The Atrocity Archives is the first volume in Charles Stross’s Laundry Files series. It consists of the novella “The Atrocity Archive” and the short story “The Concrete Jungle.” The premise is that not only are Lovecraftian horrors and other things that go bump in the night real, but they live way down at the bottom of the Mandelbrot set and may be communicated with and/or invoked by computation. The main character is an operative in the British agency known as “The Laundry,” and was drafted in to the agency when he inadvertently discovered the means of invoking an Egyptian god as part of his dissertation research. Many people wind up in the agency in a similar means. Whenever someone stumbles on this sort of knowledge, the appropriate agencies make an offer: work for us, or never publish anything ever again. The name of one course offered to employees of the Laundry is “Computational Demonology.”
You get the idea.
The stories raise several issues for our consideration. First, whether it is illegal to invoke the Elder Gods or other eldritch abominations. And second, whether it is legal for there to be secret laws.
I. Witchcraft and related offenses
The basic question here is whether it is actually illegal to attempt to invoke Cthulhu or whatever. The closest we likely come here in terms of real law is probably witchcraft. Witchcraft actually was a crime at the common law. But the Witchcraft Act of 1735 reflected the growing opinion that such things were rather. . . embarrassing in a modern culture. The Act repealed previous Witchcraft Acts (dating from 1542, 1562, 1563, and 1604) and prohibited the prosecution of anyone for witchcraft or sorcery. Instead, the 1735 Act made it a misdemeanor to
. . .pretend to exercise or use any kind of Witchcraft, Sorcery, Inchantment, or Conjuration, or undertake to tell Fortunes, or pretend, from his or her Skill or Knowledge in any occult or crafty Science, to discover where or in what manner any Goods or Chattels, supposed to have been stolen or lost, may be found. . .
So it was no longer illegal to be a witch, but it was illegal to hold one’s self out as one, particularly in connection with the provision of particular services. So no dowsing. But invoking Nyarlathotep? Go nuts. Blackstone notes in his Commentaries that witchcraft had fallen out of favor as a prosecutable crime even before the 1735 Act and viewed this as a beneficial change.
More particularly for our purposes, American courts have long disfavored prosecutions for or charges of witchcraft, though a crime at the common law, as being absurd. As the Supreme Court of Judicature of New Hampshire put it in 1819, “if the common law of England concerning interest should be adopted, we must hold void all contracts for any quantity of interest, however small and reasonable. But, in this enlightened age, such a rule could no more be tolerated than the absurd principles of the common law concerning witchcraft and heresy.” Houghton v. Page, 2 N.H. 42, 44 (1819). There do not appear to have been any attempts in American history to make witchcraft a crime by statute. Indeed, an attempt to do so might well result in a challenge on First Amendment grounds!
But what if there really were things that went bump in the night? It’s likely that the government would have other means at its disposal for dealing with this rather than attempting to resurrect prosecutions for witchcraft. One of the main concerns of the Laundry and related agencies is keeping knowledge of the occult out of the public mind. Anyone who does stumble upon real knowledge tends to be recruited pretty quickly. So passing a law against unlicensed summoning would draw unwanted attention to the subject. Instead, nations would probably rely on national security laws. The President has broad authority to classify information on national security grounds. If there really were an otherworldly threat, the existence of the threat would probably justify action on that basis without the need to reference the specific nature of the threat in additional statutes.
II. Secret Laws
Another feature of the stories is section three of the “Official Secrets Act of 1916.” The story is that the fictional Act of 1916 contains two sections which are public, and a third section which is secret, i.e., under the terms of the Act, it’s illegal to know about Section Three without proper authorization. Can this sort of thing happen?
Well first of all, not only is there no “Section Three,” but there isn’t even an Official Secrets Act of 1916. Not even Sections One and Two, so we’re dealing with a fictional law. There are several other Official Secrets Acts in the United Kingdom, just not one from 1916.
In the United States it’s probably unconstitutional for the text of any laws passed by Congress and signed by the President not to be a matter of public record. Each chamber of Congress is permitted to engage in secret proceedings. U.S. Const. Art. I, sec. 5, cl. 3. Both chambers have adopted rules for the conduct of secret sessions. But neither chamber contains provisions for a bill to be proposed, debated, passed, signed, and enacted in secret. Further, even if Congress pulled a fast one and changed its rules in secret to permit such a thing, the first time any of these laws appeared in court, the courts would pitch an absolute fit. Passing secret laws and attempting to enforce them is just about as offensive to concepts of due process as it’s possible to conceive. So the first time any agency took any action justified solely on the basis of a secret statute, it’s game over.
But again, there doesn’t seem to be much of a need for this. Congress can authorize some pretty murky stuff, and indeed, Congress was quite annoyed about the NSA and other similar “black” agencies for quite some time. So it’s likely that the government would probably try to deal with this sort of thing using normal secrecy channels rather than trying to make up new ones.
We assume that there would be a similar result under UK law.
The legal framework described in “The Atrocity Archives” probably wouldn’t work. Certainly not in the US, and probably not in the UK either. But it doesn’t really have to. Both governments are pretty good at initiating and conducting black ops of various sorts. They don’t need any extra statutes passed to do that.