The Devil in the Valley | Castle Freeman, Jr | 2016 | Duckworth | 191p | Review copy | Buy the book
Langdon Taft has a beautiful home in rural Vermont. His life is calm, peaceful and solitary. But he’s reached an age when he’s not too sure what to do with the years remaining. Without realising quite why he does it, as he sits in his chair, thinking and drinking, he conjures up the devil – or, to be more precise, Mr Dangerfield, the devil’s account man. Langdon Taft would seem to be the last person you’d expect to make a deal with the devil but this is exactly what he does. This modern day Faustus sells his soul to the polite, urbane, reasonable devil sitting beside him. But unlike Dr Faustus who bargained for years of indulgence and power before the demons dragged him away, Langdon is given just a few months. A summer. Nothing more.
The Devil in the Valley is not quite what I was expecting, largely because Langdon Taft is no Dr Faustus. Castle Freeman cleverly shifts our preconceptions about this age-old tale. Taft isn’t evil, on the contrary. Langdon Taft is a man who sees himself as having been given the power to do good for those who live in his valley, and that is just what he does. Those he helps might thank God or Christ for their fortune (much to Mr Dangerfield’s displeasure), but Langdon knows differently.
The novel tells the story of Langdon and the people he helps or punishes, mixed with chapters in which Langdon’s great friend Eli discusses Taft with a remarkable old lady in a hospice who seems to be related to almost everyone in the valley. The result is an elegantly written, quirky supernatural tale which is both delightful to read – there is some light gentle humour here – and satisfying as we see the triumph of good. The relationship between Mr Dangerfield and Langdon is an amusing one and Dangerfield is quite a character, but Langdon himself remains something of an enigma to us, just as he is to everyone else.
The Devil in the Valley is a short novel, at just under 200 pages. It did take me a chapter or two to get into it – I think mostly because I had Marlowe’s Faustus prominent in my mind – but once I settled down with it on this dark, windy, wet day, the novel’s atmospheric storytelling proved such a comfort as it dug into the lives, made so significant and intriguing, of this small community in Vermont.