The Basilisk Revisited
A short story, two years on
Two years ago, just as covid broke but before the shape of it became clear, I wrote a story. I’m not sure where it came from; then again, this theme has interested me since I was a boy. If you’ve read any of my novels you’ll recognise the undercurrent.
I’m not sure it’s much good as a story, or even if it quite is one. In fact, two years on I prefer to see it less as a work of fiction and more of a piece of current affairs journalism. Or perhaps a working hypothesis.
Some of you may have read it already, but here it is nonetheless, republished for the new era, whatever that shapes up to be.
My dear Bridget,
I would not normally write to you in this way. I would not normally write to anyone in this way. I gave up writing letters some years ago after my correspondents mostly stopped replying. When one of my friends sent me a two-line text message in response to a five-page, handwritten letter—to add insult to injury, it even had one of those smiley face things at the end—I knew the game was up. I am not convinced that people know how to write letters anymore, or even to read them. I won’t bore you with the facts about the ongoing measurable decline in our ability to concentrate. You of all people know what the screens are doing to our minds.
That, as you might already have guessed, is the subject of this letter.
It will be a long letter, but I beg you to bear with it. Do not skim it: sit down and read it carefully. You may know why I am writing, but you do not know what I am going to say, and this is why you must—you must, Bridget—read this letter right through to the end, and you must make the effort to take it seriously, however hard it may seem for you at times. When it gets hard, if it begins to seem ridiculous—well, I will ask you to indulge me. Indulge your old uncle. I have known you since you were in nappies. I have watched you proudly from afar. I never had children, as you know, nor wanted them, but I have been glad that we have remained—can I say friends? I hope so. As I hope, dearly, that our friendship will survive these words.
I am writing as your uncle, but I am also writing as a historian; a scholar. I have plied my trade in this university department for three decades now, Bridget. My professorship has been earned, and I remain grateful for it daily. I am in the blessed position of being able to live my life as I had dreamed of living it when I was a little boy. Neither your gran nor your grandad attended a university, as you know. Why would they have done? That was not for people of their class, not back then. They were barely schooled. I suppose that was one reason I was so intrigued by the notion. Growing up, I never met a scholar, a writer, anyone of that kind. Few of my parents’ friends even had books in their houses, beyond the Readers Digest. But I loved words, books, ideas, theses, scraps of evidence: anything that would take me away from the terraces. To me, the notion of scholarship, authorship, professional study—it was all impossibly romantic. Of course (and this is common for a historian, I assure you) the life I wanted to live had died out about a century before I was born. I wanted the life I was reading about in Victorian children’s books. I wanted to be an academic version of Phileas Fogg, or Sherlock Holmes. An M. R. James out of time. I longed for a book-lined study and a smoking jacket. I wanted port at high table; I wanted candles and a leather armchair. My friends wanted to be footballers. I wanted to uncover Anglo-Saxon treasures in forgotten barrows.
I got halfway, I suppose. You have seen my book-lined study and sat in my leather armchair. If I hadn’t given up smoking I would be smoking a pipe. It’s true that my childhood fantasy did not involve teaching spotty undergraduates, nor having to tick endless boxes on glowing screens, nor having to justify myself to people whose only skill in life appears to be counting money or inventing some tiresome new means of social engineering.
But I am digressing. Perhaps I am circling the heart of the matter. You will soon see why.
Do you remember the last time you sat in my leather armchair? Of course you do, Bridget. It was only a few weeks ago. Do you remember how I lost my temper with you because you kept getting distracted from our conversation by your blasted phone, chirruping and tweeting like a spastic sparrow? You flew straight back at me, as you’ll recall: told me frankly that if I had any notion of what it was like to be a parent, if I had left my twelve-year-old daughter with friends for the day, I too would be anxious to ensure her welfare. I too would want to respond immediately to her messages. Everybody else in the world could talk and check their messages at the same time, you told me—an unevidenced claim if ever there was one—even if I couldn’t. Some people had responsibilities to actual living people rather than long-dead ones.
