As unlikely as it seems now, I largely missed out on the Harry Potter phenomenon when it began blowing up in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. Continue reading
One of the best episodes of Buffy shows Xander having his own crazy adventure while in the background the other Scoobies battle to save the world from being destroyed by a hideous monster. We catch glimpses of their battle throughout the episode. They’re all crying and yelling at each other. At the end Buffy tells Giles he did one of the bravest things she had ever seen (but we never learn what he did).
It reminded me very much of the weekend in 2007 when our cult had to unite and battle the demonic spirit that was over Southwestern: all the feelings that come to the surface when you’re fighting an enemy that only a few people are able to see.
And then I got to thinking about… something I thought a lot about in the aftermath of that weekend: the scary things I used to see in my bedroom that weren’t normally there. Traveling out of my body was an experience very much like that of Frodo when he put on the Ring. He went into another realm and could see things no one else could. And basically, when the group started, we were all doing that.
And then I read a story about how Rwanda’s Christians are coping with the aftermath of genocide by turning to Pentecostalism. It provides them a framework for understanding the supernatural evil that was unleashed on their country in 1994. This article in Foreign Policy magazine tells the story of a young woman named Rebecca whose family was offered sanctuary in a Catholic church. It turned out to be a trap, and her parents were killed.
And then this happened:
Two years later, having found a home with a foster family, Rebecca made friends with a girl of her own age named Alice. One day, Alice led her into a cemetery, and there, as Rebecca tells it, the ground opened up, revealing a flight of stairs that led down into the realm of Satan. “It was a place where there was always twilight,” says Rebecca. “It was a world of bad spirits. They put an evil spirit into my body and then they sent it back out into the world.” For the next five years, she says, her body wandered the land, causing ill wherever it could. “I had the power of causing accidents on Earth. The demons gave me that power.”
It took her five years to fight her way back. She suffered terribly, she says. But one day she encountered a group of Pentecostal Christians who prayed for her release from the powers that plagued her. With their help she finally found release, and “accepted Jesus as my king.” At age 17, she converted from her ancestral Catholicism to the Pentecostal Church, a move that finally brought her “inner peace.”
So when I think about The Children, and invisible realms that are super-imposed on this one, and mysterious invisible objects, and the Air Loom Gang, and my own made-up kingdom of Elsia, I can see a mythology emerging. Inevitably, I think the story will have to be about four or five kids who have, or think they have, unusual powers, and who are at war with unseen forces that no one else sees. And they belong to a society of people who have these gifts. And this society believes the end of the world is imminent. And it provides a place for the kids to learn and grow up and fall in love when they’re not saving the world. And the world itself seems to be going to pieces around them, with living houses and nightmare clouds and whatnot, strange disturbances in nature. And as the series goes on they begin to question the nature of their mission, especially as friends die and the “enemy” becomes not just invisible creatures but real people. And they begin to wonder whether they really are doing the right thing, and whether they’ve been misled, and whether the world is really ending.
On the night I returned home from a long trip at the end of January, I called Booth and he filled me in on what had happened in Alvin during the week I was gone.
Winter had taken over our high school. Friends were behaving differently, not like themselves at all. They were grumpy and depressed. They walked through the halls with scowls on their faces, barely lifting their heads to greet one another. Even the timid and pure were drinking, throwing wild parties, having sex. Booth had been invited to an orgy, but politely declined: he could see what the lure of sexual temptation was doing to the rest of his friends, and it scared him.
But the biggest changes of all had taken place in Brandon. He had injured himself playing soccer and was no longer sure he would be able to attend the school of his dreams. His teammates had held him down and shaved his head. Now he was bald and wore a hood all the time like a Sith lord.
And he hated me. “I hate Boze,” he told Booth. “And you’re turning into him!”
For much of the first half of the school year Booth had been skeptical of our prophetic encounters and the battle that Adriana and I both felt was coming to our campus. But now he was beginning to reconsider. He told me how Brandon had yelled at a girl and threatened her with a baseball bat because she took a kitten that he wanted. He related how Mr. McGowan had snapped in the middle of class and started running through the room with a pair of scissors, screaming and laughing.
“I walk through the halls in the mornings,” said Booth, “and all I can see are faces of despair. I look into their eyes, and there is no hope. One by one, it’s overtaking everyone.”
It was after midnight. Booth told me to hang on for a second and put down the phone. When he returned a moment later, there was a note of worry in his voice.
“I don’t know what that was,” he said. “There was this thing, this noise… I think it was coming from under my bed…”
And then, without any warning, he began yelling hysterically.
