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One day the angels came to present themselves to the Lord, and Satan also came with them. The Lord said to Satan, "Where have you come from?"
Satan answered the Lord, "From roaming through the earth and going back and forth in it." (Job 1:6-7)
* * * * *
As I grew up in Boise, Idaho, I learned from my parents that there were a couple of people my brother and I were forbidden to talk about: one was Spokane Annie, Dad's wife before he married mom, and the other was known simply as Andrea. Because of her extreme religious convictions (Andrea claimed to be an exorcist), Andrea was never welcome in our house though she visited Boise perhaps twice a year to keep in touch with my mother.
In my fourth year at the University of Oregon, I developed an interest in family members whom I had rarely seen. I knew Andrea lived just north of Portland, in an old mansion overlooking the ocean, so on spring break in 1972 my wife and I took the trip.
I found Andrea eccentric but likable and so nurtured a relationship that continued until her death in 1998. A couple of years before her death, she told me the following story to explain her fascination with exorcism. To enhance effect, I have told the piece from third person.
* * * * *
A beautiful fifteen-year-old blonde with the faith of Augustine, Andrea Slocumb lived in a red and green trim Victorian style house on land overlooking the Oregon coast north of Portland. It was like living in a jungle, she told me many years later. Her parents did not hire workers to keep up their property, an inheritance from the mother's reputedly wicked side of the family. Consequently, the grass grew long and wild, and bushes and trees blanketed the area in a riot of vegetation.
The Stone Hills region, as the area was called, had rain ten months of the year, and during the two summer months showers were common. During the winter, an oppressive fog hung over the heavy forest, and during the evening, Andrea could not see through the thick gray clouds to the ocean, whose proximity she knew by the sound of waves crashing on the cliff below her house.
When her father, Dr. Luther Slocumb, moved with his wife into the house in the late '30's, most people in the Northwest had learned to avoid Stone Hills. Tales of mysterious goings-on, of supernatural visitations and manifestations, of unusually grisly murders involving dismemberment and decapitation, kept the locals uneasy.
In the winter of 1953, her father--a tall balding man with a graying beard and thick glasses--was a professor of psychology at a small local college. Her mother Agnes, a striking women with short-cropped raven hair and blood-red lips, was a renowned psychologist, who had devoted much of her life studying the relationship between the psyche and the supernatural. Agnes' doctoral dissertation, Occult Phenomena and the Subconscious Mind, became a book that revolutionized this aspect of the field of mental health. Indeed, Andrea's mother and father claimed to believe that most so-called supernatural experiences are personally induced. As proof of their disregard for the supernatural, they had decorated their house with occult artifacts.
In response to her parents' disbelief, when she was seven, Andrea began attending St. Mark's Episcopal Church, a small white-washed, wooden building with a bell in the steeple. The church's minister, the once youthful and energetic but now aged and stooped Father Don Gritman, had had a tremendous influence upon Andrea. To her dying day Andrea credited her steadfast faith to Father Gritman. Too, when she was twelve, she began reading whatever she could find on exorcism. Demons fascinated and frightened her.
In Andrea's fifteenth year, the worst of her nightmares began two weeks after Christmas. They continued for thirty-three days. The first night was "a descent into the Pit of Hell," as she would later describe it. Her "descent" occurred on a particularly dark night of the third day following Christmas.
She had spent the night "wallowing in a nightmare of blood," dreaming of bleeding crucifixes, bloodied bats, and wolves' heads with missing eyes when she awoke with a start. Eyes wide open, pulse pounding in her brain, she knew she had heard something in her room, located on the third floor. Strange sounds--poundings on the walls, footsteps on the roof, doors slamming in other parts of the house, an old woman screaming through the night--were not uncommon in the mansion and had increased in occurrence in the past year, but this one--the sound of a hulking man-beast walking through the forest, breaking dry wood with every step--set Andrea particularly on edge.
Chilled and sweaty, Andrea felt bound by invisible ropes, as if a gigantic spider's web had been thrown over her. Unable to sit up, feeling crushing pain in her chest when she attempted to do so, she tilted her head up and turned her eyes slowly to the foot of the bed. She saw swirling darkness and knew as surely as she was alive that some panting thing was standing there. She felt as if her soul were being yanked from her body.
