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The Devil’s Possession and Other Sinister Deities

The Devil’s Possession and Other Sinister Deities
© Photograph by Marius Cinteză

We have seen it in so many movies and stories. When the sorcerer is ready to sell his soul, the Devil conveniently produces an impressive document to be signed (often in blood), which he then spirits away, presumably to be filed in some bureaucratic Hall of Records in the infernal regions.

He has even been known to whip out such a document later on to remind his duped victim of their bargain. In any case, all sources agree that, prior to the invention of photocopiers or even carbon paper, the Devil kept the original document.

Nevertheless, an actual copy of such a Satanic compact was admitted as evidence in a French court in 1634. How it got there has never been clear. The document, which still exists, contains a nearly two pages of text, followed by assorted squiggles, symbols, and the alleged autograph Satan himself, plus those of witnessing devils Beelzebub, Lucifer, Elimi, Leviathan, Astaroth, and Baal Berith.

This might seem an amusing footnote to a history of human credulity, but the circumstances were decidedly unfunny. Sceptics may suspect that the unfortunate Father Urbain Grandier was set up by his personal enemy, the Canon Mignon, confessor to the Ursuline convent at Loudon.

Mignon encouraged the abbess to claim that she was possessed by the demon Asmodeus. When Mignon staged a public exorcism, the abbess claimed that Grandier had sent the demon into her.

Before long, at Mignon’s suggestion, or by contagious hysteria typical of the times, several more nuns were possessed. The Bishop of Bordeaux suppressed the proceedings, but a couple years later trouble flared up again. Grandier was apparently a man of great charm, but with a talent for making enemies.

Some of them, with political connections, involved the famous and powerful Cardinal Richelieu in the case. Grandier’s doom was sealed. He was arrested for witchcraft and hideously tortured. Eleven possessed nuns were produced as evidence. Grandier’s actual compact with the Devil was produced.

A contemporary woodcut of Grandier’s execution, possibly by an eyewitness, contains a particularly ghastly detail. Unlike most such victims, he is shown seated as he is burned at the stake. We know why: his legs had been crushed to jelly during his interrogation and he was unable to stand. Despite this, he maintained his innocence to the end. Even the abbess retracted her testimony, once she saw how far things had gotten out of hand.

This was quickly dismissed as an attempt by Satan to save his servant, Grandier. But if Satan cared about Grandier, why did he allow the signed document to fall into the hands of the authorities? In the days of the witchcraft mania, asking logical questions like that could be dangerous. No one did.

The woodcut shows Grandier, burning, with black, winged devils among the smoke, waiting to carry off his soul. Few people at the time doubted, or dared voice doubt, regarding his guilt. So potent was the belief that, after Grandier was dead, a further attempt was made to exorcise the demons from this standard.

Some, like ‘Ladies in Hades’ (1928) and ‘Gentlemen in Hades’ (1930) by Frederic Arnold Kummer, are ephemeral satires of the Flapper Era. Douglas Wallop’s ‘The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant’ (1954) is about a baseball fan who sells his soul to the Devil in order to help his team win. This is the basis for the Broadway musical Damn Yankees. Robert Nathan, a writer of sentimental fantasies, produced several ironic, sympathetic portraits of the Devil, most notably that in ‘The Innocent Eve’ (1951), in which the Devil attempts to take charge of the atomic bomb and prevent the destruction of the Earth.

The brilliant short story writer John Collier (who, intriguingly, wrote a screenplay for ‘Paradise Lost’) turned out several memorable stories about the Devil or at least about demons, the most famous of which, ‘Thus I Refute Beelzy’ (Atlantic Monthly, October 1940), famously manages to end on a note of gruesome shock, despite its satirical underpinnings.

