Reality Hacking: An Experiment in Magick
“Magick is as mysterious as mathematics, as empirical as poetry, as uncertain as golf and as dependent on the personal equation as love.”
Aleister Crowley, Magick in Theory and Practice.
“We will open the gates of Hell and grant you an audience with those in the basement. I know the gatekeeper, Sandalphon… And perhaps you will meet Belial after all.”
I’m not sure whether they make an Omen ring tone, but if they did, I’d have expected to hear it as I perused the text messages I’d been receiving in the past few days. It was July 2001 and I was on a Virgin train to Crewe, a small industrial town in England’s Northwest, to meet Andy Stockall, the man who’d sent them, and his colleague Alistair Burnett. Andy and Alistair are magicians; that is to say, they cast spells, travel non-physical realms, and, when they really want something, they’ll summon a demon or two to perform their bidding. And that’s what we were going to do the following day.
I'd first encountered Andy and Alistair about six months previously, on the windswept druid isle of Anglesey, where they were summoning the Thelemic goddess Babalon for a BBC TV crew. They’d contacted me at Fortean Times magazine just prior to my involvement with the TV programme, so I’d put them in touch with the producers. Coincidence? Perhaps, though Andy and Al claimed to have cast a spell to attract publicity to their work, which they then received in abundance though, magic being what it is, the publicity wasn’t all to their liking. And, a few months later, here I was again, off to provide them with more.
* * *
Many great claims are made for magick, almost exclusively by magicians and those who fear them. These claims, say the sceptics, are always easier to make with the aid of hindsight – there are no coincidences, they will tell you. Practitioners and dabblers, however, will point out that it’s often impossible to differentiate between cause, effect, and chance: certainly magick is very good at collapsing the distinctions between them. Like Andy says: “After you’ve done it long enough, and you start to manipulate things, you get the feeling you are part of a bigger game.”
But still the doubters will ask: “How can you be sure that it might not have happened anyway?”
In the hope of answering this question, Andy and I decided to lay down the magical gauntlet and devise a public demonstration: a signal that would be clear to all who saw it. Live, on the usually sober Channel 4 News, on Tuesday 21 August 2001, presenter Jon Snow would be magickally coerced into doing something that news readers are supposed never to do. Momentarily losing his composure, he would corpse, that is, laugh out loud – live on air.
So, could they do it? “No problem,” said Andy, his confidence in marked contrast to a coven of witches who had already refused on ethical grounds. “Can’t we make someone fall in love instead?” was their reply, apparently oblivious to the irony of their protest question.
And so it was a few days later that I found myself headed for Crewe, an 85-year-old edition of Goetia: The Book of Evil Spirits, found in a crumbling Brighton bookshop, tucked into my bag, along with the usual journalistic paraphernalia.
I had mixed feelings about the venture. I’ve had a lifelong interest in magick, probably born, as it no doubt is for many, from reading supernatural fiction and watching horror films as a kid. Aged nine I was giving school presentations on vampires and werewolves, and by 14 I was spouting forth on the magic of Dr John Dee and friends, my information culled, of course, from a dayglo green copy of Colin Wilson’s The Occult. I became a deft tarot card reader in my mid teens and was often to be found tossing coins and poring over Richard Wilhelm’s I-Ching. All this is what you might call soft magic, of the sort that can be pulled from the Mind Body Spirit – or, as was recently put to me, Mind Body Wallet – shelf of any bookstore.
My explorations of “hard” magic – the leap into actual spell casting – were few and far between. I can’t remember what I cast these spells for, or whether they’d worked, but my deep interest in the subject has remained, so I was ready to take a step into the void with Andy and Alistair.
A couple of hours into the train journey I decided to ease myself into a magical state of mind with a little nimbomancy. Scattered cotton wool clouds fluffed up the wide Midlands skyline, but one stood out. What was it? Humanoid for sure, and winged, perhaps holding a snake, or was it a scythe. And there was something about its head. It wasn’t human. It had horns like a stag, or perhaps a lion’s ears and mane.
A trio of drunken students burst into the carriage, interrupting my reverie. “Oi, mate, what you writing?” I showed them my doodle and they exited in perplexed silence. The cloud moved on.
