The Wormwood File: Introduction

The introduction plus the first two letters from The Wormwood File: E-Mail from Hell


We may not pay Satan reverence, for that would be indiscreet, but we can at least respect his talents. A person who has for untold centuries maintained the imposing position of spiritual head of four-fifths of the human race, and political head of the whole of it, must be granted the possession of executive abilities of the loftiest order.

— Mark Twain

Demon-to-demon correspondence is not the kind of writing we often gain access to or even imagine exists. Aren’t devils a figment of our superstitious ancestors’ fevered imaginations? A pre-scientific way of explaining madness, illness, wars, plagues, famines and other misfortunes? A way of blaming invisible beings for all those actions once regarded as sins but now seen, in the clear light of scientific day, as mistakes or misunderstandings?

It’s not a bad age to be a demon. They have a freer hand so long as we regard them as nonexistent. How can what doesn’t exist do us any harm? Would that they were the nothings we imagine.

Unfortunately not only do they exist, but they are damnably clever. They even write letters.

How did I obtain an exchange of hellish e-mail? It was thanks to a chance meeting at a venerable but unpretentious pub in Oxford, the Eagle & Child, where anything that interferes with quiet conversation is unwelcome. Though most of the pub’s clients are known only to their friends and families, many luminaries have lifted a pint at this establishment, including J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, yet there isn’t a clipping on the walls that suggests that such words as “hobbit” and “Aslan” were heard here before they were heard anywhere else.

This past May, while in that academic town for a conference and having ordered an ale at the Eagle & Child, I discovered the man standing next to me at the bar was an “I.T.” specialist. “Eye Tea?” I asked? “Information technology,” he replied, recognizing me as a throwback to the Gutenberg era.

Forgiving my ignorance, he went on to explain he was in the midst of a project being conducted at Magdalen College. His task was to find more effective ways to defend the university’s computers from viruses, worms and other unwelcome “e-guests.”

I said it sounded like tedious work.

“Sometimes it is,” he told me, “but there are occasional discoveries that make it more than worthwhile. Just yesterday I managed to hack my way through the firewalls of Hell.”

I chuckled. Clearly he was joking.

“I know it sounds altogether unlikely,” he responded, “but I’m not kidding. Using the Google search engine, I meant to type in the name of a fellow researcher whose web site I wanted to visit — a man named Wornwood. By a slip of the index finger I found a link to a web site for the domain ‘Wormwood’! It was a very austere page, simply the word ‘Wormwood’ in red gothic letters on a dark grey background — a page with a seriously diabolic look! But the site was password protected. I couldn’t stroll right in.”

He paused for a long sip of ale.

“You must understand that I’m the sort of person who finds locked doors a challenge. At least on the web, I’m pretty good at breaking and entering. But I might never have managed to find a way in, or even had the motivation, had I not been a C.S. Lewis fan. You must have heard of him, but have you ever read The Screwtape Letters? Very worthwhile. It’s is a collection of letters from a senior demon named Screwtape to a dense apprentice named Wormwood published sixty years ago during the last world war. Anyway, after several bad guesses, I typed ‘Screwtape’ into the password field on the theory that sometimes the simplest key is the one that works — and bingo, the door opened! As I was soon to discover, I was in that part of web that is furthest below sea level.”

I asked what he had found.

“Sadly, not a lot. Within minutes whoever guards the site was on to me. I lost my connection and my computer crashed. When I was up and running again, there was no longer a Wormwood site. It had vanished. But during my short visit, I had managed to download a file of e-mail sent by Wormwood to an up-and-coming junior devil named Greasebeek. Unfortunately Greasebeek’s half of the exchange wasn’t part of the file, though it’s easy enough to guess his side of it. If you care to see the archive, I can pass it on to you. Just give me your internet address. You do have one?”

Luckily I did. The file was waiting for me when I checked my e-mail that night.

I read it immediately, then responded with the suggestion it should be published. My new-found friend — let me call him Albion — said this was out of the question: “Believe me, my job prospects would not be enhanced by having my name on the cover of a collection of e-mail from Hell. The prudent scholar who wants to keep his academic career on the right track would do well not to confess his suspicion that there are demons about.” He suggested I take charge of the file. And so I have.