A child, Small Simon, plays by himself all the time, though he claims to have a playmate, Mr. Beelzy. His father, Big Simon, who is very much given to the modern way of doing things — the story ridicules psychological fads of the time — proposes to talk to his son, man-to-man, and arrive at the reasonable conclusion that Mr. Beelzy is imaginary. But underneath Big Simon’s reasonableness is an old-fashioned threat of force. Underneath the boy’s fantasy is an old-fashioned demon, Beelzebub, who devours Big Simon, but for one morsel, a shoe, with a foot still in it, found on the landing of the stairs. This story has been widely reprinted and is enormously influential. It is the origin of numerous demonic “imaginary playmate” and “evil child” stories, though in this case, of course, the child is merely defending himself and it is Big Simon’s intellectual arrogance that brings about his doom.

In Collier’s ‘The Devil, George, and Rosie’ (in ‘The Touch of Nutmeg and More Unlikely Stories’, 1943) a misogynist is perfectly happy presiding over a Hell for women on a distant planet, until a good woman is sent there by mistake and he falls in love and is redeemed. The entire contents of Collier’s 1954 collection, ‘The Devil and All’, consists of this sort of ironic, cosmic fantasy, most of them with the Devil present as a character; although the best overall selection of Collier stories (and much easier to obtain) is the 1951 omnibus, Fancies and Goodnights.

It will be noticed that very few of the Devil stories through mid-century have much to do with horror fiction, and that the writers more seriously interested in exploring frightening subject matter tended to give the Satan, Hell, and brimstone a wide berth. Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, H. P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, M. R. James, H. Russell Wakefield, and many others, by and large, had little use for the Judeo-Christian mythos and its Devil in their fiction. It must be admitted that James, the most traditional of the lot, certainly produced an effective demon in his 1911 story, ‘The Casting of the Runes,’ which was memorably filmed by Jacques Tourneur as ‘Curse of the Demon’ in 1957. James wrote much of ghosts and black magicians, but rarely touched directly the character of Satan himself. His work, excellent though it is, remains tangential to this survey.

The Devil had become trivialised, a figure of fun, sometimes used effectively, as in ‘The Devil and Daniel Webster’ or ‘Thus I Refute Beelzy,’ or not so effectively, in the works of Marie Corelli or Frederic Arnold Kummer. The deal-with-the-Devil story became a distinct form — at least as distinct as the locked-room mystery — and also a cliche.. At one point Anthony Boucher, the editor of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction from 1949 to 1958, reported that fully 50 percent of all his unsolicited submission consisted of deal-with-the-Devil stories or “formalities of the hereafter,” which as often as not involved the Devil.

Basil Davenport’s 1958 anthology Deals with the Devil covers most of the possibilities, including ‘The Brazen Locked Room,’ in which Isaac Asimov specifically combines the deal-with-the-Devil story with a locked-room mystery, and then finds a science-fictional solution. Earlier and funnier (and also present in Davenport’s selection) is Max Beerbohm’s ‘Enoch Soames’ (from Seven Men, 1920) which deftly satirizes the literary scene of the 1890s, and presents an amusing and imaginative vision of the future year 1997, as Soames, a mediocre poet, sells his soul to the Devil for a chance to go into the Reading Room of the British Museum a hundred years hence and look himself up, to reassure himself of his own literary immortality. However, alas, he was a nobody, remembered only for the story Max Beerbohm wrote about him.

The Davenport book contains numerous examples of clever, gimmicky stories by pulp and science fiction writers of mid-century, including Henry Kuttner, Arthur Porges, Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt, Theodore Cogswell, Miriam Allen de Ford, etc. Included is ‘Satan and Sam Shay’ by Robert Arthur, who wrote a series of clever fantasies for Argosy magazine in the early 1940s, most of which were reprinted in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction a decade later. In this particular story, Sam Shay, an inveterate gambler, beats the Devil in a wager. But the Devil, in revenge, places a curse on him, that he will never win another wager. Shay seems ruined until he learns to manipulate the Devil. All he has to do is bet against any desired end (such as happiness, prosperity, and long life) and he will achieve it. He goes into the insurance business and is phenomenally successful.

