This is a short story written for halloween 2016 for my blog. The colours in this story are important. I am taking the Faustian pact theme and playing with it a little. This story is largely written in dialogue. I struggled with the first sentence and in the end began with the word ‘Please…’ hoping that this would reflect some kind of respect for the reader. I’m not sure it works but I don’t think it has been done before very much.
The Notebook and the Devil
Please picture a room in a mansion located behind a secure, ornate gate. It is the kind of place where the rich go to let their lives marinate, knowing that they have many fine years ahead of them to eat, drink and create a fortress of their homes. Where the recording angels (if there are such things) have no jurisdiction to document the words that are spoken.
There are some who say that houses are like bodies and their occupants are like souls. If that is the case, then the body, at least, is thriving here.
And the conscience of the guest burns, like a blush, for the deeds he is about to do.
In this particular property picture a dining room with a roaring fire in an inglenook fireplace. It is dusk and the fire is like a third occupant within the room. If the flames could speak they would say, ‘We are here to live, dance and die, that is our purpose’. But flames cannot speak and houses are not bodies.
There is a long marble-topped table covered by a white tablecloth. One wall is a window which is now obscured by the eyelid of a closed velvet curtain. The dominant colours within the room are white and red, like the colours of a coral snake. Colours which say ‘Danger’. Colours which say ‘Keep away’. The only noise in the room comes from the crackle of the fire. Strangely, the room smells fusty, like some forgotten church.
Picture the host, the owner of the mansion, his hair as white as this room’s walls, but for a slight yellowy tinge. His fingers are stained with tobacco. He sits at one end of the table and seems relaxed.
A young guest sits at the far end of the table. The room itself seems to sing to them, a sweet lullaby which comforts them as much as the bottle of expensive cognac they are sharing.
The host lights up a cigar and leans back into his chair.
“It so happened,” says the host, “That your father began to take an interest in the occult…”
The young guest seems agitated, afraid even, like a man waiting in line for judgment day. “Let me stop you right there Sir, my father was not a man who believed in anything supernatural.”
“Ah, I beg to differ. Your father held a secret fascination for all things occult. Your father’s true fascination was power and the occult was said to be a means to an end.”
The host pauses to blow out a long stream of smoke. “As a young man it seemed to your father that life trundled on as it always did. There was no likelihood of any great change in the future. It seemed to him that this world and this life were all that existed and that a person should adapt and change and enjoy the life he had. But it also seemed to him that there was a way of doing so much better.”
The young guest shakes his head and looks into the dancing flames, so deeply red – he wonders how flames could ever be so red.
The host sighs and continues, “Your father was a great reader and he liked to read his esoteric literature. If you don’t believe me, find access to his kindle reading list, if examined by anyone now it would raise many eyebrows in the department. As a young man your father was interested in occult knowledge, Aleister Crowley, Theosophy, channelling, psychic predictions – all kinds of things like this. And his interest, over the years, grew darker and darker. He was consistently drawn to the more obscure texts and the stranger ideas when it came to esoteric writing. He found his way through esoteric apocrypha the likes of which would make an ordinary man or woman weep. The strangest stories. The strangest writings. This is what your father grew to love and was the other hobby alongside his politics. Because both were a hobby and not work. Your father, from his reading grew to be convinced that he could attain power through making a Faustian pact with the devil.”
The rich young guest splutters mid-sip at this. “That’s ridiculous,” he says. “That is not my father.”
“We all fall into cliché in the end, the only irony is that so many of us avoid it in our words and live it in our lives. Now it so happened that your father also knew that the devil gets a somewhat strange press. The devil, obviously controls the press, but we will leave that for another talk. Your father knew a lot about the devil. Not only did he know all about the traditional scriptural references to the devil, the Book of Job and the passages of Isaiah said to refer to this character, but he also knew the Islamic scriptures and texts concerning the devil. The two versions differed slightly, one devil had a withered arm and a blind eye, the other had vast power but was trumped by God in the same way that a game of top trumps would have one card which beat another card. So your father knew, from this traditional literature that the devil was not to be trusted when it came to making deals. Some have it that the devil is a liar too and that all of his temptations and promises amount to nothing. Your father also researched the devil in folklore and here he found a different devil to the devil of the scriptures – he found a devil who could be outwitted, who could be used to progress in life. He found a devil who could be used to get what he wanted and tricked into not receiving his soul at the end of the whole process. It was this devil in which your father began to believe… began to worship…”
“Hold on, I’m sorry, I have to stop you right there, my father simply wouldn’t believe in the devil. He was his own man.”
“He worked in Government, of course he believed in the devil… and no man is their own, however they may feel. Your father’s devil differed from the devil in the Bible in that he was a far less powerful principality. The devil of folklore which he came to believe in was merely a misunderstood character who could grant wishes. Kind of like a genie. Your father also researched the devil of urban myth and pop culture. It seemed to him that this devil, the one featured in horror films and horror stories was, like the scriptural devil, a caricature of the being he believed in. Once again this devil held huge power, the kind of power which was almost equal to that of God. It seemed to him that this urban myth devil was as fake as the devil of the bible. As I say, your father believed in a folklore devil…. at least at first.”
