The teller of A Devil Comes to Town won’t tell us the real location of his tale, only that it is in a small Swiss town, famous because Goethe slept there for one night. Given the fictional name Dichtersruhe, (poet’s repose), it is a town full of unpublished writers, all working on their precious manuscripts and gracefully accepting rejection after rejection, while carefully concealed resentment boils within. When the devil arrives, claiming to be a successful publisher from Lucerne, looking for an author to win the newly set up Goethe literary prize, the town is swept up in the chaotic power plays that inevitably ensue.
Whether A Devil strictly falls into the category of horror will definitely be up for debate. But the story’s creeping, sidling, smiling depiction of evil, obsession and the devil is memorably disturbing. Dr. Fuchs (or Fox), a suave, charming man with a clear (to the reader and protagonist at least) proclivity to evil, swans into the town and immediately has everyone at his mercy, flicking through manuscripts with visible bore and shattering dreams with a casual wave of the hand, is quintessential devilish camp and very entertaining. Especially when nobody in the town can see further than their own manuscript.
We open with a Hammer-esque bookend device, which settles us fully into the self-awareness that A Devil keeps up throughout the novel. The teller, a writer, is sent a manuscript recorded by a second teller, unnamed but whom the first writer calls Friedrich, an aspiring writer turned assistant at his uncle’s publishing house, as it was told to him by the protagonist of the story, a cleric. This Russian doll cum urban legend format pokes fun at narrative conventions, taking the already vaguely ridiculous and doubling it over itself.
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The first storyteller, a writer who has achieved the much-coveted fame and achievement, describes and almost supernatural force pushing him to record the tale after he was mailed the mysterious manuscript, with an even more mysterious introductory note. Here the writer hooks both the reader and the writer; ‘trembling’ at the thought of telling the cursed tale, warning that it is ‘certainly a story leading to the brink of madness’. Sure enough, the writer is drawn in, enough to play his part in the never-ending circle of storytellers keeping the tale alive. Clearly, the all-encompassing desire to tell stories is not simply limited to Dichtersruhe. As Maurensig writes later in theatrical reflection; ‘if at the beginning of creation there was the word, is it not possible that life and the universe were created for the sole purpose of being able to write about them?’
A story like this one wouldn’t work without a hearty dose of melodrama, and A Devil delivers that in spades. Throughout we are treated to trailing, dramatic recitations on the futility of publishing, in particular the manuscript reading sequence created such quotable lines as: “Tear up the pages of your manuscript one by one… take your wasted paper and toss it in the fire.” In the sometimes life or death hysterics of writing and publishing, these lines seem particularly appropriate.
Foxes are present throughout, circling the edge of the story, and appearing literally on the page in silhouette at the beginning and end. The novel itself has a fox-like energy, playfully misleading, coyly teasing, then turning, suddenly vicious. Just when you think this is a quaint story of an almost fairy tale Swiss town, it reminds you of the horrors that would be born in such a place. The thirst for fame and recognition can immediately dissolve the bonds of family, friendship and even basic humanity. Throughout the novel, as the potential reward seems close enough to taste, desire for fame and recognition swells. The foxes become increasingly more rabid, gradually making their way past the boundaries of the town, as madness and violence seep into the minds of its inhabitants.
A lament on the nihilistic nature of writing and publishing, as well as an engrossing and provocative tale of evil’s ability to tip an already wavering community into chaos, A Devil Comes to Town is a wink of a novel, taking on various threads and weaving them together expertly. One part wry, tongue in cheek farce, another creeping horror story, it manages to create an equilibrium between the two that is especially endearing. Even as a strictly literary novel, A Devil Comes to Town is a valuable addition to the Satanic lexicon.
A Devil Comes to Town by Paolo Maurensig is published by World Editions. Buy the book.