The Davenport anthology even contains the text of an original sixteenth-century German Faust pamphlet and ends on a curious note with Bruce Elliott’s ‘The Devil Was Sick.’ In the very, very remote future, when all human knowledge seems exhausted and human affairs are managed by a seemingly omnipotent and omniscient computer, a man tries to uncover an area of knowledge that has not been entirely mined out. He chooses demonology and eventually conjures up the Devil, who has not been summoned in centuries. However, it is the conclusion of the time that even as a villain is a sick hero, a devil is a sick angel. Satan is “cured” and becomes an angel again. The supercomputer shuts itself down, acknowledging that it does not know all there is to be known about God.

Lord Dunsany, the great Irish fantasist, wrote several stories about the Devil, although he, like Lovecraft et al., had very little use for the Judeo-Christian mythos. He could turn out a deal-with-the-Devil story with the best of them, including one that Davenport selected, called simply ‘A Deal with the Devil’ (Collier’s, August 31, 1946). This is one of Dunsany’s famous Jorkens stories, about the “liar” club man, whose tales can neither be proven nor disproven. Once again, we are dealing with horse races, and a man who sells his soul for the ability to spot winners. The Devil cheats. Jorkens helps the man plead this case. This is only one of Jorkens’s several encounters with the Devil, from which he always emerges, if not the winner, at least whole and sound.

Among non-Jorkens stories is ‘The Three Sailors’ Gambit’ (in ‘The Last Book of Wonder’, 1916), which combines a Devil story with a chess story. Three ignorant sailors obtain from the Devil a crystal ball, which shows them how to win any chess game.

They defeat many noted champions, until, in a moment of hubris, attempt to win a game with only the king and a row of pawns. The crystal ball explodes, because this is a game even the Devil cannot win. ‘The Three Infernal Jokes’ in the same volume is about a man who gains from the Devil the ability to tell three jokes so funny that the hearers will die of laughter. The problem is, it actually works. Perhaps the best Dunsanian Devil story of all is ‘Told Under Oath’ (F&SF, August 1953), in which the protagonist sells, not his soul, but his ability to tell the truth. What does this make of his story?

The pulp magazines of the first half of the twentieth-century contain many Devil stories, more than are worth noting, though some stand out. In ‘The Stranger from Kurdistan’ by E. Hoffmann Price (‘Weird Tales’, July 1925), the Devil, in his Yezidee form as Melek Taus, is presented as a dignified and resourceful opponent of Christ. This story was regarded as quite daring at the time. It still reads well. ‘The Devil in Hollywood’ by Dale Clark (Argosy, June 20, 1936) is about an obsessive film director, obviously based on Erich von Stroheim, who makes a film so depraved that the Devil appears in it.

This is more of a curio than a literary masterpiece, but it retains power and interest. Robert Bloch used the Devil as the object of farce several many times in the pulps, as in ‘Left Feep Catches Hell’ (Fantastic Adventures, January 1943), which involves Satan, Axis spies, and the hero’s ingenious used of his unwittingly acquired demonic tail.

‘None But Lucifer’ by H. L. Gold and L. Sprague de Camp (Unknown, September 1939) is more substantial, a novella about a man who ultimately proves so depraved that he replaces Satan in his job as lord of the damned.

Pulp-like but published in book form, the novels of Dennis Wheatley, who at least took his diabolism seriously. Once very popular, he is now almost forgotten, but is best remembered for the 1968 film version of his 1935 novel, ‘The Devil Rides Out’, which is a wild melodrama of black magic and demonism, in which the Devil himself does appear at a witches’ sabbat. Assorted heroes including a master occultist (played by Christopher Lee in the film) must save a young woman before she is fully initiated into a devil cult and made the bride of Satan. (The American title of this film is ‘The Devil’s Bride’.)

