Can’t swing a cat these days without hitting some fantasy or urban fantasy property obsessed with demons. Television is awash with them: Sleepy Hollow, Supernatural, Constantine, and so on and so forth. We just love watching mortals dabble in “powers they can’t possibly comprehend.” It’s all pretty good fun, admittedly. There are, however, some pretty odd conventions about the whole thing I’d like to explore for a moment.
Demons Always Double-Cross You
We’ve all seen it: ill-trained sorcerer or power-hungry doofus decides to summon a demon to extort some kind of boon. Demon acts as though everything will go as advertised, but then betrays said doofus at last minute (or first minute – some of these people are pretty dumb), and then the demon gets to escape/claim doofus-soul/do something else nasty. This apparently happens all the damned time. Here’s my question:
If you are going to summon a demon for this kind of deal, what did you expect would happen? You’ve just yanked some hellspawn from Hell and forced it to talk to you – cool, fair enough – but then you start barking demands and you expect it to roll over and obey? Why should it? Because you won’t release it? Dude, it just got out of hell! Do you honestly think an eternity of fiery brimstone will make it poorly prepared to squat in your garage for a few months? You just brought it to the demonic equivalent of ClubMed! It has literally no impetus to assist you so it can “return,” nor does it have any particularly good motivation to tell you the truth. Do you think telling the truth is useful or valued characteristic in Hell?
Basically, you cannot trust these things at all. You can reasonably assume it will act only in its own best interest. If you want to make a deal, you really need to make sure the whole thing is mutually beneficial and build in a plan that assumes you’ll be double-crossed. You’d think more people would catch on to this.
Demons Are All Murderous, Destructive Monsters
Okay, okay – I get it, they’re from Hell. Still, evil does extend beyond homicide and vandalism, you know. Just because you get sprung from Hell doesn’t mean you go on a bloody rampage across town. If you were a soul that just spent umpteen thousands of years locked in an oven full of pitchforks, don’t you think you might have better things to do upon release besides stabbing the lovable neighbor kid or eating the dog? Heck, I’d guess they’d go straight to a nice restaurant, use their infernal influence to get a free meal, and eat good food and drink good drink until the angelic authorities come to drag them away. That’s gluttony, right? Beyond that, might the occasional demon go in for the other less brutal sins? A non-stop demonic sex party in Bangkok, perhaps (Lust)? Binge-watching every episode of every CSI in a comfy motel room (Sloth)? Heck, there might be a demon who might just love bopping around violating the first couple commandments – yelling obscenities in church, starting random religions oriented around various food products, and so on. Maybe one of them is responsible for organizing bus schedules. That sounds like it would be right up an enterprising demon’s alley.
Demons Like to Possess the Innocent Above All
Sure, the innocent are annoying and such easy targets, but exactly how much mileage is your average demon going to get out of possessing a child or a child’s toy? Demonic possession targets all seem to be such waify, miserable things – bony women, kittens, despondent mental patients, toddlers, etc.. If you were a demon, wouldn’t you prefer to possess a 6’5″ brute named Bruno with a neck thick as a Honey-Baked Ham? Why go for the skinny kid when you could possess her real estate attorney mom? Demons, you’ve only got one shot at bringing about the apocalypse – start at the top!
(By the way, all of this reminds me to remind you all to check out my friend Gina’s book, Hellhole, which is about a particularly invasive but a-typical demon)
Demons, if they are meant to represent evil, can and should be as varied and as numerous as the forms of evil itself. Horror movies have seemed to back us into a corner over all of this – demons are simply base, bestial, and bloodthirsty. Evil, though, can be as calm and collected as anything. It needn’t be powered by lust or rage or avarice, necessarily. A demon can play the long game. A demon can be polite. The only thing a demon needs to be is wicked. Let’s all use our imagination about that, as the truly wicked in the world (few though they are) seem to have no shortage of it.
Defining evil can be difficult, especially for the nuanced and sophisticated mind. Every act, you see, springs from a place of positivity, essentially. Very few people go forth to act in an evil manner; even the selfish believe that, thanks to their selfishness, they are somehow helping the world if only by proving to everyone else that the world needs no help. All villains, on some level, can have their behavior boiled down to that which is understandable, if misled. Barring that, we write them off as ‘insane’ or ‘ill’ – conditions that rob them of their free will.
What, then, is the source of true evil? To me, true evil is comprised in something akin to ‘gleeful apathy’ or, to put it another way, as the refusal to believe or even care about something as being any more important than any other thing. Nihilism, essentially.
When I was teaching John Gardner’s Grendel to my students recently, we were discussing Grendel’s conversation with the Dragon (which, by-the-by, is one of the more mind-blowing sections of prose I’ve ever read). We wound our way (as we often do) to the point where the Dragon is compared to Satan or the Devil. The Dragon, for those of you who don’t know, lays out the most profound example of a bona-fide nihilist I’ve seen in fiction. Grendel, trying to search for a place in the world, wants the Dragon, in his omniscience, to explain to him the nature of Truth as it interacts with Art. The Dragon explains, as patiently as he can, that it doesn’t matter in the least what Grendel thinks about Art or Truth or anything else. For him the entire universe is:
A swirl in the stream of time. A temporary gathering of bits, a few random dust specks, so to speak – pure metaphor, you understand – then by chance a vast floating cloud of dustspecks, an expanding universe…Complexities: green dust as well as the regular kind. Purple dust. Gold. Additional refinements: sensitive dust, copulating dust, worshipful dust!…Complexity beyond complexity, accident on accident until…Pick an apocalypse, any apocalypse…Such is the end of the flicker of time, the brief, hot fuse of events and ideas set off, accidentally, and snuffed out, accidentally, by man. Not a real ending, of course, nor even a beginning. Mere ripple in Time’s stream.
So, then I ask my students this question: What if the Dragon is lying?
It is all very easy for us to assume nothing really matters. In point of fact, nothing really does, right? We are ripples in time’s stream. We are the copulating dust. This belief, though, gets us nowhere. If we do nothing but find gold and sit on it, what are we, really? If we go out and do evil or do good, we are still doing. We are making an imprint on the face of the universe, no matter how inconsequential. Even the most wicked killer does less for the forces of evil than the deepest, most apathetic nihilist. If nothing really matters, nothing really is worth changing. Without change, there is no motion. Without motion, there is death, bleak, empty, and silent.
To me, that’s a heavy part of true, unutterable evil. The kind common to demons, devils, and the deep abyssal reaches of damnation. No matter how misled, even to believe wrongly is to believe – we have that much in common, we may yet have more. To not believe is to forsake all but the Void.