THE DEVILSCENT PROJECT II
– a review of Esscentual Alchemy’s three submissions for the Devilscent Project
It is an amazing thing to modify a novel as a perfume brief for submission to a group of very diverse perfumers, and then breathe in the results. How will your words be interpreted, what aspects of the story will surface, what genies were found and placed in those vials, what stories do they tell? Will it make any difference that the perfumer knows the whole story before she starts?
Amanda Feeley, the perfumer behind Esscentual Alchemy, is a musical, multi-talented, multitasking marvel who first came to my attention last summer, and since has become a staunch storm-in-a-port friend, the kind of friend you can email embarrassing questions when hit by an attack of existential angst at 4 AM. I’m thrilled and beyond flattered that when I contacted her to ask if she would like to participate in the Devilscent Project, she replied in less than five minutes…(capitals intentional)
“ARE YOU KIDDING????”
Amanda started with an advantage the other perfumers didn’t have – she knows Quantum Demonology from start to finish, (and inhaled the story in a retina-scorching three days, back when it was only a serial blog), knows my Devil well, knows something of the emotional landscapes the protagonist traverses in her diabolical heroine’s quest.
Neil Morris chose his darkly erotic facets, the ones the protagonist knows will be fatal and fatally irresistible, captured a great deal of that pulse bomb of testosterone and rock’n’roll, but Amanda’s three Devils are other creatures equally dangerous and equally fatal, and this unholy trinity has another agenda.
“That’s right,” said a voice I knew too well, “she understood the subtext of that deal your protagonist made with me – that she wasn’t the only one with nothing left to lose.”
Dev planted himself on the corner of my desk and dug into a beautifully green velvet bag for Amanda’s samples.
“Are you going to barge your way into every single review I write?” I was exasperated. “I hate to state the obvious, but I’m all out of chocolate.”
“Of course I am. It’s all about me anyway.” He squared his shoulders and sprayed one wrist with no. 1, dabbed an elbow with number 2, and sprayed the other wrist with number 3. “I know you’re out of chocolate. You even ate your secret gift stash.” He gave me a filthy look. “Never mind. We have a review to write.”
“We? That implies, so far as I know, more than one person squeezing out the words.” I sat back and crossed my arms over my chest.
“You make it sound as if writing is like wrestling a mangled tube of inspirational toothpaste,” said Dev and sniffed. “Every artist needs a muse.” He sniffed again, longer. The nostrils of a long Italian nose flared ever so slightly.
“Writing is like wrestling a mangled tube of inspirational toothpaste. Take it from me. And I picked you of all people as a muse because…why, precisely?” He and I had known each other for over two years by now, and I still couldn’t answer that question without sliding into suspect places no perfume blog should ever be read.
“You went looking for trouble, baby. I was the maximum amount of trouble you could find.” He lifted an eyebrow. “This…” he shook out one arm, “is yet another kind of trouble. And another side of me you took great pains to bury in the subtext of your story, submerged between the lines in the hopes that no one would find it, but Amanda did.” His grin slid in slow-motion from one end of his face to the other.
“Don’t tell me. You brought a shovel.” I snatched Devilscent vial no. 1 and sprayed a little on my arm, too.
“I don’t need one,” he growled. “I’m the Devil. I know everything about you.” He gave me another filthy look. “Listen. The protagonist gets all the attention, and the empathy, too. What about me? What’s to tell about the Devil, after all? He’s evil. The Guardian of negatives and nightmares, as simple as that. Except that nothing is ever that simple or that black and white. John Milton knew better. I certainly do. So did Amanda. Hush. I’m writing this review.”
This was news to me. “You are?” That surprised me. Usually, he popped up out of nowhere and inspired me, if it could be called that.
“Yes. That’s the price you pay for eating all the chocolate. Your job is to take dictation.”
I knew better than to argue. We had too many other things to argue about. “Yes, Master.”
“Back to our three Devils. They have a lot in common, in their base in particular, which is to say, they show three different facets to the story. These three…all have a very bitter, almost aggressive green thread. This is a green that bites you.” He sniffed Devilscent no. 1. “This is the Devil who can’t afford illusions any longer, least of all about himself – or humanity, come to that. The Devil who wants to use…like he always has when it suited his purpose.”
“Except…” I breathed.
“You’re getting ahead of yourself. As I said, this one is a bitter, green Devil. I don’t have a list of notes, so I can’t take it apart and let my nose go searching, but there’s a lot of labdanum here, except there’s nothing to soften it, this is an edgy, sharp labdanum, sharp with that green…what is it, do you think? Something almost mint-like? Maybe. Pine or spruce, no, cedar in there, too, I think. There’s frankincense, certainly…the cold boswellia serrata, and maybe that’s what gives it that ominous pulse, that supernatural tinge of…something tainted, something terrible, that…” Dev frowned for a moment and stared out into space, shifted on his perch on the edge of my desk. “ ‘That far-off hint of horror…’ ” He pulled a face. “Is it erotic? Yes, but not at all like Neil’s. This one isn’t so leathery, it doesn’t have that same hanky-spanky, D&S vibe. I can’t get over that green…it’s like nothing I’ve ever encountered before, an evil, complex, multi-layered green, a dangerous green, a green that breathes perdition…and is that a touch of myrrh? Something to sand down the edges, something that just…intimates at the other side of the story, the one I shouldn’t say too much about, or I’ll have one hell of a public relations nightmare on my hands.”
