Frances Wilson - September 23, 2008
Not only did the devil, as Blake observed, grab for himself the best lines of Paradise Lost, but by the 18th century he seems to have got into the top secret societies as well. No hell-raising libertine could join one of the thrillingly named Hell-Fire clubs unless Satan would have him as a member. The clubs, which appeared across the country like the mark of the beast, were rumoured to toast their diabolical leader and so confident were the Irish Hell-Fire members of the devil’s approval that they saved him a seat at their meetings. One night he did indeed join them, bursting forth from the body of a black cat and shooting up through the roof of the building. The Satan-shaped hole he left could be seen by all, but “this story”, Evelyn Lord tells us in her sober and sobering book, “is obviously apocryphal”.
The Hell-Fire clubs were, like the sphinx in Oscar Wilde’s story, societies without a secret. Were it not for the dubious stories that stuck to them as feathers will to tar — members, it was variously rumoured, indulged in blasphemy, rape, devil-worship, the occult, pornography, orgies and murder — there would be very little to say about them other than that they were flamboyant drinking societies whose purpose was to shock. They consisted of well-born rakes or “Rake Hells” with time to kill and money to lose, and they did nothing more scandalous to public morals, so Lord concludes, than question the established church. More interesting than what the Hell-Fire clubs got up to is what the public believed they got up to, and Lord is in the curious position of having to sex her subject down.
The Hell Fire Clubs: Sex, Satanism and Secret Societies