If both Hoffmann and Akutagawa intend to instil horror in their readers, the approach of Isaac Bashevis Singer in The Last Demon is more satirical, as we can tell from the opening lines:
“I, a demon, bear witness that there are no more demons left. Why demons, when man himself is a demon?”
The story concerns a demon who has been sent from Lublin to Tishevitz, in his own words, “a godforsaken village; Adam didn’t even stop to pee there.” He bemoans the fact that, as a demon, he feels increasingly redundant:
“It has reached the point where people want to sin beyond their capacities. They martyr themselves from the most trivial of sins. If that’s the way it is, what are we needed for?”
However, he meets a local imp who tells him of an incorruptible young rabbi – “You might as well try to break through an iron wall.” The demon determines to corrupt the rabbi, having been promised a transfer to Odessa if he succeeds:
“It’s as near paradise as our kind gets. You can sleep twenty-four hours a day. The population sins and you don’t lift a finger.”
The remainder of the story concerns the demon’s attempt to tempt the rabbi, until, that is, its comic tone takes a sudden shift at the end. The demon, stuck for eternity in Tishevitz, laments the destruction of its Jewish population:
“The community was slaughtered, the holy books burned, the cemetery desecrated… There is no further need for demons.”
What seemed like an amusing satire becomes something much fiercer and sadder.
This volume also contains the short story ‘Yentl the Yeshiva Boy,’ a revelation for anyone like me who associates Yentl entirely with Barbara Streisand. This story is, indeed, the original inspiration for the film (though via a play), but I can only hope that some parts (“Anshel [Yentl] had found a way to deflower the bride”) did not make it to the screen. A third story, ‘The Cafeteria.’ convinces that there is a compelling strangeness about Singer’s tales.