Several friends I’ve shared the file with have doubted the authenticity of the exchange. One colleague regards it as ridiculous to think non-physical beings, should they exist, would have any need for e-mail. (It’s my view that e-mail, being so radically a non-physical medium, is ideal for demons.)

One friend asked if I had done a “background check” on Albion? The answer is no.

I freely admit there is no way to prove these letters are what they claim to be, only that the man who passed them on to me has good taste in pubs and ale. He doesn’t impress me as suffering a compulsion to conduct seances or sell snake oil to the gullible. One of the striking things about him is that he has no interest in selling anything.

In a recent note he points out that, even for a hardened atheist, belief in Hell doesn’t require a leap of faith: “Any sensible person should find Hell a good deal easier to believe in than Heaven. All you need to do is think of how many ways we’ve come up with to harm each other, a list which gets constantly longer as we migrate from war to war. For most of us, glimpses of Heaven are not as easily come by.” These are not the thoughts of a man who has the Mad Hatter in his family tree.

No doubt there are those readers who will be tempted to think I’m the one who descends from the Mad Hatter. I console myself by recalling that Lewis must have endured similar suspicions when he published his collection more than half a century ago.

Jim Forest


TO: Greasebeek
FROM: Wormwood
SUBJECT: teamwork

My dearest, most congenial Greasebeek,

Of course I am at your service. “Teamwork” is a popular word among humans these days. We could use more of it in Hell. I also recall that I was once as clueless as you are.

Yes, you have had a setback. That’s obvious. But don’t be so quick to hit the alarm button! A cool head is always a good thing, no matter how hot the furnace. I agree your client’s situation is threatening, but only mildly so. There is no reason to regard him as a lost cause or yourself in a room with no exits. So he has bought a CD of monks chanting. I can assure you most people who buy recordings of Gregorian chant, Orthodox liturgies, Black spirituals and the like rarely become Christians. I know you will find this hard to imagine, but they barely listen to what is being sung. The words, even if in a language they happen to understand, are merely restful, pleasant sounds. These recordings are supposed to reduce stress — this is their main selling point. They are non-prescription tranquilizers. In any event your client will find music of this quality far more easily in music shops than in actual churches. There isn’t one church in a thousand that has music that compares favorably with what people buy in music shops. I’ve known people to give up on Christianity simply because the music in actual churches doesn’t measure up to recordings!

We had a case recently of a man leaving a certain parish because he didn’t like the sound system. He has yet to find a parish that measures up to his artistic standards. I doubt he ever will.

If you wore shoes, you would wear them out looking for a parish that provides music any record company would want to record.

You say your client is listening to these recordings on a daily basis while driving to work and occasionally at home. The thing to guard against is that he doesn’t connect the music with actual Christian belief. If he thinks of it at all, help him regard the Christian music he enjoys as primitive “folk art.” This is what you need to encourage.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not suggesting that you should be complacent about the sort of music he is playing. Clearly the content is dangerous and even the music itself, as pure sound, suggests what the Enemy refers to as “the kingdom of heaven.” Beauty is always a danger. It does happen from time to time that even one phrase from a song or hymn sets ideas in motion which can undermine many years of hard work on our part.

If the “folk art” line of defense fails, at vulnerable moments plant the thought that the people who sing such music are doing it purely for the sake of art — better yet, for money — and don’t believe what they’re singing any more than a politician believes his own speeches.

You mentioned he has learned by heart a few stanzas of “Amazing Grace.” If you hear him humming that appalling tune, the danger will pass if you can make him recall some particularly ugly item in the news or hideous episode in human history. What good is “Amazing Grace” if terrorists are blowing up children or people are starving to death or plagues kill thousands? Stick with the slogan that “no good God would permit evil things to happen” and you will have nothing to worry about.

The man who wrote “Amazing Grace” was nearly ours, by the way — a slave trader much of his life. A sad tale, that one. His guardian demon, who failed to see what was going on right under his nose, is still paying the price for letting him fall into the Enemy’s hands. (Never forget for a moment that just as there are rewards for achievement, there are penalties for failure. There is more to Hell than you yet know.)

Happily, your client seems so put off by “organized religion” that there is probably no need to wave headlines or history books at him.

“Organized religion” — what a useful phrase that’s been! Isn’t it amazing how many people appreciate organized health care, organized education, organized garbage collection, organized mail delivery, organized beer breweries and organized film making, and yet without batting an eye embrace the idea that everyone would be better off without organized religion? Don’t you love it! The widespread acceptance of this term, pronounced as if it were a disease, has been one of our greatest triumphs, making your work a hundred times easier than it was in former times, and all the more so in simple, low level cases like the one you have.