I apologise for my outburst. I have always regarded my work as a responsibility carried out for society’s benefit, but you were broadly right about me. I have never had much patience for the stuff of life. Parenting, marriage, the dungeon of it all. But, anyway: your phone started it all off. Your phone led us to this letter. You started to tell me about Sarah’s phone use; how much time she spends on it, the secreting of it under pillows and in bags, the confrontations, the messages from people you have never heard of, the visits to sites she should not know about, the things you have caught her watching that she should never see, not at that age, not ever. “But it’s normal now,” you said, “it’s just what they do, it’s how they communicate, all of them.”
You laughed when I asked why you couldn’t just take the thing away from her. “Come on, Uncle Richard,” you said, “you know you haven’t come to terms with the twentieth century yet, never mind the twenty-first. They can’t go without them. They get bullied at school, they feel left out, they miss out on things. All that was bad enough before phones. No, you just have to try and keep a lid on it, keep it monitored. There are apps you can use. Ah, it’ s just…”—here you threw your hands up, grasped the back of the chair with them, looked at me as if you were younger and more open than you are—“It’s just that she’s only twelve,” you said. “I thought I’d have longer with her. I just feel … I feel like I’ve lost my little girl. It’s like I don’t know her anymore. It’s like she’s just—gone.”
I thought to say something about the nature of addiction here, but I kept my mouth shut, for once. It stuck with me, this terrible use of words. I’ve lost my daughter … I don’t know her anymore … she’s just gone. I’ve heard it before, of course, and seen it too. I spend far more time than is ideal with teenagers (the ideal being none), though my students of course are older than Sarah. They bring the bloody things into our tutorials. They flash and grind away in their pockets as I try to talk about the Comte de Gabalis or the Emerald Tablet. If I were any kind of man, I’d have hurled at least one of them through the window without opening it. The phone that is, not the student, though that’s not a bad idea either. I don’t behave like this, however. I’m an academic. I don’t act: I research.
After you had left, I felt the familiar buzz in the frontal lobes that always sets me digging. Something about all this was intriguing me. I had not yet made the connection I would make later, but something in me knew what my conscious mind was not yet aware of. Ironically, of course, the internet had the facts for me in double-quick time. It has its uses, and I have never denied it.
My initial research led me to the impressive fact that today’s teenager spends an average of seven hours and twenty-two minutes on their phone every day. Seven hours! What are they even looking at? I could read the entirety of the Coelum Philosophorum in that time, in the original Latin. Girls Sarah’s age are currently clocking in at four hours and forty-four minutes daily and rising. Of course, all of this affects their brains. I see it in my students daily. Twenty years ago, my undergraduates had no problems reading and writing long texts. Now, they can’t absorb ideas.
This is measurable, too. For instance, in one study it was found that children who use screens for more than two hours a day achieved lower scores on thinking and language tests than those who did not. They can’t even escape at night. Did you know that people go to bed with their phones under their pillows? With radioactive waves pounding through their skulls all night long? The blue light pouring from the screens all day disrupts their circadian rhythms, so people are not sleeping anyway. If they can’t sleep, they can’t dream. They are stuck in an endless present, a terrible ongoing now.
I read the preceding paragraphs back to myself now and I can see how they will come across to you. Another old man complaining about the internet, in the same way his parents used to complain about the television. Actually, your gran and grandad watched more television than I did; the telly, as they called it, was a perpetual background hum. I used to hide in my room and read war comics. But in any case, I am not alone here, Bridget. Even the people suffering from this malady—and it is a malady—know they are ill.
I came across a study from America. Nine out of ten teenagers in this study said that spending too much time online was a problem for their peers. Six out of ten said it was a major problem. Half of them thought that they personally spent too much time on their phones. Perhaps this is the most significant of all the studies I have found. Why? Because of what it reveals, Bridget: that all of these people know they should cut down, know they should stop, want to change things—but can’t.
We know what this is, Bridget, of course we do. We have a word for it: addiction. Tobacco, alcohol, gambling, hard drugs—the pattern is always the same. Over-indulgence, dependency, inability to stop or control your behaviour, self-loathing, shame. You see it in Sarah every day but you will not name it. These children, like so many of their parents, have been enslaved.
