The Devil: he is often thought of as an ultimate horror baddie, particularly because of his role in the two novels and movies around which the genre as a publishing niche coalesced, Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist. There is something undeniably attractive about this character, his demonic lieutenants, and his fiery home. Two poets, Dante Alighieri and John Milton, created much of the imagery we associate with the Infernal, building off of and in some cases entirely ignoring what the world’s scriptures say about the Tempter. Dante brought to terrible life the seven circles (his own invention) of the Inferno, and Milton recreated him as a Romantic hero, one obsessed with a hopeless cause but possessing a certain strength, charm, and heroism despite his wickedness.
The literature and cinema of horror continue to build out his legend, starting with early efforts like Christopher Marlowe’s play The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, the pseudo-Arabic Vathek by William Beckford and, later the lengthy Melmoth the Wanderer. I tend to not be as into Satan stories as many others in the genre myself. Stories of wicked demons doing wicked things for, you know, their wicked purposes often bore me, and I’d rather see new creatures that elude easy metaphysical categorization. That said, there are plenty of powerful and unique takes on the Devil, his troops, and their dominion in the genre. Here are some of my favorite literary explorations of the forces of Evil.
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The Monk (1796)
This is in most ways the grandfather of all horror novels. While it was preceded by William Beckford’s Vathek and The Castle of Otranto by Hugh Walpole, these earlier works were episodic and somewhat flimsy compared to Lewis’s epic story, though they (particularly Vathek) are certainly still worth a read . The Monk was written and published before the author turned 20, and it had an explosive effect on European literature. Denounced, celebrated, and imitated, it would go on to influence everyone from the Marquis de Sade to Edgar Allan Poe to Anne Rice (and most everyone between).
Its rambling and multipronged plot largely deals with the temptations and corruption of the formerly pious monk of the title, Ambrosio. Early on, Ambrosio’s young friend Rosario reveals that “he” is actually Matilda, a woman who has disguised herself in order to get close to Ambrosio. She quickly seduces him and before you know it, she is using her suspiciously supernatural powers to help him gain his heart’s desires, however twisted they turn out to be. This novel is a riot (at times literally so) and involves everything from ghostly nuns to incest to deals with You-Know-Who.
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The Master and Margarita (1966)
Written during the reign of real-life monster Joseph Stalin but only published decades later, this novel is a sharp satire of that dictator’s mad regime, as well as a phantasmagoria of shape-shifting creatures and magical escapades. It also flashes back and forth in time between the Soviet Union and the struggles of Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judea who according to myth sentenced Jesus Christ to death despite his own reservations.
At the beginning of the novel, the mysterious Professor Woland tells a state functionary that he will soon die. Although the man tries dismissing the prophecy, he is soon hilariously decapitated and the fun really begins. Woland and his associates, Behemoth (a large black cat who loves firearms), Hella (a beautiful and vampiric redhead), and the hitman Azazello then proceed to wreck havoc on Moscow. Their activities intersect with the Master, an inhabitant of a lunatic asylum who has tried writing a novel about Pontius Pilate. Although a ton has been written about the possible meanings of Bulgakov’s book, I enjoyed it for what its surface presents: a wild and often funny ride filled with zany interpretations of infernal tricksters.
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The Damnation Game (1985)
Clive Barker’s most well-known foray into the infernal regions is of course his film Hellraiser, based on his novel The Hellbound Heart. To be a little pedantic, though, Pinhead and his leather-clad retinue aren’t actually from the Hell we’ve been given by the major monotheistic religions. They are instead the inhabitants of an extradimensional zone characters only think of as Hell. To get something closer to a traditional depiction of Satan, read this, Barker’s first full novel. It is a gory, complicated, and literary take on the Faust theme, the deal with the Devil gone terribly wrong.
When Marty Strauss is released from prison, he finds employment as a bodyguard for the wealthy, powerful, and strangely fearful Joseph Whitehead. See, years ago, Whitehead made an arrangement with a mysterious man named Mamoulian, a figure who can not only bring the dead back to life but who also made Whitehead rich beyond his wildest dreams. And now this wealthy man fears his end of the bargain is coming due. It’s hard not seeing this novel as having had an influence on Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, though that’s no knock on that wonderful book. Just a warning: Barker goes there in terms of gore and aberrant sexuality, so be prepared.
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The Satanic Verses (1988)
This may be one of the only novels on my lists to have gotten real people killed, though that’s not the fault of author Salman Rushdie whatever some idiot critics might have to say about the matter. Shortly after the release of this award-winning dark magical-realist/fantastical-horror novel, the Ayatollah Khomeini, the brutal religious leader of Iran at the time, declared the novel such an offense against his interpretation of Islam that it warranted not only worldwide censorship, but the murder of the author. While Rushdie luckily avoided that fate, several translators, publishers, and editors were attacked by fanatics and people died.
The novel is about two Indian men, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, who miraculously survive the explosion of a hijacked plane after falling thousands of feet into the ocean. After washing up on shore, they both begin to supernaturally transform, Gibreel into an angelic being and Saladin into a cloven-footed hairy and horned creature. Could it be… Satan? This book, despite its reputation as a piece of religious criticism, is also a meditation on racial/national identity, film, and much more, and it is written in a thick, musical and comedic prose style that I for one find beautiful every-time I reread it.
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Practical Demonkeeping (1992)
Goofier, not as bloody, and less culturally/politically-fraught than most of the other titles on this list, Christopher Moore’s first novel is about a man and his demon. One hundred years ago, Travis O’Hearn accidentally summoned a demon named Catch and has been stuck with this companion ever since. Catch has a tendency to eat people, something that keeps his unwilling master on the run. After years of searching for a way out of this predicament, Travis thinks he may have found the answer in the small Californian town of Pine Cove.