He took the phone and ran from the room. From the safety of the kitchen, clutching a knife, he explained to me what had happened. There was a heavy breathing sound, and at first he thought it was the cat. But the cat was in the other room, and the noise was getting louder, and closer…
When Booth’s parents found him sleeping in the hall the next morning, they grounded him. But it didn’t matter. He knew what he had heard that night, and for the first time all year we were unequivocally on the same side. Too long had the darkness lingered. It was time to take back our campus.
* * *
Over the Christmas holidays Blazes O’Reilly had returned home and summoned a council. Though I had not mentioned to him the specifics of Adriana’s prophecy, I told him I felt they needed to become better acquainted, so the three of us gathered one wintry night in a back room of his parents’ house.
The reception was not cordial. From the beginning of the meeting Adriana sensed a dark aura around Blazes, “the darkest I’ve ever seen.” At one point when he left the room to make tea, she confided, “My voices just told me not to trust him, because he’s been tempted”—an assertion that was seemingly affirmed a moment later when he returned and told her as much of his story as he had already told me. How could she possibly have known that? I wondered.
For his part, Blazes swore he could see spirits of deception circling around Adriana. “There were three of them,” he explained with a casual air. “They were each taking turns whispering lies in her ear.”
Oddly, though, Blazes couldn’t deny that he felt a strong sense of destiny about her. “I just have this feeling about her, like our fates are intertwined. Like we’re destined to fight to the death. Kind of like Lucifer and Gabriel, only I’m not sure which of us is which.”
Adriana was sure, though. “My voices have shown me,” she said, “that Blazes is the Antichrist!”
* * *
For my own part, God had revealed to me during the break that Lauren and I would be sexually tempted in the first week of March. Each of us who were called to be players in the end-time drama would be tempted by the end of the trimester. Whether we passed on to the next stage of our mission would depend on whether or not we passed the test.
As if to confirm my suspicions, my first week back on campus I was propositioned by a sweet blonde girl with a twangy East Texas accent and her best friend in gym class. They wanted to know if I would have a threesome with them. I reached into my tote bag and pulled out a copy of the most recent edition of the school newspaper, in which I had written a long article about the importance of saving yourself for marriage. They read the article with expressions of deep fascination and thanked me. I implored Booth not to tell anyone else, but the whole school knew before lunch.
As a result of some back-room finagling, I began giving a short message on the intercom every morning right after the Pledge of Allegiance. I urged the campus to pursue joy and beauty and resist the darkness that was seeking to devour. Together Booth and I wrote six pages in the next issue of the newspaper exclusively devoted to that subject. Booth even penned an article about the “Economics of Joy” in which he graphed the school’s GDP: “Good Deeds Potential”:
I negotiated with Mr. McGowan to let me teach European History for an entire week. On Friday I announced that I had brought in a motivational speaker, Mr. “Ebenezer Scrooge” of Scrooge & Marley’s. The entire class groaned as Booth strode up to the front of the room. Then, as if out of nowhere, music began playing. Scrooge and I spontaneously broke into a dance and were joined by a guy in the third row who knew all the lyrics to the original song (from the 1970 Scrooge musical). For four and a half minutes we twirled around the room and sang about the pleasures of enjoying life:
Where there’s music and laughter
Happiness is rife!
Because I like life!
The entire class watched with mounting incredulity, and by the end of the song Lauren was in tears. “That was the most bizarre thing I’ve ever seen,” she said sadly. Booth and I sat quietly back down as though nothing had happened.
* * *
We waited for the first week of March, for the end of the second trimester.
I began having utterly terrifying dreams in which I seemed to be traveling out of my body at night and wandering through the rooms and halls of the trailer in which I lived. There were things in my bedroom I had never seen before. I heard footsteps in the hallway and saw strange lights outside my window.
I received my letter of acceptance from Southwestern University. I wondered if it was wise to go. I thought about staying in Alvin and fighting alongside my friends in the battle that was soon to come.
And then the trimester ended. We all settled into our new classes. And nothing happened.
There was no battle, no moment of tempting. Lauren started dating a guy she had met two weeks before. And I could feel the ground giving way beneath my feet.
* * *
On a quiet and warm afternoon near the end of that week, Booth, Adriana, and I sat facing Mr. McGowan from across the desk in his classroom. We were all disconsolate and hoped he could give us answers.
Adriana told the story of how she had nearly died the summer before, and how she began hearing the voices shortly after. Booth and I tried to explain all that had happened since Christmas, but it was clear from the moment we began talking that Mr. McGowan didn’t believe us. And by the time we related how Adriana learned that Blazes was the Antichrist, and how Blazes himself seemed to think that he was, and how we had briefly debated using physical force to try and subdue him, small beads of sweat were breaking out on the sides of his round face.
I watched him imploringly. I just wanted someone to explain what was going on. My prophetic gift had never been wrong before. Why had it failed me now, at the most critical time?
