Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Pacts with the Devil

One of the most popular themes in fantasy involves humans making deals with Satan or his minions for wealth, Immortality or (borrowing from Fairytale) the granting of a specified number of Wishes; the vigour of such stories is maintained by the ingenuity of the narrative twists invoked to bring the deals to unexpected conclusions. The idea of such pacts emerged from a medieval cautionary tale about a Bishop named Theophilus, but was then applied by theologians to the analysis of heresies and integrated into the abusive fantasies used to justify the persecution of heretics. All practitioners of Witchcraft were assumed to have made such pacts, but theirs tended to be analogous to mere contracts of employment; it was the more grandiose Contract made by Faust that became the main prototype of literary pacts.

Diabolical pacts were a commonplace of Gothic Horror, but the sealing of the pact and the devil's gloating return to claim his prize are there deployed as parentheses enclosing elaborate accounts of villainy and debauchery. In fantasy, by contrast, Satan and his agents tend to be portrayed as sharp operators whose cunningly worded contracts remain the focus of attention throughout while both parties engage in a contest of wits. The enigmatic Man in Gray who gives a bottomless purse for a shadow in Adalbert von Chamisso's Peter Schlemihl (1814) is an early prototype of the deceptive bargainer who achieves his end by subtle means. The dark sententiousness of Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) by Charles Maturin (see also Gothic Fantasy) gave way to the sarcastic Satire of Honoré de Balzac's "Melmoth Reconciled" (1835), and there is a similarly gleeful irony in quasi-anecdotal fantasies like Washington Irving's "The Devil and Tom Walker" (1824), the tale of Chips in Charles Dickens's The Uncommercial Traveller (coll 1860) and J Sheridan Le Fanu's "Sir Dominick's Bargain" (1872). A melodramatic element survived in such luridly flamboyant works as The Necromancer (1857) by G W M Reynolds (1814-1879), The Sorrows of Satan (1895) by Marie Corelli and The Lord of the Dark Red Star (1903) by Eugene Lee-Hamilton (1845-1907), but the main emphasis shifted to comedy, as in The Gentleman in Black (1831) by James Dalton, "An Episode in the Life of Mr Latimer" (1883) by Walter Herries Pollock, "The Demon Pope" (1888) by Richard Garnett, A Deal with the Devil (1895) by Eden Phillpotts, The Devil and the Inventor (1900) by Austin Fryers, "Enoch Soames" (1919) by Max Beerbohm, The Devil in Woodford Wells (1946) by Harold Hobson and The Missing Angel (1947) by Erle Cox (1873-1950). In the best of the many 20th-century examples of the pact motif, however, comedy remains a frivolous gloss on more serious philosophical matters, as it is in Stephen Vincent Benét's "The Devil and Daniel Webster" (1937) – filmed as The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) – John Collier's several variations on the theme, Robert Bloch's "That Hellbound Train" (1958), and such froth as The Devil and Max Devlin (1981) or the more serious Phantom of the Paradise (1974) (see Phantom of the Opera). Only a few modern stories contrive to maintain an authentic sense of threat: The Devil in Velvet (1951) by John Dickson Carr, The Devil and Mrs Devine (1974) by Josephine Leslie and The Devil's Game (1980) by Poul Anderson are only half-successful; Leon Garfield's surreal children's book The Ghost Downstairs (1972) does much better.

An excellent theme anthology is Deals with the Devil (anth 1958) ed Basil Davenport (1905-1966). [BS]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.