In “The Sussex Devils,” musician and author Marc Heal investigates the Satanic Ritual Abuse panic that swept the UK in the 1980s, the trial of Derry Mainwaring Knight, and his own childhood memories
Ultraculture friends Grant & Kristan Morrison sent along information about Marc Heal’s new book “The Sussex Devils,” a personal investigation of the “Satanic ritual abuse” hysteria that swept the UK (and America) in the 1980s. It’s a harrowing investigation of how much the boogeyman of Satanic ritual abuse gripped the minds of a nation, interwoven with the author’s own childhood memories. The book centers around the trial of Derry Mainwaring Knight, a man who publicly claimed that he was a high-ranking member of a “Satanic cult” that was operating at the highest levels of British society, allegedly engaged in covert, Satanic ritual abuse with heads of state.
I won’t mention the group that Knight attacked, but I assure you, it’s one that will likely be quite familiar to readers of Ultraculture. Knight raised over $1.5 million (adjusted for USD and today’s rates) from local gentry to subvert the group from within and destroy their regalia. Knight was later pilloried as a con-man, including by publications like People (link here).
In The Sussex Devils, Heal (a musician and DJ whose confrontational band Cubanate toured with Gary Numan, The Sisters of Mercy and Front 242) revisits this dark period of history and the Satanic ritual abuse panic, investigating the psychic undercurrents of society, the mass hysteria of crowds, and how the case overlapped with his own childhood.
I spoke to Heal at length on Skype last night, and had a fascinating conversation about the nature of belief and fear. Heal pointed out just how little information on “forbidden” subjects like the occult was available in the 1980s, making it all-to-easy for the public’s imagination to fill in the gaps, conjuring up monsters lurking around every street corner. The Sussex Devils, which explores first-hand the effects of that panic, sounds excellent.
Horror legend Clive Barker says of the book: “Heartbreaking and breathtaking. The terrors of the real world are incomprehensible. Take a moment to consider preordering a copy of his book.” Grant Morrison compares the book to the “Satanstorm” arc of The Invisibles, for those familiar with the comic.
Marc Heal says:
Thirteen years after I quit music, I stumbled across a yellowed fragment of The Guardian from early 1986 in the bottom of a trunk full of old studio tapes.
The cutting concerned the court case of a man named Derry Mainwaring Knight. He claimed that he was a senior member of a secret Satanic group operating at the highest levels of British society. Helped by a local priest, John Baker, vicar of the Sussex village of Newick, Knight had raised large sums from wealthy local gentry on the pretext of destroying powerful items of Satanic regalia and subvert the cabal from within.
I threw away the piece of newspaper. It made me deeply uneasy, and I did not remember why I would have saved it. But the story nagged at me. I started asking myself about the Knight affair. I recalled almost nothing about his trial – even though I had grown up at the epicentre of the story. My family had known the Reverend Baker well and I had been a close friend of his eldest son, David. I had witnessed the panic over Satanism and the contemporary hysteria generated in Sussex religious meetings: speaking in tongues, prophesy, and healing. Why did I know so much about the people in the story and yet I recalled so little about it?
Finally, I faced up to the reason for the blank: the trial had taken place in the weeks immediately after the defining trauma of my life.
In December 1985 an elder from my parents’ evangelical Christian church attempted to exorcise me from what he suspected was my possession by demons. I could hardly blame him. I was drunk, crazed and mumbling about a terrible city made of iron on a vast, featureless plain.
My parents were “born again” in 1981. I found their conversion to “Charismatic” Christianity alarming but to begin with it had little impact on my day-to-day life. But I was about to experience a very real psychological trauma. At a religious rally that I unwillingly attended in 1984 at the Loftus Road football stadium, I experienced the first of the panic attacks that were later to dominate my life. Anxiety is a relatively modern condition, now much discussed, but in 1984 I had never heard the term. In my dreams and eventually by day, my mind was invaded with monsters that assimilated all humanity, of tortures and wounds upon vast plains of human remains, the insane violence of the iron city, all garbled and choked in a never-ending loop. I became so disturbed that I fulfilled a symptomatic checklist of “possession”, and needless to say, that was the Evangelical diagnosis.
In THE SUSSEX DEVILS I first set out to write the story of Derry Knight and his allegations of a Satanic cabal at the heart of the British establishment. Yet, when I began the process, I found myself wondering what exactly had happened back then to me.
In the book I will tell these two stories in parallel. It is difficult to understand now but the Satanic moral panics of the 1980s were as powerful as the current panics about child abuse. Why, for a brief moment in history, did these fears dominate, and what did it mean – for me, my friends and the wider world?
As best I could, I pieced together the story – of Derry Knight, of my own coming-of-age, of the broader Satanic panic – and asked myself: who were the real Sussex Devils?
You can snag a copy of the book here!