The Reading Room

Nefarious Letters: the Rhetoric of the Diabolic in “Nefarious”

The comparison of the new movie “Nefarious” and the book it is based on, The Nefarious Plot, to C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters is hardly original. It is, however, largely superficial, by which I mean that most reviews do not really explain why this comparison is so obvious, beyond the majority of screentime in both being taken up by a demon indulging in villainous monologues.
Joseph Pearce in his review comes closest, saying “Paradoxically it is often the presence of evil which animates the desire for the good, much as the man in the dark desires the light or as the drowning man desires the air,” yet even this is somewhat off the mark.
More precisely, “Nefarious” and Screwtape Letters generate in their audience the same fascination as Dante’s Inferno or the works of Flannery O’Connor. Quality of the film and political implications aside—I wholeheartedly agree with Pearce that the film is superbly scripted and acted, particularly by Sean Patrick Flannery in his role as the possessed murderer—the success of these works, their draw upon the audience, is through their portrayal of “the negative”, a perspective wholly antithetical to human nature which thereby actually proves and upholds the very thing it opposes.
This is a very old technique, one used as much by Muslims and Jews in their philosophy and theology as Christians, whereby the positive attributes of something unknowable, primarily God, are determined by discovering what it is not. Put forward by philosophers such as St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, this idea was then adapted into literature by medieval poets such as Dante, whose Inferno offers just as much of a vision of God as his Paradiso or Purgatorio. But where Purgatorio offers a vision of God defined by compassion and penance, and Paradiso one defined by metaphysics and mysticism, Inferno shows God by  what He is not, or rather, what occurs in His absence. Similarly Flannery O’Connor in her Southern Gothic tales frequently offers weird moments of grace in the deepest, darkest moments of her characters, revealing how at the moment a character is furthest from salvation or redemption he is able to recognize this state in himself and make a complete turnaround.
It is this very technique which both Screwtape Letters and the film “Nefarious” adopt in order to more successfully put forward their own messages, by clothing them in the the diabolic. That both these works are inherently Christian needs no argument; that they are both putting forward Christian messages requires little more. One need only look as far as the ending of the film, or the conclusion of Screwtape Letters, to find their Christianity confirmed. But while many “Christian works” present themselves in a way that audiences, myself included, find “corny,” “cheesy,” or “just plain stupid,” works such as “Nefarious” and Screwtape Letters are able to bypass this awkwardness, even as at heart they offer the same message as more blatant attempts at evangelization. The presentation of the demonic, this “negative,” offers a method of circumventing a hostile audience, persuading them to truly consider the message put before them, because the message is twisted and put into the mouth of a character the audience finds interesting. This is no preacher or “goody-two-shoes” or Jesus-analogue boring them to death, but a thrilling, horrifying, blood-curdling demon laying out his conspiratorial plans for world-domination, and that is exciting.
Aside from these rhetorical similarities and a shared goal of spreading a Christian message, however, “Nefarious” and Screwtape Letters share another significant similarity, and this is the introduction of an actual plot to what might otherwise be considered a cleverly disguised religious diatribe. While on the larger scale both stories present a general world-view of the demonic forces at play in the world, what is at the heart of each story is the fate of a single human soul, and the question whether that soul will fall prey to the demons, or be saved. This makes each story both more personal and more chilling. Lewis presents his human subject as an unnamed everyman, the typical cheerfully agnostic Englishman, while “Nefarious” presents their own “modern man”, the atheist scientist. On one level, these human subjects are the target audience of each work, but on another, they are also representations of the author’s contemporary world at large and its approach to the supernatural. On both levels, they make the story more personal, more urgent. We the audience become these everymen, these victims of demonic forces, and so we are forced with chilling compunction to consider the questions at hand. Thus this rhetorical technique, combined with the threat upon the human soul, makes the message of these works all too real, and the consequences far too hazardous should we fail to properly consider that message.