The Last Temptation of Harold by Adam Strassberg

The ancient demon Harborym possesses eighteen-year-old Harold at the Burning Man festival, but struggles to tempt a Millennial mind; by Adam Strassberg.

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"I have lived eons before and I will live eons hence, yet each moment spent trapped inside this mortal's body is an eternity of suffering to me." The demon Harborym, the Dark Lord's renowned Master of Misery, was now mastered by misery himself. He cowered in a small corner of his possessed human's mind. He had become emaciated, pale, shrunken, long grown hairless and hornless, seemingly powerless and thus depressed. Harborym, a grand duke of demons, had been shamefully reduced to but a small incorporeal puff of temptations, just hovering about, fluttering there aimlessly in the back of Harold's mind.

"The one thing we demons too often forget is that when we possess a human's body, they are possessing us as well. We are trapped together, entangled into one another's souls." Harborym floated inside Harold all day, folded in a fetal position, with a dazed expression and an empty gaze. He had taken to ruminating and perseverating. "It is a mutual coexistence we share, a juxtaposition of free will and temptation."

"But how do I tempt someone with so few ambitions and even less desires?" The demon had existed for millennia but these youths who called themselves 'Millennials' - they were inscrutable to him. "Has mankind fallen so far as to be unrecognizable to us demons who first pushed them?"

When he had first entered this mortal Harold, the youth had been so promising. It was the summer after freshman year, and the new eighteen-year-old was enjoying a first foray into Burning Man. Harold had prepared the full month before: his sister drove him to dye his hair blue, his mom drove him to get a Peter Pan tattooed on his left shoulder, with a sexy Tinker Bell to match on his right, and then his step-mom drove him to get gauges stretched into both ear lobes. Also he finally declared his major and shared the promising news with his dad - Art History! and with a Journalism minor!

Harold would be a newbie at the Burn, but knew enough to wear a kilt, and so settled in quite easily with his roommates' village. The last thing he remembered was being gifted some blue pills, swallowing them with two picklebacks - that's whiskey with a pickle juice chaser - then rocking to some untz untz with his tribe in a sound camp in the deep playa.

They say that you get the burn you need, not the burn you want. And so perhaps both Harold and Harborym needed one another that week. The portal between the Dark Realm and Earth had always been thin at Black Rock City and the many wooden idols carved, worshiped and then burned there over the years had opened up a much larger gateway for easy crossings. Harborym could never resist an open door, as open doors lead to open minds. The demon heard the echoes of the EDM, saw the shadows from the bright blinking multicolor lights, smelled the poison in the blue pills. The seizure threshold lowered in Harold's brain and then suddenly kindled. At first, Harold felt nauseous, then there was tingling in his tongue, arms and legs, then a dizziness. The youth saw flashing lights everywhere and the music became a high-pitched screeching. He had trouble speaking in English but now a mysterious language flowed from his lips. It was the seizure attacking the speech processing area in Harold's left frontal cortex, but it was also Harborym reciting a binding curse in ancient Aramaic. As he entered Harold's mind, the demon forced him to yell all manner of profanities. Harold's legs stopped dancing and his arms began jerking violently, and involuntarily, and not to the rhythm of the music. Harborym compelled Harold's arms to make all manner of obscene gestures. Harold fell to the floor and urinated. His whole body stiffened, then shook violently. During the commotion, Harborym had Harold rip the small cross from his neck and throw it far away into the dirt. Harborym had now entered Harold in what he considered a relatively effortless crossing. A crowd encircled Harold convulsing on the ground. The movements stopped after a few minutes, and then, just a few minutes later, the Black Rock rangers arrived.

Harold recovered quickly after some basic rehydration at Ranger HQ and he apologized profusely for being so survivally-challenged. The Black Rock rangers were kind enough to diagnose him with only heat exhaustion and playa madness, but they still urged him to follow-up with the local urgent care, and later with his doctor. As if, thought Harold, with Harborym's help, what happens on playa, stays on playa, and so he planned never to tell his parents about this, and he certainly was not going to leave early and miss out on the big burn night itself.

