MAD, BAD & DANGEROUS: THE DEMON LOVER (Part II)

Flesh comes to us out of history; so does the repression and taboo that governs our experience of flesh.

— Angela Carter, The Sadeian Woman and the Idea of Pornography

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Stories of dark tempters are as old as tales themselves. Genesis 6:4 refers to the Nephilim, “sons of God” to whom “the daughters of men… bare children.” This passage has been interpreted many ways over the millennia; even Jewish scholars disagree about the proper interpretation of Nephilim. Various sources trace the word to Hebrew roots meaninggiantswonders and – tellingly! – those causing others to fall. The Targum Yonatan claims that the Nephilim were descendants of fallen angels (sometimes called the Grigori, or “Watchers,” described in the First and Second Books of Enoch), who went among human beings and sired supernatural children. In any case, Genesis assures us the Lord was not down with this plan: “And God saw that the wickedness of man was great… And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth.” The subsequent flood may have drowned the Nephilim, but if folklore is to be believed then their offspring (including the se’irim, “hairy ones” who sound a lot like satyrs) survived.

Beyond religious scriptures, sex remains fearsome for its own sake. It’s both dazzling and terrifying to be so vulnerable to such strong sensations and emotions. Hearts, laws and bones may be broken over sex; hells might be dared, earth shaken and the heavens invoked by its passions. A man might become a father or a fiend; a woman might become a mama, a whore or both. Prior to modern hygiene, medicine and birth control, the intimate contact of sexuality could easily breed unwanted children or deadly disease — even now, those risks remain. Pandemics like syphilis, HIV/ AIDS and the various plagues of medieval Europe linked eros with death in the popular imagination… and yet, without sex, human life would end. Then, too, the emotional rawness and carnal compulsions involved with sexuality may be even more confounding than its physical perils. Is it any wonder that we’ve created a host of demonic suitors to take us where we might not otherwise dare to go?

The ominous nature of sexuality has especially deep resonance for women. As people who have been oppressed for most of human history – largely because of their birth-sex, and sexual behaviors real or imagined – women feel the double-edge of Eros most keenly. Women are literally the gatekeepers of sexuality, seduced or stormed in order to gain access to the treasure everybody wants. Women risk far more from sexual encounters than men do. Yet the urges for erotic intimacy are no less powerful for women than they are for men; common lore, in fact, often claims that women want sex even more than men!

Despite this desire (or perhaps because of it), women are expected to maintain chaste virtue, while men are expected to challenge it. This theme – virtue tempted, challenged and often overthrown – creates a central theme throughout Demon Lover tales. In her book Demon-Lovers and Their Victims in British Fiction, Toni Reed describes that figure as a creature “of mysterious charm and… perverse, dangerous impulses” who “attempts to dominate and destroy a naïve, impressionable woman and demonstrate(s) also her lack of perception and foresight.” In the resulting “struggle of wills” between them, she adds, “neither side is admirable.” Both parties violate the rules of virtue, and although they suffer for that transgression, they’re transformed by it as well. Is it any wonder, then, that tales of Demon Lovers have always been so popular, especially among women? For a person whose life may be drastically changed, even ended, by sex, there’s great potency in the archetype of an erotically fascinating yet ultimately destructive man who can literally drive a girl wild.

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Popular misconception holds that fantasy, faerie tales and fiction offer “escape” from mundane reality. Truth is, though, they really offer tools for dealing with mundane reality. And for people trapped between sexual urges and social realities, an imaginary confrontation with the Demon Lover, even when it ends in ruin, can be empowering, cathartic and fun. Unlike Catherine Earnshaw, the Brönte fan survives her love affair with Heathcliff. Poor Cathy! Still, it’s a beautiful story. Good thing the reader knows better than to go there… right

Demon Lover tales follow certain patterns. In the beginning, an ordered and often “civilized” existence is interrupted by the entrance of a contrasting Other. That Other soon meets a heroine whose place in her community is established but often unsteady. An erotic ballet ensues, during which an attraction/ repulsion dynamic flares between them. Eventually, though, the woman surrenders to the Demon Lover’s potency. The end of the tale brings either redemption or damnation but rarely satisfaction.

