Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Congratulate the Devil

Congratulate the Devil is a delightful comic novel by forgotten Welsh fantasy writer Howell Davies. Rescued from obscurity by the Library of Wales this amusing tale of mind control proves to be something of a lost gem.

Written in 1939 it is an early example of drugs literature. A chemist gets hold of a rogue batch of mescal which he distils into mind control pills. Whoever then ingests the drug is able to project his will onto complete strangers. Each pill works over a specific range and is only effective for a limited amount of time. The results are dependent upon the personality of the drug-taker who is able to harness their power for selfish or altruistic purposes.

Bill Roper and Bert Phillips are the two main consumers of the drug. Roper is an embittered, physically ugly, scientist who has little sympathy for his fellow man; Phillips is an amiable but naive Welsh tramp who sings in the streets for money. Naturally they react to the pills in vastly different ways.

Roper falls hopelessly in love with a beautiful model and uses the mind control tablets to possess her. Phillips on the other hand sets out to make everybody happy. At one point in the plot he even constructs an hilarious Welsh utopia where Methodists, Baptists and Independents form a United Church; social hierarchies are broken down; and the pubs remain open all day.

With such a dangerous substance at large it is only a matter of time before the government attempts to get its hands on it. As Roper says: "If there's one thing the world won't stand for, it's universal happiness. They've always killed anybody with a recipe for that."

Ideas of free will and the will to power clearly interest the author. There is also a certain allegorical dimension to this novel with concerns over compelling issues of the day, such as dictatorship and mass manipulation. Also evident are more traditional sci-fi themes particularly the dangers of playing at God. Both Frankenstein and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde are obvious literary antecedents here.

Set mainly in Hampstead Congratulate the Devil's milieu is essentially upper middle-class London but the tone throughout is mischievous. The world of gentlemen's clubs, bohemian salons and stuffy drawing rooms is gently mocked. Much of the novel's humour springs from the ironic observations of feckless bone-idle narrator Starling; and in Phillips' naivety. The Welsh tramp is both a comic figure and a tool to satirise the supposedly sophisticated world into which he has been adopted.

Congratulate the Devil is the most surprising and welcome addition to the Library of Wales series so far.

*Congratulate the Devil by Howell Davies, published by Parthian, is on sale now-ish.