Did you know that my mentor and uncle, the renowned Screwtape, was one of those who did the most to make this phrase so popular? He is an example to us all, though one has always to take care not to offend or disappoint one of his magnitude! You may have heard rumors of my near catastrophe at his hands not many decades ago when I was much less experienced in the management of souls. Luckily I happened to have discovered a few details about a failure of his that he was desperately eager should never be reported. This item of intelligence reversed my fortunes and even put me up a notch.

warmly yours,



TO: Greasebeek
FROM: Wormwood
SUBJECT: the real world

My dearest Greasebeek,

In your previous letter you were nervous about a shift in your client’s musical tastes, but can you imagine what might happen if he were to disconnect himself, even partially, from his TV? What good is a guardian devil who notices dust but overlooks boulders?

You consigned to a mere PS the decision made by your client and his wife — by the way, what do you know about her? — to shift their television from the living room to the spare room in order “to get it out of the center of their lives.” Especially disturbing is his remark about needing to take steps “to build up a spiritual life.”

At least they haven’t completely gotten rid of the TV. Even so, this has the potential of moving many things in the wrong direction. Your old instructor Grimshaw assured me you were clever but I begin to have my doubts. How could you fail to see this danger approaching and neglect to take appropriate preventative measures?

You might at least have suggested placing it in the bedroom, which in many cases is a better location for a television than the living room. It is not unusual for bedroom sets to run all night, with those who doze in the electronic glare waking up fitfully to catch disturbing fragments of whatever happens to be on as the night progresses — scenes of murder and mayhem, or often violent, semi-pornographic films. In fact these days there might be nothing “semi” about it. Even in the case of those who at last turn it off, the presence of bedroom television will usually mean less reading, less talking and less quiet unwinding before falling asleep — thus a more tired, more irritable person the next day. Most important, an active television, even when it is only running as background noise, means less prayer, or none.

But perhaps your man is another type and may succeed in reducing the time he spends paralyzed in front of a televison. You mentioned several programs your client used to watch regularly, programs generally regarded as “wholesome,” “inspiring,” etc., suggesting it might actually be in our interest that he intends to see less TV. You seem to think it’s a triumph that he might miss the occasional documentary about pilgrims making their way to some pathetic shrine or nuns serving the poor or something else equally distasteful. But all these things are entirely harmless so long as they are just images on a television screen. The viewer will feel virtuous simply because he is watching charitable ladies doing good deeds in distant places he will never visit among the sort of people he carefully avoids in real life. The main fact is that, watching these holy nuns, your man is safe in a dream world, doing nothing, not lifting a finger for anyone, not even saying a prayer or parting with his loose change. It hardly matters what he fantasizes about from time to time so long as it’s only star-gazing — or saint-gazing. (Yes, of course, demon gazing pleases us far better. You must do what you can to speed the day.)

What is dangerous is your client taking charge of his eyes. I don’t think you yet grasp that if we can turn a man’s eyes in the right direction, he’s ours right down to his toenails. Own a man’s eyes and you own the man.

I had a client once who attended church services for more than a year, even sang in the choir for several months. I was beginning to think she was a lost cause. Luckily for us, she never broke the habit of watching television whenever she was alone. There was always something to remind her that “the real world” has nothing to do “with some alleged all-powerful deity,” as she used to say, once she had seen the darkness. Finally she decided that going to church was as childish as believing in Tinker Bell. The lady died a few years ago and is today safely below.

Take heart. You have lost a battle but certainly not the war. At the very least, you can count on your client’s friends to be raising their eyebrows at this repositioning of the TV. If you play your cards right, he’ll soon be worrying that he is being seen by his friends as slightly cracked if not a total nut case. Keep in mind that peer group disapproval, even when only imagined, is no small thing. The average human being would rather be regarded as a criminal than a crackpot.

Yours warmly,


PS Kindly avoid the e-mail shorthand! After a little research, I’ve learned that LOL means lots of luck, but when writing me, write in complete sentences. I am not a teenager and this is not chatroom doodling.

copyright 2004 by Jim Forest, may not be reproduced in any form without the author’s written permission