One of the great perks as a university teacher is that I am constantly in conversation with students about good books. While this occasionally gets me into conversations about Twilight (which I did read, but only with great commitment to my role as a teacher) and Hunger Games (which I quite liked), it also opens up my world to new books. The lovely period piece, The Secret Life of Bees, came to me this way long before the movie appeared. I was able to process the soul-wrenching The Book of Negroes with students on campus, and I’ve had multiple discussions about Lemony Snicket, Phil Pullman, Douglas Adams, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Ursula K. Le Guin, and Terry Pratchett—ad hoc, hallway book clubs, if you will.
One of the student-suggested books that I will always be grateful for is The Gates by John Connolly. Except for The Book of Lost Things, I probably wouldn’t have read Connolly without being forced. He’s just not typically writing the kind of book I would reach for after a long day. And while the artwork of the original hardcover of The Gates might have caught my eye, the softcover cover art is generic and misrepresentative of the book—trying too hard, like me at my Jr. High dances (with the same, awkward-pause result). But I was given this book by a student who had already struck me as having tastes that overlapped mine and a critic’s eye, so I thought I would give it a try.
I have, since that time, read The Gates four times (including once by audiobook) and have used it often in discussion groups. I absolutely love the book, especially when it goes by its original full title: The Gates (of Hell are Open… Want to Peak?).
At its simplest, The Gates is the story of Samuel Johnson and his critically intelligent and priggish dachshund, Boswell. Samuel is a peculiar boy, under-appreciated and misunderstood in his little English town of Biddlecombe. His core strangeness and accompanying intelligence is demonstrated in how we meet Samuel. He is trick-or-treating at 666 Crowley Road—you have to watch names of things throughout—except that it is only October 28th. He wanted to get a headstart, and is met with confusion by Mr. Abernathy, a self-help author who hates his own life. I think this exchange captures the heart of the book’s style:
Mr. Abernathy looked from the dog to the small figure, then back again, as though unsure as to which one of them was going to speak.
“Trick or treat,” said the small figure eventually, from beneath the sheet.
Mr. Abernathy’s face betrayed utter bafflement.
“What?” said Mr. Abernathy.
“Trick or treat,” the small figure repeated.
Mr. Abernathy’s mouth opened once, then closed again. He looked like a fish having an afterthought. He appeared to grow even more confused. He glanced at his watch, and checked the date, wondering if he had somehow lost a few days between hearing the doorbell ring and opening the door.
“It’s only October the twenty-eighth,” he said.
“I know,” said the small figure. “I thought I’d get a head start on everyone else.”
“What?” said Mr. Abernathy again.
“What?” said the small figure.
“Why are you saying ‘what’?” said Mr. Abernathy. “I just said ‘what.’”
“I know. Why?”
“My question exactly,” said the small figure.
“Who are you?” asked Mr. Abernathy. His head was starting to hurt.
“I’m a ghost,” said the small figure, then added, a little uncertainly, “Boo?”
Now, poor Mr. Abernathy is not alone in his befuddlement. Mr. Hume, Samuel’s teacher–you’ve got the thing on names now, I presume–finds it difficult to follow his thoughts. And Reverend Ussher, the vicar of St. Timidus is only able to respond to Samuel’s questions with milk-toast theological answers. While this annoying feature will see Samuel as the unintended hero of The Gates, it does not land him early Halloween booty. Indeed, Mr. Abernathy is too busy awkwardly re-enacting a séance in the basement to be handing out treats. It is an innocent activity: chanting around a pentagram and reading an ancient book that speaks directly to Mrs. Abernathy’s mind in the basement of 666 Crowley St. What could go wrong?
As it turns out, lots can go wrong. In the séance, the Abernathys awake The Great Malevolence (aka, Satan), who uses the Large Hadron Collider (from Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons, though it may also exist in real life) to open The Gates of Hell, and create a multidimensional porthole that will allow him to finally conquer earth. Samuel, who stumbles on to the plan, tries to tell the adults in his world, but no one will believe him. Samuel is then left to save the world, accompanied only by Boswell and his two middle school friends, Tom and Maria.
Of course, the plot throws out in all directions from there. It is a funny book, written in a mocking didactic tone with excursuses into theology, philosophy, science, the origins of the universe, the nature of evil, and particle physics—sometimes all on a single page, and often in the Discworld-style footnotes. The book hinges, however, on two realities of Connolly’s fictional multiverse that have an interesting connection to C.S. Lewis’ demonic creations in The Screwtape Letters.