As she listened over the roar of her own heartbeat, she heard the thing's labored breathing, as if it were gasping for breath. As she listened, trembling, Andrea discerned what she later described as a "low whimpering" and knew then that the man had been sent by Satan to claim her soul.
Terrified, she tried shouting for her mother and father, asleep in separate rooms on the second floor in the room just below hers, but she could not open her mouth. Panic surged, as she felt the blood from her heart flowing into the dark presence, and remembering one of the chapters from The Exorcist's Handbook (a sixteenth century book printed by the Jesuits) she forced her mind to pray, something Father Don had told her to do whenever she felt overcome by a nightmare. As she silently prayed, reciting the Beatitudes, Andrea found strength and forced the anxiety away.
The anxiety, she remembered learning from Father Don, generally signaled the demonic. Drenched in sweat, Andrea glanced at the foot of her bed, hoping that the presence had dissipated along with the other waking nightmares she had experienced from the time she was five or six, but the presence stayed, darkly intangible. And she again shut her eyes, willing the thing away, never daring to look, frightened by a swirling black mass that represented a bridge between the natural and supernatural.
Somehow--Andrea never knew how it was possible to do so--she drifted off to sleep an hour or so before sunrise.
The next morning, beginning a pattern that she would follow for nearly a month, Andrea dragged herself into the breakfast room, an enclosed balcony that hung out over the cliff leading down to the pounding ocean. She was too exhausted for school. On the counter, illuminated by the kitchen light, an old book titled Legends of Sardonicus lay open. The book had been in this same place, open to the same picture since before Christmas, and on Christmas Eve she had leafed through the text, committing some of the grotesque pictures stories to memory. The book was filled with pictures of ghouls.
Now, stunned by the visitation of the night before, she sat listlessly in her straight-backed chair at breakfast table, tendrils of blonde hair falling over her eyes, pushing her cold bacon and eggs with her fork. She was pale as milk, and her mother stared coldly at her from across the table. Her father had left for the college an hour before.
"A bad night, church girl?" Agnes asked, sarcastic, even mocking. Andrea's mother had never taken Andrea's recounting of her blood-soaked nightmares seriously and generally attributed them to the fact that her daughter went to a church whose primitive beliefs gave rise to psychoses. Andrea had had nightmares for as long as anyone in the house could remember and insisted, in argument after argument with her parents, that the dreams came from the Devil. Occasionally, when moved to do so, Andrea would read to her mother passages from The Exorcist's Handbook in order to drive her point home.
"Yes," Andrea finally said, too drained of blood and energy to feel angry over her mother's indifference. "A wickedly bad night. But this one was as real as the bacon I am moving with my fork. It was as real as the moon. I am sure of it. This dream was yanked from Hell's bloody pit."
Her mother's head lashed back, as if she had been struck on the cheek, but she quickly steadied herself. Andrea knew her mother found the use of strong language objectionable. Then, her mother assumed a arrogant, even distant look that spoke worlds: Agnes believed her daughter to be marginally insane and found her contemptible.
"Honey, you poor, pallid little creature," her mother said, sipping thick black coffee, "you're just having more bad dreams. Bad, bad dreams. Everyone has dreams and an occasional nightmare. Even your father. Even Freud. Even God." Agnes laughed. "Besides, you saw nothing."
"Something was there," Andrea mumbled, remembering again how the thing had drained her. "I sure as hell saw something."
Peeved by her daughter's language, the mother paused to glance at Andrea. "But everyone gets over these dreams," her mother added. "They're nothing, these dreams. You'll outgrow them. I've always told you that. Just get over them. Be a big girl now."
"When?" Andrea said, too tired to think straight. "When? I've had nightmares since I was six." For Andrea, nightmares were as common as raisins.
"When you decide to let them go, dear," came the response.
Determined more than ever never to marry, never to have children, Andrea often wondered if her mother treated patients in this same manner. Studying her plate, she decided that she wasn't hungry and stood and left the table.
