Twenty-two years ago or so I first ingested the very odd phrase "banned books." Very odd not only because these were precisely some of the texts on our rather unambitious school curriculum, but also because the concept of prohibition was somewhat lost on me, a rather ambitious young thinker. The list was long and quite varied, although even then one could detect an undercurrent of political deviance. I shall not enumerate these works since, as it were, most of them were children of the moment, as topical then as they are forgettable now (with one remarkable exception of genius). Why do such works fade into oblivion as quickly as they scorched our headlines? Because it is not within the agenda of the daily news that art lurks. When revolution occurs, it is inevitably succeeded by compromise and regression to a more palatable mean for the simple reason that true revolution takes place only in the human mind. So when we look back on our happy lives and recall the works that meant the most to us, we will find them at junctures and crossroads of our thinking. They will support or alter our beliefs so violently as to be milestones of our days. This is not quite, however, how I feel about this seminal work.
What is dubbed here witchcraft may be generally understood as Satanism, since for the Christian little difference persists. Our witches begin not before Judeo-Christianity but against the early adherents of these faiths, and their services and rituals seem consistently to portray hideous mockeries of what is sacrosanct – a point that cannot be overstated. It is the common ignorance of the non-expert – and Summers's knowledge of the occult may never be surpassed – to think that the Abrahamic religions simply borrowed the rituals of the prior pagans and removed the bestiality, the polytheism, and the sacrifices, reducing Christianity and its cousins to solemn epigones. Precisely the opposite argument is made on the pages of The History of Witchcraft:
Witchcraft as it existed in Europe from the eleventh century was mainly the spawn of Gnostic heresy, and heresy by its very nature embraced and absorbed much of heathendom. In some sense Witchcraft was a descendant of the old pre-Christian magic, but it soon assumed a slightly different form, or rather at the advent of Christianity it was exposed and shown in its real, foul essence as the worship of the Evil Principle, the Enemy of Mankind, Satan.
Is an argument for monotheism's primacy belied by this admission? Does not evil appear to come first? As in all his works, Summers's dazzling erudition will prove impenetrable to those who like everything in plain English with plain explanations – but these are not, shall we say, members of the target audience. We are treated to copious details of exorcisms, the Sabbath until its more modern manifestations, worship and rituals of the witch and warlock, and the all-important familiars, usually small animals that serve as conduits to darker operators. Admittedly perhaps a little too much is made of the portrayal of the witch in literature, especially since the focus of the text is supposed to be facts as they are reported not interpreted by poets and dramatists. Yet it is very true that our concepts of sorcery and its practitioners, for better or worse, stem from precisely their places in our arts, the ever-fickle popular imagination, and a hearty dose of folk tales, which unfortunately tend to emphasize the most ludicrous and overwrought elements (such as broom-riding, although this is clearly a modern addendum). The anecdotes included are horrible and probably true to their last detail; the only debatable matter is the cause of these events. The skeptic, of course, will immediately attribute them to natural maladies and worldwide Church-sponsored fraud, which brings us to a brief aside about books banned or otherwise disdained.
It is one thing when a controversial work is marketed as such, and quite another when an innocuous if opinionated text that would attract the attention of few is besmirched with scattered apologies for its existence. Why then should it be published at all? Such is the fate of The History of Witchcraft, branded dismissively on its back cover as furthering "a medieval viewpoint" (concocted by someone, doubtless, who thinks of the Middle Ages as a mindless wasteland of sword and sorcery) and prefaced by not one, not two, but three introductions. The last, by Summers himself, succinctly outlines his project; the first, by a Christian admirer of the scholar, can be swiftly filed under what we have come to term fanmail; but the second by a Marxist ignorant of both languages and academe is the most ignominious. Under the guise of an "enlightened" take on what Summers will so eloquently – and, it must be said, convincingly – describe, Morrow denounces the whole endeavor as some tribute to unprovable superstition, championing along the way this regrettable excuse for research once popular among the least imaginative of our species. Murray's work, with which I am unfortunately acquainted, is not only lauded as "true scholarship" – evidently meaning that original thinking and fact-gathering are not permitted – but juxtaposed like some shabby, doddering hut against Summers's bright fortress of heavenly strength. When Summers later relates a couple of likely spurious stories about the murders of Christian children at the hands of European Jews engaged in extralegal sacrifices, Morrow – who was Jewish and atheist – comments that "the intelligent reader need scarcely be told that the publisher abhors the author's views," and then cites the "reasons indicated in the foreword" as justification for the project. Why would anyone bother with Murray's poppycock may be puzzling enough. But why any publisher would essentially condemn his own book for the sake of being politically correct suggests derangement. Summers writes at a level so much greater than that of the average reader that he is in no position to exert the malefic influence commonly incident to works of, for example, right-wing hatemongers who speak in plain words about bare and brutal emotions. We do not see ourselves or our discontents in these pictures, nor do we have an easily absorbable text laden as it is with quotations in seven languages – and I think we shall end our litany of protest right about there.
About Summers much has been said but the records remain inevitably crooked. Summers was probably a priest, but not an ordained Catholic one; he was not trained in any field in particular, but exhibited that uncanny brand of genius that can absorb information from variegated sources and explain it in its own words – a much undervalued and glorious skill; and his belief in the evils he so gladly recounts should not detract or enhance our understanding that he is interested in their imaginary consequences as much as their physical. That is to say, while Summers probably did wholly believe in things such as vampires or witches, he perceived them first and foremost as immoral phenomena. As he states:
In truth he who accepts the spiritual world is bound to realize all about him the age-long struggle for empery of discarnate evil ceaselessly contending with a thousand cunning sleights and a myriad vizardings against the eternal unconquerable powers of good. Nature herself bears witness to the contest; disease and death, cruelty and pain, ugliness and sin, are all evidences of the mighty warfare, and it would be surprising indeed if some were not wounded in the fray – for we cannot stand apart, each man, S. Ignatius says, must fight under one of the two standards – if some even did not fall.
He knew that someone who prizes the world's gold over the world's goodness, someone who cares little if innocents suffer for his own benefit, and someone who thinks war is a necessary method for eliminating anyone who stands in the way of one's might and money can be undeniably charged with leaguing with the blackest of forces. He also was possessed of an almost boundless imagination that allowed him to ponder such a question abroad in the coolness of the evening: knowing what I know of the horrors of man, of what evil he has shown himself capable, can I imagine that these beings could not exist in humanly guise? Could there not be some who truly adhere to some Satanic agenda in barter for materialist advantage? Alas, what has lured great minds to madness is still fodder for those who find faith in something benevolent a little boring. And if we come to laugh at evil, we should ask ourselves what on earth we could possibly think of good.