I've been reading a lot about good and evil lately. Among my Christmas presents last December was a beautiful copy of Mikhail Bulgakov's masterpiece, The Master And Margarita. In this decadent tale, the Devil himself visits Soviet Russia - land of atheists. He is accompanied by a talking cat and a host of other phantasmagorical characters.
Just this week I have been lent a copy of The Devil And Miss Prym by Paulo Coehlo. The subject matter is very similar; a stranger arrives in a remote village, and takes it upon himself to tempt the locals into breaking the Ten Commandments. He invites young, beautiful barmaid Chantal Prym to steal a gold bar, and sets the larger populace a much greater challenge: to kill one of their own.
The Devil And Miss Prym has a clear, concise narrative style, making it ideal for readers of practically any age, and it got me to thinking that it would make an ideal set text for schools and colleges. When I was seventeen, we read Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe. As expanded reading, the teacher suggested we delve into The Master And Margarita for more insight into the concepts of good and evil, angels and demons, heaven and hell. It strikes me that Paulo Coehlo's short novel would have been a much more appropriate read: the language is of this era, the storyline is unclogged by history and politics. It is, essentially, a tale of humanity undiluted and put under a microscope. The village setting ensures that the outside world cannot intrude upon the week-long story; the villagers must make their own choices.
Of course, this kind of story is hardly unique. John Updike gave us a devil in the form of Darryl Van Horn, the villainous seducer of The Witches Of Eastwick. Stephen King's Needful Things explored how a small community can be poisoned when somebody appears to give them exactly what they want. Religious allegory turns up time and time again in literature, throwing characters into the path of temptation. And evil isn't always an external, evident force. The base and cruel Edward Hyde is born from within Dr Jekyll. James Hogg's Justified Sinner commits evil acts willingly. More recently, the hero (or anti-hero, depending on how you look at it) in Joe Hill's novel Horns wakes up one morning to realise he has literally transformed into a devil.
As human beings, we tend to root for the angel on the shoulder of the protagonist, hoping that they will do the right thing. But as readers, deep down we want the devil to win, at least at first. Because otherwise, it would be a very short story - and quite a dull one at that.