This we know. But then the question arises: what is enslaving them? What could cause this behaviour to grip an entire population in under two decades? To spread like a virus, to change people and their society so utterly? What could enslave so many people against their own will, rewire their neural connections, alter their worldview? What could make such a swift and terrible change to our public and social behaviour? Do you remember when the British were renowned for their manners, Bridget? For their stoicism, their “Blitz spirit,” their stiff upper lip? I know, I am showing my age again. But what a swift and terrible change it has been. The hatred, the anger, the division, the abuse, the insults, the proud stupidity, the mobs rampaging through the virtual avenues. It has all come about so quickly. It is as if people are possessed.
Possessed. This single word, for me, was the spark.
Of course, you have probably heard the common explanations for all this; the proximate causes. Plenty of people have offered them. Advertising. Capitalism’s need for ever-expanding markets. The power of these big technology companies. The triggering of brain receptors. Dopamine addiction. All true, no doubt, but I believe that to talk this way is to confuse cause with effect.
You might know, Bridget, that there have been studies in which MRI scanners have tried to identify the parts of the brain associated with love, or religious experience. Fairly regularly, some tiresome study will appear in which a scientist claims to have identified which part of the brain “lights up” when such an experience is had. The publications always contain a tone of triumph, as if this proves anything; as if correlation were causation. Look! they say, God is just a trick of your brain chemistry! But what does this prove? Of course your brain “lights up” when you experience God, or fall in love. Your brain would “light up” if someone kissed you or threatened you with a knife. The light itself is a reaction to an experience, not the cause of it.
I am not sure I am being clear. What I mean to say is: I don’t believe that any such rationalisation can get to the heart of what these young people are really experiencing down their digital rabbit holes. Something else is happening. It is as if these screens are a portal to something. As if something is using them to get to us: to change, to remake, to control us.
It is time that I came to the point.
You know that I am a historian, Bridget, but perhaps you are not fully aware of my area of study. Historians need a specialism, you see. Mine is the history of the occult in post-Renaissance Europe. My thesis was a comparative study of John Dee’s Hieroglyphic Monad and Aleister Crowley’s Formula of Tetragrammaton. I am particularly interested in how notions of the spirit world, as we might now call it, have shifted and adapted from the time of Aristotle to the present. I sometimes call myself a demonologist, mainly for the frisson it gives me, although not in public, of course.
I know very well what this can all sound like. I said I was a man out of time. I hardly need to explain that to you of all people. But you, Niece, you are out of time too, I think. Or you were, as a young girl. We talked about things you had seen or heard: sounds in your room at night, curious movements in the woods. Do you remember? I think you had a feeling for the otherworld, as so many children do, and I think too that you have not had it all quite kicked out of you yet by society. I hope I am right.
This society thinks of spirits, ghosts, angels, demons, and the like as being a holdover from a less rational, less evidence-based age: fantastical notions which continue to die away as formal religion loses its remaining grip over us. But this is not really true, and not only because Europe is the only part of the world which shows any signs of giving up on religion (hardly to its benefit, I’d say, but that’s for another conversation in the armchair). No, this notion—that the world of spirit is an antediluvian fantasy—is simply a self-aggrandising story we tell ourselves. It in turn is a subset of our big story, that of progress, of en-light-enment: of the vanquishing of the forces of darkness by the triumph of human reason.
In actual fact, the spirit world—the otherworld—has never gone anywhere. It is my professional opinion, shall we say, that it is as lively as it ever was, and as real. It could certainly never be vanquished by anything as puny as the human race. The advent of science and its wan little children has not killed it, merely driven it to hidden places, as when cockroaches are surprised at night by torchlight. The otherworld does not disappear merely because we choose to pretend it has done so. It is eternal. All that changes is the form that it takes.
I realise that I am treading on thin ice here. We are all rationalists now, and we don’t believe in this sort of mumbo-jumbo. It’s us versus the uncaring “laws” of nature. Ghosts are heat pipes coughing, UFOs are cloud formations or scratched retinas, etc., etc. This is the worldview of modernity, in which we swim like a fish through water.
