“The Mysterious Stranger,” closer in size to a novella, takes up more than half of the book. It is the real gem of this collection and for me, by far, the best piece here.
“The Mysterious Stranger” is a very odd story. Satan (or, at least his minion nephew, a surrogate dark angel as presented here) is more or less the hero; humankind and religion come in for a deserved blistering drubbing for the race’s cruelty, ignorance and hypocrisy. The story takes place in Austria in 1590; it’s told from the viewpoint of a boy (actually a grown man reminiscing), who along with his friends are dazzled by and befriended by Satan; they come to realize that Satan is more an observer and agent than a purposely malicious being – sort of the way predators are in the wild. It is only man who preaches morality and in the same breath commits malicious, sadistic cruelty with relish.
Morality, ostensibly good, brings with it judgment – and from that rationalizing all manner of righteous brutality. Those with the “moral sense” (humans) are seen as less than beasts, because beasts do not judge.
I was perplexed a bit by a writerly conundrum raised by the piece, and that’s that witchcraft is sort of mocked as bogus (and Satan, nee Twain, mocks the torturers of witches), and yet Satan is, in fact, practicing withcraft through the whole village, materializing riches and changing people’s fates. There is obviously metaphysical intervention going on, so the townspeople actually have some basis for their belief, even though they really don’t know it. Or there are those who do, but chose to deny it when money comes their way. It seems religion takes a back seat when cash enters the picture. Evil being the source matters not to those profiting.
The story has all the satirical strengths of Twain at his best, masterful storytelling chops and some truly weird and wonderful fantasy conceits — interwoven with perhaps pedantic, but very powerfully stated arguments about the pettiness of humanity.