Blog - The Devil in the Valley: Making Old Tales New

The Devil in the Valley is the famous tale of Faust done into the language, style, setting, and distinctive culture of rural New England in the present day. It’s a novel I have wanted to take on for a number of years. Transposing antique stories into other worlds and times has always been an interest of mine, I guess for a couple of reasons. 

    One of them is the combination of freedom and structure in which these literary projects involve the writer. Obviously, in this or any work of fiction, you’re free to make up whatever content you can get the reader to accept: you have complete license. But if you are imitating or invoking an older work, such as Goethe’s Faust or (and particularly, in this case) Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, you also find yourself playing a game that has rules—rules you invent, yes, but rules you feel you need to obey, all the same. How close to your original will you come—how close to it will you find you can come and still serve both your model and your own attempt to tell an original story? My Faust figure in The Devil in the Valley is a lonely ex-English teacher who drives a pickup and is overfond of Scotch. That’s pretty far from the doomed Renaissance hero of legend, ever aspiring to grapple with the Infinite. Too far? The reader will decide.

    Another reason I have enjoyed bringing familiar and venerable literary material into my own time and place is the access such stories give to humor. Part of the inspiration for The Devil in the Valley was my rereading Doctor Faustus a couple of years back, and discovering, what I had ignored as a student: how funny it is. Marlowe’s play is titled The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus; but in spirit most of it couldn’t be less tragical or farther from the grandeur and drama of tragedy. Rather, Marlowe plays his tale for laughs, for comedy—and by no means always elevated, or delicate, or subtle comedy.

    That suited me. I would shadow Marlowe’s populous cast of devils, good angels, bad angels, rustic buffoons, horse-coursers, popes, anti-popes,  archbishops, cardinals, Emperor Charles V, Alexander the Great, the Seven Deadly Sins, and others with an updated, American set of characters, fewer and less colorful but, I hoped, recognizable and more human than Faustus, Mephistophilis, and their friends. For Marlowe’s word-play and his Elizabethan slapstick, I would substitute a kind of Vermont-inflected vernacular—and a slapstick of my own.

    Another advantage I have found in making literary use of old and venerable texts has to do with the whole question of plot. We’re taught in high school (at least, we were; at least, I was) that a work of fiction has four components: plot (or action), characters, setting, and theme. (Nobody could give a clear account of what the last was, but the first three seemed pretty plain.)

    Of the four pillars of Fiction’s house, I have always had a strong preference for Pillars 2, 3, and 4, to the detriment of 1. I’ve never been much interested in constructing the systems of made-up events, motives, complications, and consequences that go to form a satisfactory plot. I have had far more fun as a fiction writer among the people I have imagined and their minds, follies, affections, and ways of speech than I have with their actions. Giving characters a social life, putting them in a setting that is well-observed and implicated in every aspect of their story have seemed to me at least as important as the story itself. And the way the story is told—its pace, its writing style, what information is given, what is withheld, what is told in talk and what is narrated—the enjoyment of these points has always been for me much of the reason fiction is read, and much of the reason it’s written. 

    Not being adept at thinking up plots of my own, I have been happy to let that work be done by others, including my elders and betters. Hence a final argument for finding a narrative basis in the classic. The plot is to a large extent a given. Readers know what happens. They know what happens to Faust. The action is pretty simple: Faust buys the devil’s ticket, he takes the ride, then he has to pay down. That’s it. The author of today, with the question of the plot settled, can get on with the other pleasurable tasks of story-telling. It’s like your Christmas tree: get the thing standing up straight, and you can hang anything you like on it.

    Or so it has seemed to me over a good many years of writing fiction, long and short. The Devil in the Valley began with the idea that the story of Doctor Faustus, an authentic English classic of 400 years’ standing, could be made to use humor, imagination, and an essential optimism to charm readers, including readers in the un-tragic, un-classic, un-eventful provinces of North America. 

Castle Freeman, author of The Devil in the Valley