This attraction, let’s note, is almost always mutual. The redemption or damnation may be mutual as well. Demon Lovers are as seduced by their prey as the prey is by the Lover. To win her, the predator alters his plans, takes risks, dares ruin and often finds it. This element, among others, makes Demon Lover stories far more ambiguous than they initially seem. Many critics, when assessing the Demon Lover trope, see only the Bad Boy ruining the Good Girl. Look deeper at many of the popular stories, though, and you’ll see more than simple cautionary tales. The fact that the Demon Lover is often changed (and sometimes destroyed) by the relationship gives such tales a powerful edge. For women (especially young ones) who feel inadequate in the face of social and sexual forces, the mere thought that This hot dude wants ME! can be pretty heady stuff.

O swollen heart,

O sky brimming with moisture –

tongued lightning first

and then thunder,

convulsive spatters of rain

and then wind, chasing the summertime heat.

Mira says: Dark One, I’ve waited –

it’s time to take my songs into the street.

— Mirabai, “The Dark One is Krishna”

Oh, gods is the Demon Lover hot! His presence trounces convention, makes hearts flutter, sends old biddies whispering behind their hands as lesser men tremble and fume. His limbs and features recall what Annis Pratt calls “the green-world… pastoral settings… where societal constraints are non-existent.” His passions shatter the World That Was and those passions, for better and worse, center on the object of his attentions. It’s a Romantic notion in the most artistic interpretation — a rebellion of sensation over sense. How appropriate, then, that the Romantic movement would breed so many Demon Lovers, both real (Lord Byron, Percy Shelly, Jim Morrison) and fictional (Lord Ruthvyn, Dracula, Lestat). The Demon Lover embodies Jung’s animus, the inner unconscious masculine principle, and he does so without shame or apology. If he is damned then, like Lucifer, his is a magnificent damnation. 

And he shares.

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A woman embraced by the Demon Lover becomes special. She’ll suffer for it, but she’ll be remembered for it, too. No longer is she the little girl destined for a safe and virtuous existence. Because something special in her called out to the Demon Lover, she becomes a legend, too. Perhaps, like Bella Swan, she’ll be so compelling that the monster will change his old ways; and if not, then like Persephone, she’ll still be transformed. The fusty agents of order and reason may, like Abraham van Helsing, drive stakes through the Demon Lover’s heart and rape the stolen blood from the veins of his paramours. They may chop the wolf open and think they’ve set Red Riding Hood free. Yet Riding Hood has still spent her time within the wolf’s belly. She has asked her questions and felt his fangs and she will never again be the child she once was. Like Catherine in Wuthering Heights, she may die but her presence lingers, entangling itself into her Demon Lover’s heart. He may destroy her, but in the process, she is exalted.

There’s a deeper power, too, in Demon Lover tales. Beyond social caution and suicidal self-glorification, some women find initiation to a stronger psychic plane. In her best-sellingWomen Who Run With the Wolves, Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés writes of “the dark man… the innate psychic predator.” To confront this man, perhaps to win him over or destroy him, is to seize power in one’s real life as well. “The threat of the dark man,” says Estés, “serves as a warning to all of us – if you don’t pay attention to (your) treasures, they will be stolen from you.” In a Jungian sense, this is the shadow of the animus, a threatening yet seductive aspect of repressed masculine energy. By confronting it through dreams, therapy, stories or a combination of all three, a woman recognizes and defeats her Bluebeard. She refuses to become just another corpse in his bloody chamber, and in calling upon her “brothers” – in effect, her animus – she dares Bluebeard and claims his treasures as her own. [1]

Treasure is one of the lures employed by the vengeful ghost or sadistic devil in the ballad “The Demon Lover,” also known as “The House Carpenter,” “James Harris,” “The Daemon Lover,” and – in its earliest known appearance among the collection of Samuel Pepys – as a broadside titled A Warning for Married Women, being an example of Mrs. Jean Reynolds (a West-country woman), born near Plymouth, who, having plighted her troth to a Seaman, was afterward married to a Carpenter, and at last carried away by a Spirit, the manner how shall presently be recited. [2] This story tells the tale of a woman who leaves her husband and family for a dashing suitor she once knew. In some versions, he’s a soldier or sailor named James Harris, killed “Within a forraign land,” to whom the heroine pledged undying love or a promise of marriage. When this “spirit in the night” returns to his former love, he tempts her with visions of sailing ships and gold. She gives in, abandoning her husband and child for her lost love. Soon, though, she realizes that he’s not the man she once knew. Spotting his cloven hoof, she begins to cry. He taunts her with a vision of the hills of heaven and hell (“Where you and I shall be”) before sinking the ship “in a flash of fire” or striking “the top-mast with his hand, the fore-mast with his knee.” There’s no redemption to be found here, only death.

