Study Guide

Demonology

by Rick Moody

Demonology Summary

Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“Demonology” consists of chronologically discontinuous fragments, many of which detail the last two days of Meredith’s life; the rest offer apparently random vignettes through which the narrator remembers his sister. The story begins with Meredith taking her children out trick-or-treating on Halloween, and initially, it appears to be a sympathetic portrait of a woman by her loving brother.

Various flashbacks show that Meredith comes from a reasonably well-off family and that she lived an exuberantly hedonistic life as a young woman. Members of both her immediate and extended family (including the unnamed narrator) have had problems with alcohol, but Meredith controlled her drinking, settled down, and become a devoted mother to her son and daughter. Meredith, who works hard at a lackluster job in a photo lab, enjoys amateur photography, and this passion is reflected in the story’s disjointed paragraphs, which resemble narrative snapshots. Through these snapshots, Meredith is revealed to be a spirited woman who once sold a camera to the British rock star Pete Townshend of the Who and made a point of telling him she was not a fan of his music.

Her brother, the narrator, does not mention until more than halfway through the story that Meredith has died. He meticulously describes her final moments, though it is evident that he was not present and is imagining what actually occurred. After returning from choir practice and tucking her children into bed, Meredith suffers a seizure, possibly an aneurysm, and collapses in her daughter’s bedroom. The remainder of the story describes in considerable detail the physiological changes that took place in Meredith’s body after her collapse and her family’s immediate response to the emergency and then concludes with the narrator self-consciously deliberating on the story’s inadequate narrative and compositional strategies in the face of his sister’s death.

Sources for Further Study

The Boston Globe, March 23, 2001, p. C9.

The Boston Herald, January 21, 2001, p. 068.

The Daily Telegraph, November 11, 2000, p. 12.

The Guardian, November 11, 2000, p. 12.

Los Angeles Times, February 21, 2001, p. E1.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, January 21, 2001, p. 06E.

The New York Times, February 15, 2001, p. E10.

The New York Times Book Review 106 (February 25, 2001): 12.

The Observer, October 29, 2000, p. 12.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, January 14, 2001, p. F10.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 28, 2001, p. F8.

Sunday Telegraph, November 19, 2001, p. 17.

Demonology Summary and Analysis (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Rick Moody is best known as the author of the novel The Ice Storm(1994), on which director Ang Lee based the major 1997 suburban family film of the same name. However, Moody has said that he purposely tries to defy categorization, writing his next book, a collection of stories and a novella entitled The Ring of Brightest Angels Around Heaven (1995), to defeat the “suburban writer” tag by purposely playing around with narrative devices and techniques. With this new collection of short stories, Moody moves even further away from the John Cheever type of fiction with which he was first identified, but in so doing, he perhaps has delimited himself even more narrowly as a postmodernist experimentalist.

The collection opens with “The Mansion on the Hill” and ends with the title story, both of which are narrated by men dealing with the death of a sister. Whereas the first—filled with social satire generated by a cynical authorial voice—is obviously fiction, the last is autobiographical. In “The Mansion on the Hill,” the sister is killed in a car crash on the eve of her wedding, after which her brother starts work for a wedding planning business, ultimately throwing his sister’s ashes over a wedding couple, because, he says, into every marriage some calamity must fall.

When the piece “Demonology” was first published, it was listed as a memoir. However, the following year, it was included in Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards for 1997. When asked to comment on the story for theO. Henry Award collection, Moody said there were few things he has written that he would rather talk about less than this. However, he once told an interviewer that he is always trying to muddy the surface of the nonfictional with fictional techniques by paying particular attention to form and structure. Thus, even writing a story about something that obviously affects him powerfully and personally, Moody, as in most of the stories in this collection, seems more motivated by interest in theoretical matters than personal feelings.

Yet, indeed, what makes “Demonology” the most affecting story in the collection are Moody’s efforts to transform a powerful personal experience into something that has universal significance. The title of the story stems from the fact that the sister’s death from arrhythmia takes place within the context of Halloween, her children dressed as demons and monsters, beating back the restless souls of the dead in search of sweets. This demon motif is repeated throughout the story, until ultimately the sister is transformed into a revenant that compels Moody to find a way to use language to communicate his grief. The story ends with Moody, in a common self-referential tactic, considering how he should have constructed his memoir, telling himself he probably should have fictionalized it more, for example, by conflating the sister’s two children into one and making her boyfriend a husband. He says he should have let artifice create an elegant surface for the story, thus making his sister’s death shapely and persuasive rather than blunt and disjunctive. However, it is precisely the blunt, barely restrained voice that makes the story so powerful.

Because Moody is a pupil of contemporary literary theory and other things postmodern (at one time, he was a student of the postmodernist writer par excellence of the late twentieth century, Robert Coover), he may be too intellectual and self-consciously experimental in the rest of the stories in Demonology. Most of them are either inspired by Moody’s study of contemporary literary theory or else seem written as self-conscious experiments in style and technique. For example, in “Wilkie Fahnstock: The Boxed Set,” Moody’s device is to tell the story of a thirty-three-year-old man primarily through sleeve notes for a boxed set of cassette tapes of all the songs that have meant something to him. The basic premise is that American culture from the 1960’s through the 1990’s, as embodied in one “undistinguished American,” can be structured in terms of the various styles of music, such as punk, grunge, funk, and so on, that have been popular. A similar technique is used in “Surplus Value Books: Catalogue Number 13,” in which the reader is given catalog descriptions of second-hand books as a way of understanding something about the mind of the bookseller. In typical, self-referential fashion, one of the books in the catalog is Moody’s own novel Garden State, described as a hard-to-find hardcover edition, signed, and priced at $325.

Many of the stories in Demonology were written to order,...

(The entire section is 1902 words.)