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Sympathy for the Devil, ed. by Tim Pratt

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Sympathy for the Devil, ed. by Tim Pratt
Night Shade Books, 2010, 431pp.

A train ride into hell. A boy on a fishing trip who encounters something hungry for more than fish. An invisible friend who doesn’t appreciate a father’s attempt to disprove his existence. An eating contest with an unlikely contestant. A trippy road trip with Christ and the Devil. A detective trying to solve the unusual murder of a clown. A dark force of chaos that lives in the interstices of everyday life. A mix of Goethe and the Marx Brothers. An attempt to hire a contract killer that doesn’t go as planned.

Sympathy for the Devil is a recent addition to an excellent series of trade paperback anthologies put out by Night Shade Books. Edited by Tim Pratt, the connecting theme of the volume is the Devil, whether the Satan of Judeo-Christian tradition or some variation thereof. The collection contains thirty-five stories and part of a poem, from authors like Mark Twain and Nathaniel Hawthorne, through modern masters of speculation like Robert Block, Stephen King, and Charles de Lint, up to current writers like Neil Gaiman, China Miéville, Holly Black, Elizabeth Bear and Jay Lake.

The anthology gives a wide range of interpretations on the Devil. There are plenty of Mephistophelean devils, suave men of the world willing to grant your heart’s desire at the cost of your soul. There are devils who are God’s ape or stooge or even errand boy. And there are devils who marshal all the dark forces of chaos against what is true and good.

Some of the stores are out and out misses for me. A couple read as puerile attempts at blasphemy that bore rather than enrage. There are a couple stories, like Jeffery Ford’s “On the Road to New Egypt,” that are exercises in the bizarre, revealing, I think, more about the author than about the state of the world.

But by and large the stories are very enjoyable, and some are quite excellent. There are humorous stoies, where the Devil is the butt of the joke. Natalie Babbitt’s “The Power of Speech” and Carrie Richerson’s “…With By Good Intentions” are some of my favorite examples of this class of stories. There are stories that play on traditional folklore, such as Charles de Lint’s “Ten for the Devil” and Kris Dikeman’s “Nine Sundays in a Row.” There are a number of deal with the Devil sorts of stories, including Neil Gaiman’s “We Can Get Them for You Wholesale” and Elizabeth Bear’s post-apocalyptic “And the Deep Blue Sea.”

Then I think are the stories that best depict the dark power of the Devil at work: Neil Gaiman’s “The Price” recounts the nightly battles between the Devil and an unlikely champion of humanity. Michael Chabon’s “The God of Dark Laughter” is an evocative Lovecraftian exercise in menace, originally published in The New Yorker, of all places. Jay Lake’s “The Goat Cutter” began a little too red-neck horror for my tastes but finished in a very interesting place. Then there are Theodore Sturgeon’s “The Professor’s Teddy Bear” and John Collier’s “Thus I Refute Beezly,” bizarre exercises in fear that have to be read to be believed.

Sympathy for the Devil is an enjoyable collection of diabolical fiction — if I’ll be forgiven for saying so, on the whole, the anthology is damned good fun.

(Reviewed by Donald Jacob Uitvlugt)

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