* * *
In appearance at least, Andy and Alistair defy conventional occult stereotyping. No big rings, no pentagrams, no esoteric pendants, no frilly cuffs, no velvet and no pointy beards. They do, however, look like an engineer and a caterer, which is exactly what they are, at least while inhabiting the mundane sphere. Andy, the caterer, is noticeably tall and gregarious with it; Alistair, the engineer, is bespectacled, quiet and intense, a man with a head full of angles.
We hop into Andy’s Space Lego-spattered car (he has two children) and drive to the small village where he grew up. As we enter a rowdy Friday night pub, I realise that with my longish black hair and Goetia in hand, it’s me who looks like the occultist. The other two blend in perfectly.
We discuss the response to the BBC programme, for many of their friends the first revelation of their now-not-so-secret lives. “The response was pretty favourable really,” said Andy, “though I got some abuse from the local fundamentalist Christians in my town. I still occasionally get a bit of hassle there, but when I come back here nobody bats an eyelid. They all have far darker secrets of their own.”
As if to prove the point an old school friend of Andy’s appeared at the table. He’d seen the programme, but was more taken aback at the fact that their college drinking pal Nick – who appeared in the TV show as part of Andy’s magick circle – was in the midst of a truly magickal transformation. S/he was now halfway to becoming Nichola. The magic, however, didn’t bother him one bit: “Maybe there is something in it. If Andy thinks there is, then I’m prepared to accept that.”
So, I ask Andy, what can magick actually do for us? “Do you want dark to light or light to dark?” he replies. The Dennis Wheatley in me chooses the former.
“Have I ever used magic to make somebody hurt themselves? Yes.
“Have I ever rendered anybody impotent with magic? Yes.
“Have I caused someone whose drinking habits were hurting their family to hurt themselves, or just leave? Yes.
“It’s unpleasant, I know, but there are so many people out there at it who won’t talk about it. Everything I’ve done has had a purpose.
“On the light side, have I healed people? Yes, of psychological illnesses, bipolar disorders, sleep disorders, tooth grinding. I did, and still do, a lot of work helping other people through my outreach service.
“Can we project into each other’s dreams? Yes. Then there’s the pure astral meeting, the projection into the Body of Light. That’s when I’m all black, sitting in a tree, looking at you like this (he grimaces), and you’re walking along a beach, about ten feet tall. It’s a strange place, the astral.”
Talk turned to the morrow’s ritual. Andy had hired out a village hall nearby, “one of many little magical hideaways I have in the area”. The farmer who owns it had hoped that the vibes left by the ritual would spice up the Women’s Institute, (tea, cake and no crumpet) meetings that were more usually held there.
We were to perform a fairly traditional evocation from The Lesser Key of Solomon, or Goetia, the book I had brought with me. Compiled from Renaissance sources by Samuel Liddell "MacGregor" Mathers, leader of the quintessentially English, late 19th century magical group the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, it was then unceremoniously ripped off and published by the notorious hellraiser Aleister Crowley.
Goetia means howling – that’s the sound made by the 72 denizens of the underworld described within its pages. There are kings, dukes, princes, marquises and knights, all named, described, numbered and represented with a binding sigil or seal. As well as it’s intended magickal use, the grimoire is also a fabulous untapped mine of pet and brand names. How about Botis for a toad, Furfur for a ferret or Asmoday for a plaque-removing mouth wash?
The following day we were to summon Oriax: “A great Marquis, he appeareth in the form of a lion, with a serpent’s tail, riding upon a horse; and he holdeth in his right hand two great serpents hissing.” A lion, holding a pair of snakes…
I remember my cloud from the train and feel the temperature drop a couple of degrees. I was beginning to understand how magic works.
“Goetia is real back against the wall stuff,” Alistair told me with deadpan tones. “I’ve only done it when there’s no alternative. It’s a good way of solving problems with direct confrontation. It's using a sledgehammer to knock in a nail. For most situations a little nudge will do, but Goetia is hardcore.”
A small old man leapt up from the next door table, rambling in a muttered yell, then stumbling out of the building: “…your book…your bible…virgin queen…Elizabeth…”
“That’s Kenny, the village idiot,” informed a nonchalant Andy.
“The Goetia will often have tramps, drunkards and mad men approaching you. Sometimes they’ll even know your name.”
It was at least an hour past closing time and the pub showed no sign of shutting shop, but we had work to do tomorrow.