Many claim that 'no good deed goes unpunished.' but in the Dark Realm, all know that 'no bad deed goes unrewarded.' In the months and years ahead, Harborym would tempt Harold with bad deed after bad deed. But with never a reward! As far as Harborym could conclude - and he puzzled over it daily, if not hourly - Harold remained indifferent, uninterested, often averse - perhaps even immune? - to each and every deadly sin.

First, Harborym offered Lust. He whispered into the back of Harold's mind. "Look at those naked bodies. That one in the quad over there, not a person, but an object for your pleasure."

Harold just sighed in response. "Harborym, you can't be serious?" He closed the shades of his dorm window, flipped open his laptop and quickly jerked one off. "I am a male Millennial with internet access. I masturbate twice a day after I brush my teeth, and more as needed." Harold was annoyed by the demon's incessant background whisperings. "I am a digital native. Between Pornhub and Google image search, my collection is already 3 terabytes." Harold closed his laptop and threw the crumpled tissue ball into his trash. "But I'm a sophomore now, I know what to think. Pornography is violence - it violates the norm of continuous affirmative consent - 'yes means yes' you know. Also, though it is foundational to male sexuality, the objectification of womens' bodies is politically incorrect. That's why I stick only with hentai - CGI erotica, like anime and manga erotica - the women are composites and so nobody is exploited." Harold re-opened his shades, then stared down through his dorm window once again, looking wistfully towards the quad filled with female classmates. "But I could never date a real person though - it's too dangerous - between STDs, HIV, Monkey Pox and COVID - you could die." All Harborym now felt from Harold was despair. "Also, it's too complicated for most guys, if you mess up in any way, you could get canceled by the Me-too movement." Harborym parsed the individual words in Harold's sentences, but the sentences themselves had no meaning to him. "By the way, Harborym, I'm sorry, I forgot to ask, what are your pronouns?" The demon was stupefied.

Next, Harborym tried Gluttony. "It's fall, Harold, you know what that means. The McRib, Harold, the McRib is back at select locations nationwide!" The television commercial played in the common room as Harborym forced Harold's salivary glands to squirt wildly.

"I can't. I quit the paleo diet and now I'm vegan." Harold puckered his lips and swallowed the spit. "After the freshman fifteen, I really need to watch my BMI. There is an obesity epidemic and we are a fast-food supersize-me nation. It's not just about animal cruelty, but about ecological sustainability and ethical consumerism. Food needs to be locally sourced with fair wages, unionized workers, and a minimal carbon footprint." Again, Harborym understood the individual words, but Harold strung them together to create such confusion. The demon pushed back, he rumbled Harold's stomach and tried tempting his soul with Gluttony one last time. But all he could summon was a vague desire for something called 'avocado toast' and an unusual meal called 'brunch'. Harborym was flustered.

By Spring, Harborym saw a chance to try Wrath. One night, he flooded norepinephrine into Harold's amygdala. "I can't believe the professor gave you a B+ on your Sociology term paper."

Harold awoke in the middle of the night, tossing and turning. "It was deliberate," Harold now thought. "That TA has been out to get me ever since I accidentally said 'homeless' instead of 'houseless'. They were so triggered that they needed a safe space that week." It was working - Harold was riling up.

Harborym gave him a push. "You should go key both their cars!" Harold walked toward the door with his keys, but in the darkness, he noticed that his Xbox was on, and so he sat down to first play some Fortnite, and then some Grand Theft Auto. Harborym watched as the young man's avatar robbed, car-jacked, dismembered, murdered, arsoned, raped, pillaged, destroyed and otherwise rampaged for a full two hypnotic hours. By the end of the binge, Harold's amygdala, hypothalamus and brainstem were numb to any further possible arousal. "You know. That's okay. I'll just change the class to Pass/Fail so it won't affect my GPA." Harold turned off the game and yawned. "And besides, my dad's life coach says that anger isn't healthy, it's just sadness turned outward." He returned to his bed and slept, soundly. Harborym was stumped. What's a life coach?

