It is sad but true: none of us have all the skills and resources that we might want. This is why we live in societies, to have access to far more diverse array of resources on which to draw. Sometimes that is not sufficient. In such cases, it can make sense to turn to unconventional allies.
A better term might be infernal allies. Break out the chalk and draw a pentagram. Satanic representatives are standing by to take your call.
There will, of course, be a small fee involved…
The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant by Douglass Wallop (1954)
Baseball fan Joe Boyd supports his beloved Washington Senators beyond all reason. To quote columnist Charley Dryden, “Washington: first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.” Regular drubbings by the New York Yankees are the logical outcome of the team’s steadfast devotion to unrelenting mediocrity, yet each humiliation sorely vexes Joe.
The kindly Mr. Applegate offers a simple solution: Applegate can transform Joe from middle-aged schlub into superstar baseball player. With Joe on the team, the Senators can hardly help but win. All Applegate asks in return is something Joe won’t miss…until it is too late.
This seems like an appropriate moment to admit that while I am very familiar with the cast, plot, and some of the songs from Damn Yankees (which is based on this novel), I’ve never actually seen the play, movie, nor even listened to the phonographic records. However, the novel itself is perfectly enjoyable without theatrical or cinematic accoutrements.
Wild Seed by Octavia E. Butler (1980)
Immortal Anyanwu, blessed with the gift of shapeshifting thanks to mutated genes, is old and wise. She is not a person who would make a deal with a predatory entity out of misplaced greed or ambition. She makes her deal for the best reason of all: she has no choice.
Fellow mutant Doro is as immortal as Anyanwu and like her, his appearance is mutable. That is where the similarity ends. Doro is a body-hopper who consumes the minds of the people he possesses, savoring mutant minds above all. Anyanwu is the first fellow immortal Doro has ever met, too precious to eat. Too precious to Doro to be allowed freedom, when instead Doro can dangle in front of Anyanwu the possibility that by serving Doro, she might from time to time convince Doro to spare the fellow mutants already under Doro’s control.
Doro would argue that he gives as much as he takes, because by selectively breeding mutants as food, he increases both their numbers and the strength of their gifts. To say this is unconvincing from the perspective of his dinner entrées is an understatement.
Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge (2014)
The Crescent family enjoys material wealth, power, and status. None of these mundane qualities can restore to the family that which they lost in the Great War: Sebastian Crescent, whose wartime service ended quite suddenly and very permanently. Luckily for the Crescents, mundane resources are not the only resources on hand.
Fished out of the Grimmer millpond, Sebastian’s younger sister Triss Crescent struggles to recover from the trauma. Unclear precisely what happened down by the Grimmer, worried by her own inexplicable behavior since the mishap, Triss investigates. She is impeded by family members who have good reason to keep the truth from Triss. A dark bargain is being played out, and Triss is at its centre.
To be fair to the entities being bargained with, they are neither infernal nor malevolent. What they are is powerful and extremely literal minded. The human tendency to inexactitude is understandably tremendously annoying, particularly when the humans complain about being provided with exactly what they asked for. I think we have all been in the Fair Folk’s shoes.
We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry (2020)
The 1989 Danvers Falcons are to field hockey what the Washington Senators were to baseball. Each team member has their strengths but, lacking teamwork, the team’s results are consistent: abject humiliation at the sticks of every field hockey team they face.
Unlike Joe Boyd, no convenient Mr. Applegate appears to lure the teammates into an infernal contract. Unlike Joe Boyd, the Falcons don’t need one. They are perfectly capable of proactively seeking out and signing a contract with that dark patron known only as…Emilio. Success will be sweet. However, the teammates won’t like the price they’ve blindly agreed to.
Deals with the devil and possible loss of souls aside, this is a cheerful romp through a late 1980s the author seems to have enjoyed a lot more than I did. More importantly, it’s a comedy whose plot managed something increasingly rare: surprising me with its conclusion.
The Midnight Bargain by C. L. Polk (2020)
If Beatrice Clayborn was a man, she would be one of Chasland’s greatest magi. Beatrice is a woman, barred from using magic while she is young. The only socially sanctioned roles for her are wife and mother. Once she is too old to bear children, she might be permitted some small, pitiful magics…with an emphasis on “might.”
There exists a loophole. If Beatrice can “summon a greater spirit and propose the pact of the great bargain,” thus becoming a Magus of note, society will accept the fate accompli. Only very grudgingly, which is why the knowledge necessary to the summoning is carefully concealed from women like Beatrice. Not carefully enough. But more is needed: exploiting her discovery will require an entirely unexpected alliance.
The men of Chasland are not being sexist jerks—no, start again. The men of Chasland are not just being sexist jerks: there’s a serious and very real magical complication behind the rules about women’s magic. However, there are many ways to mitigate the issue. The solution the men used was the one that placed all of the costs on women, and none on men.
Infernal bargains are a very popular theme and no doubt you’ve read dozens of stories that you may well prefer. Tell us about them! Comments are, as ever, below.
In the words of fanfiction author Musty181, four-time Hugo finalist, prolific book reviewer, and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll “looks like a default mii with glasses.” His work has appeared in Interzone, Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis) and the 2021 and 2022 Aurora Award finalist Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by web person Adrienne L. Travis). His Patreon can be found here.