Empathy for the Devil

Discourse on Evil

by Raoul Hernandez

Memnoch the Devil

by Anne Rice

Knopf, $25 hard


Evil's Back," read The New York Times Magazine cover copy -- in yellow letters that fade through orange to red. Underneath: "A theological journey into the dark heart of America, wherein Susan Smith gets a presentation from Satan... Quentin Tarantino challenges the ironies of ethical relativism... Mario Cuomo leaves an Augustinian phone message... Angel Man sees a silver lining in Oklahoma... and Maury Povich pinpoints the moment it all began: When Lyle Menendez reloaded." -- by Ron Rosenbaum. This was June. Today they might add a sentence: "O.J. Gets Away With Murder..."

Very tabloid, but effective. Evil's a hot topic after all, it always has been. And sooner or later, after the parade of Smiths, Dahmers, Menendezes, and Simpsons winds its way past the world's window -- television -- someone always throws that word/concept/idea into the fray. Are these people evil? How do you define evil? Is that Evil with a capital E?

Starting somewhere around the time of little Greek intellectuals with no jobs, debate has brewed, spewed, and accrued about what defines evil. Rosenbaum's article explores every possible dark avenue of explanation, settling somewhat on St. Augustine's Christian cornerstone which states -- more or less -- that evil is the absence of good. This does not satisfy a modern philosopher of good standing, Mario Cuomo, who, in the admitted absence of anything better, cites another ol' standby: Evil exists to illuminate good. But Cuomo's not really happy with that either. "These are not powerful intellectual arguments that leave one satisfied..." By article's end, debate has shifted focus -- it's no longer what is evil, it's who's responsible for it. What comes back is a theory that's become popular of late: God is responsible for its creation, but he's not in control of it. True freewill for man prohibits God's interference in matters concerning evil?

Several weeks later, in July, Anne Rice waded into the theological tangle when Rolling Stone published an excerpt from Memnoch the Devil, the fifth installment of her legionary Vampire Chronicles series. The scene presented the vampire Lestat addressing the Devil.

"You don't like evil," I repeated, narrowing my eyes.

"Loathe it. And if you don't help me, if you let God keep doing things His way, I tell you evil -- which is nothing really -- just might destroy the world."

"It's God's will," I asked slowly, "that the world be destroyed?"

"Who knows?" he asked coldly. "But I don't think God would lift a finger to stop it from happening. I don't will it -- that I know. But my ways are the right ways, and the ways of God are bloody and wasteful and exceedingly dangerous. You know they are. You have to help me. I am winning, I told you. But this century has been damn near unendurable for us all."

So you are telling me that you're not evil... You are the Devil. Yes. But you're not evil? Why?"

"Absolutely irrelevant question. Or let me put it a little more mysteriously. It's completely unnecessary for me to be evil. You'll see."

And Lestat does see. Well... maybe. Actually, it's hard to say. That Devil is a wily bastard.

The book opens with a brief statement of being and purpose from Lestat in the form of a two-page prologue -- a prologue that finds Rice not wasting any time trying to explain a world in which vampires exist. As with the rest of the story, it's straight to the point, no time for artifice or the frilly, ornate detail that so richly decorated the first two books of the series Interview With the Vampire (1976) and The Vampire Lestat (1985): "Lestat here. You know who I am?... [the] perfect imitation of a blond, blue-eyed, six-foot Anglo-Saxon male. A vampire, and one of the strongest you'll ever encounter... What do I do? Anything that I please." That's Lestat, all right, all pride and no fear. Except this time he is afraid, and he begs you to read and understand his story, which opens in New Orleans with Lestat meeting David Talbot, his latest preternatural creation and confidant. (If you've lapsed in reading one of the first four books of the series, try Cliff's-Noting it through The Vampire Companion: The Official Guide to Anne Rice's The Vampire Chronicles by Katherine Ramsland; Ballantine, $17.95, paper).

Lestat wants comfort and advice. He's being stalked, and by page 20, he thinks he knows by whom; "David, I think the Devil's come for me. I think I'm going to Hell." At first, Talbot, the English intellectual from Rice's last vampire installment The Body Thief, thinks it has something to do with the fact that Lestat himself is stalking someone -- his latest victim -- a drug-dealing gangster with the "mentality of Iago." Not only is Lestat stalking Roger, he's also fallen into fascination with Roger's daughter Dora, a Jesus freak who lets the spirit sing through her on television. "Theology and ecstasy, perfectly blended," says Lestat, exposing very human lust for the divine waif.

