Dr. $hiraz sent me a story in honor of Halloween. In case you were wondering how universities really operated…
THE DEPARTMENT OF EVIL STUDIES
Epic is the lie that tells the truth. Satire is its snarky younger sibling.
Any resemblance to people living or undead is incredibly coincidental.
The department hires a new assistant professor
Turnbull rubbed his eyes and thought longingly of the bottle of single malt hidden in the hollow sculpture of Pazuzu he kept on his desk. He returned the denied requests for anomaly pay raises to their file folder, carefully placed the sexual harrassment complaints in the trash and began reviewing the T.A. assignments. Who would have thought evil required this much paperwork?
Finally, when he could procrastinate no longer, he turned to the stack of job applications. The position was an assistant professorship in the history and theory of the non-traditional dead. Such a fashionable topic. The applicant pool was probably full of activists for zombie rights. Back in the day, the field of Evil Studies had all been focused on the seven deadly sins, genocide and the absence of God. Now it was all werewolves and literary theory. He sighed and began sifting through the wretched applications. There were at least three hundred of them clamoring for his attention – newly minted Ph.D.s from a range of disciplines: anthropology, theology, psychology, philosophy, film studies, history, literature and, he mentally shuddered, sociology. Well, at least he could count them out.
He sorted the letters into piles based on discipline, degree of idiocy and how much he hated the applicant’s advisor and then took a few moments crafting an obviously generic rejection letter. This he was good at.
Despite the Post-it note stuck to the printer saying “letterhead, top first, right side up,” it took him several attempts to print out a letter correctly. He read over it, smirking at the clear falsity of the sentiments and the utter lack of reassurance the banal commonplaces would provide. Once he would have composed individual rejection letters, gleefully enumerating the shortcomings of each applicant’s intelligence, character, writing style and entire intellectual heritage, but he no longer had the energy. Anyway, he had learned, it was far worse to pour your hopes and dreams into an application and receive a reply that suggested that it had not even been read. “Dear Applicant…” began the rejection letter. Omitting the addressee’s name was a nice touch. With age, he mused, he had gained an appreciation for the subtler arts of misery.
The letterhead, though, snuffed out any pleasure he could take in the letter. The university’s seal, mocked him with its tiny phallic acorn. Beneath it, his department’s newly coined title: Department of Alternative Moral Discourses. Acronym aside, it was so innocuous. He had only fended off the even worse name proposed by the dean, “Ethically Challenged Studies,” because an anthropology professor at the meeting had spouted some garbage about moral relativism. Somewhere an Elder God was rolling over in his watery grave.
Ever since the merger with Classics, everything had been going to Hell. And not in a good way. Snarling, he scrunched the letter into a ball and flung it across the room.
At that moment, Poundstone, his Associate Chair, burst into the office. He was about to criticize her manners, which he enjoyed doing, but she gave him no opportunity. “There’s been an accident in the lab, you need to come with me now.” She was out of breath and several strands of hair had escaped her librarian’s bun to hang over her face. There was a film of perspiration on her brow. He had never seen the professor of enhanced interrogation so discomposed. She actually looked worried, maybe even scared. He was beginning to enjoy this.
“Did you run up here?”
“We need to go now!” she barked, ignoring his question. He felt a fluttering in his gut, a pleasurable hint of nervousness as he followed the staccato of her footsteps down the hall and into the unmarked stairwell.
Down four flights of stairs was the sub-basement of Hincmar Hall. It had been constructed as a fallout shelter in the 1950s, and its walls were made of concrete reinforced with steel. It was not on any of the campus maps, nor was it on any of the tours taken by freshmen and their parents. Now it housed the department’s laboratories. This was, in Turnbull’s mind, his empire. None of the labs was funded by the university, and the administration maintained a cheerful ignorance about their activities. One of his great achievements as department chair, he congratulated himself, had been securing corporate sponsorship for research.
In the labyrinthine sub-basement, the room numbers in no way corresponded to their location. Some of the markings on the doors were not numbers at all, but alchemical symbols. Those were no doubt Cornelius’ rooms. Pretentious little shit.
