cover image The Devil’s Best Trick: How the Face of Evil Disappeared

The Devil’s Best Trick: How the Face of Evil Disappeared

Randall Sullivan. Atlantic Monthly, $30 (336p) ISBN 978-0-8021-1913-1

Why have so many cultures believed in the devil? In this gonzo and sometimes chilling account, Sullivan (Graveyard of the Pacific), a longtime contributing editor to Rolling Stone, entertains the idea that it’s because the devil really exists. Dividing his narrative into two parts, Sullivan first reports on the 1988 death of Tate Rowland in Childress, Tex.—a suspicious suicide that locals became convinced was a satanic ritual—then recaps a journey to Catemaco, Mexico, to witness a famous Black Mass. Interspersed throughout are histories of the devil in religion and art (touching on the likes of William Blake and Charles Baudelaire), and profiles of such unsavory individuals as 19th-century Freemason and alleged KKK founder Albert Pike—long regarded a “satanic pope” by conspiracy theorists—and 1970s serial killer Lawrence Bittaker. Through it all, Sullivan remains “committed to a consideration of the Devil... as an actuality,” and even reports a hair-raising in-person meet-up, claiming to have exchanged words with the “elegantly dressed... gent” himself as he passed by in a crowded plaza (“I’ll catch you later,” the devil said). The book’s most entertaining writing is memoiristic, as Sullivan throws himself into the Catemaco adventure with self-deprecating humor, but what holds it all together is a sincere yearning to understand evil. It’s a dizzying plunge into darkness in search of moral clarity. (May)