But here is a question for you, Niece, a gauntlet cast down: what if modernity was wrong all along? What if our way of seeing is a cul-de-sac from which we will be forced to retreat; if our precious Enlightenment was not an escape from a superstitious past, but a pulling of the wool over our own eyes?
What if humanity, for hundreds of thousands of years, in its myriad cultural forms, on its countless continents and islands, in its multiplicity of languages and speech patterns—what if that old humanity, rooted as it was to the Earth, to the source of all life and mystery, understood the world better than a group of arrogant, autistic men in seventeenth-century Europe? What if those men—those founders of our world—were so blindsided by their left-brain cleverness and their sense of cultural superiority that they fooled themselves into believing the world was something other than it actually was?
They thought they had de-souled the universe, those men. They thought they had killed God, dispelled the demons. Men like that still do. Men like that work every day to bring us paradise, and instead they bring us Birkenau and Hiroshima. Soon, they will eliminate life itself from this Earth in their quest for a rational map to replace the chaotic territory. Forgive me, Bridget, I rant and rave: but you see, if the ancients were right, there are multiple layers of reality. There are planes and veils and sephirots, abysses and hollow hills, and we are far from the smartest creatures inhabiting any of them.
You remember the Narnia books, I’m sure. I sometimes used to read them to you when I would come to visit your mother. I gave you a complete set once. Do you still have it? Lewis knew how the world was set up. He wrote once of his desire for a “regenerate science” that would replace the broken version we labour under now. He compared our narrow, blinded “analytical understanding” of the world to the gaze of the Basilisk, the mythical creature which kills a person just by gazing upon it. Everything a Basilisk looks at dies. It walks through a dead world thinking it is seeing reality.
But the world is not dead. I said I was a demonologist. I trust you with this information, Bridget. I do not tell you lightly. In all of my study—some of which has been, shall we say, practice as well as theory—I have become completely convinced that these otherworlds, and the beings that inhabit them, are as real and as full of agency as anything you can see in the profane world about you. There are many planes—dimensions, we might call them now—and they are all as teeming with life as ours. Sometimes our planes intersect at strange angles, and we see things we might call “ghosts” or “demons,” and have experiences we call “supernatural.” There is nothing super about it. These are all perfectly natural experiences; they just arise from aspects of nature we find it hard to measure.
But sometimes, if we know what we are doing, we can connect these planes deliberately. We can summon, or speak to, beings from other realities. The old word for this collection of practical techniques is magic.
There: I have laid out my creed, and now I risk your mockery. More probably, I risk receiving no reply at all to this long letter, not even a smiley face. The reason I run this risk though is that not all of these beings, by any means, are benign. Most, it seems, are largely indifferent to us. But some are actively hostile. The old magical books—the grimoires—are full of workings designed to make contact with some of these creatures. But the contactee must be extremely careful. When a portal is opened to the otherworld, you do not necessarily know what will come through it—or if it will return.
Some magical workings are designed to enslave these beings—“demons” as the Christians call them—and require them to do our will. It is dangerous, foolish work, and rarely successful. We have all heard of Faust’s bargain. But the real danger, I have come to understand, is not the odd, desultory mage trying to enslave a demon. The real danger is that some demons work tirelessly to enslave us. Once you understand this, you will see everything from the Bible to fairy tales in an entirely new light.
The world is full of beings that wish us harm, Bridget. Before we dispensed with magic and religion, and took up reason, we had a myriad of protections around us, from monks in the chantry to witch bottles in the chimney. Now—well, now we do not believe there is anything to protect against, do we? And so we go unguarded.