At about the same time as Wheatley was writing and the pulp magazines flourished, C. S. Lewis achieved wide popularity by his didactic ‘The Screwtape Letters’ (1942), which is a serious work of theology and ethics in the form of correspondence between two devils, one of whom is assigned to lure a “patient” away from salvation. The book is a preachment, as is Lewis’s ‘The Great Divorce’ (1946; about a bus-trip to Hell), but seldom has such preaching been done so entertainingly.

The Devil also figures allegorically in Lewis’s ‘Deep Space’ trilogy, ‘Out of the Silent Planet’ (1938), ‘Perelandra’ (1943), and ‘That Hideous Strength’ (1945), particularly the second volume, in which the Fall of Man is replayed (but averted) on Venus, with the role of the serpent played by the evil scientist Weston (i.e., ‘‘Western’’), who it seems actually is possessed or controlled by “dark eldils,” that is, fallen angels.

A thorough-going reactionary who believed in the existence of angels and the literal truth of Dante’s vision, Lewis equated modern science with evil, as is even more apparent in the third volume, in which the bad guys work for the National Institute for Controlled Experiments (N.I.C.E.), which is headed by a cruelly caricatured H. G. Wells. Lewis’s very considerable narrative skills and brilliant imagination nearly brings all this off — but not quite.

By and large, though, if the Devil had become a joke, the joke was played out by the end of the 1950s. He was just one more pulp and television cliche. A few effective stories continued to appear, such as Charles Beaumont’s ‘The Howling Man’ (in ‘Night Ride and Other Journeys’, 1960), in which the mysterious prisoner in a remote monastery turns out to be Satan, but there were not many of them. The often-outwitted, rather amusing, Mister Scratch still persisted, if anyone cared about the Devil in fiction anymore. The only thing left to do was to make him frightening again.

Ray Russell’s first novel, ‘The Case Against Satan’ (1962), succeeded brilliantly, drawing loosely on the same material that later inspired William Peter Blatty’s ‘The Exorcist’ — the case of the alleged demonic possession of a young boy, which supposedly happened in Georgetown, a suburb of Washington, D.C., in the 1940s.

‘The Case Against Satan’ neatly solves the problem of making Satan frightening again to an audience raised on comic stories of shrewd mortals outwitting Mr. Scratch by not bringing Satan onstage at all. The greatest of the Devil’s wiles, after all, is to convince us that he does not exist. The resultant short novel might be described as a Catholic ‘Turn of the Screw.’ A modern, liberal priest who perhaps doesn’t believe in the Devil finds himself confronted with what may be the genuine possession of a teenaged girl. Or is it? Each of the Devil’s actions could be explained by natural means, even the girl’s bedroom acrobatics like those in ‘The Exorcist’.

The Devil, when forced to speak, says that his purpose is to drive the girl to suicide. But this seems to be a lot of effort for just one soul. Can the Father of Lies be believed? Is he actually trying to destroy Father Sargent or even his bishop?

Every detail of the proceedings could be part of a larger trap. Certainly, the screams and voices issuing from the rectory while the exorcism is in progress endanger the priests with visits from nosy parishioners and the police.

The story goes right to the core of the problem of Satan and of the supernatural. Even if one believes in God, is it possible to believe in a personal Devil, who will come to a specific place in all the cosmos and work such ill against an individual human being? Could we know it if he did? If our senses are our only source of data, how do we know we are not deceived?

The story is told deftly, with considerable suspense, and builds to an effective climax. The priest depends in the end, not on reason, but gut instinct, and wins. He realises the extent of his victory (and that his own faith has been restored) when he is casually able to say over the phone to a relative, “She was possessed by the Devil. They drove him out. She’s fine now.”

James Blish attempted, in effect, to demonize Satan in his pair of short novels, ‘Black Easter’ (1968) and ‘The Day After Judgment’ (1971). In the former, a wealthy industrialist hires a black magician to let all the Devils out of Hell for one night. Of course, he cannot put them back, because, as Satan announces at the end, God is dead. In the sequel, the U.S. military attempts to contain the demonic invasion of the American southwest.

