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Novel set in Vermont (a pact with the Devil…) plus Q&A with author, Castle Freeman

11th February 2016

The Devil In The Valley by Castle Freeman – novel set in Vermont

Our review of the book plus a very informative interview with the author, Castle Freeman

IMG_3489A very well and amusingly written update of the Faustian legend by Marlowe… and not, I am pleased to say, as black as I feared it might be. A retired and somewhat crabby alcoholic schoolteacher in rural Vermont is ‘befriended’ by Dangerfield (‘the account man, the closer…’) on behalf of the Devil. The schoolteacher, Langdon Taft, is offered anything he wants in this world before he is transported to hell on Columbus Day – just seven months hence. He accepts the contract. He is a pretty obvious rogue, and our presumption is that he will choose a younger age, power, wealth and sex (not necessarily in that order…). He does not believe in the Devil or Hell and thinks he will be able to contrive an escape from the pact.

He also does not behave as we think he might. Instead of hedonistic pursuits he pays a very sick child’s hospital bills, gives a wife beater a lesson he will not forget, prevents a dodgy bank foreclosing on a local farmer, rescues a drowning girl, and even attacks school bus bullies. In short he uses his contract to perform good deeds. Which poses a real dilemma. Does he deserve to go to Hell? The devil would argue that the powers he has given him have enabled him to get pleasure from his deeds – and that he deserves to pay for this pleasure he would not otherwise have had. He also had the reward of a flirtation with an attractive female State Trooper (though more chaste than Dangerfield, who organised the event, had planned for it to be…). Taft would argue that he has successfully fooled the Devil by diverting his power to do good and help the community in which he lives. That he has won.

Then there is the parallel story of Calpurnia, a 98 year old woman in a hospice waiting to die… Gradually her story merges with that of Langdon Taft as we head for the conclusion.

The Devil In The Valley is not a weighty tome. It is just 192 pages of not too small type – I read it in two sittings totalling a couple of hours. It is a simple idea, well executed – and it works. I enjoyed the book.

Tony for the TripFiction team

And now for our interview with Castle…

TF: What drew you to the Faustian legend as the subject matter for a modern novel? It is a very intriguing update.

CF: I’m always interested in how old stories can be reimagined for different times and places, kind of the way a musical score can be arranged for different instruments or instrumental groups. Using familiar tales and legends gives you a strong and clear narrative line, which is good for me, as I’ve never been much of a plot-maker. I’d rather buy my plots off the rack, so to speak, than try to tailor them. 

TF: Langdon Taft is not, at first sight, the most appealing of characters – yet he has a heart of gold. He could be almost any semi recluse retiree living in the country. Is he based on a real person / real people that you know?

CF: Mr. Taft isn’t modelled after any real person’s life, unless it’s my own. Certainly he has qualities of mine (not including being unappealing), as have the characters Eli and Calpurnia (and of course the mysterious Mr. Dangerfield). I think this is expected: most writers of fiction, I bet, put themselves, or different parts of themselves, into some or all their characters more or less—not so much by copying their traits as by having their concerns, responses, minds, hearts.

TF: After his pact with Dangerfield, Langdon – somewhat to our surprise – chooses good deeds rather than engages in hedonistic pursuits. This leads to the central theme of the book. Does he deserve to go to Hell? The Devil would say ‘yes’ – he has given him the power to get pleasure from his deeds. Langdon would say ‘no’ – that he has successfully fooled the Devil. Which side would you (not as the author) instinctively come down on?

CF: Oh, I’m always for the happy ending.

TF: All of your writing (novels, essays, articles) is set in rural Vermont – yet you were born in Texas and were brought up in Illinois. You, I believe, moved to Vermont 40 years ago… What made you move in the first place, and why have you stayed so long?

CF: We came to Vermont originally because my wife, Alice, had grown up not too far away, and because I, having been raised and educated in one big city or another, of course wanted to live as far out in the woods as I could get. We came on a trial basis, but we soon found this was the place for us, and so here we are. At this point, living elsewhere is unimaginable. 

TF: What is it that fascinates you about those who live in rural Vermont?

CF: Vermont is not an easy place to live. There are not a lot of good jobs; housing, transportation, taxes, and other costs are high; winters are long and cold; the population is growing older, and younger people are moving out, not in. It’s an unfortunate state, in many ways. Nevertheless, Vermonters have a basic generosity and good nature, and they have an unfailing, rather dark and caustic wit, frequently profane, that you have to admire.  

TF: How do you write? Do you plot a novel in detail before you start – or do you go with the flow and see how it develops?

CF: Generally, I make as I go. I’m not a planner. I have a general idea of my story in mind; maybe I have a few pages of vague notes. I trust the details to turn up by magic, not unlike Dangerfield.

TF: Do you try and write set hours each day – or as it comes?

CF: I regularly do my concerted writing in the morning, then go in and out of the project through the rest of the day. I have seldom or never written at night. 

TF: Do you yet know (and can you reveal) what will be the subject matter for your next book?

CF: I have lately finished a new novel that is a companion piece to my 2009 novel All that I Have (also published in the UK by Duckworth): same setting, mainly same characters, same concerns. My literary agent has the ms, and we will be seeking a US publisher beginning in the near future.

A big thank you to Castle for your very informative answers…

Catch up with the author via his website

And come and say hello on Social Media to the Team at TripFiction: TwitterFacebook and Pinterest and Instagram too.

For more books set in Vermont, click here!


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