* * *
Morning broke, not even a fry up could have dispelled the evil lurking within me. It must have been those whisky chasers.
Andy and Alistair arrived and we prepared to head off, but not before a playful, bouncing black dog – an ancient omen of ill-fortune, even death – had drawn blood from Alistair’s arm before being called off by its human owner.
We drove through the eerie, empty fields of the Cumbrian countryside. A few months ago they would have been abundant with cows and sheep, but the recent Foot and Mouth panic had seen them burnt in their thousands in colossal funeral pyres. For miles around people complained of the thick layer of grease covering their homes and cars.
Our destination was a small 19th century village hall, its gothic-in-miniature setting the perfect scene for the madness to come. I was concerned to note that children were playing in their garden a couple of metres away, while their mother hung her washing on a line in front of the hall window. “Don’t worry. She’s an old girlfriend of mine,” said Andy. That wasn’t the kind of reassurance I was looking for.
Inside, the only decoration was a series of photographs of long-passed village fetes; sepia children, most of them great-grandparents by now, wearing flower wreaths and elegant robes. All very Wicker Man. A curious child’s face leered at the window. Smiling awkwardly I closed the curtains, and asked what we should do about the kids. “Ignore them,” was the answer. “But promise me one thing,” asked Alistair, suddenly serious. “When you’re in that circle and the demon appears here in the room with us, you won’t run. Even if someone knocks on the door or comes in – even if the building catches fire – don’t ever leave the magic circle.”
Andy had begun to prowl around the room, while Alistair unwrapped an epée sword and a curved dagger, encrusted with stones and an inscription that I couldn’t quite make out. I asked to hold it but no; Andy had spent a long time consecrating these magical weapons, so he wasn’t going to let anybody else handle them for now.
With nothing more mysterious than a tin of Saxa salt, Andy formed a large circle in the centre of the room. This is where we were to stand. Just to the other side of a doorway, a convenient symbol of the threshold between worlds, he formed an equilateral triangle. This was for Oriax. And it was to him that our attentions now turned.
Producing a paperback Goetia, Alistair asked me to copy Oriax’s sigil, an arrangement of lines and circles shaped a little like a Space Invader. “This is your ritual, so we want you to do it. Technically, we should be using vellum, but we didn’t have a skinned deer to hand, so card will have to do. Try to keep our objective in mind as you do it.” I picked up a thick magic marker and concentrated, visualising newscaster Jon Snow’s slightly stern, inquisitive features, the quizzical raised eyebrow, his trademark garish tie.
The sigil drawn, I cut it out and placed it into the binding triangle. “You’ll torture the demon with that,” said Andy, “you’ll be able to hear it screaming across the astral.”
It was time to work out exactly what instructions we were going to give Oriax as he as he was held in place. Knowing what it is that you actually want is one of the most important elements of any magickal rite –damn, it’s hard enough to gauge in your ordinary life. I had to write out my relatively mundane demands several times before they were finally approved by my two interdimensional counsels. As Andy and Alistair stress, lowly demons can only bend reality so far; there are always greater forces at work. Barring geological catastrophe or your being teleported to the North Pole, the sun will always rise in the morning and set at night.
“I’ve not felt this much anticipation since 1991, when I did a ritual in Somerset with 12 Golden Dawn members,” said a subdued Andy as he laid candles around the circle. “These are just for effect by the way”. They were certainly having an effect on me. I was beginning to feel a distinct sense of astral anxiety.
Andy talked me through the ritual. Once we were safely inside the circle they would perform a Lesser Banishing rite, sealing us in with a three-dimensional sphere of protective energy. From here, a channel into the astral realms would be opened with the Rite of the Bornless One. This allows you to summon your chosen spirit into the triangle and, more importantly, keep it there. Would I actually see it? “Perhaps. It might just be a vague presence or it might manifest physically. We’ll just have to wait and see.”
We take our places in the centre of the circle, Andy wielding the dagger, Alistair the sword. The ritual has begun.
Andy cuts pentagrams into the air at each compass point and Alistair follows up with his sword. “Ayyyyy iiiiiiii ooooooooh;” they both chant long strings of vowels in Enochian, the language of the angels. According to magical tradition, this was passed by spirits to the 16th century magus John Dee, via the earless seer Edward Kelly. The words summon unseen energies and I studiously watch the candles, half expecting them to flicker and blow out.
