“B-b-but, Lord Satan,” stammered the imp, reluctantly raising one claw to announce a question. Although he headed one of Hell’s most effective departments, technically speaking he was still an imp, and everyone knew what happened to the last one when the boss was in an exceptionally foul mood. “Our invention, called IT, shares knowledge but don’t they say that knowledge is power?” he asked, fidgeting so nervously that his tail nearly knotted.

Satan chuckled pleasantly for his team was on a winning streak and every member knew it. “That mantra was cooked up by our Communication Unit just before our human cattle began their so-called Renaissance,” he explained. “The best way to keep people from thinking is not to smash their printing-presses. Their Nazis and Communists tried that. Nor is it to frighten dissenters, for which the Spanish Inquisition struggled so hard and still failed. Best is to keep them distracted, swamp them in data. America’s spies collect every email worldwide – love letters, shopping lists, Viagra spam, corporate mission statements and drivel like that – and they are ten times more incompetent as a result.”

“Now,” he continued, “hundreds of Earth’s God-botherers, Holy Joes scribbling subversive stuff for their websites, compete against millions of other screeds, all free online, plus even more Materialist advertising, impressively disgusting porn and pop music combing both. As a result they are ignored; as effectively silenced as if we sent them to dungeons but with less risk of bad publicity. Neat stuff, hunh?” The Embodiment of Evil waggled his eyebrows merrily, while the imp breathed an inward sigh of relief.

“That was one of my better ideas,” Satan added modestly. His audience knew that it was not, and they knew the junior devil that came up with the strategy, but Satan was still their boss and it was not for nothing that he is called the Father of Lies.

“Great thinking, Chief!” they all mumbled, forcing smiles.

“One last thing,” Satan added. “I usually hate to quote cattle who evaded our clutches, but T. S. Eliot asked, ‘Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?’ Smart boy! We could have used him!” The whole roomful of imps and daemons and devils backed from the room, banging into one another as they nodded respectfully, saluted, bowed or genuflected in barely concealed joy that the meeting was over.

Well before the lunchtime rush, our imp and a favourite colleague went to the Executive Canteen for a cup of hot bile. They sat as far from the kitchens as possible so that they could hear one another, for the cookery goblins were busy and the human sinners screamed as they were butchered for the fresh meat that senior staff demanded.

“These daemons in the Distraction Unit are as impressive as Hell,” his classmate observed. “But they were being thwarted by humans meditating and focussing; unplugging our gadgets and tuning out our Materialist cacaphony. So a Junior Tempter got Christian leaders to denounce it, even though their Desert Fathers did it every day. Why? Because so-called mindfulness is also touted by Buddhists, supposedly godless heathens, and in America the Buddhists suck paying customers out of Christian churches. That clever Tempter is heading for promotion, that’s for sure!”

Our imp, whose name is Scumthorpe, nodded agreeably. He absent-mindedly leafed through the printed slides from the presentation; slides being one of the few tortures that Hell inflicts on its own personnel as well as on the damned. For humans it was applied in greater volume, and it was said that their ten-thousandth slide turned a former terrorist into a gibbering wreck, even though he had said nothing on earth during months of being water-boarded by Dick Cheney in person.

“Another hundred American Liberals checked in yesterday. Suicides as usual,” Scumthorpe said, for his cousin worked in Matriculation, as they call it. “They marched for permissiveness in the Sixties, never realising that our Materialism would hijack it, triumph and turn their dreams into ashes.”

His former classmate, Snottmann, nodded. Sleight-of-hand, offering one thing and delivering another, was the first trick that every young imp or daemon learnt at its father’s knee just after it hatched. Indeed it remained in the popular lexicon, and often strategy meetings had someone mutter approvingly, “Pick a card! Any card!”

Both imps knew that America’s Liberal cattle had dreamed of love and public-spiritedness, of cooperation in the Age of Aquarius, but their permissiveness inadvertently helped to enable selfish Materialism beyond their wildest nightmares. Every day their future now looks less like a Peter Max print and more like an American Express ad, or even Internet pornography; and so the noose seems more and more inviting.

“Our pollsters say that American conservatives are just entering their Cognitive Dissonance Phase,” Scumthorpe added. “Most don’t get scared of our Ultimate Weapon until they see what their teenage daughter’s bastard son has on his five-hundred dollar smart-phone.”

“They’re still in denial. Right-wing fools confuse Capitalism’s economic opportunity with Materialism’s dependably bad choices,” interrupted Snottmann, finishing his friend’s thought. “But they still defend it all chiefly because the Left used to oppose it, before they sold out or just surrendered. Only now do a few begin to sense that something went wrong. Worry not! We have plenty of room in our abattoirs once the right-wing suicides begin.”

“I do hope they choose pills or poison or hanging,” mused Scumthorpe. “Humans who drink themselves to death get sick at our gates and make a frightful mess.”

A kitchen goblin collected their old cups and our two rose to return to their airless, subterranean offices. “What’s for lunch today?” asked Snottmann pleasantly. The kitchen worker smiled broadly, displaying its filed teeth.

“Our very best, Sirs! Today we will exceed ourselves, Sirs, if I say so myself, Sirs!” purred the goblin, wiping its greasy claws on its filthy apron. “A whole tour bus went over a cliff, Sirs! Our good fortune, you might say! All Fox News broadcasters, every one! You can hear them now, Sirs, becoming kebabs, on skewers. You may trust me, Sirs, only the freshest meat screams like that!”

Snottmann looked at his classmate who nodded eagerly. “A table for six, my good fellow!” he requested, knowing friends who would also be eager. The goblin grovelled pleasantly as the pair returned to work.

Stephen Masty is completing a novel updating C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters.  

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The featured image is “Fallen Angels in Hell” (c. 1841) by John Martin (1789–1854) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.

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