And no sooner has Lestat murdered and dismembered Roger than he encounters Roger's ghost in a bar, who pleads with his vampiric killer to become his daughter's guardian angel -- and the keeper of the Wynken De Wilde legacy, a 16-17th century heretic who wrote and illustrated Bosch/Garden of Earthly Delights-like books. Then, amidst a din of smoke and voices, Roger is taken to hell. And Roger's guide, it seems, is not far behind Lestat, who encounters the Devil for the first time as a statue in Roger's warehouse trove of religious artifacts.

...and some monstrous angelic being of black granite... something resembling more a Mesopotamian demon than angel... [a] fallen angel [with] feathered wings... Not reptilian, feathered. But the face, classical, robust, the long nose, the chin... yet there was ferocity in the profile. And why was the statue black? Maybe it was only St. Michael pushing devils into hell, angry, righteous. No, the hair was too rank and tangled for that. Armour, breastplate, and then of course I saw the most telling details. That it had the legs and feet of a goat. Devil. ...God, it was hideous. It had a ferocious mane of hair, and a scowl on its face that could have been designed by William Blake, and huge rounded eyes that fixed on him with seeming hatred.

It doesn't take long for that statue to come to life and make its pitch to Lestat. "You did everything but ask me to come!" replies the Devil to Lestat's "Why me?" "You challenged every form of authority, you sought every experience... what was left for you -- but to call on me. It is as if you yourself said it: Memnoch what more can I do?" The Deal: Go to Heaven, talk to God, then descend into Hell, and make your decision. You're under no obligation to buy. Lestat, a being of insatiable curiosity, can't resist the temptation, and accepts the tour. First stop: God.

It was a tall figure [who] appeared to be a man... His hair and eyes were dark, brownish, His face perfectly symmetrical and flawless, His gaze intense; and the grasp of fingers very tight...The being drew me towards Himself, a light flooding from Him that mingled with the light behind Him, and all around Him, so His face grew brighter yet more distinct and more detailed. I saw the pores of His darkening golden skin... And then He spoke loudly, pleadingly to me, in a heartbroken voice, a voice strong and masculine and perhaps young. "You would never be my adversary, would you? You wouldn't would you? Not you, Lestat, no, not you!

What follows is the same basic pattern that all of Rice's books follow: Lestat gets a tutorial from a being of higher learning. As with Marius in The Vampire Lestat and Maharet in Queen of the Damned, Memnoch ("My name is Memnoch," he said calmly, with a small pleading gesture. "Memnoch the Devil. I want you to remember it that way.") tells Lestat everything: The story of creation (a very Catholic version with a healthy dose of Judaism thrown in), the angelic revolt (Milton updated), and the history of man. Along the way, Lestat witnesses much of it: the crucifixion, the fall of Hagia Sophia, and most importantly, the argument between God and Memnoch -- which is, of course, the very heart of Memnoch the Devil.

One of God's favored archangels, Memnoch becomes his accuser when he witnesses the pain and struggle man endures, and later finds a purgatory ("Sheol") between heaven and earth, where human souls must languish for eternity without a glimpse of God's greater glory. Memnoch persuades God to let a handful of these souls into heaven, but can't get them all on the guest list.

"The gateway is open to Heaven for all those who die with Understanding and Acceptance of the Harmony of Creation and the Goodness of God! But what about the others! What about the millions of others?"

"And once again, I ask you," said the Son of God, "why I should care about the others. Those who die without understanding and acceptance and knowledge of God. Why? What are they to me?"

"Help the souls that are lost," pleads Memnoch.

And because He won't, Memnoch tells Lestat, this is where Evil flourishes: In God's disregard and indifference to human pain. The pain Cuomo describes in Rosenbaum's Times article as "the unexplained pain to children sitting in Vietnamese villages who got their eyes blown out of their heads by explosions they didn't know where coming." In the end, Memnoch explains the existence of evil in much the same way Rosenbaum does:

"In watching man evolve, [God] hopes to understand His own evolution...What He has set in motion, you see, is a giant Savage Garden, a giant experiment, to see if the end result produces beings like Himself...But I don't know how truly He foresaw what that would mean. You see, that's our big dispute. I don't think He sees the consequences of His actions. I don't think He pays attention! That's what the big fight is about!"

