Flowers from Hell: A Satanic Reader

Book review by Thomas M. Sipos

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Flowers From Hell: A Satanic Reader  (edited by Nikolas Schreck, Creation Books, 2001, 285 pp.)

 

 

 

Nikolas Schreck's "Satanic Reader" is an anthology tracing the development of Satan as a literary character in fiction and poetry. Most selections are excerpts from longer works (novels, plays, epic poems), beginning with Dante's Inferno and culminating in Michael A. Aquino's The Diabolicon (1970). Short stories and poems are reprinted in their entirety.

As an anthology of old classics (Aquino is the only living contributor), the sole original content is Schreck's lengthy Introduction, which is instructive, if opinionated. Schreck provides historical context for each selection, but also critiques them from an iconoclastic perspective.

One senses that Schreck admires Satan -- or at least the Satan concept. Schreck views Satan as a celebration of rebellion, individual liberation, courage, inspiration to artistic creation. And he argues that many authors and artists, throughout the centuries, have had "sympathy for the Devil."

Schreck writes:
 

"One of the means of access to the Luciferian vision is a profound sense of exile, a spiritual or physical dislocation that mirrors the Devil's own cosmic sense of banishment. It is not surprising that the majority of authors represented here experienced some form of exile during their lives, a radical disruption from the norm that allowed the effulgence of the black light to illuminate their work. It could be argued that no truly visionary achievement is possible without this sense of Luciferian estrangement, this liberating and individuating isolation that allowed the diabolical consciousness to flourish. ...

"Whether by dint of their social dissent, physical infirmity, socially disapproved sexuality, or simply their aesthetic or spiritual alienation from their respective eras, the one salient characteristic that most of the authors who speak in Flowers From Hell share is the nobility that separation from the common man often confers."


Where does one begin in tracing the Satan character's development? I'd have begun with the Book of Job, but while Schreck refers to Job in his Introduction, he does not include it as a selection. Neither does he excerpt the temptation of Christ in the desert, nor anything from the Book of Revelation. Schreck says the Bible (both Old and New Testaments) gives scant details about Satan, who first appears in Job as "a small-time emissary of Yahweh, obediently carrying out that wrathful tribal god's dirty work."

The first selection in Flowers From Hell is an excerpt from Dante's Inferno. Schreck credits Dante with establishing Satan in the Western imagination. (The phrase: "All hope abandon ye who enter here" was coined by Dante.) Seven hundred years of Satanic depictions (by sincere Satanists, Christian preachers, heavy metal bands, and horror pulpsmiths) owe a debt to Dante.

Wiccans and neo-pagans like to insist that Satan is not a pagan invention, but wholly a creation of Judaeo-Christianity. But Schreck demonstrates that Satan is both younger and older than the Bible. For while Dante created the modern image of Satan, the concept of an evil dark god -- a malevolent deity in opposition to the established social order -- predates Judaism. Satan's roots extend into paganism, and probably into prehistory.

Schreck writes:

 

"Swiss writer Hannes Vatter observed in his 1978 'The Devil in English Literature' that 'the oldest known deity bearing some resemblance to our devil is Set or Setekh, the Egyptian god of drought and tempest. ...

"The Norse Edda provides us with the trickster god Loki, disobedient commander of Hel's dark forces, identified with fire and a contentious relation to the All-Father of the Nordic pantheon. ...

"Judaeo-Christianity's advent added surprisingly little to the ancient mythos of the Dark God, save for that faith's declaration that the morally ambiguous chthonic deities of all other religions were now to be considered irredeemably evil.

"This simplistic dualistic understanding of the universe was adopted by the Hebrew tribes during their Babylonian captivity, when they encountered the Persian Zoroastrian philosophy. Zoroaster posited a never-ending war between the good day god Ahura Mazda and his wicked foe, the night god Ahriman, a conflict that spawned the Judaeo-Christian concept of Absolute Good and Evil that would blight centuries to come."


I spoke of Schreck's iconoclastic perspective. His Introduction evinces ethical nihilism. He seems opposed not only to "the Judaeo-Christian concept of Absolute Good and Evil," but to all objective morality. Schreck dismisses "evil" as an "entirely subjective chimera."

Here is Schreck's remark, in context:
 

"All dualistic moralists, despite the purist of intentions, must ultimately fail to convince their audiences that 'evil' -- however they may define that entirely subjective chimera -- is not rather attractive and exciting. The tragic splendor of the Devil's sullied beauty has proven to be an alluring literary device, one that conspires time and time again to transform the ultimate villain into a hero after all."


But if evil is an "entirely subjective chimera," then so is good. Morality is illusory. Taken literally, Schreck's words deny any moral difference between Hitler and Gandhi, between a hate criminal and a hate crime victim.

Does Schreck believe his own words? Or is he sophomorically trying to irritate Judaeo-Christian sensibilities, and in so doing, has inadvertently said more than he meant? I don't know. However, it is noteworthy that the late Anton Szandor LaVey espoused a similar nihilism in his Satanic Bible.

In addition to Dante, Schreck credits three other authors with solidifying the modern image of Satan: Christopher Marlowe (The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus), John Milton (Paradise Lost), Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (Faust). Schreck writes that their works "are the four foundation stones upon which the modern Western image of Lucifer has been constructed. Without this quartet of poetic monoliths, the character of Satan would be nothing more than a dimly perceived aggregate comprised of a handful of Biblical references and a few colourful scraps of folklore."

 

 

After analyzing these four works, Schreck discusses Satan's depiction in Gothic Romanticism (the literary roots of supernatural horror), and Satan's changing portrayal by increasingly skeptical modern authors.

Here is the complete list of contributors to Flowers From Hell: Dante, Christopher Marlowe, John Milton, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, William Beckford, Matthew Gregory Lewis, Charles Maturin, Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Baudelaire, Joris-Karl Huysmans, Mark Twain, Anatole France, Max Beerbohm, Aleister Crowley, and Michael A. Aquino.

Aside from Biblical passages, I'd have included excerpts from the Koran (Schreck's Introduction refers to Islam's fallen angel, Eblis), The Devil and Daniel Webster, Rushdie's Satanic Verses, and LaVey's Satanic Bible. (Although the Satanic Bible was ghost written, LaVey is probably the best known Satanist among the populace, if not among scholars and occultists.)

Flowers From Hell is beautifully bound, on heavy slick paper that will not yellow. Seventeen full-page, black-and-white Satanic illustrations through the ages: paintings, wood cuts, and an appropriate Art Nouveau ink drawing for an excerpt from Crowley's The Black Lodge.

Nikolas Schreck is an informed authority on Satanic lore. In this same year, Creation Books has released another Schreck book: The Satanic Screen: An Illustrated Guide to the Devil in Cinema. Lavishly illustrated, in keeping with Creation Book's long tradition of quality film books.

Flowers From Hell largely achieves its goal: tracing the literary development of Satan. One need not be a Satanist or nihilist to find it useful as a literary reference tool.

As most of the selections are written in the turgid, wordy, purple prose of centuries past, teen "Satanists" may find goofy fun in reading aloud passages, but those of an MTV-attention span will find the book a struggle. Ironically, brighter teens may turn to the complete Paradise Lost, their interest having been piqued. Schreck says (hopefully, one senses) that we are living in a "post-Christian" era. An assertion, rather than a given -- which Flowers From Hell may make even less given.

Nikolas Schreck, who lives in Europe, is doing a book tour in the US this October 2001.

Review copyright by Thomas M. Sipos

 

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