Sympathy for the Devil
Edited by Tim Pratt
Cover Artist: David Palumbo
Review by Benjamin Wald
Night Shade Books Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9781597801898
Date: 01 August 2010 List Price $15.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Sympathy for the Devil collects a selection of the many literary incarnations of Lucifer, in all of his soul-stealing variations. Since most fantasy authors get around to tackling Old Scratch at some point or other, there are plenty of big names here, both modern and classic. Nathaniel Hawthorne, China Mieville, Stephen King, Michael Chabon, and Kelly Link are just a handful of the prominent authors collected here. While some of the stories fall flat, there are plenty that satisfy, and quite a few that astound. When considered on the strength of the stories taken individually, this anthology is highly enjoyable. However, the editor Tim Pratt makes some unfortunate choices in story order and selection that render the collection considered as a whole weaker than it could have been.
The story order shows some significant missed opportunities. For instance, why is the excerpt from Dante's Inferno placed last? This would have been a perfect opening piece, to give some historical perspective, but placed last it feels outdated and old fashioned after the more modern reinterpretations of Satan. Likewise, several stories that treat the figure of the Devil satirically come quite early in the anthology. This robs the satire of the bite it would have had if they had come later, allowing us to compare the humorous versions of Satan to more traditional versions. It also serves to undercut the gravitas of the more serious treatments that follow them, since it is hard to be as impressed by Satan when we were laughing at him a few stories earlier.
The story selection is also odd. The collection includes a smattering of historical treatments of Satan, from Dante to Mark Twain, and a few stories from earlier genre authors like Robert Bloch and Theodore Sturgeon. However, twenty-seven out of the thirty-five stories are from the last twenty years. This relegates the historical stories to a mere eight to represent the 700 years between Dante Alighieri and the 1990s. If Pratt was trying to give an historical overview of treatments of Satan, then more pre-1990 stories would seem to be called for. If, on the other hand, he wished to present a “best-of” regardless of publication date, then I am skeptical that so many of them would have been written so recently, given the enduring interest in the theme. If he wanted to showcase modern takes on the Devil, then the presence of the older stories, and their wide scattering throughout the anthology, seems out of place. This leaves the anthology with a somewhat unfocused feeling.
However, once we move past the arrangement of the anthology as a whole to the individual stories, things improve considerably. The stories cover a wide range, from the terrifying, to the humorous, to the post-modern and whimsical. In the first camp, Michael Chabon's "The God of Dark Laughter" stands out as a bleak and Lovecraftian view of the universe, and China Mieville's "Details" also succeeds wonderfully in evoking real terror and the uncanny. The comedic and satirical strain is a little harder, and many of the stories that tried it left me cold. Neil Gaiman's "We Can Get Them for you Wholesale" is a notable exception, both darkly hilarious and creepy at the same time. David J. Schwartz's "Mike's Place" also got a few chuckles, with the Devil turned bartender after Hell goes bankrupt. Kelly Link's "Lull" makes use of nested stories within stories and her inimitable naïve-seeming yet deeply sophisticated writing style to great effect. Jeffrey Ford's "On the Road to New Egypt" also succeeds wonderfully, cleverly using both Christ and Satan to undermine the moralized, ordered Judeo-Christian universe they represent.
There are also a handful of traditional "deal with the devil" stories, either straight soul-selling or the equally classic competition, although this competition takes much stranger forms than chess games in most such stories. Despite the long history of deal with the devil stories, I found most of them disappointing. They almost always come down to some last minute trick, some loophole to cheat the devil. This structure tends to force the whole story to ride on some clever (or not so clever) twist at the end. Even when this is enjoyable, as in Kelly Link's "A Reversal of Fortune", it tends to make for slight and forgettable stories. The one exception to this trend is Kris Dikeman's "Nine Sunday's in a Row", which eschews such tricks to explore the relation between the Devil's dog and an unhappy young woman who is willing to sell her soul for the knowledge the Devil can offer. By ignoring the trick ending to focus on the situation of the young woman, Dikeman creates a story with real emotional punch.
Almost all of the stories collected here are a fun read, and although a few of them fade soon after reading, a surprising number will stick with the reader. Pratt has a great collection of authors, and a very strong collection of stories. The flaws in ordering and story selection render this anthology less useful as a definitive collection of stories about Satan, or to trace the changes in representations of Satan over time, but the quality of the stories here are undeniable. Well worth a read.