The Fairly Mediocre Satan

You have a ouija board buried in the closet and you’ve seen Rosemary’s Baby, like, a hundred times. But do you really believe in the power of a ritual? Jay Allen didn’t either, as he remembers from a night of dabbling in the dark arts with a friend.

When my mother learned that my best friend’s stepfather had discovered a half-burned Bible in the woods behind his house, she knew what had happened to her copy of the Good Book. When confronted, I denied it—for my mother’s sake of course, as well as my friend’s. No one would’ve reacted rationally if we’d told them it was just a little Satanism.

I gathered my knowledge of the Dark Lord where most people probably do—from the public library. Most of what I found was card-catalogued in Occult—a bunch of wide, Time/Life coffee-table numbers printed before Wicca became trendy, with glossy photos that squeezed the explanatory text down to no more than four paragraphs per page. I didn’t bitch. I was a teenager and was in this thing for the tales of naked nymphs gyrating in the firelight to celebrate their Master, and of young 16th-century women describing how they had been violated by the Prince of Darkness himself (“his member was cauld, lyke iyce”).

This was the late ‘80s, and parents nationwide were in the thralls of satanic panic, convinced that everyone from the school janitor to the Speaker of the House was part of a closeted Masonic society of blood-letters and baby-eaters. It was, of course, ridiculous crap that even Ed Wood could have outperformed. Still, when you’re a socially awkward kid in a small rural town, you’re easily swayed by the promise of power and glory…no matter how absurd.

I had little love for Christianity at that age. I had read chunks of the Bible and attended a few churches out of curiosity, but it never clicked. The arrogance of the True Believers and the door-to-door Jesus salesmen was enough to convince me that it was dreck. I had no particular affection for Satan, either, but he seemed like a better choice—the type of bloke with whom you could knock back a bottle of Wild Turkey and discuss the things that responsible people reviled, like heavy-metal music and four-way sex. I could unfurl a “Go Lucifer!” banner for that.

But where would I start? I didn’t know any Satanists. And because 1) this was the pre-Google days and 2) I didn’t have a car, I was forced to invent my own brand of devil worship. First I sacrificed a bed sheet to satanic fashion: headbands, armbands, and ankle pieces decorated in India ink with inverted pentagrams and the Number of the Beast. I danced and thrashed wildly around in a circle, pumping Slayer and the Misfits through over-cushioned headphones that made me look like Princess Leia with a head brace. A sad sight indeed. I’m glad I never accidentally invoked the powers of Shleppy the Wonder-Demon.

* * *

Going this alone was not going to work out. So after a few weeks I told my friend Casey what I was up to with my new Satanism. I half-expected it would deep-six our friendship. But instead it struck a chord with him. Little wonder—he had even more reason to rebel against mainstream religion than I did.

Casey’s mother had recently remarried, and his stepfather, Norm, a Seventh-Day Adventist, never missed an opportunity to spot the coming Armageddon, whether it was because his oatmeal was lumpy or because the Packers lost in the playoffs. Church elders in business blazers and crisp white shirts would come by Casey’s house on Sunday; Norm would spend hours in Bible study with them, poring over the Bible for secret messages predicting the Second Coming. At one point Norm taught Casey and his four stepsiblings how to use firearms, so they could fend off the minions of the Antichrist until Jesus carted the family off to Heaven.

“Dude,” Casey confided, “I’m sick to my soul.”

A little Satanism seemed like just the right antidote. We made plans to go camping in the woods behind his house, which stretched back for several acres, and perform a devil-ritual in a clearing he had camped in before.

“So, what do we do in a ritual?” he asked.

“Well, we dress up in satanic ritual garb. Duh.”


“And, um—well, we dance around a lot. And scream. It’s kinda like a heavy-metal concert, only with a bonfire.”

“We need to burn something,” he said, “I mean, the devil likes fire, right?”

I thought for a moment. “My mom’s got a Bible laying around. Let’s torch that. It’s not like she uses it.”

I saw what my mom wanted me to see. My mother was, in fact, Catholic, but she chose not to attend church because she wanted me to carve my own spiritual path. Had she known what Casey and I were planning, however, odds were I would have been shipped off to St. Christopher’s Home for Wayward Boys faster than you could say “Hail Mary.”

