STEVE VOLK tries to recreate a British author's paranormal awakening--and succeeds in failing.
The temperature starts plummeting at around 2 a.m. Low enough that I have to flex my fingers to keep them working and almost forget what I'm doing here. I'm trespassing on the grounds of Byberry State Mental Hospital, and my companion is almost a complete stranger to me.
I watch and listen. The air around us is almost pitch black. My notebook and pen are useless. Still, I occasionally try to write something down. Some of these notes prove intelligible later--"They are ... " for instance--but most read like stabs at some new language.
When I hear a pair of thuds sound from the stairwell, I wish I were someplace else. I look at the man I'm with to see if he's as frightened as I am. But he's not.
Lou Gentile stands more than 6 feet tall and weighs close to 300 pounds. He wears a kind of unofficial uniform: baggy black sweat pants and a matching sweatshirt, both of which look like they could use a good washing. He lives in the Northeast with his wife Antoinette and three of their children. Before a recent accident that severely injured his back, he installed heating, venting and air conditioning units, just like his father before him.
Gentile is 37, with dark hair and dark eyes, and he gesticulates with his hands when he speaks. Though he's Philadelphia born and raised, he resembles no one so much as the King of Queens--the quintessentially warm and rumpled family man.
He seems the perfect size and shape for his youngest daughter, 3-year-old Stephanie, to climb on. He chain smokes. He drops the F-bomb the way drummers keep a beat. He heartily recommends Wawa's new cheesesteak hoagie. He seems as concerned and aware of changes in his neighborhood as any homeowner. And except for the remarkable things he says, he is completely sane.
"I'm a certified lay demonologist," Gentile says. "And I can tell you exorcism, the other side, ghosts and spirits--they're all real."
Gentile says this sitting in a booth at the Melrose Diner, where he and Antoinette have come to share their stories of ghosts and demons, of priests and exorcisms, of 9-foot shadows that rise up out of the dark and breathe menacingly over the innocent. As they talk they down steaming hot cups of coffee and dine on Salisbury steak.
"I'm not like one of these psychics," he says, staring at me across the table. "I'm not gonna say, 'Ooh, I feel a cold spot' or 'I'm sensing an old man in the room who fought in the Civil War' or any shit like that."
In fact, Gentile says, "I'm not psychic at all. But I'll tell you what I can do. I can do something for you I don't think any psychic can. I can show you this other world."
In the field of the paranormal, where proof is hard to come by, Gentile's straightforward offer is immediately attractive, especially when he mentions a British reporter he met earlier who came to make fun of him and instead left with a new worldview.
"I've proven it to people before," he says. "Just ask Will Storr. I changed his life."
|Suited up and ready: Gentile, dressed in the black he favors, stares out from Byberry's grounds.|
Storr's personal website (willstorr.co.uk) lists a number of journalistic stunts. He drove 170 miles an hour with illegal streetcar racers in Leeds. He required hospitalization after backyard wrestlers pitched him through a burning table and sliced open his forehead. He dressed as a woman to curry favor with the transvestite leader of an extreme left-wing group called the Church of Euthanasia. When he saw Lou Gentile's website, he figured he'd be able to "poke fun at a quintessential American eccentric."
Their meeting figured to be short. Storr is demonstrably what he says he is--a journalist. In contrast, Gentile's claim of being a "certified lay demonologist" begs an explanation. "There's no one, there's no degree," admits Gentile, "that accredits me as a demonologist. But that's what I am."
Gentile is a demonologist because he says so. But he draws a thick line between himself and others who claim to be demonologists (and there are others). Gentile says the difference is that he's "done the work." By his own reckoning he's assisted at more than a dozen exorcisms and hundreds of haunting cases.
I phone Storr in the U.K. after my first meeting with Gentile, thinking he might fail to corroborate the demonologist's version of events. But he surprises me. "I figured I'd go out with him on these cases," he says, "and nothing would happen."
Instead what he saw and heard with Gentile spun him beyond his "safe, adult beliefs" and into a world where--there's no other way to say it--death is not the end. In the book Will Storr vs. the Supernatural, the author recounts having his mind boggled in various ways: an unexplained ball of white light flashes through a room he's in; ghostly voices emanate from Gentile's recorder; a possessed woman transforms, suddenly speaking from a demon's point of view: "Foolish men," she says, appraising Gentile and Storr, "sit around and wait for displays of power."