We walk a slow circle as each cardinal point is covered, then Andy lurches forwards to slice open the veil between our world and the astral. He calls upon the spirits to hear him and obey. No whooshing sound or wailing, just the murmur of all-too-human voices outside, followed by crunching gravel and the barking of a dog. For an instant I think I see something large and dark flash past the window. The barking intensifies and the chanting continues. I wonder how we would explain ourselves if someone walked in at this moment.
Soon the noise abates and a calm descends. I can feel it passing through me with a warm tingling sensation. Is this an emanation from the Subtle Energies Commission, or am I just relaxing a little now that we’re into the swing of things? I perch on the side of a table as Andy takes his place before the binding triangle.
It’s time to meet our demon.
“Oriax! Oriax! Oriax!” yells Andy, “Come, for I evoke thee! Come peaceably and visibly before us.”
I can’t see the triangle, and part of me doesn’t want to. What would be more troubling: the shock of seeing something appear, or the disappointment of seeing nothing at all?
Andy is edging to one side and a corner of the triangle appears, then a little bit more. Nothing so far. Not even a ripple. Perhaps Oriax is very small. As Andy moves out of the way, I realise with a dash of disappointment that there’s nothing to see. But if there's nothing there, then who is he talking to?
“There is a candidate who wishes to speak with you,” he says, stepping out of the way and leaving me standing before the vacant triangle.
I take out my instructions. “O thou spirit Oriax, I hail thee and bid you welcome… And being exalted above ye, the power of the most high, I say unto thee obey.” I visualise Jon Snow and make my demands, half wondering whether they receive Channel 4 in Hell. A low growling permeates the room and the dog barks again. Has Oriax spoken? Am I crazy for even wondering? Perhaps – it’s the sound of a motorcycle pulling up outside.
After throwing in a couple more demands of his own, Andy commands Oriax to vanish, which we can only assume that he does, as invisibly and silently as he came. The four quarters are reconsecrated and it is all over.
To be sure, I let the others leave the circle first. The dog is still barking frantically outside. I imagine it wrestling with an invisible, lion-headed demon.
* * *
A few minutes later we were settling down with a cup of tea.
“The demon came extremely quickly. I could really feel him straining to get out. He really needed some restraint,” Andy was saying.
They had both been able to see Oriax, but I wasn’t yet experienced enough. This is a subtle form of perception, it requires training and I had taken my first steps. “By the way" Andy tells me, "you’re now initiated. You can consider yourself a freelance magician. But remember, we’ve got an aetheric link with you now. Sometimes we’ll know what you’re thinking…”
21 August 2001...
The big day arrived and as I settled down alone in front of the television I wondered which outcome I would rather have seen. If we’d succeeded, I would be forced to reconsider everything I’ve ever learned about this world. If not, then for me another childhood dream would melt before reality’s withering gaze. But magic is rarely so black and white.
The Channel 4 News began. Jon Snow was nowhere to be seen. He was 'away'. On holiday? Convulsed with laughter in the Green Room? Or perhaps hiding from the lion-headed thing that was haunting his dreams?
So, the Cosmic Joker had outwitted us; it was a no score draw. “We’ve proved nothing,” said Andy over the telephone, more than a hint of disappointment in his voice. “I think The Goetia has outsmarted us, but in retrospect I think this may have been predicted all along. In our Tarot readings leading up to the ritual we repeatedly dealt the Hanged Man – a sacrifice, and a frustration.”
So magick was not yet ready to reveal itself. Perhaps, as Andy and Alistair suggest, some of its more powerful practitioners want it to remain a secret, hermetically sealed from the mundane world. Or, more likely, magick can only exist within us as, in the words of magical historian Ronald Hutton, “a creative and potentially valuable self-delusion.”
To define magick is to define the universe and all it contains. Philosophy, science, religion, tool; magic is all these things. The world of the magician is an enclosed one, hermetically sealed, inside which the laws of nature, and the nature of belief, are wilfully transformed. Our experiment demonstrated that while transforming one’s own universe is easy enough to do with the right training, affecting that of others isn’t so simple.
But the ambiguous nature of our result did leave the door to a tangible magickal reality tantalisingly ajar. Perhaps it’s for the best that, this time, it didn’t swing fully open.
A shortened version of this piece appeared in Bizarre magazine in October 2001.