“First of all,” he said, in a very low and quiet voice, “what you’re going through is not unusual.”
I’m not sure what I had been expecting, but it wasn’t this. “Are you serious?” I asked.
He nodded. “For one, the three of you are reading from a shared text. Whenever three or four people read from a shared text, it’s not hard to induce shared delusions.
“Second, I think you’re scared. You’re scared because you’re about to graduate, Boze, and you two will be graduating in about a year. And you’re leaving the only home you’ve ever known, and that’s an incredibly traumatic experience. And it’s not uncommon for students who are juniors and seniors in high school to start having apocalyptic visions, because it’s their way of expressing kind of the terror they feel at the future.
“Because, let’s face it, the world may not be ending, but the only world you’ve ever known is ending. You know how they say, ‘You can’t go home again.’ You may come back in a few years, but the school that you knew will be gone. Reality won’t live up to your memories. When you go away to college, you’ll forget about me. And when you think about me at all, you’ll think of me as some sophomoric teacher who liked to pretend he knew everything. But I don’t. And some day you’ll realize that.”
My entire experience of the last eight months, all I had felt and foreseen and suffered, was slipping away. The apocalypse wasn’t going to happen, it might never happen, or else it had been postponed. But I was determined to hold on.
“What about all the others?” I asked. “We’re not the only ones. What about Blazes?”
Mr. McGowan shook his head. “There’s something very dark and unnatural about that man,” he said. “He went wrong somewhere… became something different than what God intended.”
He stood up summarily from his desk, as though to suggest that the meeting was over. Together the four of us walked to the door.
Booth turned in the doorway and faced him.
“I do have a question,” he said. “Was it you? Were you the one who orchestrated… you know, all of that?”
Mr. McGowan stared at him quizzically. “No,” he said with finality.
We waited. I looked at him, more confused than ever.
“Do you mean, was I pandering and manipulating you?” He laughed lightly. “Oh, of course.”
He clapped us both hard on the shoulders. “It was quite fun, actually. I’m honestly kind of sad it took y’all that long to figure it out. Your senses were picking up on stuff, but I was putting a spin on it. It’s good that you wanted an order to life, but you have to want it in order to see it. That’s why the super-sensible is so hard for empiricists to get.”
He closed the door behind us. Adriana and Booth and I walked forward into the harsh sunlight.
* * *
It’s been ten years since that conversation in Mr. McGowan’s room, but the course my life has taken since graduation has been in a lot of ways a vindication of his warnings. Sociologists tell us that conspiracy theories and apocalyptic thinking are deeply intertwined, and that wherever you find one, you’re likely to find the other. It’s a pathology in the American psyche, a sickness, this fascination with the end times. There’s something deeply un-Christian about it. It’s as though Jesus and the Bible have become nothing more than cultural totems with the power to drive us mad.
I’ve held on to my faith, but just barely. The realization that I was not a prophet was devastating, but what has been much worse is seeing the damage caused by End-Times fanaticism, the toll that it takes. I’ve seen it drive otherwise sane people to the brink of madness. I’ve watched it transform them until they were no longer recognizable, until they were willing to do the most horrible things to even their closest friends. I’ve seen it claim the life of one of my dearest friends in the world.
So I find myself thinking about the events of that year, and the great disappointment of third trimester, and Mr. McGowan’s explanation for what had happened to us. I think about it whenever a good Christian whom I respect is incredulous that I’m not prepping for the end times, as though it makes me some lesser species of Christian that I don’t have an opinion about when Jesus is coming back. I think about it when I’m sitting on the shuttle next to a man who wrote a 200-page book about the role of the nephilim in the last days that he’s trying to sell me, when I’m in a meeting with Christian counselors who are demanding that I pray out loud to accept my calling to battle the forces of the Antichrist. I think about it whenever someone on Facebook tells me they can’t wait to be martyred, that they hope they continue to laugh long after their head has been severed from their body.
“Boze, where do you find these people?” Bethany once asked me, the first time I recounted my story—back when the dangerous group was just forming.
And sometimes I listen to that song, “Lake Geneva,” by The Handsome Family, about a woman whose husband is hospitalized because he sees visions of the heavens in the stumps of falling trees:
“You remember how he cried
When they strapped him to the stretcher
Convinced his arms were burning
With electricity from heaven
“You remember how he told you
Black holes were like Jesus
And the crucifix was a battery
That filled the air with fire”
And I hear that and I think, isn’t that my story, and the story of our country? That we’d rather read about the mysterious code that foretells the day of judgment than lift a finger to help the teeming masses on whose treatment the nations will be judged? And aren’t we a sick society, when conspiracy theories and end-times mania, the province of the young and confused and deranged and scared, are mistaken for true worship?
