has become an embarrassment for many, even in believing communities.  An interventionist god, or demons, would set off chain reactions that would distort the known laws of physics, so such things simply can’t exist.  Things which we can’t explain only exist because we haven’t got all the variables yet.  I recall how cold that made me feel when I first encountered the idea in physics class.  “Scientific determinism” it is sometimes called.  This little book rehearses the New Testament material covered in Twelftree’s dissertation, but goes on to raise the implications from that study and apply them to modern times.  It’s a brave thing to do in an academic world where brushes and brooms are very common.  Where residue is wiped up and tossed away without a second thought.  Those who stop to think through the implications are rare, which makes them so much the more interesting reading.  And not being from an academic press, such books are often  affordable.