This book is less successful than its predecessor, beginning as satire, ending in verse, as a pastiche of Milton, when Satan realises that he must ascend the vacant throne of God and rule the universe. Blish’s approach is emotionally spare and coldly intellectual, perhaps too much so. There are some striking moments, such as when the characters realise that a demon has become pope, and the descriptions of magic ritual are very impressive, but the books did not have broad appeal.

It must be admitted that Russell’s novel, brilliant as it was, fell as a seed on the barren ground, and Blish’s had little impact. Whether he read ‘The Case Against Satan’ or not, William Peter Blatty completely reimagined the same material that Russell used, and captured the public imagination in a much bigger way with ‘The Exorcist’ in 1971. Together with Ira Levin’s ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ (1967) and blockbuster films of both, ‘The Exorcist’ made the Devil the object of fear again in popular culture and heralded, not merely a wave of possession reports and would-be exorcisms, but also the beginning of the modern commercial Horror boom, which enabled such writers as Stephen King and Clive Barker to become bestsellers. It may have been the film versions that made the crucial difference, particularly of ‘The Exorcist’.

Of course, the Devil had been on the screen before, all the way back as far as the silent version of Corelli’s ‘The Sorrows of Satan’ (1926). Much more distinguished is F. W. Murnau’s Faust of the same year, a masterpiece of German Expressionism by the director who had previously done the celebrated Nosferatu. The opening is sombre and phantasmagorical, containing much imagery that viewers of Walt Disney’s ‘Fantasia’ (1940) will recognise in the ‘Night on Bald Mountain’ sequence.

The story follows the Goethe play more or less, turning comic in places as Faust and Mephistopheles indulge in their hijinks, not to mention Faust’s attempt to win Margaret. The ending, as in the Marlowe play, becomes serious again. (A 1967 Dr. Faustus, starring Richard Burton and based on Christopher Marlowe, was unsuccessful both critically and financially and certainly added nothing to the Devil’s cinematic image.)

‘The Devil and Daniel Webster’ was memorably filmed in 1941 (sometimes the film is called ‘All That Money Can Buy’), directed by William Dieterle, with Walter Huston as the Devil. Vincent Price made a suitably impressive Devil in the otherwise silly 1957 film, ‘The Story of Mankind’. But by and large cinematic Devils were of the familiar deal-making, gentlemanly sort, few of them at all terrifying.

‘Rosemary’s Baby’ and ‘The Exorcist’ must be discussed together as books and films. In the popular culture, they are now as inextricable as Sherlock Holmes or Tarzan and their film versions. Both novels were bestsellers in their own right, but they worked together with their film adaptations for maximum impact.

Some argued that by the late 1960s the time was ripe for a return of the Devil. Certainly, a great upsurge in occult belief manifested itself at this time, and inevitably, as the Devil began to earn big money, the floodgates were opened. It has been suggested, too, that both Levin’s and Blatty’s creations played deftly on the fears of the time.

Something could be made of the fact that both stories take place among the extreme upper crust of American society. Do the rich, perhaps, feel themselves under assault, perhaps out of some sense of guilt? Do the rest of us, perhaps enviously, identify with them? In ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, we see the corruption of America’s wealthy elite, as Rosemary’s husband, a screenwriter, will do anything to further his career, including, apparently, arrange for his wife to be impregnated by the Devil so she will give birth to the Antichrist.

Both book and film handle the paranoia of the situation effectively. In the Polanski film, Mia Farrow’s subtle, finely nuanced performance greatly enhances the sense of Rosemary’s helplessness, as she is slowly betrayed by not being seen, as Ray Russell had concluded earlier. The horror becomes personal, and extremely intimate. What better place for the Devil to attack us than through our own bodies, in ways that Rosemary cannot tell anyone, even her gynaecologist, and hope to be believed? It is an expectant mother’s ultimate nightmare.