The nightly visitations continued, Andrea always suddenly awaking, aware that she had heard dry twigs cracking. Every night, she sensed the dark presence at the foot of her bed, sucking her energy and blood. She thought at one point that, in the darkness, she could just make out a reddish glow bouncing off the foot of her bed. She was sure she smelled blood.
One night in bed, fighting sleep which would snap her up like a dragon and seeking a source for these recent visitations, Andrea remembered having seen a picture in a nineteenth century theater textbook that her father kept in the cellar. She had looked through the book several years ago, and now realized that it was the same book that she had seen on Christmas Eve: Legends of Sardonicus. How, she wondered, could I have not made the connection? Her father and mother had kept hundreds of old books on the occult in a dark corner of the basement for as long as she could remember. What she particularly remembered about the book was a disturbing picture just inside the hard cover. The picture had life of its own; she had noticed that wherever she moved, the eyes of the ghoulishly grinning, gray-skinned man in the picture followed her. According to one of the legends in the book, Sardonicus was a ghoul who craved his victim's blood and soul.
The story and picture had made a lasting impression. She knew now, as she lay in bed, that she had identified the invisible presence.
That night, hours later, as she jolted sickeningly awake, she found herself sitting upright. As she waited, breathing rapidly, she stared at the darkness. Forcing herself to concentrate, she could barely make out shapes in her room: her writing desk to her left and just below the great window, her European closet to her right, and the straight-backed chair on the other side of the room. The room seemed filled with an unnatural darkness that clung to the corners and walls.
She looked at the silhouette of the great chair that sat just before the window overlooking the ocean and realized, slowly, that someone was sitting there. In silence, she heard the labored breathing over the sound of the waves and wind. She visualized the ghoulish grin frozen on the man's face, felt his eyes boring into her; yet she could not make out his face.
She was sure this was Sardonicus but could not utter his name. Then, slowly, conscious surely that it was being watched, the figure rose, stood tall and thin, moved to her left and towards the wall, and was swallowed by the darkness. The thing had gone into the wall. As she sat in bed, heart beating rapidly, she said weakly "Who's there?" and waited, motionless, sensing the thing move slowly through the wall towards her. She tried to scream, found that she could not.
Surely, this is death, she told herself. This is death stalking me.
"Yes," hissed a voice from the darkness to her right, "this is death."
Andrea's heart stopped beating, and she imagined something gripping her neck.
She had the impression of having broken through to something forbidden, knew in an instant that Satan and his legions did populate the planet. Inwardly, she cried to God. Dark cold penetrated her body, filled it like freezing black grease, and, trembling, out of her mind, she knew that she would die; her blood would turn to ice before the night was out.
She began silently saying the twenty-third Psalm: "The Lord is my shepherd,/ I shall not want...." As the minutes ticked by, she finally lost consciousness and drifted to sleep.
For the entire next day, as numbly moving through classes, she felt as if her brain had become fragmented. Yet, distraught as she was, she asked her parents over dinner that evening about the book in the cellar. A violent winter storm was sweeping the area, and the house shook from screaming wind. When she told them about the visitation and mentioned her belief that the mysterious being in her room and the man in the photo--Sardonicus--were the same, her parents only glanced at each other in silence. Her mother smiled; her father frowned.
"Why do you keep such a thing, this evil book?" she hissed first at her father, seated at one end of the long table, and then at her mother at the other end. Both parents were dressed formally. With the question, her mind refocused and the sense of splitting into pieces vanished. "At the very least, the fucking thing gives me the worst nightmare of my life." She stopped, frozen. Never before had she used the word "fucking" in front of her parents.
Abruptly, her parents stopped eating, staring at each other for several minutes, the wind outside blasting at the old house, the pine tree branches rubbing against the windows. Finally, looking straight ahead and beyond her husband at the window behind him, her mother answered in a restrained voice, "I used the book years ago when I wrote my dissertation on the connection between so-called occult phenomenon and the human psyche. Though it reached legendary status, the Sardonicus story does have some factual basis."