And what a fight it is. Like an enthralling movie, Memnoch the Devil is essentially a series of great scenes cut together. The ones between Memnoch and God are the best, leaving Lestat as somewhat of a supporting player in the book, though he does get his share of close-ups -- as when he meets God on the road to Jesus' crucifixion. Still, Rice is more concerned with theological arguments than Lestat, and, as she herself admitted in the RS interview, she tried making Memnoch a non-vampire book before using Lestat as a vehicle for her own trip to hell. As a result, the reader is often left feeling that Rice herself is the main character and not Lestat -- most of the time she doesn't even bother getting into character. When Lestat states, "My views are changing. The atheism and nihilism of my earlier years now seems shallow, and even a bit cocky," we know this is Rice talking through her fictional character. A steady deterioration of detail has marked Rice's vampire series since she brought the stories to bear on present reality in Queen of the Damned (in her interview, Rice says Memnoch... will probably be the last book of the series). That said, her vision of Heaven is rich in detail, and Hell, well, Hell is visited in the last 50 pages of the book, and ends the book with the ever popular cinematic "twist" -- one which, like the debate on evil itself, can be viewed on a myriad of levels.

Some readers will be left feeling that Rice`s theological tome is not one of "powerful intellectual arguments that leave one satisfied," but her tantalizingly provocative ideas do make for great fiction, and in the end Memnoch the Devil is a much better alternative than settling for Cuomo's ultimate proclamation on the subject at hand: "There isn't sufficient understanding allowed us to be able to explain evil." n


Tales From the Creeps

Halloween books are an odd lot, as befits their timing. It's the season to rush out vampire tomes, ghost stories, and horror titles, and why not? There's no other time of year that is appropriate, and if Halloween's not reason enough, what about Dia de los Muertos? Ed Ward got the head start here, with his recent review of Christopher Moore's Bloodsucking Fiends. This week, Raoul Hernandez examines Anne Rice's vision of evil, and in a future issue, Bud Simons will look at Bruce Lanier Wright's Nightwalkers: Gothic Horror Movies -- The Modern Era, a title that says it all. But those books barely scratch the surface.

Maybe this isn't really a Halloween book, but The A-Z of Judge Dredd by Mike Butcher (St. Martin's Griffin, $15.95 paper) certainly looks scary. As a complete guide to the Judge Dredd universe, it offers details on over 500 characters from 2000AD and Judge Dredd comics, locations, and the Dredd concept, all illustrated with more than 300 color and B&W drawings. The missing link seems to be the absence of Sylvester Stallone, whose summer release of the film based on the character gave new meaning to the phrase "dead in the water." Nevermind, Dredd fans B.S. (Before Stallone) will appreciate its over-the-edge graphics and comprehensive information.

Now, Robert Bloch -- there's a name to invoke for Halloween. Bloch has specialized in terrifying the public since Psycho was published in 1959, and his "unauthorized autobiography" Once Around the Bloch (Tor, $14.95 paper) takes fans and readers from his pulp fiction days to being one of the masters of modern horror writing. Bloch, whose literary approach to fear is closer to mentor H.P.Lovecraft than contemporary schlock-shockmeister Stephen King, is also charmingly self-deprecating in recounting his past. Bloch, who died in 1994, also wrote American Gothic, Night of the Ripper, and The House That Dripped Blood. Filled with unforgettable anecdotes and horror-film trivia Once Around the Bloch is a creepy and entertaining read.

Nina Auerbach's Our Vampires, Ourselves (University of Chicago Press, $22 hard) isn't a bad choice for fans of Dracula, Lestat, and their ilk. In fact, aside from the Judeo-Christian aspect of the Devil, vampires (and ghosts) lend their images most to the holiday. Auerbach's pop culture view of vampires is charming. Likewise, Blood Muse: Timeless Tales of Vampires in the Arts edited by Esther M. Friesner and Martin H. Greenberg (Donald I.Fine, $22.95 hard) is something else to sink your teeth into -- a blood-curdling collection of original vampire stories set in the world of theatre, dance, music, and other arts. (It is also thrillingly easy to imagine Antonio Banderas in all the predator roles.) On the more traditional end, Anne Rice's Lasher (Ballantine, $7.99 paper) continues the saga of her Mayfair Witches, rumored to be in the works for the big screen. Genuine terror, on the other hand, is available with the audio version of Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders by Vincent Bugliosi with Curt Gentry (Dove, $24.95, tape). This is nonfiction horror, naked and scarier than anything Anne Rice or Stephen King ever dreamed of.

Why is it that the gender most likely to pick Immoral Tales: European Sex and Horror Movies 1956-1984 by Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs (St. Martin's Griffin, $17.95 paper) from my bookshelf is male? Could it be the titillating title? Might it be the scantily clad women on the cover photos and drawings? Or is it men's unabashed love for cheesy Continental gore? Whatever the appeal, the authors have done well to narrow the focus of their obsession to the specialized genre of Euro-horror within this specific period. Tons of photos, drawings, a little B&D, and more bare breasts than a Joe Bob Briggs review, plus goofy trivia. I know why men pick up this book: The Devil makes them do it. -- Margaret Moser

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