‘The Exorcist’, both novel and film (1973, directed by William Friedkin, based on a screenplay by Blatty), is the ultimate parent’s nightmare. Many commentators have suggested that timing played a major part in the story’s success. At the height of the Hippie Era and the Sexual Revolution, what parent did not fear that their sweet child might become an obscenity-spewing, incomprehensible monstrosity?

In any event, ‘The Exorcist’ is less fine than ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, both novel and film less subtle on all levels, but it hardly matters. ‘The Exorcist’ has a literal, in-your-face quality, complete with pea soup vomited into the face of the priest-exorcist, Max Von Sydow, and the notorious scene of fourteen-year-old Regan (Linda Blair) masturbating bloodily with a crucifix. The story may drive its points home with a sledgehammer, but it does drive them. Much more so than ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, which is about a sophisticated, subtle form of soul-corruption, ‘The Exorcist’ is back to the basics in terms that the medievals could understand.

Good battles evil without any shades of gray. The Devil, an external reality and not the product of anyone’s diseased mind or inner cravings, invades a young girl’s flesh, makes her hideous, performs malign miracles, such as rotating her head 180 degrees, levitation, or hurling a grown man to his death out a window. He must be driven out by traditional weapons of Faith, notably prayer and the Roman Catholic rite of exorcism, which, we are told, is an anachronism and a bit of an embarrassment in the modern age. But the veneer of civilisation and progress is peeled back; it is exactly what the characters need.

How seriously should anyone take this? Blatty, who comes from a deeply Catholic background, apparently takes it seriously. But as a piece of horror fiction and horror cinema, ‘The Exorcist’ is as important as ‘Dracula’ (1931) or ‘Frankenstein’ (1932). It defines, in the public mind, the imagery of the Devil, and of possession and exorcism, even as those two films defined the Vampire and the Monster.

‘The Exorcist’ is endlessly imitated and parodied. If, in any other story or film, a child starts speaking in a gruff voice, drawers open and close by themselves, and the bed starts thumping, we know what to expect. The TV comedy serial ‘Soap’ (1977–1981) deftly parodied it in a plotline that involved a wayward daughter having a love affair with a priest, by whom she gets pregnant and — guess what? — the baby is possessed by the Devil. Many of then numerous imitations of ‘The Exorcist’, such as ‘The Omen’ and its sequels, are difficult to distinguish from parodies.

The impact of ‘The Exorcist’ remains significant, even if there has been no clear follow-up beyond the level of parodies and obvious imitations. Blatty’s own sequel, ‘Legion’ (1983), had much less impact, although it was turned into a surprisingly good film, ‘Exorcist III’. (‘Exorcist II’ [1977], directed by John Boorman and starring Richard Burton, was such a disaster that within a short while everybody concerned, particularly Blatty, seemed to pretend it never happened.) Stephen King’s ‘Needful Things’ (1991) does present a sinister shopkeeper who buys and sells everything up to and including souls, and is likely the Devil.

Neil Gaiman’s short story ‘Murder Mysteries’ (in ‘Smoke and Mirrors’, 1998) is an actual detective story, set in Heaven before the creation of the Earth, in which we see a more or less sympathetic but not comical Lucifer just beginning to take the path toward rebellion. Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s ‘Good Omens’ (1990) is a cosmic comedy about the Antichrist, of a type that would have fit in the right alongside John Collier’s ‘The Devil, George, and Rosie.’ The Devil also appears in the comic-philosophical novels of James Morrow, particularly in ‘Only Begotten Daughter’ (1990), a book more in the spirit of Mark Twain’s ‘The Mysterious Stranger.’

But even if they have had no clearly major successors, the importance of Blatty and Levin and the films derived from their books is that, not just for the sort of religious fundamentalists who devour the ‘Left Behind’ novels, but for the general public, the Devil has become the object of fear again.

He is genuinely evil once more. Mister Scratch is still recognisable, but he is a minor figure. Faustian comedies are still possible, such as the film ‘Bedazzled’ (1967, and a much inferior remake, 2000), but the Devil has become, once more, an Icon of Horror.

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