AWESOME-tober-fest 2020: Devilish origins for modern popular fiction

Awesometoberfest 2020

Welcome to Day 1 of AWESOME-tober-fest 2020!  I think this will be a fun month!  The theme for this year’s Halloween celebrations is The Devil! I’m going to talk about movies, comics, TV shows, and cartoons that feature Ol Scratch as a character.

There are many depictions of the Devil in popular culture and many of these depictions are based on very early writings.  Before I start digging into some of the more modern and fun versions of the devil in popular culture, lets take a look at some of the beginnings of his appearances.  These are the classic depictions of Satan or the Devil that many of the things I will be looking at this month will be based on.

One of the earliest appearances of Satan in popular writing was from John Milton’s Paradise Lost.

In this epic poem, Satan was the original bad boy anti-hero.  He is the most beautiful of all of God’s angels.  It is here in Milton that Satan declares that it is better to “reign in Hell” than to “serve in Heaven”.  Satan and his followers are expelled from heaven.  Satan argues that God rules as a tyrant and the angels themselves ought to rule as gods.  He also argues that since angels are self raised, they deny God’s rule over them.  Satan is portrayed as very charismatic.  He continues to persuade angels to follow his cause even after his group is soundly defeated in the first Angelic War.  This particular Satan is a classic character and i really enjoy Milton’s epic poem.  This particular Satan could be considered to be the basis for much of what will follow.  Specifically, DC Comic’s version of Satan, Lucifer Morningstar, is based on Milton’s version.

The next classical depiction of the devil in fiction that I want to bring up is Mephistopheles from Goethe’s Faust.

Written in the late 18th Century, Faust is also a classic devil in fiction tale. It’s even become terminology for a deal with the devil (Faustian bargain). Many deal with the devil stories are traced directly back to this gothic tale.  German doctor Faust is unsatisfied with his life.  He wishes to possibly end his suffering.  Mephistopheles, bored with ruling Hell, asks God (yes, they actually have a semi-regular gossip session in the story), well, he actually bets God that he can corrupt Faust and make him turn away from God.  God says sure because he is absolutely positive that even someone so disillusioned with his life as Faust seems to be, wouldn’t turn their back on Him.  So Mephistopheles appears to Faust and makes him a deal; he will be Faust’s servant on Earth, but when Faust dies, he has to do the same for Mephistopheles.  In this story Mephistopheles, like Milton’s Satan, is also portrayed as very charismatic.  He is cunning and easily convinces Faust to go along with whatever idea he can think of until ultimately Faust can’t see how far he has gone down the path of damnation.  It’s a very good classic story, but if you’ve never read Goethe, it can be a little melodramatic.  Faust is kind of emo about his despair.  It gets a bit old and I’m sort of glad Mephistopheles comes in to put him through the ringer.  Many versions of this story exist.  FW Murnau, who directed Nosferatu, directed a movie version of Faust in 1926.

Next up is a story by Washington Irving called The Devil and Tom Walker from 1824.

The story was originally published in Irving’s 1824 Tales of a Traveller collection.  The story starts off telling us about the notorious pirate William Kidd who made a deal with the devil to protect a large treasure of gold. Kidd died before he could reclaim his riches so the devil has been protecting it ever since.

The story then shifts to Boston, Mass around the year 1727. Tom Walker meets this version of the devil, Old Scratch, in the woods. The devil tells Tom that he knows where Kidd buried his loads of treasure and he’ll reveal it under certain conditions. Tom eventually goes back out and strikes a deal with the devil for the gold. One of the devil’s conditions was it had to be used in service of the Devil. So Tom agrees to become a money lender and loan money for exorbitant fees. He opens a shop a few days later and becomes very wealthy off the backs of the people he’s lending money to.

Needless to say, things don’t end well for good old Tom.  The end of the story tells us that people often see a spectral rider on a black horse in the woods of Boston.  I originally wondered if that was a call out to Irving’s Headless Horseman, but Sleepy Hollow arrived four years after this story.  As for Irving’s Old Scratch, he appears as a woodsman, or lumberjack, chopping down trees.  He’s also called “The Black Man” in the story, which I believe is referring to all the black ash on his skin from the fires of Hell.  He’s cunning and persuasive, as he needs to be, to convince people to do his bidding.

One last story I want to talk about today.  It’s actually inspired by the previous story, but it’s very well known by it’s own right.  I’m talking about The Devil and Daniel Webster by Stephen Vincent Benet.

This story was first published in The Saturday Evening Post on October 24, 1936. It takes place in New Hampshire.  The story opens up by telling us about Daniel Webster.  Benet’s Webster is based on an actual lawyer named Daniel Webster.  The story’s version of Daniel Webster is made out to be this hugely hyperbolic man.   It says that when he spoke, “..stars and stripes came out of the sky.”  When he walked in the woods with his fishing rod (of course named KillAll), trout would jump out of the streams into his pockets because they knew it was no use putting up a fight with him.  On his farm, the chickens were all white meat down to the drumsticks, and he owned a big ram called Goliath that had horns that could butt through an iron door.  It’s really funny how much the story builds up Mr Webster.  It reminds me of those Saturday Night Live skits about the exploits of the greatest salesman alive, Bill Brasky.

Anyway, the story is about Jabez Stone, who’s farm is not doing well.  One night, after being so frustrated he yells that he’d sell his soul to the devil for good luck, he is met by a polite, refined man in a dark suit going by the name Old Scratch.  Jabez makes a deal with Old Scratch for good fortune for the next four years after which, the black suited gentleman will return to collect.  For the next 3 years Jabez enjoys fabulous wealth and luck, but during the fourth year, he becomes so anxious about the end of his deal, he can’t enjoy his fortune.  He writes to noted New Hampshire attorney Daniel Webster who visits Jabez, listens to his story and agrees to take his case.  Webster tells Jabez that “…there’s a jug on the table and a case in hand. And I never left a jug or a case half finished in my life.”

This is when Old Scratch arrives, and Daniel must use all of his lawyerly wits to argue for Jabez’s, and ultimately his own, soul.  To combat Webster, Scratch calls in a murderer’s row of jurors to try the case including  Blackbeard the pirate, an American Indian scalp hunter and a judge from the Salem Witch Trials.  It’s a fun story, I enjoyed the tall tale and the ultimate conclusion.  The Devil is a soft spoken but cunning adversary in the story.  You’d be surprised how many other stories, movies, and TV shows are based on this particular tale.  Most recently in Shortcut to Happiness, Alec Baldwin did a turn as the Jabez Stone character, Anthony Hopkins was Daniel Webster, and Jennifer Love Hewitt was the Devil.

So these stories are the bedrock of fiction featuring the Devil.  We will come across many stories, movies, and books this month that are based on or derive inspiration from one of these stories.



Also, check out the blog Countdown to Halloween for more Halloween-y, bloggy AWESOMEness.

3 Responses to “AWESOME-tober-fest 2020: Devilish origins for modern popular fiction”

  1. Interesting stuff. I’m very interested in checking out the Washington Irving tale you mentioned. I feel like I’ve heard the name but I’m not at all familiar with the story. It’s been a few years since I last read The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, too, so I might have to pull that one out as well.

  2. I always think I’ve read Faust, but it’s the Christopher Marlowe play, Dr Faustus that I’ve read. Coincidentally though, I just watched the Murnau movie the other night. Really, really well done. Super tragic, but amazing effects and photography.

  3. Good read. I’ve never read the original Daniel Wester, I’ll have to. I do enjoy the parody of it, “The Devil and Homer Simpson” from The Simpons Treehouse of Horror IV.

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