Ages ago, I read a short story which, if memory serves, took the form of a correspondence between two magazine editors (or maybe it was between an editor and an aspiring writer). The problem was that a writer kept submitting short stories about deals with the devil. According to the writer, his dilemma was that he had made such a deal himself, and the only way out of it was to convince someone to publish yet another “deal with the devil” story. Needless to say, it didn’t go well.
As far as literary clichés go, it’s hard to find one with more whiskers on its chin than the deal with the devil. It was ancient when Christopher Marlowe tackled it in The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus at the turn of the 17th Century. It’s become so ingrained into our culture – especially in the blues tradition—that all a character has to do is say something along the lines of, “I met a man at the crossroads,” and we’re off into a tale of an infernal bargain.
Sympathy for the Devil, edited by Tim Pratt, has a few tales of such deals, and like any good collection worth its salt, it shows there’s still some life in the hoary old concept. Whether showing that the Devil’s cunning is always razor-sharp and up-to-date (the tech age deal of Scott Westerfield’s “Non-Disclosure Agreement”), or whether Lucifer can in fact be outwitted (by, say, a street-level louse in Charles Stross’ “Snowball’s Chance”), or whether the forces of evil have bigger plans than just picking us off one-by-one (Neil Gaiman’s “We Can Get Them for You Wholesale”), this short story collection covers the full range of deals.
Heck (or should that be Hell?), in Robert Bloch’s “That Hell-Bound Train”, a man actually navigates the loophole of such a deal in a way that lands him true happiness – or at least an eternal good time. Kris Dikeman’s “Nine Sundays in a Row” follows the progression of such a deal from the perspective of the devil’s dog, with no shortage of touching moments. Elizabeth Bear’s “And the Deep Blue Sea” finds that just because there’s been an apocalypse, that doesn’t mean that the Devil’s work is done, or that he can’t find new ways to heap misery upon the world.
To make a deal with the devil implies that we hold some kind of importance or value to him, and as many stories in Sympathy for the Devil stress, that might not be the case. Jeffrey Ford’s irreverent “On the Road to New Egypt” finds a driver picking up two hitchhikers – Jesus and the Devil – and they both turn out to be irredeemable jerks as they drag the narrator along on their reckless misadventures. Jay Lake’s “The Goat Cutter” paints a bleak rural portrait of a Devil who’s loosed from his prison and regards people as little more than grist in the sacrificial mill. In Andy Duncan’s excellent “Beluthahatchie”, Hell is a mirror image of the Jim Crow-era South. Gaiman’s oft-reprinted “The Price” envisions a devil who’s more of a malignant blight than a trickster figure.
All of Sympathy for the Devil’s stories have been printed elsewhere before, so it provides a good overview of infernal literature of the recent past. Where Sympathy for the Devil surprised this reader, though, was in finding a seat at the table for some of literature’s most well-established devils. Anyone who’s read The Scarlet Letter surely remembers Nathaniel Hawthorne being a bit of a symbol nerd, but “Young Goodman Brown” finds him telling a fast-paced tale of an errand that goes too far into the woods. Mark Twain’s radium-obsessed “Sold to Satan” is still, well, weird. A canto from Dante’s Inferno continues to paint an unforgettable portrait of Lucifer as a monster trapped in the 9th Circle’s ice, gnashing traitors in his jaws.
Sympathy for the Devil offers a legion of Satans, each with his own face. He’s coldly efficient, or he takes great pleasure in his job, or he’s beleaguered, or feral. Thankfully, he’s never a scenery-chewing ham of the sort that Hollywood keeps foisting on us in films like Constantine orThe Devil’s Advocate. He might be apart from God, and Lord knows there’s probably nothing new under the sun for someone who got kicked out of Heaven, but he does have his dignity, after all.