Alan Judd – The Devil’s Own Work (1991)

Review by Justin Tate

A meaty 100-page novella exploring the seemingly supernatural (and spooky) elements of artistic inspiration. I think most writers—particularly those who are successful—feel perplexed by their own abilities. Maybe it’s imposter syndrome, maybe it’s demonic possession, but ask “where do you get your ideas” and you’ll likely see a dark shadow fall across their face before receiving a vague response.

Where do ideas come from? Is a writer really the mastermind behind fiction, or are they merely servants transcribing a cosmic signal?

In a way, that’s the premise of this story—and many other classic novels going at least as far back as Faust. Stephen King also explored this topic in Lisey’s Story, which might explain his praise for this book. Joe Hill, his son, called The Devil’s Own Work a “perfect” novel along with The Turn of the Screw.

I disagree that it’s perfect, but the writing does remind me of Henry James. There’s close male friendship with a verbose narrator who chronicles the story in a journalistic, outside observer kind of way. I’m not a fan of The Turn of the Screw, but I do like this Victorian style of storytelling. Though first published in 1991, it could just as easily have been written in 1891. Unfortunately, as I often feel when reading Victorian ghost stories, the second half (after the supernatural is introduced) does not live up to the first.

During the set-up, we are introduced to the premise of a fledgling writer who discovers unexpected fame after penning a devastating review of a popular writer’s latest novel. The novelist invites him over for a private interview and dies during the meeting, under most unusual circumstances. As we ease into the supernatural the intrigue reaches fever pitch. This is usually when Victorian ghost stories struggle to decide how to steer the story, and Judd falls into a similar trap.

The second half meanders, gets weird—why does it turn sexual?—and fails to capitalize on the inertia of the setup. Not an unpleasant reading experience, but occasionally slapdash and definitely not perfect. Judd’s smartest decision, I think, was to keep this novella-length. The pacing is just right for fleshing out characters and building a fictional reality, but not so lackadaisical that we’re forced to read filler. There’s a good feeling where the story will end up, and when the conclusion happens we’re glad to not have spent more time than necessary to get there.

Overall, an enjoyable way to spend three hours. Despite the short length there is a lot of substance and the themes make for an interesting discussion—particularly for an audience of writers. I think the King’s oversell it, but there’s no doubt that’s The Devil’s Own Work is of higher quality than your average reading.

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