Paul Kingsnorth Reads New Short Fiction: ‘The Basilisk
From the Emergence Magazine Podcast
Emergence Magazine is a quarterly online publication exploring the threads connecting ecology, culture, and spirituality. As we experience the desecration of our lands and waters, the extinguishing of species, and a loss of sacred connection to the Earth, we look to emerging stories. Each issue explores a theme through innovative digital media, as well as the written and spoken word. The Emergence Magazine podcast features exclusive interviews, narrated essays, stories, and more.
Emergence Magazine commissioned four authors to approach the theme of apocalypse through fiction, from the perspectives of past, present, and future. On today’s episode, listen to the third installment, “The Basilisk,” from Paul Kingsnorth, a writer and poet living in rural Ireland. Narrated by Paul, “The Basilisk” is an exchange of letters between an uncle and a niece. In it, Paul imagines how two members of a family might respond to our addiction to technology as they divulge their thoughts about the otherworld, possession, and fatal temptation.
From the episode:
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,
Paul Kingsnorth is the author of the novels The Wake and Beast, the essay collection Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist, and his latest book of nonfiction, Savage Gods.