This is why I was—why I am—so keen that you should take this letter seriously. I am not hysterical. The danger is real. Would it be too much to quote St. Paul at you? Well, I suppose I am in for a penny now. Ephesians 6:12: For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world, and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
If you were one of these “powers of this dark world” and you wanted to enslave the human race, Niece, how do you think you would go about it? Humour me a moment, please. Think. It’s not as hard a task as it may sound. The demons have an age-old method, which works almost every time. You can see it at work in the magical papyri, in the grimoires; you can even see Satan employ it with Jesus in the Gospels. It’s the use of what the Christians call temptation: a direct appeal to the passions. The demons are dangerous because they offer us precisely what we want, and they know that in the overwhelming majority of cases we will take it.
In order for temptation to work, morals must be corrupted and boundaries dissolved. This is why the Ten Commandments exist, and the Seven Deadly Sins. I realise I am starting to sound like a vicar. I am using Christian examples because I think they may yet have some cultural purchase with you, but you’ll find similar injunctions in many traditions. They are aimed at leading us not into temptation. Once the boundaries are gone, you see Bridget—once we say hell, why not? to anything we are offered—well, then we are clay in their hands.
In short, the sequence runs: moral corruption—temptation—enslavement. This is the way the demons have always worked. How then, if you were one of them, would you start? How to weaken us, take us away from good and pull us towards darkness? How to lead us towards the endless fulfillment of our ego-desires? How to change our behaviour towards each other: make us more suspicious and mean-spirited, bring out the worst of our judgmental, bullying tendencies? How to suck us so far into our own heads, and so far from measurable reality, that we can no longer tell the difference?
What tool could you possibly invent to achieve these things, Bridget—and to achieve them without the victims even realising? That is the key, you see. The slave must believe he is free, or the plan fails. If people know they are oppressed, they will rebel in the end. If they believe their oppression is actually liberation, they are yours forever.
Can you see now where I am pointing?
The practice of summoning demons or spirits through magic is known as goetia, and in order for the mage to succeed, a connection must be established. The goetic magician, before he can contact any otherworldly force, must open a portal, having first established protection for himself, typically through the creation of a circle. Within the circle, if properly cast and consecrated, the mage is safe from whatever steps through the portal from the other side. He must then know how to bind it, bargain with it—and, crucially, send it back when he is done. If any of these aspects of the working fail, catastrophe can ensue. The more powerful the being summoned, the greater the risk.
This is what you would do if you wanted to enslave a demon, Bridget. But what would a demon do if it wanted to enslave you? The answer is: exactly the same thing. Starting by opening a channel from their world to ours, creating a portal into our lives through which we can be summoned, bound, and ultimately enslaved.
You know what this portal is, don’t you, Niece? You were always a smart one. You have joined the dots. I know it.
There is a reason they call it “the web,” Bridget; a reason they call it “the net.” It is a trap. We have built the means of our own enslavement, at their suggestion. Now we are all carrying a portal to the underworld in our back pockets and handbags, and we are entirely unguarded against whoever chooses to step through it.
Sarah is unguarded, Bridget. She is easy prey. Do you see?
The urgent question now is: Who has stepped through? Who are our slave masters? There are legions of beings out there who would enjoy the task of hooking us and reeling us in. It should be said that while some of these entities have an almost ideological desire to upend humanity, many of the others simply enjoy the thrill. They find it entertaining to toy with humans, as a cat with an injured mouse. There are legions of them out there, hundreds of thousands, no doubt. There are as many demons as there are Hindu gods.
I have, I should say now, conducted my own preliminary investigations. I have consulted the Pseudomanarchia Daemonum and the Lemegeton, otherwise known as The Lesser Key of Solomon, a grimoire from the seventeenth century which purports to list the names and attributes of all seventy-two of the demons conjured up by the biblical King Solomon. A grim and comical bunch they are too. But which of them might have the desire and ability to tie us up as they have done?
My first thought was Orobas, a prince of Hell who we are told controls twenty legions of demons. Certainly Orobas would have it in him. When bound correctly, Orobas will give true answers to all things past, present, and future, which sounds like a slogan from one of our young Silicon Valley masters. Astaroth—a duke of Hell, rather than a prince—will do similar, answering any question about past, present, or future and imparting great scientific knowledge, even of the process of creation itself.