The guest drinks from his glass of port, at a loss for words. The host gives a wry smile. “It seemed to your father that the devil did have a kind of army of fallen angels at his disposal though. He felt sure that although the devil himself knew nothing of your father that there was a kind of hierarchy in the kingdom of darkness. There were more powerful demons who understood irony and satire, there were less powerful demons who only understood how to provoke violence and who lived in strange dark places like motorway underpasses. These demons, he came to understand had simple agendas. Your father’s reading caused him to understand that both the devil and his army had the agenda of getting humans to either hurt each other or hurt themselves. They provoked fights and incited all kinds of prejudice and violence. They actively caused people to do evil things. But not only did they cause suffering, they also tempted. And your father, through occult reading understood that the language used by the devil was indeed the language of the lie, but that behind all this, behind all the angel in disguise beauty of evil there was also an element of truth. As a candidate for election he understood that the best lies had an element of truth. It wasn’t the devil who had taught him this, it was the MPs. So he discovered that the devils did hold treasures and power of a kind and that they were able to grant wishes. So he decided that he wished for power so that he could progress in his career and gain election. He also wished for money. So, obviously your father needed some kind of summoning power. The trouble is that for anyone who wants to do a deal with the devil they find themselves somewhat stuck at some point – usually at the point of asking for the thing that they want. Some say that the devil cannot read thoughts but that he can have a good guess at what humans are thinking as he has been muddling around them for a few thousand years. So your father, because he believed in a folklore devil, decided that he would summon up Lucifer himself. To cut a long, infernal, story short, your father read a lot of the strangest, most esoteric, most occult, most obscure literature he could find and he compiled his findings into this notebook.”
Suddenly the host holds, as if by some conjuring trick, an old red notebook in his hand. On the front of the notebook, written in faded gold are the words ‘Nobiscum Deus’. The host places it on the table.
“His findings, written in this notebook would enable him to summon the devil to do his bidding in exchange for something he had. So he performed the necessary rituals in his home, he drew the usual pentagrams and protected himself from the evil eye of the devil through eye-shaped charms. He protected himself with all kinds of black magic and he went through the summoning procedure. I will not go into the ingredients of such a ritual as I do not want to give you any ideas and some of the ingredients were gory. Blood, skin, bones, various liquids, an innocent, you know the kind of thing. It’s all in the notebook. So the ritualistic words were said and then your father waited, hoping for an appearance from the devil.
But nothing happened.
No devil appeared and, depressed, your father went to bed. This was all 50 years ago, before his success began, apart from the scandal and the events that followed. And he fell asleep and the devil appeared to your father in a dream. Dreams are supposed to be the royal road to the unconscious and generations past believed that they often came from outside of ourselves too. That this unconscious could be by-passed by angel or demon or God or devil and that messages could be passed which by-passed the machinations of this society in which we live. And although a dream is like life insomuch as a person can take little from it when he or she awakes, the dream could involve agreements and relationships in the same way that a life can contain relationships and agreements even if nothing else can be taken beyond death. So it was with your father. When the devil approached your father in the dream he knew immediately that it was the devil. He appeared to him as the folklore devil he was expecting, cloven hooves, a man of the world, eyes which danced with a strange red fire within them. It is said that the devil is mad because he cannot hope to overcome God but still believes that he can do so. That he is like some kind of feral animal in his hunger to survive. That this is the madness shared by all devils, so they can hope to overcome the very God who created them. A delusion they are subject to like the delusions they create. And this is true enough because when your father looked into the eyes of the devil he knew he was looking into the eyes of a psychopath. He wrote this of the discourse…”
At this point the host picks up the notebook and begins to read.
‘Greetings’ said the devil to me, whistling to himself in the dream.
‘Hello Sir’ I replied full of a deferential respect I would not give to any man.
‘And what can I do for you today? I believe you called me?’
I was irritated that the devil was English but had no more than thought this thought when he spoke again, ‘I appear in whatever necessary form I need to appear. I assure you that I spend a lot of time in England.’
‘I wondered if you would do me a favour kind Sir and give me power and money?’
‘Quid pro quo good fellow, quid pro quo, what will you do for me in return?’
‘What do you want?’
‘What do I want? What do I want? I have never told a mortal what I want. When someone knows what you want they have power over you. Do you expect me to break the habit of a lifetime? Ask instead, what do I need?’
‘What do you need?’ asked your father.
‘I am so sorry to fall into fiction and stereotype like this, goodness knows they demonise me enough already but I’m afraid I will require your eternal soul.’
‘Is this so you can torture me forever in hell’?
‘Not at all, if we go to hell we will both be in unendurable torture (oh how that makes me so angry), what can I possibly do with your soul in hell? I am afraid I will require your soul in this lifetime, after that you can have it back. There are certain things which I would like you to accomplish on this earth. And you must not listen to all those who say that my only agenda is to destroy and for you to harm others and yourself. And you must not listen to those who say I can only speak the lie and that the lie is the only language that I know. Because we all know that every lie contains a kernel of truth in it or else it would not be a successful lie. And if I said that I know a lot about lies would I be telling the truth anyway? There are all kinds of narratives there really are dear friend. Dear, dear, precious man, there is so much that I could tell you and yet I really don’t think that your beautiful mind could comprehend all that I know. ’
It was most disturbing.