During Harold's Junior year, Harborym tested Envy. Harold was having a hard semester, he even considered dropping out. When he passed the basketball to Darren on the court, Harborym coerced Harold into throwing it a bit too hard. "But Darren's my friend." Harold took a water break. "So what if I lack his smarts, his strength, his height, his money, and his awesome girlfriend. I just wish... Darren is just so lucky..." Harborym was so close to succeeding this time, he could feel the tingling of Harold's cingulate gyrus bathing in the neurohormones of jealousy. "...Darren is just so lucky to not be white. It sucks to be me, to be a white heterosexual male. I have too much unearned privilege." Harold capped his water bottle and re-tied his sneakers. "How can I ever be a social justice warrior if I'm not a minority? They are so lucky to be victims of my ceaseless oppression. I mean the only acceptable power is victimhood, right?"

Harold sighed. "Mom says her 23andMe lists her as almost 4% Cherokee. Maybe that's enough? Am I allowed to think it - yeah I'll think it - fuck the white man, he stole our land." Harold called the game and rolled the basketball back to Darren. "Sorry, I gotta go," he said aloud, then he thought to Harborym, "I'm going to go join the large sit-in against that math professor who refused to add a land acknowledgement to his syllabus." Was this envy? Some weird variant of jealousy? Harborym was so very confused. He had tempted Harold to do something, but he had no idea what and so doubted it was sufficiently evil to make quota.

That June, after Harold returned from his Spring semester abroad in Europe, Harborym attempted to coax him with Pride. "You are very important Harold, more important than everyone else."

Harold sat in his childhood bedroom and gazed upwards at the row of participation trophies on his top bookshelf. "Yeah, yeah, I'm special and important. Tell me something I don't know, I mean we had a whole self-esteem curriculum in middle school." Harold spun around on his chair and quoted aloud to himself, and to Harborym, "Children, the most important thing for each of us is that we feel good about ourselves at all times." Harold rolled his eyes, which taunted Harborym with hope.

The demon put pressure on Harold's hippocampal memory cortex, "So then you remember - you remember Pride?"

Harold stopped twirling in his chair as his eyes suddenly fixed on his wall calendar. His heart rate elevated and his tone changed rapidly - then he sent oddly grateful thoughts to the demon. "Oh shit. Thanks for the reminder! Yeah, I almost forgot Pride." He quickly changed into a rainbow t-shirt and ran upstairs. "I'm a straight ally and Pride is for everyone. I've never missed it. I'm off to the parade right now." Harborym was stumped. Was Pride no longer a sin?

During Senior year, and even after graduation, both Greed and Sloth were a bust. Harborym urged Harold to visit the career fair. "Join the corporate world! Grab as much wealth, status and power as you can!" Harold got so far as signing up for the resume workshop, but then later that day he deleted it from his calendar. He thought to himself, and Harborym, "I may be young, but I'm not stupid. The system is rigged. Capitalism is an illusion. It's the true opiate of the masses." A whole list of strange words and concepts fluttered through Harold's neocortex: 'We are the 99%', the Occupy movement, predatory student loans, gentrification, the exponential rise in the home price to income ratio, downward economic mobility, the demise of the middle class, work-life balance, lifestyle careers, the gig economy.

"Why bother?"

After his lease ended, Harold moved into his step-mom's basement. "I have almost a thousand followers on insta. I don't need a career, I'm going to be an influencer. I'll just do a little Door Dash, Uber Eats, Instacart and Task Rabbit, that is until things take off. Also, my crypto is gonna explode, then I'll buy some NFTs." Harborym was so confused - was this Greed, Sloth, both or neither?