"Agnes," the father began, timidly. Andrea had known for a long time that her father feared her mother.
"The book came from your father's family," the mother added, glancing at her daughter.
"Agnes, please," the father pleaded, clearing his throat.
"I think she needs to know, Luther old boy," Agnes responded, and it occurred to Andrea that her mother was slightly drunk from too much red wine. "Since the one who became known as Sardonicus belongs in your family, I think you're the one to tell her."
Andrea was stunned. What did this mean, she wondered? She had read bits of the book, and having assumed that the Sardonicus legends had no basis in reality, she was now being told that someone on her father's side of the family, many years ago, had done something to earn the name. "What does this mean, father?" she asked. "Did this character really exist?"
The father's gaze fixed disdainfully upon Agnes. Then, the man's expression softened, and he began. "Well, the story is simple enough. And no, Sardonicus never really existed except in the minds of the villagers who branded your great relative with a name that implied the commission of a transgression that I am sure he did not commit. Your great-great-great Grandfather Isaac lived in Rumania, in a section popularly known as Transylvania. Anyway, Isaac buried his father and later learned that his father had a winning lottery ticket upon him. Thus, as the story goes, Isaac spent one entire night digging up the father's grave, prying open the casket, going through the corpse's pockets. Having found the ticket, he came home where he stumbled about in the darkness of the bed room. This is where the story seems to lose connection with reality. According to the wife, whose accounting you'll find in that book, she only heard the man breathing laboriously through the mouth and steadily whimpering. When she lit the lamp, she was confronted by her husband's grotesquely disfigured face. Your great grandfather had become a ghoul, grin frozen on his face, and as soon as word spread in the village he became known as Mr. Sardonicus. Word spread, too, that he was possessed by the devil."
In the pause, as the wind grew silent, it seemed to Andrea as if the entire universe-angels, demons, even God--were peering through the large windows and into this room.
The father continued. "Isaac apparently used the money to buy a castle where he remained--and here we leap into the purely fantastic--feasting mainly off the blood of others. There. "
A pause ensued, as Andrea tried to absorb the chilling tale. "Jesus Christ," she whispered, loud enough for both parents to hear, not sure if the were swearing or praying.
"There is no record of Sardonicus' death, " her father concluded, sniffing. "Some say he just vanished."
Pieces of the puzzle were falling into place as Andrea forced her thoughts to the sudden whoosh of the rain outside the dining room windows, hoping to cleanse her mind of the image her father's story had implanted in her brain, and began silently praying. She decided that the next day, after school, she would take the book out of the house and go into the church, where she would talk to Father Don.
Even though she searched every part of the cellar, Andrea didn't find the book the next day or the day after and couldn't go to the old priest, who had died a month earlier and whose rotting corpse had recently been found in his bed. Then, over lunch at school one day, it occurred to her that her mother was using her for experimentation.
Experimentation or not, the visitations continued. Every night, Andrea tried to sit up in bed; most nights she was bound, as with a rope; every night she struggled to call out to her parents; every night she knew terror.
Andrea told me that on one particular night she opened her eyes in the darkness, certain that something had whispered her name, caught a glimpse, and shut them again. The room was freezing. The man was there, standing at the foot of her bed for the twenty-seventh night in a row. She could clearly see his emaciated shape, his mouth a hideous grin.
She tightly shut her eyes, felt freezing fear start at her feet and work its way up her body to her head as she sensed the man slowly approach her. She could hear and feel him walking from the foot of the bed. The fear felt like something dark and prickly sliding through her. Her tongue began to feel numb, as if coated by a fungus, and her mouth felt as if a stick ran from the roof of her mouth and into her throat; she listened to the rapid beating of her heart and felt the man's thin dry hands crawl over her face. The hands were large dirty spiders. She knew the man was standing over her; she could smell the stench, hear the man breathe through his teeth, but refused to open her eyes.
She lay stiff as a board, trembling, breathing rapidly, trapped in the darkness that held the man, who now was leaning over her. Pulling her sheet away from her, he ran one hand over her young body, exploring her femininity. It was hideous; she felt vile, like something dipped in bat dung. And then she began to pray aloud: "Our Father Who art in heaven, hallowed be...."
