5 Books Where the Devil Plays a Central Role

The embodiment of evil, an irresistible charmer, a trickster, a misinterpreted pitiful soul: I have been obsessed with the many faces of the Devil. In the beginning, I wasn’t exactly sure why I was gravitating to it. Sure, the Devil is a popular recurring figure in the folk culture of the Brazilian Northeast, where my family is from, appearing in woodcut stamp prints, long poems and stories, and as I grew up, that exposure to folk devils added to those occasionally shown or implied in Brazilian soap operas, stories I was told, and American movies like Legend. But in the past few years, my interest grew.

Maybe it is something about the complicated logic of his damnation or the concept of damnation itself. Maybe it was recognizing how the Devil is sometimes offered as something to blame (just as specific groups of humans are). But there is also just plain fun. The devil can be such an entertaining character to watch: whether it is his cunning, his ability to instill fear or make people confront their worst selves, or his ultimate demise. I love how it shapeshifts through its many depictions. How much fun it can be to discover a new devil as a reader (and as a writer: I ended up writing a whole book with my own version).

Do you feel up for some devilish fun? Here are five books with imaginative, surprising Devils who end up playing a central role in their stories.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue  by V. E. Schwab

Book cover of The Invisible Life of Addie La Rue by V.E. Schwab

In this delicious read spanning over 300 years, we follow Addie LaRue who, out of desperation when faced with a forced marriage, makes a deal with the Devil. She asks for freedom and time. The Devil gives her both, but of course, not in the way she would have chosen. She becomes immortal, but freedom comes as a curse: no one is able to remember her or say her name. She is “freed” from forming bonds or a shared past with anyone. Anyone but the Devil himself, that is. The story alternates between the timeline following the deal in 1714 and a later one in the 2010s, when something changes in her circumstances. The Devil here is first referred to as the Dark, and later christened by Addie as Luc. I love these two characters, their loneliness in their immortality, their twisted, complicated relationship (it is toxic, but also feels real on the page). This is a Devil that uses his power and holds his promised souls captive without any mercy, but it is also not a character whose aims are simply to be evil. A complex character that adds a lot of emotional weight to the book. I loved following him over the three centuries in this story.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

master and margarita 2023

Another favorite Devil is in one of my favorite books: Woland in The Master and Margarita. This book is wild, a maximalist meta feast, involving satire, the supernatural, humor and a moving portrait of the absurdity of life in Russia in the 1930s. Woland waltzes into Moscow right in time to insert himself into a philosophical conversation on theism between two writers. From there, he and his entourage (which includes a giant cat and a redhead succubus) run amok as agents of chaos, building up to a hilarious but terrifying ball. Like in The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, The Master and Margarita also involves two timelines. One follows Woland’s visit to Moscow in the 1930s (including the love story between the couple in the title: the Master, and Margarita). The second thread follows Pontius Pilate as he deliberates whether to crucify Yeshua (Jesus). (It is implied that Woland is also present in the Pontius Pilate timeline, though his appearance there is not made obvious). Woland is another complex character, who can be ruthless but generous, resisting the expectation of a purely evil Devil. And he is a lot of fun.

The Devil in Silver by Victor Lavalle

Book cover of The Devil in Silver by Victor Lavalle

I love how this book lingers on the question of what is real or true for a while, before giving us more clues. Like in another book I love by Lavalle (The Changeling), those who first encounter the supernatural here are not usually believed (in The Changeling it is postpartum women, here it is the patients of a psychiatric hospital). The main character, Pepper, is brought to the hospital after getting himself into a fight with undercover police who bring him in to avoid having to do paperwork themselves. He ends up trapped in the hospital for months, due to the many institutional failings that permeate the novel. The devil terrorizes the patients, who have no one to help them. This devil was both terrifying and sympathetic, a monster cobbled up from neglect and helplessness in the face of institutions which do not care for him or the patients it terrorizes. This is a book full of love and compassion for its characters, who are trapped in an institutional setting that victimizes them all, including the Devil. (It is apparently being adapted to the screen too, and I am very excited).

A Haunting in Hialeah Gardens by Raul Palma

haunting in hialeah gardens

A Haunting in Hialeah Gardens is another novel where the devil is paired with even more terrifying social horrors. The protagonist, Hugo Contreras, is a spiritist who is hired to banish spirits who haunt his clients, though he himself doesn’t believe in spirits. Hugo is overwhelmed by medical debt, an eerie presence that is always with him, affecting all aspects of his life. The debt is heart-breakingly tied to his grief for the loss of his wife (whose medical expenses are the debt’s origin). Hugo is contacted by the owner of his debt, debt collector Alexi Ramirez. Alexi proposes a deal: he will forgive the debt, if Hugo successfully banishes a ghost who is haunting him. The myth of the devil is wonderfully layered and dispersed through this novel: the deal, the debt, as well as a Bolivian Devil, El Tío, whose haunting follows Hugo to America. Everything comes together in an impactful climax. But the real horror here is debt, and the way it weighs heavy on people’s souls. The debt collector who keeps calling, the contract that feels eternal to many people. That oppressive presence is really felt in this book. 

Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki

Book cover of Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki

I went into Light From Uncommon Stars cold, following a recommendation. I loved it from the get go: the writing is wonderful, and I was delighted to find it was a deal-with-the-devil story. Then doubly delighted to also find that in addition to the Devil plot, it was an aliens-on-Earth story. SFF lovers will find a surprising mix of both the supernatural and science fiction, where both sides hold their own and come together beautifully. The devil here is a pesky guy who is closing in on Shizuka Satomi, a violinist turned elite violin teacher, who made a deal where she would deliver seven souls to spare her own. Her 7th candidate turns out to be Katrina Nguyen, a talented though untrained musician, who is also a young transgender woman with nowhere to go. The devil here is a looming presence who puts pressure on the caring apprenticeship between Shizuka and Katrina, as well the budding love story between Shizuka and a woman called Lan Tran. There is much more, including intergalactic donut shops, cut-throat music competitions and generations of skilled instrument makers. The passages about music and instrument making, and the relationships were very moving. The devil lurks as a constant threat in the background, as their three women live and love music, life and one another. The result is a complex, generous and beautiful book.


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