The demon gave up. Harborym longed to escape from Harold's brain and return home, but he was trapped. After so many failed attempts to encourage Harold to sin, the demon's power had now faded into but a trickle. Harborym remembered the phrase that old Italian writer had chiseled onto the gates of the Dark Realm. Lasciate ogne speranza, voi chi'intrate. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. It was supposed to be a warning to damned souls, not native demons! If he could, Harborym would carve that saying right now onto the inside of Harold's skull. But alas, I am incorporeal... Harborym sighed. And it would make no difference anyway. Indeed, the demon and the youth completely lacked any shared semiotic system of interpretation. Communication was impossible. Temptation inconceivable. Hope abandoned.

The rest of the year indeed proceeded hopelessly, without any temptations, at least in so far as Harborym understood them. Harold moved into his step-mom's basement and Harborym floated helpless inside Harold's mind, beneath a much larger numbing cloud cycle of video games, pornography, pizza, weed, repeat.

Fall came, and with it the promise of All Hallow's Eve. The veil to the Dark Realm always thinned that night. Harborym lacked enough power to escape, but while Harold slept soundly from his CBD chocolates, the demon was able to summon sufficient dark energies to stir Harold with somnambulism. While Harold continued his slumber soundly, the demon opened Harold's eyelids and forced him to turn on his laptop. Harborym, with sleeping Harold's hands, clicked through link after link in something called Wikipedia. The demon studied articles about Possession, Exorcism, the Rituale Romanum and even the Saint Michael's Prayer. That winter, Harborym watched as Harold dressed for yearly church in his door mirror. "What I love about the Christmas service is getting to see my mom, step-mom and dad all together in church." Harold mumbled to himself, and perhaps to a nearly formless Harborym as well. "What I hate is having to wear a tie." Harold tried tying his tie, failed, then just grabbed his old clip-on hanging in the closet.

Harborym had long receded into a soft inchoate whisper, now literally encapsulating less than a micron of dysfunctional epileptiform tissue in Harold's brain; the demon, what remained of him, was neither dead, nor living, but mostly just a sort of dreaming. And the demon found himself imagining the Christmas service too. Perhaps when Harold enters the church, the priests will exorcize me? Ah, to be freed from this prison... He did not cross his fingers, but he did wrap what was left of his tail into a pentagram for luck.

As Harold entered the sanctuary, Harborym's dream deflated into just another disappointment. The church was Presbyterian! No rosaries. No holy water. The only liquid these people revered was grape juice, which they served to each other in tiny glass cups with pieces of gluten-free bread. There were no celibate priests to invoke Saint Michael's prayer. What few clergy there were all had no interest in fighting the forces of darkness. Mostly everyone just fought over hymnals. The minister gave Harold a huge hug - "Rejoice! Glory to the newborn king!" The congregation was something called "open and affirming" and everyone hugged each other in exuberant welcome. "Merry Christmas and God bless you with peace and joy for the year to come." Harborym bit down on what little of his hind hooves remained. He was too enervated to be infuriated.

It was a few months later on the first day of spring when Harold's step-mom dared to enter his basement bedroom. "Harold, as you know, your dad's company got acquired last year. He's over fifty now and so the new management was going to place him on a PIP plan if he didn't take their early retirement offer." His step-mom sighed, then turned off his monitors. "Harold, I need your attention. This is important. Your dad wants me to tell you that he and I are downsizing. We have to sell the house and move to a one-bedroom condo. You are going to need to get real housing, so you are going to need to get a real job." She unfolded a few sheets of printed paper. "Your dad filled out this application to the Amazon Fulfillment Center and submitted it for you online. He says for me to tell you 'Damn it, if you can't beat them, join them, or at least have your son do it.'"

At first Harold was a reluctant, involuntary employee. But he soon excelled at work. It was the exact opposite of college: work told you what to do but let you think whatever you wanted; work never said you were special but always insisted you were ordinary and quite replaceable; and best of all, instead of you paying them, they paid you. Real money! After taxes, food, rent, utilities, Harold would have just enough to pay down the interest on his student loan debts. And the employee benefits were extraordinary too - something called an HMO with Dental and Vision.