First, the demons, when they cross the wormhole from hell to earth, take on physical form. This is a key part of the boyish humour of the book: as the first attack from hell takes place on Hallowe’en, it is tough to tell the demons from the local kids in costumes. At times we see demons fleeing from local punks and overprotective gardeners. What’s intriguing about the physical form of the demons and the attack of hell on earth, is that never once does the idea of God appear. Never. We have angels dancing on the head of a pin (ala St. Thomas Aquinas), but there is no God, no prayer, and a local church and pastor that are entirely impotent. To be fair, family, education, science, and church are all pretty useless in the book, but one might think that the appearance of demons and the existence of hell would at least introduce the question of God.
This quirk puts me in mind of Lewis’ demon, Screwtape, and his advice to his demonic nephew, Wormwood. Wormwood is thinking of making himself known to his “patient”—the man he is trying to drag into hell—but Screwtape cautions him about the consequences of this approach:
I wonder you should ask me whether it is essential to keep the patient in ignorance of your own existence. That question, at least for the present phase of the struggle, has been answered for us by the High Command. Our policy, for the moment, is to conceal ourselves. Of course this has not always been so. We are really faced with a cruel dilemma. When the humans disbelieve in our existence we lose all he pleasing results of direct terrorism and we make no magicians. On the other hand, when they believe in us, we cannot make them materialists and sceptics.
Yet it seems that in John Connolly’s world, one can conceive of demons and hell and spiritual attacks and eternal torment, and not think once about God. There are a lot of accidents in the book that might hint at Providence (as it does in The Hobbit—see my article here). However, God seems quite absent—perhaps echoing the feeling that most Brits have in the real world of today, or the Dumbledorian nature of their understanding of God.
Second, in Connolly’s multiverse most beings are neither perfectly good nor perfectly bad. It’s true, Bishop Bernard the Bad is, well, bad. But he is relatively impotent, and largely there for comic staging. The Great Malevolence is truly an evil being, but he remains an obscure figure on the outside of the narrative—much like “Our Father Below” whom Screwtape and Wormwood serve. But none of the heroes are really that good—just bright and lucky, with some great courage—and none of the villains are so very bad. In fact, most of the demons are humorously benign:
“He had never really speculated about this before, since demons came in all shapes and sizes. Indeed, some of them came in more than one shape or size all by themselves, such as O’Dear, the Demon of People Who Look in Mirrors and Think They’re Overweight, and his twin, O’Really, the Demon of People Who Look in Mirrors and Think They’re Slim When They’re Not.”
I’m certain, somewhere, there is a demon for lost keys. Perhaps not very evil, but still very annoying.
Which is why we have Nurd, a demon who unwillingly gets sucked into earth from his wasteland existence in hell where his only company is his incompetent servant, Wormwood. Nurd finds on earth not just a solution for his own boredom—Connolly’s hell is not fire or ice or darkness, but endless sameness and eternal boredom (quite effective, I think)—but he also finds candy, the joy of fast cars, and the bittersweet pain a person feels when he loses someone he loves. In the end, Nurd offers himself in self-sacrificial love and patterns the destiny of the humans he leaves behind.
Despite the peculiar literary technique of having a demon be the hapless Christ-sacrifice in the story, I can’t help but notice the connection with C.S. Lewis here. Wormwood, a supporting character in The Gates, is as much a simpering fool as Wormwood appears in C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters (though that might be a false picture, see here). And I wonder if the name is accidental. The names in The Gates don’t seem accidental: Samuel, the disregarded prophet; Tom and Maria, his apostolically named friends; Mr. Hume the anti-philosophical teacher; Rev. Ussher, the dusty pastor; and 666 Crowley St. as the GPS location of the Gates of Hell—666 being the number of the beast from Revelation, and Crowley being an important 20th century Satanist.
It could be an accident, but I have my doubts. Connolly has clearly researched this novel, and it wouldn’t surprise me that he came across The Screwtape Letters. He is influenced by Dante and probably has read Milton, so Lewis is not a huge step out for this popular author. Unless Connolly says otherwise, I suspect that Wormwood is a reimagination of Lewis’ classic demon.
Despite these two similarities between Screwtape and The Gates, there is a clear difference. The both farces of a sort, The Screwtape Letters is satire—it has an object in view, and accomplishes it through the genre. You are left, after reading Screwtape, with a sense of the meaning of the book. I am left with no such sense with The Gates. It may remind us that we should listen to kids, and it is a good dragon-slaying book on its part. But, despite its pretentious didactic tone, I don’t sense a meaning in the text.
Which is just fine, I think. I study the text with students at university and college because it is good writing that is highly accessible and it reveals a lot to us about culture. I don’t know that we are moving to the point where we could experience both materialism—no God—and the demonic spirit world. People seem to believe in angels or a spiritual force with no ethical consequences, so perhaps we are close.
I also don’t know if I will keep using The Gates in classes, unless it is made into a movie (which would be kind of fun). But it teaches me things about culture I can’t see myself. Which, by the way, is another good reason to be a teacher—it keeps us connected to the cutting edge of our rapidly evolving world.