Stealing the Bible wasn’t hard. I was a latchkey kid, which afforded me plenty of time for mischief. Casey and I let ourselves into my house, and went to the bookshelf to look for the Bible. As it turned out, we had two copies: a regular King James, and a New International Version, written in modern English. I said we should take the NIV, which was still new and shiny. The King James looked old, almost collectible. Casey nixed that idea: “‘New International Version’? Dude, take the real Bible.”

* * *

On the chosen night, we holed up in his finished-out basement for a few hours and played Atari until our eyes were blurry. Then we rolled up a couple of sleeping bags, packed up some matches and lighter fluid, grabbed some chips and Pepsi (Satanists: Pepsi or Coke?), and marched a half-mile into the woods.

It was a crisp night. The moon was just shy of fully waned. We didn’t bring a flashlight, so we couldn’t see anything except the faint outline of trees and our blown breath in front of our faces. We stepped on pricker bushes and brambles and walked nimbly over fallen trunks; we had explored these woods during the daytime enough that we could maneuver through the darkness as if we had night vision.

Casey had already picked out a clearing far enough away that none of the neighbors would hear any of our, uh, satanic whooping and hollering. We pitched the tent quickly, and then set to building a campfire. We knew it had to be huge for this “special night”—so large that it would threaten to consume the forest if the wind blew the wrong way.

And that was our first challenge: It had rained the night before, and the ground was still wet. It took half an hour to scavenge enough dry wood to kindle even a modest fire.

I laid out a blanket and sat down, already defeated. We had failed Satanism 101.

Casey sat down on the opposite side of the feeble blaze. “So,” he said, leafing through the bag of ritual garb, “do we put these on now?”

“Well…kinda. I think we’re supposed to get naked first.”

He looked at me blankly: “Dude…”

“OK, OK—we’ll just strip down to our underwear then.”

“Dude! It’s 45 degrees out here! If my nipples get any pointier, they’re gonna freeze like this!”

We bickered, scarfed some chips, and eventually donned our ritual dress over our regular clothes. He was right: The weather had taken an unseasonable dip in the past few days. It was, as my mother was fond of saying (and appropriately enough), colder than a witch’s tit in a brass bra. Our fire emitted just enough heat to keep us warm if we sat directly in front of it. Neither of us was in the mood to stand, let alone prance around in phony ecstasy.

The chatter of the woods whirled around us. We stared across the fire at one another, our “666”-emblazoned bed-sheet scraps dangling from our heads and limbs. King James sat by my side, practically begging for clemency.

And while it was one thing to prance around like an idiot in the privacy of my own room, with the door locked and the windows draped, it was another altogether to do it in front of a friend I had known since the beginning of sixth grade, whose house I had spent as much time in as my own. We had done some foolish things in our journeys together—swimming in oversized mud holes, taking shots at passing vehicles with a BB gun, jumping onto an electric fence to escape a cow stampede—but this transcended foolishness. It wallowed in the absurd.

Casey cleared his throat and said, “Maybe we should go back to the house.”

I undid my evil bandana. “I’m there, dude.”

“What should we do with that?” he asked, pointing at King James.

I couldn’t foresee the chain of events that would result from my burning that book. Norm would find our little Temple of Set and the charred remains of the Word of God, which our fire only half consumed. He would call my mother and accuse me of witchcraft. My mother would accuse me of stealing her property, which I would swear on a stack of smoking Bibles was a stupid lie. No one would believe me—most certainly not Norm, who had always regarded me as a “bad influence” on Casey, and now had the evidence to convince Casey’s mother that they should keep us apart. After that night, I would pass Casey in the school hallway from time to time, and we would exchange nods and the occasional backslap. But we would never again talk at length about girls or music or our dreams of escaping our one-horse rural town. After high school, we would lose track of one another completely.

But right then I tossed King James absently into the fire and walked back to Casey’s house for what would be the last time.

I survived high school, and went on to become a software engineer and a writer. I heard through the grapevine that Casey landed himself in jail by his early 20s. I never learned Norm’s fate, but odds are he’s still training for that golden moment when he and his brethren can pump hot lead into the Army of Darkness.

I confessed the truth about that night to my mom when I was 19, though I never filled her in on the comical details. These days, though I rarely consult it, I keep a copy of my great-grandfather’s Bible high on our bookshelf, out of my kids’ reach. I never felt much guilt having torched a Bible per se, but I was genuinely miserable I had destroyed something that had been so precious to my mother.

But I had an excuse: The devil made me do it.