‘And if I let you have my soul in my lifetime you will give me power and money?’
‘Yes. Or no. Maybe.’
‘How can I be sure you won’t lie to me?’
‘If I build you a bridge then I require something in return. It may not be so much about lying as whose story you believe. Don’t believe the rumours about me,’ replied the devil.
The host places the notebook back on the table.
“Now anyone with any kind of sense would realize that the devil’s word is probably not going to be something which has a very great commitment to it. Anyone who is anyone realizes that the devil is going to lie whatever he says and that in many ways your father was not going to come out of this whole survival situation which we call life very well. However, there was no accounting for your father’s folly when it came to be blinded by riches and power. He wanted those things so badly that he was prepared to believe that he would receive them because the devil had given his word. Besides which, he had done his reading and realized that the devil could probably be tricked in some way by sending a dog over a metaphorical bridge or something like that at some point. So your father agreed and in the moment of his agreeing in thought he woke up in bed to find blood on the sheets. And that was how the deal was made. It’s all in the notebook.
You know most of the rest. I can tell you that your father did attain power. It was strange to him as he had only believed in a relatively powerless folk devil – that the devil should have such influence in Government. That MP’s and Lords, even the Prime Minister should suddenly look on him with new eyes and seem to offer him such deferential treatment and such opportunities for progression that within a year he was at the top of his game and, through a portfolio of new shares, earning more than he had ever earned. So the devil was true to his side of his bargain, your father became both powerful and rich. He was also a little worried about what the devil would ask of him, knowing how these kind of things tend to go in the popular mind, among the hoi-polloi. So he began to plan. As he planned he discovered that his folk-lore devil was inaccurate. He realized that a lot of the literature about the devil was incorrect. He began to realize that there were likely going to be only two ways to trick this devil since he discovered that the true devil was closer to the urban myth devil of vast power. These were his two options:
One. He could escape the devil’s clutches by submitting to a higher power. The trouble with praying to God, which he found was the required action, was that he would probably be called to give up his power and position, something which was a bit of a deal-breaker for your father. So he ruled that one out.
But there was one other option. Through careful reading of the Book of Job and further reading of folklore stories he discovered one element which was common in defeating the devil. Endurance.
Sure there were stories of people outwitting the devil by giving some animal in exchange for their own soul, sure there were stories of the devil being outwitted by a clever scheme, but your father, through careful study of Job realized that Job only outwitted the devil through endurance. Job resisted the devil and this was the way in which he escaped. So your father determined to do the same.
When the devil appeared to him again once more in a dream he demanded that your father begin to serve him as a slave. He demanded that your father begin to harm other people, to bring about those laws which would cause the most suffering. Because this is what the devil does.
So your father summoned up all his resistance and said:
‘No. I’m not going to do it.’
‘What did you say?’ asked the tyrant the devil.
‘I said no. I utterly resist you like Job did.’
‘Ahhh. The one time I was defeated by a mortal, or am I lying? But you will understand what the allegorical Job had to go through a lot before he tricked me?’
And so it was that when your father woke up he was covered in sores. The sores were so painful and suddenly there was a phone call from the Prime Minister to say that the great scandal you know about had occurred and that he must fall on his sword and resign. And suddenly family and friends began to die. And suddenly his house burned down, as you know, and his portfolio of risky shares became almost worthless. Even his bank claimed he had never had an account with them in the first place. His reputation was lost. And suddenly your father had nothing apart from his diseases. He was like Job except he was homeless.
And the devil appeared to him during his torture in another dream when your father was sleeping homeless on the streets of London.
‘Changed your mind yet?’
‘Yes sir’ said your father.
And that was how your father got better. That was how he regained his wealth and power and how he got a new home. He regained his riches, his portfolio of shares and a whole new family. He was more blessed than he had been before his downfall. He went back to serving the devil and he was a good servant and nothing else went wrong for him in his life, before he died the natural death last week, full of years and the happiness of a life lived in the service of Government.”
The young guest seems to be thinking about all this. “Do you believe in the devil?” he asks finally.
“Doesn’t life experience say it is intellectually insulting to do otherwise?” replies the host.
“But that is deeply disturbing,”
“There are more angels than demons.”
“You’re not the devil are you?”
“Don’t be ridiculous, you know I’m simply an old friend of your late father. The devil is not flesh and blood. I am merely telling you the true story of your father’s success, a fine man, a great man. I hear that they will be building a statue of him. But tell me, how long is it until the by-election vote again?”
The guest sighs as if remembering his anguish. “Two days, but I’m unlikely to win. The other candidate can’t seem to put a foot wrong. I don’t know what to do to win it.”
Then the host sips the last of his glass of cognac, stands and leaves the room. The young guest is alone. There is only the sound of the dancing fire which seems to say ‘Take up and read, take up and read’, the feverish lullaby of a hall and a marble table with an old red notebook on it emblazoned with the words ‘Nobiscum Deus’.