I have been encouraged by some rash followers of this blog to consider writing a full length book with the main character being Pearl Barley, trainee exorcist who has appeared here several times already. I have begun to give into temptation, which has meant I’ve needed to consider the background to the growth of secular exorcisms, of which Pearl is part. This is part of that story, which I thought you might enjoy.
In the late Twentieth Century Conrad Kneebuckle set up a small secular exorcism business to meet a growing need to try and deal with the increased post-death spirit activity in various parts of the British Isles. He had spent his adult life fascinated by spirit activity at a time when it was the preserve of the weird, the wacky and the early hours TV. His first experience of ‘seeing’ a spirit came when he was a teenager and he assumed it was tied to some change resulting from puberty. The spirit in question possessed a Baby Belling stove owned by his great aunt Vera. His uncle Phil. Phil had been singing as Vera cooked a tin of tomato soup and Conrad had begun to sing along. In the same moment, he learnt two valuable lessons: first that he could sense spirits – ‘seeing’ in the sense of being aware of a shape around whatever was being possessed came later; and second that you needed to be careful to whom you revealed that skill as Vera fainted clean away – she later explained that it was a favourite song of her long dead son, Phil which he would sing when she cooked for him. Of course she couldn’t hear Phil singing.
Phil was shocked to be seen but delighted to talk to someone about his existence, his fears for passing on and some of the family background normally denied a fifteen year old boy even in the liberal 1960s. After some months, Phil asked if Conrad could help him ‘let go’ – he knew he had to go over but didn’t think he could do it on his own. That began Conrad’s experiments in spirit capture and control. Phil had already noticed a sense of displacement when, in the spring Vera left her doors open and the scent from the witch hazel floated in.
After Phil moved on, Conrad began approaching the spirits he noticed locally and offering to help them move on. Some were grateful like Phil, many not so much. He continued to experiment with methods of control and developed a technique to rehome a spirit in a different object so it could be transferred. He found out about their need for warmth and movement. In truth, Conrad was pretty ruthless, after Phil and didn’t spend a lot of time wondering at how the soirits he encountered felt about what he did
Spirit Release Limited came into being alongside Margaret Thatcher’s election, seeking to take advantage of the entrepreneurial enthusiasm. The business took as its motto Life is only the beginning. Kneebuckle sought to link up with the established exorcism businesses. Indeed he often said he might have trained as a Catholic priest, given he experienced both intense doubts and a love of elaborately embroidered over-garments. But they Churches were not interested in the secular version and preferred their own ancient rituals. If they thought about Coinrad at all it was a silly sideshow who would go the way of many 1980 innovations such as Betamax video and money supply.
Spirits Release began in a former coal yard on the outskirts of Redditch with nothing more than a notebook, an open mind and a bundle of hazel sticks. Over the next fifteen years he established a philosophy which became the Secular Exorcists Handbook. Someone once called it a ‘Bible’, a mistake the employee didn’t make twice. As so often with the founders of businesses he had the imagination and energy to get things going but not the vision and sensitivity to see it thorugh to its next phase. Maybe it was the time spent with Catholic priests observing exorcisms, but Conrad had something of the Old Testament in his manner. Maybe it was the increased intensity of his reliance on the carbolic soap and ministrations of Mrs Dweeble at her Gentleman’s Pleasure Soirees every second Thursday. But gradually he withdrew from the role as leader, confining himself to his experimentation with spirit movement, identification and capture. The business might have died but for the outbreak of Poltergeist Paranoia in Bakewell just after Princess Diana died. As usual experts scoffed at the reports of apparitions appearing, of furniture moving and sticky patches developing on the walls of certain properties that had nothing to do with unseasonably damp weather. Someone had heard good reports of Spirits Release handling of their aunt who’d refused to leave her knitting despite passing on during a particularly saucy episode of Brookside. A team under Joseph Blue, a recent recruit was sent to Derbyshire to see what they could do.
By this time they arrived the Churches had failed to suppress or remove the growing spirit problem. Joseph applied the lessons handed down by their boss: the three Keeps Of Exorcism, namely Keep Going; Keep An Open Mind; and, if in doubt, Keep Left.
It worked and the hazel switches, with their novel coriander encrustations were much admired. The press were alerted and whereas Conrad would have ignored them, Joseph embraced the opportunity for publicity. As he explained it to the journalist, their approach, simply stated was to persuade the spirit that they should move on and it was in their power, and only in their power to do so. Spirits, he said, when contacted often expressed concern where they were going, what was there, would it be alright? While no exorcist would ever say where the spirit was going – it was complete guesswork after all – they did point out that, if the after-existence was so bad you’d have expected someone, some spirit to make it back and say so. The absence of any such evidence through recorded history meant, Q.E.D. it must be okay.
While some posited that it could also mean some form of subjugation of the spirit, once it passed beyond, by those in charge of whatever hereafter the spirit went to, Joseph ensured that scenario didn’t fit with the post-modern post-death narrative that Spirits Release now began to propagate. He even hinted that such an idea was redolent of a form of small minded anti-afterlife intolerance that was almost anti-spirit and would fail the liberal minded What would the Guardian think? that pervaded the world under Tony Blair and was quietly dropped from polite conversation.
Breaking point had been reached. While Conrad’s leadership worked during the development of the concept of secular exorcism, everyone now knew he was not cut out for the position if the business was the flourish.
And then came the Millennium and with it a torrent of disturbed spirits. Suddenly, a niche operation became mainstream. Many questions were asked but one thing was certain. People from all sides agreed: Something Must Be Done.
Joseph proposed a major expansion; Conrad a retreat to the parochial heartlands of the West Midlands. A split was inevitable and Joseph bought out Spirits Release. Conrad stayed as consultant but became increasingly embittered. He began rival exorcist businesses, some flourishing and many not – there was plenty of work to be had. Why, no one really knew. Had Armageddon failed? Had the authorities in charge of the hereafters postponed the End of Days? Maybe a lack of proper funding was to blame? Maybe the spirit world should consider outsourcing? It was commonly assumed that the hereafters suffered from a continuum of despotic dynastic nepotistic rulers and a top down dictatorial style of management that didn’t appeal to the Millennials and their aversion to too many fried breakfasts and need to focus on self-awareness and empathy.
Joseph Blue was a shrewd ascetic atheist who had been born Jewish, dabbled with all the major religions by the time he was seventeen, created his own at twenty and joined Spirits Release on his twenty-fifth birthday hoping he could do more good moving people on to their next existential phase rather than worrying them with complicated, if essentially redundant ideas on where they came from and why they were here in the first place. He also possessed the business acumen, rigorous logic and thin lips needed to be a success as CEO.
By the time Conrad reached seventy he was disillusioned by his failure to identify where exactly the spirits he helped release went and resolved to spend his remaining years and savings developing his own cryogenic facility to preserve him until a time when immortality was available on the NHS. He died in late 2010 and his cryogenic assimilator suffered the same fate during an unfortunately timed wildcat strike of power workers at the same time as the back-up generator had been burnt out by a power surge. No one knew where Conrad’s spirit might have gone. It was assumed he had passed over.
If anyone has any comments on this, how it might be improved or where it is lacking then feel free to share them. I will be grateful and won’t be offended.