There are others. In truth, the list is long. Sitri, a Hell prince, can cause men and women to fall for each other, and is known for forcing nakedness onto unwilling subjects. Perhaps he is masterminding the pornography which apparently commandeers about 50 percent of the internet despite everyone pretending never to have seen it. What could be a better means of enslaving humans than through their sex organs? It is the oldest trick in the book.
There are other tricks, of course. Each demon has his own speciality. Forneus, Marquis of Hell, is a master of rhetoric. Perhaps he is seeing to the endless abusive arguments all over the place, maybe working in concert with Andras, another marquis, who specialises in sowing discord. These are stabs in the dark, you understand, Bridget. Nobody can know without an act of goetic summoning, and curious as I am, I will not be the one to enquire that way.
It goes without saying that it is impossible to either falsify or to demonstrate the veracity of any of my claims. But you must know that what I have said here amounts to more than simply a theory. I have done my research. There is much, much more I could tell you, were you to show interest. No journal would accept any paper, of course, and no colleague would do anything but laugh or stare blankly were I to lay this notion before them. To mention it would be the end of me, even given my reputation for unorthodoxy. That in itself is evidence of the triumph of these entities; the hold they have over us. Our intellectual self-satisfaction has already been our undoing.
Nevertheless, Bridget, if you care for me as your uncle, I ask that you trust me. I am as sane as anyone else in this ragged world. I am not raving, deluded, or ill. And I have seen with my own eyes, and felt with my own body, all the proof I need of my claims. I cannot show you: I would not dare. I only ask you to trust me, for Sarah’s sake, and for yours. I lay all of this out before you because I hope that you will take this seriously, make some effort to believe it. If you do—well, in that case there is perhaps work we can do together. There is much more to be investigated. It is urgent work, as I am sure you can see. And if you cannot see, well, then perhaps you will keep this letter somewhere safe, as a small favour to me. Someday, it may fall into the right hands.
I do all of this because I care for you, and Sarah. It is all I know how to do.
I remain your loving uncle,
Dear Uncle Richard,
I thought I’d surprise you by writing back. You’re right, nobody writes letters anymore, do they? I haven’t written any since the mid-’90s, when love letters were still a thing. We must have been the last generation who wrote love letters and then sat in the hall every day waiting for the postman. Love letters and mix tapes! I’ve still got a boxfull of those from my first boyfriend in the loft. Your letter got me to go and dig them out, actually. I’ve been listening to Faith Over Reason and The Lightning Seeds all week. Good times!
I wanted to write not just because I wanted to revisit my youth—who doesn’t?—and not just to prove to you that I could actually put pen to paper, though maybe I wanted to do that too. Reading your letter, I felt like a student sitting in your study being gently ticked off. I could feel you bracing yourself for rejection, too. Given what you’ve said, I’m not surprised. You’re lucky the postman didn’t open it. You’d be sectioned!
You’ve known me since before I can remember, it’s true, but also, you don’t know me very well. Why would you? We don’t see each other much, and when we do, you’re usually the one doing the talking. You’re a wonderful talker, Uncle, but not such a good listener—unless what you’re hearing happens to feed into whatever research you’re doing at the moment. I’m not going to say you patronise me, exactly, not on purpose, anyway. It’s just who you are, and most of the time I like listening. Your world is so different from mine. Me and Vinnie both work, we worry about the mortgage and the childcare, the house is never clean, Sarah goes her own way, Max starts school next year. Sometimes I think of you in your room full of books, reading about witches, and I’m just jealous.
But let’s talk about witches, because that’s why you wrote to me. Witches and demons, wow. I do remember that Narnia collection you brought me. I loved that. I never had any leather-bound books, before or since. I read them over and over, and then I passed them on to Sarah. She still has them. It’s funny, but the snow witch with her Turkish Delight is still the thing I remember best from all those books. I’d never heard of Turkish Delight when I read that, let alone eaten any. It sounded so … exotic! But now that I read your letter, what I think about is the temptation: how well it worked. Even something as simple as a sugary sweet can be a trap. Is that what you’re saying?