"Praying won't help you," the man hissed, inches from her ear. She felt sweat trickle down her neck.
Her mouth dry as cotton, she began again: "Our Father, Who art...."
"God can't hear you!" the man growled. "God can't hear you!! He'll never hear you." His voice seemed to pierce her, like a sword.
Andrea looked at the foot of the bed, too frightened to respond.
"He'll never hear you," the creature said, "because he can't. He doesn't exist. So, little girl, you have to come with me." Slowly, the man climbed into the bed and positioned himself so that he was lying on Andrea, trying to press himself into her. Andrea couldn't stop shaking.
Silently, suffocating, she prayed to Jesus, and as she did she suddenly remembered a sermon she had heard long ago, given by Father Don. It was a sermon on deliverance from demonic oppression and possession. "Oh Sweet Jesus," she wept aloud, her voice cracking, searching her mind for the words the old priest had counseled people to say when faced with evil. "Jesus, Jesus, Jesus!"
"He can't help!!" the creature shrieked, jumping off the bed, standing erect, putting its hands over its ears, spinning backwards, then coming right at Andrea.
Before Andrea had a chance to continue her prayer, the thing had her by the hair, was dragging her shrieking, clawing, and biting out of bed and across the floor, hitting her in the face again and again.
As Andrea knelt, her mind dizzy from the blows, she heard a voice tell her to pray again. Pray, pray, pray, it said.
So, her face bruised and her nose bleeding, Andrea summoned strength and faith, and exclaimed with what she described years later as the power of an exorcist, "I bind you, Sardonicus, arms, legs, feet, and hands. I bind you, dirty hellish rat, to Perdition. I commit you, in Jesus' name, to the furthest pit of Hell...!" Her voice, she told me, was uncommonly bold, other-worldly, as if something or someone were speaking through her. Her voice was deafening, she claimed.
The effect was stunning and immediate. As a slight breeze began to move through the bedroom, the creature released Andrea and quickly backed away. "No, no, you fucking wicked shit-faced brat!" came the voice, now cracking. "Not this shit...!" The thing shrieked like a caged beast, shaking the walls of the room. "You little cunt!" it screamed; "you rotten little cunt!"
As the breeze built to a wind, Andrea continued the prayer, knowing that the creature was becoming powerless, and willed it to be cast forever into the great outer darkness.
During her prayer, wind blasting about her, Andrea kept her eyes off the creature, afraid to look. Suddenly, the night became still, like the train of death suddenly stopping at night in the middle of nowhere, and Andrea didn't move. As the thing shrieked and bellowed, Andrea glanced up, knew immediately that she had opened a gate to Hell. She saw a yellow glow surrounding the man, bright as the explosion from a nuclear bomb, and a dark funnel cloud spinning, spinning, spinning out from the center of the yellow and enveloping and crushing the figure. As her neck froze and the top of her head went numb, she sensed as well something huge and unnamable striding boldly, angrily for the creature known as Sardonicus, wondering at the same time what being it was that strode to and fro across the face of the earth. The fading glow provided illumination and allowed Andrea to notice that her walls and ceiling were thick with blood. Blood poured down the wall from the ceiling, staining the wall paper and carpet, filling the room with a metallic stench that made Andrea puke.
She felt, then, the larger darker presence in the room, knew instinctively that this other thing also had a personality and that it had come to claim Sardonicus. As a woman of faith, bound to God, she knew the dark prince could not touch her. As the darkness swirled and swirled, Andrea could see Sardonicus, hands over his ears and eyes shut, twisting like a leaf, slowly disappearing, consumed by the dark cloud, which sucked him out of the natural realm like a black hole. As she watched, the darkness in the center of the yellow growing larger, Sardonicus disappeared with one fierce, rafter-shaking howl.
Andrea sat and thought, panting like a beast. Shivering, she knew that according to her Handbook the spirit would return several more times before it was completely banished. Each time, however, the battle would be a little less intense than the one before.