After my last conversation with Mr. McGowan, I accepted the nature of the fantasy I had been living in. I was no prophet. I wasn’t destined for greatness. The only certain thing in my life at that moment was graduation.
And instead of running away from it, as I had been doing all year, I learned to accept it. I embraced my own normalcy, and in doing so I found freedom and a certain measure of happiness.
And at the end of May I graduated and left high school behind me. I worry that some of us are there still.
One thing you learn in writing stories is that certain objects have a mysterious and almost magnetic power that defies words. Castles, swords, rings, goblets, buried treasure—the appearance of any one of these in a story is like a radiant stone that vibrates with its own intensity. Perhaps that’s why I became Catholic, because as a storyteller I was naturally drawn to a religion that invests material things with sacramental power: holy water; crosses; bells, books, and candles.
Bell towers have fascinated me ever since I saw the movie Vertigo when I was nine or ten years old. Recently voted the greatest film of all time in the once-a-decade Sight & Sound poll, Vertigo tells the story of a retired detective (James Stewart) hired to trail a young woman (Kim Novak) who may be possessed by the ghost of a long-dead ancestor. He pursues her to an old Spanish mission, the Mission San Juan Batista, where, at the very top of the bell tower, tragedy strikes. And then strikes again.
The understated use of Hispanic and southwestern folklore in this movie slowly worked its way into my brain, taking root in dark corners. During my first couple of months at Southwestern University, ten years ago this summer, I was enchanted by the beige limestone, the rounded-arch doorways, the old chapel at the heart of campus with a door leading up to the tower, a door that was only unlocked on the rarest of occasions. I remember being struck with a sense of the history of the place.
It was there that I had the idea to write a series of children’s books, books that would draw on the cultures and legends of the Celts (my ancestors) and the Southwest (my adopted home). This summer in going back and rereading some of the folklore and mythology of England I’ve been struck by how many stories center around the ringing of bells. In the days before telephones and wireless, sometimes the cathedral bell was the only means of communication between one town and another, or between the church and those in peril on the ocean’s dark waters.
One such story from County Surrey tells of a man, Neville Audley, who was captured fighting on the wrong side during the long-ago War of the Roses. Arrested and sentenced to die when the curfew bell tolled on the next night at Chertsey Abbey, he realized that the only hope of being spared was to obtain a pardon from the king.
Neville conferred with his girlfriend, Blanche Heriot, and their mutual friend Herrick. Herrick agreed to ride towards London to seek pardon. But on the next day, with only five minutes left before the bell tolled, Herrick was seen flying towards the town from half a mile away—still too far away to save Audley’s life.
The minutes passed. The townsfolk awaited the tolling of the bell. But the bell did not ring.
Just as Herrick arrived in town, the sexton, accompanied by soldiers, went up into the tower to investigate. There they found Blanche Heriot, dashed against the bell and frame but still clinging to the clapper with a tenacity born of desperation. Luckily she had hung there just long enough to save her beloved, who was spared from death by the king’s timely pardon. The two were married shortly afterwards.
Another story with a less happy ending is told of the tenor bell of Burgh le Marsh church. The people of Burgh le Marsh once made a living off the debris of doomed ships, lighting the beacon on Marsh Hill to lure poor sailors to their deaths. Once the sailors were all drowned and the weather had calmed, the townsfolk would scramble ashore to loot the broken vessels.
As the story goes, in 1629 the Mary Rose was sailing from Leith, Scotland along the Lincolnshire coast on its way to Flanders. A storm began to gather. The wind howled and the rains beat against the ship, while the people of Burgh watched from the shore with growing excitement.
But not everyone was pleased by the buffeting of the storm-tossed ship. The elderly sexton Guymer, when he learned what was being planned, begged them not to light the beacon. No one listened.
A crowd made its way towards Marsh Hill and the beacon was lit. Captain Frohock, seeing what he mistook for a lighthouse, called out to his men that they were safe. The crew turned the ship in the direction of the light.
Back on shore, desperate to avoid the collision that was imminent, Guymer ran towards the church. Ascending to the top of the bell tower, he grabbed the rope and rang the bell with all the strength he could muster. Captain Frohock, realizing how close he was to shore and certain death, ordered the Mary Rose back to sea, away from the treacherous sands.
Enraged by the tolling of the bell, the townspeople stormed into the church. Breaking down the belfry door, they found Guymer, still clinging to the rope, his dead body swaying to and fro. His heart had burst open from exhaustion.
When Captain Frohock returned to the village a year later and learned what had happened, he bought an acre of land known as “Bell String Acre.” He ordered that rent from the land be used to buy a silken rope for the bell. It’s said that he married the sexton’s daughter.