However, in recent years rising numbers of stories about the ritual abuse of children have cast a shadow over those homely and harmless white witches. In Rochdale, in the Orkneys, in Nottingham, always amid a blaze of publicity, social workers have taken children into care on suspicion that their parents had involved them in satanic abuse. Between 1985 and 1991 in Britain and the United States, more than 10,000 cases of ritual abuse were investigated by the authorities. But at the end of the day just four cases came to court and only two succeeded. Most crumbled through lack of evidence.
All of this threatened, however, the public's complacent understanding that demons and warlocks, like the tooth fairy and Father Christmas, existed only in folklore. And the sense that there is no smoke without fire has been exacerbated by an outpouring of warnings from Christian evangelists convinced that active cells of satanists are chanting their spells behind the net curtains next door.
For a quarter of a century mainstream clerics have fought shy of even mentioning the Devil. In the Catholic Church, the reforming Second Vatican Council of the Sixties decided that Satan, the fallen angel who for almost two millennia had lured Christian souls away from the path of righteousness, was dead. Yet the fundamentalist Christian churches that blossomed in the late Eighties resurrected Beelzebub and the Hereunder with all their attendant threats.
In At the Heart of Darkness John Parker sets out to analyse those who are allegedly casting an evil spell over contemporary society. He presents a picture redolent of Arthur Miller's The Crucible, with witches' covens and devil-worshipping psychopaths lurking after dark in every clump of undergrowth, on every suburban avenue.
Building on a sketchy but never less than colourful history of the occult and witchcraft, Parker seeks out those whose dabblings in magic are on a par with an evening with Paul Daniels as well as those for whom the occult is a way of life. Both groups share the schoolboyish obsession with secret societies that sees thousands of Freemasons gathering each week to don silly aprons and dance with their trouser legs rolled up. But the world of the hard-core occultists is rather more alarming. There are accounts - some from recent history, some through testimonies given to Parker - of sacrifices of live animals, perverse sado-masochistic sexual rituals and of people driven to their deaths by their involvement in the occult.
The author's approach is brisk and populist. Parker maximises the shocking potential of his subject by letting his interviewees speak, and by giving first- hand descriptions of various ceremonies in which they have participated. But the book never pieces together the fragments. There are very few statistics, and despite the format, which deals with witches and satanists as distinct groups, they all end up sounding as bad as each other. The psychological make-up of those who indulge is scarcely touched upon, apart from an unspoken assumption that they are mad and / or evil. And lamentably absent is any debate about what constitutes evil.
On the basis of this frightening but anecdotal evidence, Parker's conclusion that we are drowning in a tide of darkness is hard to accept. His crowning assertion, that there is an unpalatable truth behind recent allegations of satanic abuse of children, follows on from the hysteria that the book whips up, but is not backed by any concrete evidence.
At the Heart of Darkness disturbs but never illuminates. The reader is left with a lingering suspicion that anyone with a liking for horoscopes may in fact be summoning up the spirits of the dead.Reuse content