I’m going to get to the point quicker than you did. I haven’t got an academic mind, Uncle, and that makes it easier. I do have my English degree, though. Did you remember that? I might not be a professor, but I spent three years learning about New Criticism and the pathetic fallacy at Keele. I couldn’t read a novel for five years after that. It nearly ruined books for me. Still, I learnt a few things that might be useful to me in replying to you here.
I don’t think you’re mad, Uncle. Eccentric, yes. Anachronistic, obviously. But not mad. I always knew what you did, by the way. You’d have known that if you’d have asked. Maybe that’s why your letter didn’t surprise me as much as you thought it would. But there are other reasons too.
Who’s your favourite Inkling, Uncle: Lewis or Tolkien? I loved Narnia, but it was all a bit clean, wasn’t it? A bit Church of England, a bit virtuous. I don’t think I realised that until I read Lord of the Rings. Narnia is all black-and-white, but Middle Earth is shades of grey. I’d rather live in Rivendell or Gondor any day. I’d quite like to take a contingent of women down there, though. I don’t remember seeing many last time around. Just a lot of bearded men with pipes or swords.
Here’s another emoji for you, drawn carefully in ink ; – )
I’m not just wittering. I brought up Tolkien because I came across something he said recently, while I was doing some research of my own. Yes, I do research too, when I can find the time. Not like yours, but—well, you’ll see what I mean in a minute. Anyway, Tolkien was talking about what you call the “otherworld,” only he had another name for it: he called it “faerie.” And he said: “Faerie is a perilous land. In it are pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold.” Pitfalls and dungeons and perils: it’s the same kind of thing you’re saying here when you talk about temptation and corruption, I think.
I don’t think you’re mad, Uncle, but I do think you’re wrong. I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I don’t believe that the internet is a portal for demons.
I believe it’s a portal for something else.
Let me explain: when I’m finished, you might find that your poor, harried niece has more in common with you than you might think.
What you say about Sarah, and my worries—you’re right, and I want to tell you how grateful I am that you cared enough to say it. I can see it’s something you’ve been thinking about for a long time, even if it’s only come together now. It matters that you’d care enough for her to risk ridicule. You won’t get ridicule from me. I might think you’re wrong about the demons, but I agree that something strange is going on. I look at Sarah, disappearing from me and the world, from her surroundings, her family. I see her transforming, changing, being taken from us, and I think: this is something unnatural, something everyone is avoiding looking at properly. Something no generation has really had to deal with before.
It does feel inhuman. Possession, you said: yes, it can feel like Sarah is possessed sometimes. It can feel like I’m possessed when I’ve spent hours going down internet rabbit holes. You can lose whole days. Sometimes I’ve turned my computer off for a week, and silenced the phone, and I’ve come out of the other side as if I was emerging from the twelve-step programme. It’s like I am rediscovering a version of myself I can only dimly remember: pre-web Bridget. I don’t like knowing this. It spooks me.
Perhaps we are possessed. Perhaps something inhuman has got hold of us. But why would demons bother, really? I’m no expert, Uncle, but what’s in it for them? Maybe they like toying with us, but it seems like a lot of work, don’t you think? I’ve done a bit of reading since you sent your letter, and these “legions of hell” don’t seem as if they could be bothered to campaign against us. What would the incentive be?
I’m no expert, Uncle, but I do have my Tolkien, and I also have Vinnie and his Irish family in Leitrim. You should hear some of the stories he told Sarah when she was younger. The sidhe, the tales of Biddy Early, what happens if you accidentally disturb the host or cut down a lone thorn. Sometimes she wouldn’t be able to sleep! It leaves Disney in the dust. They don’t really tell the stories in Ireland anymore. They’re as modern as the rest of us, and as much in denial about the past. But it’s like you said: just because we’re not looking for them doesn’t mean they’ve gone away.
So I got to thinking: if it’s not demons messing with us, who else could it be? If it’s not coming from the underworld, then where? What class of otherworldly creature would have most incentive to punish us? A class, say, that’s long been associated with hot tempers, malice, revenge? A class associated with woods, rocks, rings of trees on lonely hills, wells, ringforts, stone rows? A class of creature that doesn’t live in the underworld, but lives in this one—truly, and deeply. A class of creature that lives in the wilds and is watching us wreck them.
