Coincidence? I know my mathematics well enough to realize the impossible odds against so many chance happenings in so short a time.
by Arch Oboler
My forebears believed firmly in the existence of the constants of good and evil. And with evil ever-present, they were equally certain that the personification of Satan himself lurked in our world’s dark places. But I, brought up in today’s cynicism, had decided long ago that a living Satan was as remote a possibility as a dinosaur in my rose garden.
No more. My cynicism is now uneasiness; my certainty, wonder. Perhaps what changed me was coincidence piled on coincidence; I do not know. I’ll tell you what happened, and you may find your own answer.
I had finally completed my first novel, a tongue-in-cheek tale about an ordinary family cursed by a grandmother in league with the devil. I finished the manuscript about midnight; in the small San Fernando Valley house I use as an office, I prepared to go home as my secretary, Miss Kay, prepared the manuscript for mailing.
Suddenly I heard a strangled cry. I ran into the reception room to see Miss Kay, her face distorted in fright, frantically trying to keep the outer door from opening inward. I ran to her aid, shoving with all my strength at the opening door. No use. A strength far greater than mine was forcing the door open—inch by inch, inexorably, unrelentingly.
Suddenly cold anger enveloped me. Who was that out there? A practical joker friend? How dare he pull such a stupid trick at such a late hour! With one hand I shoved Miss Kay aside. With the other I yanked the door inward.
“You idiot! Do you realize what time…”
The boiling words froze in my throat. No one was there. The threshold was empty.
I rushed into the driveway, then into the street. Nothing. No footsteps. No sound. Quickly I searched behind the few bushes nearby. No one.
I walked back to the house, puzzled. Had that powerful force against the door been simply a sudden gust of wind? No, it had been sustained, and the air was so still that I could hear my blood pulse in my veins.
In the house a shaken Miss Kay smiled weakly. “Maybe the devil doesn’t want us to mail the manuscript,” she said.
A week went by. I had quite forgotten that incident as I returned from the post office accompanied by my four-pound poodle. I had just mailed some last-minute revisions for my devil-scoffing novel.
Once again it was close to midnight. No sooner had I entered the house than my dog turned back toward the closed door and began to bark—no, shriek—as he had never done in all of his 14 years.
As I moved to the door I saw that the knob was turning, very slowly. I called out, “Who is it? What do you want?’
No answer. Yet the knob continued to turn, back and forth.
Once more I called out, angrily this time. Again no response.
I suddenly remembered the tiny glass-ended peephole in the door. I put my eye to it. Outside the patio light revealed every corner of the terrace. No one—nothing—was there.
I nicked back the bolt, opened the door and rushed outside. Once more I searched the driveway and the street. Deserted.
All the while my tiny dog continued his hysterical shrieking. Back in the house again I suddenly realized that his bulging eyes were focused about six feet above the threshold—focused on someone, or some thing, that I could not see….
Later that month I was being interviewed on a local late-night radio talk show. While discussing my forthcoming novel, I told the host, Larry Van Nuys, about my inexplicable experiences.
Laughing, Van Nuys said: “Well, Mr. O., so the devil is prowling the San Fernando Valley, is he? Listen, since you’ve obviously become an expert on Satan while writing the book, why don’t you conjure the old boy up here and now and we’ll tweak his tail? And that’s a challenge!”
I joined him in laughter and muttered a jocular incantation into the microphone, asking Satan to please manifest himself because I had just been challenged.
Instantaneously the entire building shook as if a giant hand had grabbed it! At the instant I had made my plea to the devil, a localized earthquake surged through the rock strata beneath us!
I drove home amid increasing annoyance at my mind’s images of a great taloned claw shaking the earth. Coincidence, I told myself. This was a world of reality. The steering wheel under my hands, that was real, and by turning it I caused a mechanism to turn the wheels. Similarly, in the ground beneath that radio station, layers of rock had moved in their search for equilibrium, and the earth above had shaken. Cause and effect, I told myself, that was reality, not an unseen Evil One manifesting his annoyance at my impiety.
Samples of my novel arrived from the printers, and my publisher called to ask me to drive up to San Francisco to appear on some television shows to publicize the book. My assistant at my side, I drove northward. Glancing into the rearview mirror, I saw the ugly reflection of a two-foot-high statue on the rear seat. It was an artist’s conception of Satan loaned to me by a La Jolla sculptress to use as a TV “prop.”
What I saw fleetingly in that mirror was so gruesome that I cried out impulsively to my assistant, “Do I have to look at that cursed monstrosity all the way to San Francisco?”