Harold read over the benefits website, and this stirred Harborym awake. Instead of the metaphysical, perhaps the physical might release him, specifically the biological. Those Wikipedia articles he had read back on All Hallow's Eve, they had also detailed some very interesting biomedical models of demonic possession as the precursor to the modern concept of epilepsy. Harborym conjured a thought, then a desire. If I could get Harold to the right sort of doctor, perhaps a prescribed medicine could release me? Antiepileptics might succeed where exorcism is unavailable.

The next morning, Harborym forced Harold to enter the intake office of his new Health Maintenance Organization. It was a part of a for-profit hospital chain - Harboyrm had not felt such powerful dark energies in years. The company was designed to maximize profit from the sick and dying by minimizing and denying them standard care. Whereas the veil to the Dark Realm was thin at Black Rock city, where Harborym had first possessed Harold, here at the HMO office, the portal to the Dark Realm was gaping wide open!

Harold completed his health care intake with his new HMO case manager. After he signed and dated a dozen forms, she explained to him that he would need to wait three months or more for an intake appointment with his new primary care provider. Harborym then nudged Harold also to share with her his seizure history. A referral to a neurologist - which could only come after Harold met with his new regular doctor three months hence - still had a six to twelve month wait list. A consultation with an epilepsy subspecialist, if they could find one in their network, perhaps would take another year further. Also, most antiseizure medications required complicated prior-authorization paperwork before they could be prescribed and filled by the in-house pharmacist. The system was insidious at denying and delaying actual medical care. It was, in fact, enough to try the patience of even an immortal being. The demon knew exactly what to do.

There was so much dark power everywhere inside this HMO building! Harborym was energized and invigorated, replenished and reformed. He channeled his power through Harold's gaze and focused intently at the rows and rows of paper patient files back along the office wall. First there was smoke, then sudden blue flames, and finally a deep red blaze. The fire alarm blared with a high-pitched screech. Sharp blue lights flashed rapidly. A sulfurous smoke filled the office. The sprinklers descended from the ceiling and cold water showered down upon everyone. So many sharp sudden sensations once again lowered the seizure threshold in Harold's brain and his body convulsed violently, then and there, upon the case manager's office floor.

As Harold was wheeled on the gurney into the ER, his life flashed before him, with Harborym bearing witness. The demon finally understood his fundamental dilemma. Temptation occurs when enjoying an immediate pleasure harms the success of a long-term goal-driven activity. But Harold's life inherently lacked any long-term goal-driven activities, because Harold was a 'Millennial'. His future was filled with nightmares to make the Dark Lord proud - nuclear armageddon, global warming, melting ice caps, climate change, despeciation, deforestation, pandemics, famine, economic collapse, downward economic mobility, totalitarianism, fascism. What future goals could someone like Harold have? How can one tempt such a person? Such a generation?

A needle was inserted into Harold's forearm, then an IV bag sent an anticonvulsant into his veins, which soon passed through his blood-brain barrier and bathed the small locus of epileptiform neural tissue in Harold's primary motor cortex near his precentral gyrus. The seizure stopped then and there. And just like that, Harborym untangled himself and slithered out of Harold's brain. He darted straight back to the Dark Realm, with his tail between his legs, both literally and figuratively.

The anticonvulsant came in an oral form, which was prescribed to Harold soon after. He took it daily for successful seizure prophylaxis. It made him a bit tired, but he adapted to it, and for the first time in a long while, Harold felt... happy? He was independent. He earned just enough money to take care of his own needs. He did not need to save the world. He no longer had to be special. He enjoyed just being ordinary. I like doing actual things. Instead of dreaming of a perfect world, maybe it's okay actually to do small things to make the world just a little bit better. Harold finally got his driver's license, then a used car and some basic insurance. He enrolled in his local community college and completed the two-year HVAC certification on nights and weekends. He dared to date a real girl he met at a picnic.

Over the years, memories of college, Burning Man, Harborym, his twenties, these all faded in their entirety. Harold did however go on to a highly successful contracting career with an oddly preternatural talent for the repair and maintenance of fireplaces and furnaces.