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Other heroines fare better when they face their Demon Lovers. Wily Janet wins her beloved Tam Lin by refusing to give in to fear; The Elf-Knight’s prey Isabel “lulls him to sleep” before killing him with the knife he’d used to murder “seven king’s daughters” before her. The fine lady who runs off with “The Raggle Taggle Gypsies” (aka, “Black Jack Davy”) chooses to “sleep on the cold, hard ground” rather than return to her old life; like her wild sisters the maenads, she prefers primal Dionysus to the prison of femininity. Tess of the d‘Urbervilleskills her beloved tormentor while mad, dead Catherine haunts hers to his own grave. Transgression and complicity link arms and dance in Demon Lover tales. Such tales might not always end well, but even the worst of them seem better than the bleak lot of the common woman.

In the Brule ghost-tale “Elk-Charmer,” an earthly Demon Lover warms his stony heart with the tears of forsaken lovers. Possessed of good looks and magical flute-song, he had enchanted girls away from their homes and families. But “he wanted only to conquer women,” it is said. “After they came to him once, he had no more use for them.” Among the people, “he was not well liked.” And so, one night he wound up dead. No one knew who killed him. His parents mourned the young man but everyone felt he’d had it coming. Soon afterward, he appeared again, still piping his uncanny music and luring girls away. “I am roaming, roaming, roaming,” his restless spirit sings, “And I have to keep on roaming as long as the world stands.” A spectral young man in a pale gray blanket, he hovers over the ground, his feet forbidden to touch the earth again. This time out, the Demon Lover’s ruin is his own.  

The archetypal Demon Lover story is, of course, “Little Red Riding Hood,” a tale with countless various across the world. Like most Demon Lover narratives, though, “Red Riding Hood” has found its deepest popularity in Europe and North America. (Maybe it’s that whole “wolf” thing…) In its flattest version, the tale is a simple warning: Girl goes “into the woods,” predator sees her, misleads her, and eats her up. If that were all there was to the story, though, it wouldn’t pack the punch that “Riding Hood” indisputably has. It would not have been converted to a dark dream of puberty in the company of Angela Carter’s Wolves, or an empowering revenge-fantasy like Francesca Lia Block’s own “Wolf.” It couldn’t have been spun on its head by Tex Avery’s “Red Hot Riding Hood,” in which the Wolf becomes a thrall to sexy, grown-up Red. And it would not have influenced those vampiric initiation tales that, from Dracula to Twilight, have meant one thing to their male audiences and quite another to their female ones!

“Red Riding Hood” reflects sexual initiation, a confrontation with a voracious male predator who literally consumes her old life while challenging her with a new one. She asks him questions, and he responds with overtures they both know are paradoxically false yet true. In some versions, she is consumed as well; these, though, are not the ones which resonate. The most popular versions of the story have Riding Hood saved by a hunter or woodsman (again, the animus at work), transformed by the encounter into a wild girl herself (as in Carter and Block), redeeming the predator (as Buffy the Vampire Slayer does for both Angel and Spike), or out-wolfing the wolf herself (as does Red Hot Riding Hood). This way, an audience member can have her wolf and eat (or be eaten by) him, too – certainly a more empowering fantasy than mere destruction!

 

(To be continued…)

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This entry, along with its related parts, was the first of a three-article series originally published in Realms of Fantasy Magazine between 2009 and 2010. All rights are reserved by the author. Permission granted for linking or re-posting with attribution, but explicitly denied for publication without prior arrangements with the author. 

 


NOTES

[1] This is, by the way, a very late-20th century interpretation of Bluebeard-type stories. Earlier interpretations just saw the heroine as some nosy chick who needed to be rescued by the good guys.

[2] The tale’s familiar name has been attributed to Sir Walter Scott. 

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About Satyr

Award-winning fantasy author, game-designer, and all 'round creative malcontent. Creator of a whole bunch of stuff, most notably the series Mage: The Ascension, Deliria: Faerie Tales for a New Millennium, and Powerchords: Music, Magic & Urban Fantasy. Lives in Seattle. Hates shoes. Loves cats. Dances a lot.
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One Response to MAD, BAD & DANGEROUS: THE DEMON LOVER (Part II)

  1. Pingback: MAD, BAD & DANGEROUS: THE DEMON LOVER (Part I) | Satyros Phil Brucato

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