This crazy little romp, comparable to a horror novel written by Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett with a side of Tom Robbins, involves kooky villagers, a witch who is a member of the group Pagan Vegetarians for Peace, and the King of the Djinn. Can Travis solve his little problem before his demonic servant eats half the inhabitants of Pine Cove? Moore wrote another two novels set in the same town, and while I haven’t read them, I can recommend this one for anyone looking for a funny, breezy, and quite people-eatey horror novel.
City Infernal (2001)
So, one big old word of warning: if you are a reader who needs a trigger warning for literally any particular type of content, then Edward Lee’s books are not for you. A literary descendent of the “splatterpunk” movement, Lee writes some of the most extreme horror imaginable. Literally nothing seems to be off limits for him, which is fun for some of us and an unpleasant nightmare for others.
In this pulpy and vividly imagined novel, Cassie and Lissa are twin sisters, Goths, who have a falling out over Cassie kissing Lissa’s boyfriend. To be precise, Lissa kills said boyfriend and then herself, leaving her sister devastated and wracked with guilt. Years later, after Cassie and her father move into an old house with a disturbing past, she discovers that she can enter Mephistopolis, the grand city of Hell. There, Cassie will search for Lissa, hoping to make up for her small but deadly mistake.
The city is the real star of this novel, a skyscrapered metropolis filled with tormented human beings and ghouls of all sorts going about their business under a blood-red sky. Everything runs off a power-grid that runs on the pain produced in systematically tortured souls. Cassie will make friends here and discover a destiny larger than she’d imagined, but she will face pushback from those who’d prefer to keep the infernal status quo. Again: pulpy and extreme, but fun for those with a taste for that.
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Come Closer (2003)
This is a short but sharp and effective little novel told in an often poetic voice. It avoids most of the extreme material on display in most of these books, but it has a way of getting under your skin nonetheless. It’s about Amanda, an architect who is happily married and seems to be on track toward a life fully lived when she suddenly starts experiencing what seem to be paranormal events. Strange noises in her apartment, visions of a bloody sea, these aren’t nearly as disturbing as the new voice that has taken up residence in her head, a voice that urges her on to fulfill desires she never thought she had. Is Amanda going insane or is something much worse digging its claws into her mind?
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This novel marks out a territory all its own somewhere between satire, supernatural horror, and murder mystery, all grounded by genuine emotional resonance. When Ig Perrish was young, it looked as if his life was headed in the right direction, particularly in regard to his love of his girlfriend, Merrin Williams. Then, Merrin was raped and killed and, despite there not being enough evidence to convict him, there was enough circumstantial evidence to suggest that Ig was guilty of the crimes. The novel begins later, when Ig wakes up from a night of empty debauchery to find he is growing a fine set of horns. Not only this, Ig can now prompt those around him to helplessly confess to their darkest desires and most private thoughts and he can nudge them into acting out self-destructive impulses.
This looks to be an excellent way to get revenge on all those around him who are convinced that he brutalized the love of his life, but Ig’s newfound powers will draw him back to the question of who killed Merrin. Something I enjoyed about Hill’s novel (and it’s a great feature of his father Stephen King’s work too) is that it creates its own metaphysics, not relying on a Christian-Islamic vision of the supernatural for all that Ig is beginning to resemble Satan himself.
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This is another example of Chuck Palahniuk’s horror fiction, though admittedly this one leans more into both fantasy and humor than many of his others. In this weird mashup of fantastic horror and the stylings of young adult author Judy Blume, teenager Maddy Spencer wakes up in Hell, unsure of how she died and why she has been damned. After making friends with a group of teens suspiciously similar to the cast of a famous high school movie, Maddy gets a job as a telemarketer, one tasked with annoying the living and, perhaps, luring them to their own eternity in the Inferno. Soon, though, Maddy’s ambitions outpace this dull routine and she decides to remake Hell in her own image.
Palahniuk is one of those authors who people typically either love or hate, as his hyperkinetic prose style and mordant observations prove a potent mixture with the extremity of his material. This novel, for all its descriptions of the vile and the vicious of Hell, has a sense of fun and even innocence (of a kind) to it and isn’t nearly as dark as many of his other stories. Responses will vary, but if you enjoy this one, make sure to check out the sequel, Doomed.
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My Best Friend’s Exorcism (2016)
This one comes from the lovingly illustrated history of 80’s horror novels, Paperbacks From Hell. Many of Grady Hendrix’s novels exist on the borderland between straightforward horror and knowing pastiche. This novel leans further in the former direction than either its title or hilariously retro book-cover might lead you to believe. Abby Rivers and Gretchen Lang have been best-friends since they were ten-years old. As they’ve eased (if that can be the right term for hitting adolescence) into their teens, they’ve had all the sorts of adventures one might imagine girls in the 1980’s to have had. Despite connections with other girls, it seems as if nothing could get in between them. Not, that is, until they take LSD together at a beautiful lake house and Gretchen wanders into the woods.
When she comes back, she claims to be fine, but her best friend soon notices Gretchen’s sudden lack of interest in hygiene, her complaints about invisible tormentors, and the fact that strange things now seem to happen around her. Now it’s up to Abby to try to save her friend, but how can an average suburban teenage girl hope to stand up against the powers of the Abyss? Set during the madness that was the Satanic Panic of the 80’s, this novel combines humor and horror with a close examination of female friendship and the lengths some will go to save the ones they love.
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