Marie Jakober’s very different version of ‘demons’ & ‘angels’

Marie Jakober. The Demon Left Behind (Edge 2011).

The author of The Black Chalice, one of the best historical fantasies & a complex inquiry into religious belief & human sensuality, Marie Jakober returns to those concerns in a contemporary setting in her new novel, The Demon Left Behind. Although the narrator, Melusine, describes herself as a ‘demon,’ she quickly explains that she’s really using the modern version of the ancient Greek term, ‘daimon,’ which really means spirit life, & Melusine’s people could as easily be called angels. She quickly tells us that as far as the inhabitants of the Otherworld that exists alongside our material world know there are neither angels nor demons as, say, Christianity paints them.

So that’s the backstory. The set-up has to do with the growing violence of the 20th & 21st centuries, plus the rapid growth of weird religiosity attached to much of that violence today. Melusine makes an intriguing narrator, apparently addressing a human audience, & she quickly explains the Otherworld, its ‘watchers,’ the Alari, to which she belongs, these beings’ very long lives, & why they have recently been researching human, what they call ‘Visie,’ activities:

Oh, we were certainly used to human chaos; we’d seen a fair bit of it through the centuries. But the Twentieth Century upped the ante, big time, what withy nuclear weapons and other inventive Visie toys. And for al the hopeful talk about a promising Third Millennium, the next century wasn’t shaping up any better. New wars starting, more hunger, more hatred, more destruction; a whole lot of humans on one side of the world putting bombs in the sand, and a whole lot of them on the other side putting there heads there …. No, indeed, the Third Millennium wasn’t looking millennial at all.
Our leaders were noticing the same things, of course, and eventually it was decided that we should spend some serious time among you. Demonic reconnaissance, you might call it – checking out the social, political, environmental, and in particular, the moral terrain of your Twenty-First Century.

This passage also demonstrates an aspect of the demons which is both a bit of a plus & a bit of a minus in a narrative: they are essentially rational beings, & their connections to their world (& mostly to ours) are mental, or spiritual if referring only to their essence. Therefore, while Melusine’s near-lecturing style, with its many explanations & intellectual digressions, may slow the narration down a bit, it is totally in character & is, moreover, a deliberate essaying provocation in the middle of a suspense story. Not that the demons aren’t individuals, nor that Jakober doesn’t show us a range of demon character traits, including a number of demons gone bad, who not only go into hiding in the material world of humanity but often try to influence humans to act violently & hatefully toward one another.

As the story begins, Melusine & her fellow Alari are seeking the help of a human being who might know something about new ‘spiritual’ activities in western culture. A young & very curious demon, one of their study group, has disappeared, something that’s almost impossible, as they can communicate over vast distances & a demon’s sign can be found by other demons unless s/he has deliberately gone into hiding or somehow been trapped inside very strong or thick metal or stonewalls. As she was his leader, Melusine has been charged to find him. The one bit of information they have is that he may have attended a lecture by a spiritual skeptic in Calgary; & thus the hunt begins. Of course, first they have to convince him that they are what they say, which leads to some comic moments, as he isn’t willing to take what the materialized demons say on faith. The usually invisible demons can manifest in the material world for short periods, if they need to communicate with Visies. They tend to do so in the gender they have as demons, so Melusine manifests as a woman, & she soon finds herself spending a lot of time in the human world working with investigative reporter, Paige Ballantyne.

Having ‘real’ spiritual beings, who have never found any sign of demons, devils, angels, or gods, joining up with an investigative reporter cum spiritual skeptic who has lots of connections across the world, allows Jakober to both tell a fascinating tale of search & rescue, & present the wilder theories of end-of-the-world true believers & the rational arguments against most of what they believe. There’s a lot of intellectual entertainment in the discussions Melusine & Paige have about these matters. Jakober also presents a believable attempt at tracking an essentially unknown figure across Canada & the US, especially given that the demons can get into the offices & make us of the files of every police & security agency.

At one point, after they have tracked the missing demon to Texas, the story turns to third person narrative to present the activities of some far right evangelicals who believe the end times, as presented in the Left Behind series, & also want to ‘liberate’ Texas from the US as a beginning to that apocalypse — & who believe an angel of the Lord has given them the order to do so (it’s actually a rogue demon, of course). Although the novel in no way supports these people’s ideology or belief system, it actually represents them with a certain compassion for at least the terrible existential fear that must drive them to such extremes. Eventually, it turns out that the missing demon came upon them, wanted to find out exactly what they were planning, & was trapped accidently in a safe in their hidden weapons bunker. The exciting climax when Melusine pretends to be the exorcist they called in is more than any of them asked for.

And there the other narrative argument of The Demon Left Behind, subtly intertwined throughout with the thriller plot, comes to the fore; manifested demons can be hurt & even killed physically when playing human. More importantly, as Melusine & Paige work together on their quest to find the young missing demon, she comes to appreciate a material body as a site of physical & emotional pleasure more than most other demons, at least in her long memory, have done. Jakober uses the ‘spiritual’ existence of her demons to make a passionate plea for comprehending the beauties & emotional profundity of our life in the body (a philosophical argument also at the heart of The Black Chalice). All in all, The Demon Left Behind is an intellectually & emotionally provocative fantasy for the all too irrational present.

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