Thursday, August 5, 2010

On Occult Crime, College Campuses, and Why I Wrote THE UNIVERSITY

“On some campuses, the paperback Satanic Bible by Church of Satan Founder Anton La Vey is outselling The Holy Bible.”

The above quote is from Time magazine in their March 13, 1972 issue. That year also happened to be the year when I was born in Lincoln, Nebraska. In the eighteen years that passed between 1972 and the year I went to college, 1990, The Satanic Bible enjoyed a sales explosion on college campuses assuming media references are to be believed. By August 1, 1990, The Daytona Beach News-Journal was reporting this statistic:

“‘The Satanic Bible’ outsells the Bible 6-to-1 at college campus bookstores."

If true, this would be a pretty impressive run — to go from outselling the traditional Bible “on some campuses” in the early 1970s to a dominant 6-to-1 sales ratio less than two decades later. When you consider that The Holy Bible is generally regarded to be the best-selling book of all-time, La Vey’s book (circa 1990) seemingly would’ve had to have been selling at Twilight-like levels on college campuses. Twilight-like sales…on steroids.

Publisher Avon Books should've been rolling in cash.

Cults and Secret Things

As a college student in Nebraska in the early 90s, I remember hearing the 6-to-1 statistic mentioned and talked about in hush-hush tones. So I checked at both of the bookstores that served my campus to see what all the uproar was about. I found no Bibles on any of the shelves — either God’s version or Satan’s. Just oversized, overpriced textbooks mostly written and approved by committees. Either something was off with the ever-growing stat, or the “Satan is destroying God in sales” trend had yet to reach the Midwest.

Looking back, I have no doubt that American college students tend to read about “other belief systems” more than a large percentage of the general public. Many people make key decisions about their beliefs, and the kind of lives they want to lead, in the late teens or early twenties. (Now whether or not we stick to those beliefs, that’s another matter.) It’s probably also natural for young people to have interest or curiosity in something that seems taboo. Fortunately, most college students don’t seem to end up as lifelong Satanists.

Ah, but the dabblings along the way can be dangerous. And sometimes the details about the dabblings can make or break a person’s life. And the devil is in the…well, you know where.

The word occult comes from the Latin word occultus, meaning hidden or secret things. As a fiction writer, particularly one in the Mystery genre, “secret things” are always good to include in a story. With my most-recent novel, The University, I decided to explore how occult elements and dabblings might affect the lives of characters in a college campus setting. The idea seemed to lend itself to a lot of inherent suspense.

Worlds of Their Own

Universities can be pretty interesting places, I think, especially when viewed through the lens of potential mystery and intrigue. You have young people who are already adults in many ways, yet not quite ready to handle certain things. Many are away from home, isolated, and vulnerable. College campuses can almost become worlds or cultures of their own.

At some institutions of higher learning, you also have questions about who is responsible for safety between local law enforcement, campus security (if there is any), and university officials. Things can get interesting when you don’t have agreement between parties or a commitment to the truth, wherever it may lead. Then there is the question about the level of power some faculty members hold. It all adds up to an interesting — and potentially disturbing — mix.

The plot of The University deals with a college student who is trying to figure out why his best friend disappeared and really not liking where the answer leads him: right into the hands of a cult group operating on his campus. Meanwhile, an investigative journalist is looking into an unsolved murder case that could be related to some of the strange activities at this seemingly normal Midwestern university.

One thing I enjoy about this particular book is how many people have their own story for me about the college they attended. There is often some old building they were afraid of, a professor they weren’t quite sure about, or some experience while they were there that was unsettling.

Like any novel, there is a whole lot of autobiographical truth mixed with a whole lot of “complete fiction” that went into The University. I might not have come across a copy of The Satanic Bible or any actual hard-core occultists (that I know of, at least) during my university days, but a seed of intrigue was definitely planted back then. Exploring some of the “What Ifs” fifteen years after the fact has been a worthwhile journey, and one that I’ve enjoyed seeing how people respond to.

More about the book: 1, 2, 3

Read an excerpt.

The University page at Amazon.

Blogs about my previous novel, Dark Friday: 1, 2