You know who I’m talking about, Uncle. The Seelie Court. The good neighbours. The gentry. The other crowd.
It’s not demons messing with our minds, Uncle. It’s fairies.
You know I’ve always believed in them, or wanted to. At least with you I don’t have to explain myself. You know the stories, the myths. You know who they are. They’re nature spirits, Uncle, and they’re living in a time when humans have turned against nature. After all we have done, why would they not want to destroy us—if not for vengeance then just for self-protection?
Those whom the fairies would destroy, they first make mad. Just look at us! We don’t know our arse from our elbow now.
You know your Yeats, Uncle, I’m sure:
Come away, O human child!
To the water and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.
They steal children, Uncle! That was what grabbed me. I was looking at Sarah and thinking, she’s gone from me, and the word just came into my head, as if from nowhere: changeling. The fairies would steal babies and leave fairies in their places, and there would always be something strange, something lost about them. If you discovered them, they’d disappear. But this is what fairies do that demons don’t, you see: they steal people, especially young ones. They take them under the hill, and if you eat their food you can never come back. What a metaphor! Or maybe it never was one. All those hours the kids spend on phones: it’s like they’ve been kidnapped. It’s like eating their food, going to a realm you can’t return from.
There are other things, too, that the good folk specialise in. Vinnie has told me all about them over the years. So many stories. I’ve been reading them lately, collating them. Destructive seduction, for instance: you mentioned the porn. The fairies know what makes us tick. And they love punishment. They punish mortals all the time for offending them, even if we did it innocently. They curse us into madness if they feel like it, and they are unforgiving. They’ll cut out your eyes, steal your child, bring you terrible luck forever. They’ll sow discord. They can do all this just for the crime of cutting down one thorn tree. Imagine the punishment for cutting down whole forests!
That’s the thing, you see, Uncle. Fairies aren’t like demons. They’re not evil. They mind their own business, and they usually leave people alone unless they’re offended. But we’ve gone and cut down their thorns on a global scale. So what if they’re driving us mad on the same scale? What if they’re not trying to enslave us; instead they’re trying to make us lose our minds, lose contact with reality? And what better way to do so than by turning our brains to mush? Convincing us that nothing exists but ourselves? Maybe if we keep heading this way we’ll stop going outside entirely.
I’m going to finish up now, Uncle. We’ll keep writing, and my wrist is killing me, and I need to go down and make the dinner. But I want to say one last thing before I do. Perhaps it’s the most important thing of all.
The thing is: whether it’s fairies or demons or both or neither who are playing with us, taunting us, punishing or enslaving us through that digital portal—whoever it is, it’s working. They’re turning us away from reality, driving us mad. They want to cripple us, limit our movements, drain our power. They want to knock us off our perch for what we have done.
But what if they’re right?
I mean to say: what if we do need punishing—or just stopping? I know nobody else will see these letters, and I know you have an inquiring mind, so consider this question: what if we deserve it? Maybe we all end up as virtual (pun!) slaves this way, stuck forever in some VR reality, but maybe that’s best. Maybe they know what they’re doing. The fair folk have been nature’s guardians forever. I don’t think I’d want to meet them, but I’d probably trust them to look after the place better than we have. Could they do a worse job?
Maybe we should give them a chance.
If this is the revenge of the nature spirits, Uncle, maybe they’re winning—and maybe they should be. We’ve got power way beyond our ability to control it. We can’t even control ourselves. Maybe it’s better this way.
Sarah asked me to top up her phone this afternoon. I think I’m going to buy her double the usual amount of credit. It’ll keep her busy. It’ll bide them some time. The more time they’re given, the more chance they’ll have.
Sometimes, Uncle, you have to make hard choices. Life’s a hard thing, after all. Sometimes you just have to decide whose side you’re on.
Write soon, Uncle. You’re right: there’s a lot to talk about.
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