Ominous rumblings reverberated through the floor. Turnbull shivered even though he knew that the rumor of the minotaur living in the winding corridors was false. (It was actually only a research assistant who had got lost and wandered around for several years subsisting on discarded Taco Bell.) It was easy enough even for Turnbull to become disoriented here. Much to his annoyance, Poundstone navigated unerringly. They hurried on. Graduate students were sitting around the Apathy Research Center, where the equipment still sat in boxes. In another room, a researcher was observing 20 freshmen playing Farmville.
Turnbull had a pain in his side by the time Poundstone finally halted in front of one of his own rooms. Necromancy lab 3a. He swiped his keycard and slowly pushed open the heavy door.
The stench of wet goat was overwhelming. The room was almost dark. Sputtering candlelight licked feebly at the shadows. In the corner, a pale young woman in a lab coat was curled up, her arms wrapped around her knees, her unblinking eyes fixed on the center of the room. He vaguely registered that she was one of his grad students – an ambitious, reasonably intelligent girl whose name he could have recalled in a minute or two, had he wished. He could hear her fast and shallow breaths, the soft murmur of his own pulse, and beneath that the low wheezing of a much larger creature. The rasping of steel wool on a tin roof.
As he pushed on the door, more of the room came into view. The expanse of floor that he could see was covered in a complex tracery of sigils. Some he recognized, others were smudged. The chalk circle, supposed to contain the entity that the researcher summoned, was broken. Whatever the girl had invoked was unbound, and it was his job to secure it.
Turnbull’s skin tingled. He was a little afraid, necessarily, but mostly he felt alive. This was his element, his area of expertise. He felt like a medievalist reaching out to touch the ancient parchment of a book that no one had read in a thousand years. And nobody, he reminded himself, was better at this, not even that arrogant prick Randall, who was always on the History Channel. Whatever was in the room, he could handle it. He was the Rumsfield Chair of Applied Demonology, for God’s sake. He swallowed his trepidation and stepped inside.
The first thing he noticed was the entity’s sheer size. It was at least 10 feet tall. Its form was essentially human, but two curved horns jutted from its massive forehead and its rather scrawny hairy legs terminated in hooves. Leathery wings were folded over its back. It wore only a filthy loincloth. Its glassy black and yellow eyes were focused on the professor. It was both impressive and slightly cliched. Identifying the beast, Turnbull scoured his mind for the correct language. His Aramaic was a little rusty.
“Lord Azazael, welcome,” he bowed his head.
“Pitiful mortal, why do you bring me here?” it demanded in an imperious bleating. Demonic conversations, like application letters, all tended to be the same. Turnbull quashed the thought. He needed to focus.
“My people have need of your greatness.” It wasn’t that Turnbull liked flattering demons any more than he liked sucking up to the administration, but sometimes it was necessary. Ends justified means was his department’s motto.
“What can you offer me?” Well, at least it was straight to the point.
Turnbull searched his memory for useful information on this particular demon and, when that failed, drew upon the deep reserves of bullshit he usually reserved for teaching when he was unprepared for class after a particularly rigorous night of drinking. “The opportunity to corrupt the hearts and minds of the youth, to lead them away from the beliefs of their ancestors and the values of their parents.”
The improbable smile that sliced across the demon’s face was barbed with a hundred sharp irregular teeth. “You want me to teach?”
Maybe the creature wasn’t quite as stupid as it looked, thought Turnbull. There would be a contract, of course, a binding contract. It was not the first time that he had considered that universities functioned almost exactly like a necromancer’s circle, containing the forces of chaos safely within and keeping them from unleashing their full hideousness on the world. If he had been a more contemplative man, he would have felt a twinge of melancholy at the wasted potential.
As it was, however, he was supremely practical. His mind was already working, wondering what kind of office the demon would need and how to broach the subject of appropriate classroom attire. At least now he thought, with an uncharacteristic burst of good cheer, he wouldn’t have to read the rest of the job applications.