  1. The comedy of angst never gets old. Reminds me of Woody Allen

  2. Adam Strassberg’s “The Last Temptation of Harold” becomes more rewarding the further one reads it. Though I was taken aback with the heavy reference to the limbic system—I had to look that word up on Google—at the same time it lent an aura of authenticity to the story. The story’s main thrust was the dysfunction and haplessness that results from being “woke” or PC. It is only after a medical emergency that the MC, Harold, comes to terms with life, forsakes his degree in Art History, becomes a HVAC tech and meets a “regular” girl. He thus joins the human race—with baby-boomers like me. This was a very funny story, Adam. Nice work.

  3. A very amusing piece and a great take on Millennials.

  4. Quite an enjoyable read!

  5. Really enjoyed Adam's story of Harold and the demon. Adam's humor, his background in psychology and his understanding of the complicated life our youth are faced with today really brought this modern-day fable to life.

  6. Loved the story for all the reason already listed. I particularly liked some of the one-liners or Harborym's side comments. "What's a life coach?" "What are your pronouns?" "was this Greed, Sloth, both or neither?"
    Thanks for sharing you story with us.

  7. Thoroughly enjoyable, humorous, and insightful! A wonderful example of how persuading one may at times be harder than persuading many.

  8. This story is clever and funny, a meditation on the way the priorities of young adults are often baffling to the rest of us.

  9. I thoroughly enjoyed every moment of this well-written and insightful story! Although … people born in the late 1990s or later, too young to remember 9/11 college age or younger when covid hit, are actually Gen Z and not millenials…

  10. "There was so much dark power everywhere inside this HMO building" is but one of the many gems in this on-target story. I love how Mr. Strassberg recontextualizes all of the deadly sins for us here.

  11. What a brilliant premise for a story. I enjoyed every imaginative twist and laughed all the way through. Well done, Adam!

  12. Amazing story Adam, great social commentary!

  13. This is an amazing story! I was impressed with the author’s insightful commentary on millennials and society at large.

  14. I’m a millennial and I have more hope than Horborym. Hilarious!

  15. Well written, entertaining and thought provoking short story. I was hoping that Harold would prevail (without anticonvulsants), and perhaps he did with the demon escaping back to the Dark Realm. I suppose it’s not surprising that their relationship started and ended with the help of drugs, being written by a psychiatrist.

  16. What a fun story! I am a big fan of satire, this is quite entertaining and hits the mark again and again. I like the 'medical model' of demon possession, and the description of the HMO as the most demonic place..

  17. Very witty and engaging. I belly-laughed a few times! I can’t wait to see what else this author writes!

  18. Dark. Grim. Bleak. Funny. Love it.

  19. Very funny story with astute cultural commentary!

  20. Really fun concept executed perfectly

  21. Right from the top, I started feeling like I was reading Terry Pratchett, especially when I saw "incorporeal puff of temptations." I cackled out loud at "survivally challenged." Omg that's funny. Second cackle at asking the demon for his pronouns. "Pride no longer a sin?" More than you know, ancient Demon. Love the demon's power surging at the doctor office. Very fun read!

  22. Loved the story! Fun, imagining, and the narrative flow is really excellent.

  23. Great mix of fantasy, culture, medicine and growth!! I kept laughing and then wanting to read more. Would love to see the sequel for both main characters....

  24. Delightful twist on the tension between good and evil! Sharp, insightful, and unique exploration of 'old world' assumptions being flipped on their head when faced with present day challenges and sentiments. Loved it!

  25. Loved it. Living in the Pacific Northwest, this could have been non-fiction, were it not for the demon in Harold’s head. Made me laugh and fret for our young ones. Will share widely.

  26. Great thought provoking short fiction by a medical mastermind with wry humour reminiscent of Douglas Adams (Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy) and Neil Gaiman (Good Omens). Enjoy!

  27. Thanks to everyone for enjoying and sharing this story and for your many insightful comments!