I consumed a couple of devil narratives recently: Sylvia Townsend Warner’s novel Lolly Willowes and John Carpenter’s movie Prince of Darkness. As both of my regular readers know, as I’ve gotten older and more crotchety I’ve increasingly tended to prefer pulp fiction to the literary variety, so by all rights I should be enthusiastic about Carpenter’s exploitative gore-fest and dump all over Warner’s slow-moving domestication of the infernal.
Not this time though. I love Carpenter’s “The Thing” with a deep devotion, but “Prince of Darkness” is, alas, a lame imitation. The characters are thoroughly uninvolving, and the special effects are — especially by Carpenter’s standards — supremely half-assed and unimaginative, but what really sinks the endeavor is theological confusion. Carpenter’s Satan is kind of a space alien, kind of an extra-dimensional particle, kind of somehow related to theology, maybe related to the future; in other words, it’s Satan as a poorly thought out conspiracy theory, which ends up resolving into Satan as just another boring monster. The characters are constantly making impossible leaps of logic and then looking at each other with deadpan amazement — the corrosion on that eighties-looking sci-fi tube is millions of years old? My god, it must be…Satan! There’s a power surge on the combobulating thingamawhatzit! The horror, the horror! Without a central core, Carpenter trys to distract us with every horror trick in the book; dead men rising and walking, woman transformed into scabrous demon, a plague of insects — even a brief demonic pregnancy which, like the rest of the film, results in precisely nothing. The story lacks the cahones to actually deal with the cultural weight of pretending your special effects monstrosity is actually THE ancient evil, and th. In the end, the idea of Satan as space villain waiting to destroy the earth is a lot less scary than the Church’s conception of Satan as eternal personal tempter, and the final Christ-like sacrifice seems deeply unearned; a parody of, rather than an evocation of, the crucifixion.
“Lolly Willowes” on the other hand, is delightful. Most of the book is a delicately sad, but always witty, account of the painfully restricted life of Laura Willowes, an unassuming woman from a high bourgeois family who is just slightly too eccentric to marry (she tells one suitor he reminds her of a werewolf) but not eccentric enough to actually do anything unconventional. She lives fairly happily with her father until he dies, and then fairly unhappily with her brother, who, along with his devout wife, bores her quietly but steadily. Then, suddenly, about three-quarters of the way through the book, Laura decides to move to a tiny rural town (Great Mop), where she promises her soul to Satan, acquires a black cat as a familiar, and lives, as far as we can tell, happily ever after. The confluence of domestic drama-of-manners and black magic is handled with subdued humor; my favorite moment is when Laura realizes that “Even as a witch, it seemed, she was doomed to social failure, and her first Sabbath was not going to open livelier vistas than were opened by her first ball.” Shortly after this, though, Laura is whirled away in a dance by a comely village maiden — the diabolical lesbian subtext is certainly intentional.
Towards the end of the book Laura speculates on the Devil’s nature:
To be this — a character truly integral, a perpetual flowering of power and cunning from an undivided will — was enought to constitute the charm and majesty of the Devil. No cloak of terrors was necessary to enlarge that stature, and to suppose him capable of speculation or metaphysic would be like offering to crown him with a few casual straws…. Instead his mind brooded immovably over the landscape and over the natures of men, an unforgetting and unchoosing mind. That, of course…was why he was the Devil, the enemy of souls. His memory was too long, too retentive; there was no appeasing its witness, no hoodwinking it with the present; and that was why at one stage of civilisation people said he was the embodiment of all evil, and then a little later on that he didn’t exist.
This idea of the devil as implacably outside of time sounds a lot like the Kantian vision of God and the moral law — always the same, judging and/or knowing mortal souls that bob through time. It’s a personal devil, who cares about human souls intimately, though for what purpose and to what end isn’t exactly clear. Partially, the book suggests, simply to mark those who wish to be marked, folding in those who reject God? Or to show the arbitrariness of civilization, the crumbling around the margins of respectability focused in those who are excluded? In any case, he uncertainty here seems to me to be that of mystery and suggestion, rather than incoherence. The “cloak of terrors” in “Prince of Darkness” certainly isn’t necessary — Warner’s devil is more mystical and more mysterious without it (though he does condescend to turn some milk sour.)
Warner’s isn’t my favorite devil ever (that would probably be C.S. Lewis’ version in Prerelandra, which manages to be evil, banal, creepy, mysterious and despicable all at once.) But I do think that, if you’re going to use Satan, you really need to be willing to engage in some level of thoughtful theology. I know the Enemy died when God did, but it seems like if they’re good enough to put in your plot, they should be good enough to treat with a modicum of respect.