Thursday, 11 June 1998

Paul Doherty: The Rose Demon (1997)

Edition: Headline, 1998
Review number: 271

It is rare to find a modern novel which takes medieval religious ideas and supernatural fears seriously. The Rose Demon is really a horror story set in a medieval world stalked by the demon-possessed, witches and the spirits of the dead.

The myth of the Rose Demon, or Rosifer, is (I think) Doherty's own addition to the complicated medieval system of demonology. Inspired by the knowledge that one day God would become incarnate in the human race, and enraptured by the beauty of Eve, the angel Rosifer tried to seduce her before the Fall, bringing her roses in the garden of Eden. Now one of Lucifer's chief servants, he is still looking for a human being to love him of there own free will. The closest he can come is to act as an incubus or succubus (demonic lovers usually associated with witchcraft) or through possession.

The novel itself concerns his relationship with Matthias Fitzosbert, the illegitimate child of a village priest, who as a child showed some affection to a hermit possessed by Rosifer. But as Matthias grows up, the demon's continued relationship with him causes all sorts of problems (such as accusations of witchcraft) and involves him in the great events of his time: the end of the Wars of the Roses, the imposture of Lambert Simnel, the Spanish conquest of Granada and the discovery of America. Everywhere he goes, the demonic presence nearby involves him with the supernatural: ghosts, Strigoi (vampires) and witches, all portrayed as they are in medieval chronicles. His realisation of what possession means - Rosifer always possesses those near him, not Matthias himself - as he grows older leads to a horror of those things which bring the demon near, despite his solicitude for Matthias.

Few writers take the supernatural seriously in historical novels; the best horror writers always do, from Edgar Allan Poe and Bram Stoker to Stephen King. (Note that I did not say that they have to believe in it.) You cannot frighten with your tongue in your cheek, with the little concessions to twentieth century materialism made when neither writer nor reader takes these things seriously. The horror that can be evoked by ideas of demon possession (in believers) is worse even than the similar, twentieth century, horror of mental illness, because demons are known to be evil while an illness has to be seen as morally neutral. That is what Doherty is seeking to convey, and he really manages to do so.

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