It must have been a half hour later that Andrea finally responded to the knocking on the door. Tired, bruised, Andrea rose from the floor, used the back of her arm to wipe the partially-dried blood from her nose, and approached and opened the door.
It was her mother, dressed in a winter robe, smoking a cigarette, and smiling. "Everything all right in here, little one?" Agnes asked, blowing smoke into her daughter's room.
Andrea shuddered. You fucking old witch, she silently spat at her mother. Somehow, Andrea thought, Agnes is responsible for this.
For a minute, Andrea stared at her mother, saying nothing, wondering if Sardonicus had been figment of her imagination, a psychotic construction of her own superstition. Maybe, she thought, her mother had been right all along.
"I said, Andrea darling, is every thing hunky-dory?" Agnes asked. "I thought I heard screams."
"You did," Andrea said, "mine and his."
"Your-and, what, Sardonicus'?"
"Step in, mother, and see for yourself," Andrea beckoned. "Feel these fucking walls." Glancing back into her room, Andrea had noticed that walls were covered in blood. She wondered how her mother could not smell this.
"You sure?" Agnes stated, teetering slightly.
"Come on in," Andrea repeated the invitation.
Agnes stepped into the room. Andrea watched her mother's expression change as Agnes looked slowly around the room, a sickly smile on her face, and then slowly put her hand on the wall next to the door. Agnes stepped back and held up her hand for her daughter to see. The hand was smeared with blood.
"Well, Mother, what do you think?" Andrea asked.
"Quite a little nightmare you've had here, honey," replied Agnes, staring at the walls and wiping her bloodied hand onto her robe.
"There's blood on these fucking walls, Mother! Am I making that up?" Andrea shouted.
But Agnes simply turned to her daughter, leaned forward to give her a cold peck on the cheek, and then said in the hollow determined voice that had become her mark among her peers, "Nothing is wrong, Andrea. Nothing at all. Actually, everything is at it should be. Now, good night, honey bunch."
"Be sure to come back for more tomorrow," Andrea hissed at her mother, surprised by the new bold hatred she felt for Agnes. Andrea watched her mother walk stiffly down the hall to the staircase. Secretly, as Agnes began descending the stairs, Andrea wished her mother an eternity in hell.
Now certain that the battle with her mother as well as the powers of darkness had only begun, confident in her newly discovered God-given ability to kick hell out of the devil and all his legions, Andrea shut the door, and went back to bed. She needed to save her energy for Sardonicus, who would return the next night. Picking the Handbook off her night stand and clutching it to her chest in the dark room, Andrea was sure he would return.
* * * * *
As my wife and I sat before the roaring fireplace on that cold spring night, listening in dim light to the old woman spin her tale of darkness, I knew that this would be the last time I would ever see Andrea. My wife would never again agree to drive to visit a woman who claimed the power of exorcism.
When we had finished drinking coffee and were following Andrea to the door, I passed the house's old wooden staircase. At the top of the stairs stood a woman even older than Andrea, stooped, shriveled, head wrapped in long stands of white hair. I stopped, and so did my wife and Andrea.
"I thought you lived alone, Aunt Andrea," I commented, stunned by the presence of another. I wondered if this other person had been there while the story was told.
Turning slowly and walking back to me with the help of her wooden cane, Andrea looked at me, smiled, and then looked upstairs. "Go to bed, mother," Andrea said softly. "I'll be up shortly."
I looked at my wife, whose frightened expression begged me to take her away from this house, and then at Andrea. Staring up at me, Andrea barely came up to my chin. "Come back and visit," she said. "Next time, stay the night." Of course, my wife and I had already silently agreed never to set foot in this old house again.
Two years later, shortly before Andrea's death, I received a package in the mail. Slowly, I opened the package and found the two old books. Just inside the jacket of The Exorcist's Handbook, I found a photo of a young woman, somewhere in her twenties, and a note: "I suggest you read this," it said, "for these things run in the family." Since then, my life has been a steady descent into what I can only describe as a dark turbulence. The dreams that accompanied the books have nearly destroyed my life. My wife talks daily of leaving me....
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