The Devil & Demon Literary Canon

So I’ve already done the Vampire Literary Canon and the Zombie Literary Canon. I feel like at this point, I’ve got to make one for all the Big Bads of gothic fiction. And who could be bigger or badder than the Devil himself? Devils and demons have been an important part of the tradition of disturbing and macabre literature long before Gothic even became an official genre. As the personification of all of humanity’s fears, the Devil is arguably a touchstone of the horror genre.

Now obviously, the literary tradition of the Christian incarnation of devils and demons begins with the Christian Bible. But as that can’t really be considered a gothic work in its entirety, I won’t be including it in this canon. Instead, I begin my list many centuries later with works that will take you through different depictions of the Devil and demons throughout the literary tradition.

1. Dante’s Inferno (1321)

Dante's inferno coverInferno is the first section of Dante Alighieri’s three-part epic The Divine Comedy, in which the protagonist, Dante, is led through hell by the Roman poet Virgil. This medieval work is most well known for establishing the image of hell as composed of different circles embodying various layers of sin. At the very center of hell, in the ninth circle reserved for traitors, is Lucifer himself frozen in a lake of ice. Rather than the ruler of hell, Lucifer is here depicted as being as much a victim of its tortures as any of the other prisoners. He is a massive three-headed, winged creature, but despite his terrifying appearance he is passive, impotent, and mute, his main function seemingly to simply show how unrewarding sin can be.

2. Paradise Lost by John Milton (1667)

Paradise Lost cover 2Paradise Lost is one of my favorite works of literature, and one of my favorite depictions of the Devil. Widely considered the last great epic poem, Paradise Lost is also controversial among a great many scholars of epic poetry, as it doesn’t seem to have a central hero–one of the major tenets of the epic genre. Instead, the most interesting and fully developed character is the anti-hero Satan. An eloquent speaker and passionate thinker, Satan is a stalwart believer in both democracy and ambition, traits that resonate deeply with modern American readers and make him appear more sympathetic than perhaps Milton originally intended. Having been cast out of heaven for inciting a revolution against the God he views as a despotic ruler, Satan first establishes his own new kingdom and then journeys to earth to tempt God’s new play things into sin. A far cry from Date’s pathetic Devil, this Satan is active, charismatic, and relatable.

3. Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1808, 1832)

Faust coverThe story of Faust comes from an old German legend which was highly popularized two centuries earlier in Chirstopher Marlow’s play The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. However, I much prefer Goethe’s nineteenth-century drama/epic hybrid. Faust tells the story of an ambitious scholar who is unsatisfied with his academic pursuits and makes a wager with a devil named Mephistopheles, promising to serve the devil in hell if he ever feels a moment of pure satisfaction and contentment in life. Mephisto, as he is called for short, first appears to Faust in the form of a poodle–which I can’t help picturing as a ridiculously shaved show dog, even though I know that’s not what the author intended. As the story progresses, Mephisto stays by Faust’s side, helping him to seduce the poor Gretchen and trying to turn him away from righteous pursuits. Goethe’s Mephisto is witty and skeptical, whispering in Faust’s ear and scheming like Milton’s Satan to bring about the fall of one of God’s favorite creations. Unlike Milton’s Satan, though, Mephisto is ultimately unsuccessful.

4. The Screwtape Lettersby C.S. Lewis (1942)

Screwtape Letters coverThat’s right, C.S. Lewis wrote more than just fairy tales about children finding magical worlds inside wardrobes. In fact, Lewis was a devout Christian and wrote a number of works involving his faith, including this fun, satirical novel. The Screwtape Letters is written in an epistolary format in the form of letters from one senior demon named Screwtape to his young nephew, Wormwood. In these letters, Screwtape tries to advise his nephew on how to best lead his human target astray. These demons are comical and a little pathetic, but the satire also makes some cutting jabs at the flaws of humanity.

5. The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty (1971)

the exorcist coverThanks to the highly successful film adaptation of this novel by William Friedkin in 1973, The Exorcist has had a profound influence on cinematic depictions of demons and is emblematic of the role that devils and demons usually play in horror today. The novel was based on stories of an actual exorcism that Blatty had heard about while attending college in 1949. In the novel, a twelve-year-old girl is possessed by a demonic spirit, and two Jesuit priests are called in to perform an exorcism. The child goes through a horrifying transformation as her possession begins to manifest through more severe psychological and physiological symptoms. The priests finally manage to rid her of the demon in an intense exorcism, but at a high cost.

Which of these have you read? Are there any great works of the devilish and demonic that you feel I’ve left off the list? Please let me know in the comments!

2 thoughts on “The Devil & Demon Literary Canon”

  1. I would add that among the contributions that The Screwtape Letters made to the Devil Literary Canon is the depiction of hell as a convoluted corporate-esque beaurocracy driven by paperwork and quotas. For many modern Americans, office life as hell makes perfect sense. This depiction has been played with by many modern supernatural novels. For example, I think the Succubus Blues series does it, if I remember correctly.

    1. Great point! I feel like The Devil’s Carnival: Alleluia also plays on this trope. Except instead of your typical administrative office, it’s more like a big media company.

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