Hardly were the words out of my mouth when smoke and flame billowed from under the hood. The automobile was on fire!
Of course there was a rational explanation: The bearings of a just-installed generator had frozen, and the heat had set fire to grease on the engine. But as the last of the flames went out under the foam of my hand extinguisher, I thought, “A fire at the very moment I was cursing the devil? What is this?”
A few days after that trip, my wife called me at my office. “Come home!” she said. “Please! Right away!”
She was waiting for me in our driveway. Wordlessly she pointed at the roof.
“So what?” I exclaimed. “It’s a big bird. Uh—a vulture! No, a raven!”
“I know what it is!” she told me. “But he won’t go away! He keeps trying to get into the house! Beats on the glass!”
“So he’s someone’s pet,” I told her. “Watch me.”
There was little to watch. The moment I came close to the huge bird, it spread its great funereal black wings and waddled to another section of the roof, there to sit glowering down at us.
For a week that evil-beaked creature stayed with us, ignoring our attempts to feed it and make friends. When he wasn’t beating on the windows he sat up there leering down at us, a constant Poe-ish portent of some unknown evil yet to come.
The evil arrived the night after the raven disappeared. I received a call to come into the city at once to appear on another book-publicizing radio show. The interviewer put it succinctly over the phone: “I’ve read your fun-with-the-devil novel, so come over and we’ll have some more fun on the air.” He laughed. “We’ll give Satan the devil!”
As I drove down our ranch road toward the locked gate, I thought to myself how suddenly it had become dark, a starless blackness as if a hood had been dropped over our mountaintop.
When I reached the gate I stopped, got out, opened the lock, drove through, then got out again to relock the barrier.
It was a routine I had followed countless times, but this time I had driven so close to the outer wall that I had to squeeze sideways between car and wall to reach the lock.
As I clicked the mechanism shut and sidestepped the few steps back to the auto, I suddenly felt a strange coldness move along my skin. Something was wrong out there in that oppressive blackness behind me. I felt it in my nerve ends, yes, felt it in those deep, residual memories all of us have curled in our genes of a time when mankind was a minor fear-filled species in a young world full of unexplainable phenomena.
I drove out into the main road, made a U-turn, and headed back into the driveway so that the car’s headlights floodlighted where I had walked. I got out and approached the gate.
Then I froze in midstep. There, on the ground directly below the lock, coiled, head lifted, black tongue probing directly at me, lay a huge diamondback rattlesnake!
In approaching the gate and closing it, then moving back to the car, I had stepped directly over that lethal creature not once but twice. Authorities say the diamondback rattler’s bite, because of the volume of venom injected, ranks in deadliness with that of the mamba and the king cobra.
I stood there, heart pulsing under a rush of adrenaline, my lips dry at the thought of those needle fangs imbedded in my flesh, their venom entering my bloodstream. Why didn’t it bite me either time I stepped over it? Why even now did it give no characteristic rattling warning?
For a long moment I stood there with the serpent’s unlidded eyes, yellow in the reflected light, glaring up at me.
Why hadn’t I been bitten? Why this look of—there was no other word for it—warning?
All that had happened since the completion of my devil-scorning novel tumbled through my thoughts. That strange force outside my office door, the poodle’s shrieking at an unseen presence, the auto fire, that monstrous raven, the earthquake and now those unrelenting reptilian eyes glinting into mine.
Coincidence? I knew my mathematics well enough to realize the improbable odds against so strange a series of happenings occurring by chance in such a short time. I recalled that in the millennia of mankind’s belief in a living God, so, too, had there been a belief in a living Satan. Peoples of all religions had held that conviction, from the Valley of the Nile to China to India and back to the Christian religion that had taken the devil from the Hebrew ancients and made him an even greater factor in mankind’s behavior.
As I stood there with those slit eyes glaring at me, I remembered that in my generation—and even more so in this, my children’s time—to hold such thoughts of a functioning-on-earth Evil One had become too old-fashioned even for the nostalgia buffs. Lucifer had been relegated to the dwindling ranks of the cultists and fire-and-brimstone tent evangelists.
But now, in these times when evil had so many disguises, in a world of “practical” politics where meanings of truth, honor, and justice were subject to change without notice, perhaps the emergence once again of a living Satan for each of us was as inevitable as the lightning out of thunderclouds.
As I said at the beginning, I have no definitive answers, only uneasiness and wonder. That night I waited until the serpent uncoiled and moved away into the night. Then I opened the gate and drove back to the reality of home. That radio station would have to find some other means of amusement. I would speak no more in mockery of God’s fallen angel.