Content Warnings: Blood and Guts, Kinda Dark Thoughts.
I didn’t think much of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, despite the hype. It seemed slight and breezy. Might make a good play, but as prose, not that interesting. It was an adaptation of The English Faust Book, or The Historye of the Damnable Life and Deserued Death of Doctor Iohn Faustus: A Discourse of the Most Famous Doctor Iohn Faustus of Wittenberg in Germany — Coniurer and Necromancer — Wherein is Declared Many Strange Things That He Himselfe Had Seene and Done in the Earth, and in the Ayre, with His Bringing vp, His Trauailes, Studies, and Last End. Marlowe basically did the kiddie adaptation of some adult material (not that it makes Marlowe’s Faustus child appropriate).
The play is a play, the book is prose, so it surely fares better in comparison on dead pages. The story isn’t amazing, it’s offensive in the expected ways, and it’s boring in a way one might not expect, being 21st century people. There are big sections where the writer just wants to show off their knowledge of interesting things in heaven and earth, literally a travelog of “hot spots to visit in Renaissance Europe.”
However, it has one hot advantage over Marlowe’s Faustus. When the action heats up, it’s bad ass. Here’s our man Faust summoning devils:
…Then began Doctor Faustus to call on Mephostophiles the Spirit – and to charge him in the name of Belzebub, to appear there personally: then presently the devill began so great a rumor in the wood, as if heaven and earth would have come together, with wind, that trees bowed their tops to the ground: then fell the devill to bleat as if the whole wood had been full of Lyons, and suddenly about the circle ran the devill, as if a thousand wagons had beene running together on paved stones. After this, at the four corners of the wood it thundered horribly, with such lightnings as if the whole world to his seeming had beene on fire… suddenly over his head hung hovering in the air a mighty Dragon: then calls Faustus again after his devilish manner, at which there was a monstrous cry in the wood, as if hell had been open, and all the tormented souls crying to God for mercy…
Here’s the first time devils get mad about Faust getting cold feet:
Suddenly upon these words came such a whirlwind about the place that Faustus thought the whole house would have come down, all the doors in the house flew off the hooks: after all this his house was full of smoke, and the floor covered over with ashes… and flying up, Faustus was taken and thrown down into the hall that he was not able to stir hand nor foot: then round about him ran a monstrous circle of fire, never standing still, that Faustus fried as he lay & thought there to have beene burned. Then cried he out to his spirit Mephostophiles for help, promising him he would live in all things as he had vowed… Hereupon appeared unto him an ugly devill, so fearfull and monstrous to behold that Faustus durst not look on him. The devill said, “What wouldst thou have Faustus? …What mind art thou in now?” Faustus answered, he had forgot his promise, desiring him of pardon, and he would talk no more of such things. “Thou wert best so to doe,” and so vanished from him.
And I’m gonna spoil this for you. These are literally the best three paragraphs in a book that is full of boring crap. Here’s what Faust looked like after the devil came for his due:
But when it was day, the students that had taken no rest that night arose and went into the hall in which they left Doctor Faustus… They found not Faustus, but all the hall lay besprinkled with blood, his brains cleaving to the wall, for the devill had beaten him from one wall against another: In one corner lay his eyes, in another his teeth, a pitifull and fearfull sight to behold. Then began the students to wail and weep for him, and sought for his body in many places: lastly they came into the yard, where they found his body lying on the horse dung, most monstrously torn and fearfull to behold, for his head and all his joints were dashed in pieces. The forenamed students and masters that were at his death, have obtained so much, that they buried him in the village where he was so grievously tormented.
There’s something about this violence I find appealing. I’m not big into horror where blood and brains are dripping off the wall. But the extreme nature of the movement – trees bending to the ground, fire and lightning blasting all around, men being tossed like rag dolls – it’s exciting. And the cause of it too. Oh no, Faustus, you gave yourself to Satan, and now you are his plaything. Throw yourself in the garbage and see what happens.
There’s a part in the 1941 movie version of The Devil and Daniel Webster where sexy succubus Simone Simon is dancing with a lost soul, and as they twirl his feet are lifted off the ground – light as dead leaves or empty clothing. In my memory of this there was a trick with camera speed to make the moment more unnatural and alarming. It has that motion, the fury of hell sweeping you away.
It’s a shame this stuff is all very xtian, and that it pretty much has to be. I’d like to own a piece of the action – the movement and fury. What is this feeling for me? I have some primal feelings about motion and motivation, this is probably related. The feeling of being helpless before the fury of violent forces, that can’t be good, can it?
Maybe it works because in the real world we are helpless before the world ruining evil of the human ability to elaborately diffuse blame, of the rich to absolve themselves of their direct hand in fucking us all to death because the weapon they used was the abstraction of money – something they can’t see. And there’s a dark feeling like, why not just turn that into a literal bomb and sweep me away? It’s faster, more exciting. A lot of the dark humor of the 1980s comes from this attitude, inherited from Dr. Strangelove.
Hail Satan. Get wrecked. Why not?
In seriousness, my ultimate goal is to try to treat the art of hell and devils as neutral to positive, and all things holy as despicable. I gotta change up this situation in my writing.