“You already do”, I muttered as I tapped on my keyboard. “Or you will, so I hope.”
“That’s the deal we made, remember?” He grinned again. “You’ll get there. Version number one will help not a little, too. If Amanda would market this as a masculine, she’d slay her customers. The contrast between that baritone top and that basso profondo base is amazing. There’s a lot of Sturm und Drang from the top notes to the base, a whole olfactory Beethoven symphony, and that’s a compliment.”
I knew I should have bought chocolate, if only to continue conversations such as this one, I thought with a pang. I needed a life. Or a lover. Not in that order.
“Devilscent number two…” drawled Dev undeterred, “is a different kind of entity. This guy is not so green and not so bitter, but even more dangerous. This is the Devil the protagonist grabs by his collar in the Crossroads Café before she can stop herself, this is closer to Neil’s rock’n’roll Devil, the one she breathes in even though she knows better, she’s been around the bend a few times but the woman can’t help it. It’s disturbing in a very strange way I can’t quite determine. There’s something almost floral in the mix somewhere, something to throw everything just slightly off-center and off balance, because it may start out sweetly enough, but this Devil has fangs underneath. It gets darker and much more bitter as it evolves. This is more….preternatural in its effect. It’s a lot harder to take apart than version one. Maybe not so much labdanum, but cistus, I think, and likely a touch of ambrette, too. Make that more than a touch. It’s distracting, it’s devious, a complete shapeshifter, it’s driving me crazy that I can’t quite pinpoint it.” He turned around and reached for my Devilscent materials kit on the bookcase, the two black boxes of essences and absolutes Ellen Covey had sent me, and dug around among the vials. “A smidge of tolu? Nah, not so sweet, patchouli…just a little, ambrette, yeah, hm…cinnamon leaf! That could be it, the drop that shifts it all and does strange and wondrous things. It’s familiar but it’s not. I know I’ve smelled it before. But never quite like this. I like those fangs, but I don’t think everyone will.”
He leaned back against my desk with a sigh. “Maybe you should write these reviews. I’m a guy. Supposedly, we have the olfactory abilities of wooly mammoths with head colds.”
“You’re doing a great job,” I said as I scrolled through the pages correcting my punctuation.
“Really?” That gave me the five-year-old grin I knew too well. “Keep talking, baby, and I might even forgive you for being out of chocolate.” He leaned forward and blew softly in my ear. “Maybe. If you’re very, very lucky.” His voice dropped down to a low, baritone growl.
Be still, my beating heart, be still.
In an instant the grin disappeared and he was all business.
“Devilscent number three…This one is the greenest of them all, a Big Bad Wolf of a green with very big teeth, but not like version one. This one is not quite as bitter to start but it still bites hard, no doubt about it. I suspect this is where Amanda really let rip and let her imagination fly. It strikes me as more complete, more rounded than versions one and two, not that they’re at all bad, but this…is something else. Version one got softer with the incense as it moved forward, but this one is a beast. And it stays a beast. This is one deadly earnest Devil in a so-bad-it’s-good way, a damn the consequences way. What am I smelling? That cedar/spruce/pine blast again, except now, the amp is cranked up to eleven. Frankincense, lots of frankincense, and I think more than one kind, and hello, labdanum! Hell, yeah! I’d buy this at the chink of a belt buckle. This will be instantly banned in all those Bible-belt states that forgot to ban Neil’s version, and all seven days of the week, too.”
He sniffed again. “Perdition. Temptation. A hint of something …bad, that taint of terror, but the protagonist won’t care, she can’t when she’s confronted with this, she’s rendered as helpless as a deer in the headlights, this has a do-me-meter that’s completely off the charts. The frankincense gets more prominent as it dries down, not that I mind. This…” Dev stated with finality and lifted up the little vial, “is my favorite. I’d wear it, just to…” another dangerous grin, “you know…mess with your head.”
“I bet that wouldn’t be all you did.” I knew where this was going.
“It’s all I can do, for now anyway.” He peeled himself off my desk and moved slightly away, eyeing me as I banged on my laptop. He pulled his shades out of his pocket, shrugged on his jacket. “Say thank you for me. Tell Amanda Feeley…she nailed it with number three. Tell her…” he thought for a moment, “that I’m glad she caught those facets in the story. I’m glad she chose to be a part of the Devilscent Project. Oh. One more thing.” On came the shades, along with the lupine grin. “I haven’t been to the Midwest in ages. Maybe I should…” He laughed and turned toward me, leaned forward and blew in my ear again.
“A word of advice, baby. Watch out for the sugarplums, dancing in air…”
And he disappeared, leaving only that bitter-green scent of perdition behind him.
Be still, my beating heart, be still.
Esscentual Alchemy’s perfumes are available from her website.
Original image: ‘The Emperor’ Tarot card from Zazzle.
With thanks to Amanda Feeley, and the ghost of Howlin’ Wolf, who supplied the soundtrack.