Del Rey trade paperback - 283 pages
Cover art by Greg Ruth
Book reviewed September 2008
Rating: 8/10 (Highly Recommended)
Review by Aaron Hughes
Interview with author Daryl Gregory
Since at least the 1940's, people have randomly been possessed by "demons," which seem to reflect some aspect of society's collective unconscious. Despite the name, none of the demons will remind you of Linda Blair; rather, they are a mad mix of comic-bookish superheroes such as "the Captain," clearly inspired by Captain America, and beings straight out of the imaginations of Philip K. Dick and H.P. Lovecraft. Some of the demons are merely mischievous but some are deadly, including "the Truth," who strongly disapproves of dishonesty, a point he emphasizes with a .45 automatic, and "the Little Angel," who seeks out the elderly and people in pain and gives them a kiss that ends their pain permanently. The demons are opposed by a far-reaching secret society (who take A.E. van Vogt's novel Slan as literal truth), studied by scientists absurdly overconfident of their ability to explain the phenomenon, and celebrated by legions of costumed fanboys.
And even if none of that catches your interest, you can read Pandemonium just to see how many palindromes you can spot, or to learn the answer to the age-old question: Why does Sinead O'Connor shave her head?
What, you may well ask, does Sinead O'Connor have to do with Captain America and H.P. Lovecraft? Early in Pandemonium Daryl Gregory lets his readers know what's afoot, when his characters listen to some mash-ups, mixes of music cramming together an odd blend of many different artists and styles. In this novel, Daryl Gregory is having a great time creating a literary mash-up, freely tossing into the story anything and anyone he feels like writing about.
The danger with this kitchen sink sort of storytelling is that it can spin out of control and end up feeling random and pointless. Thankfully, in Pandemonium Gregory holds the reins just tightly enough that the plot remains coherent and the disparate story elements always circle back to build on the novel's primary themes. The result is a successful mixture, or rather mash-up, of free-wheeling fun and thought-provoking ideas.
The first-person protagonist of Pandemonium is Del Pierce. Growing up in the 1980's, Del suffered through years of maladjustment and recurring tantrums, which he attributes to possession by the Hellion, a demon likened to Dennis the Menace or the Katzenjammer Kids. Del was eventually able to overcome this possession through a combination of professional therapy and a lot of patience by his brother and well-meaning if somewhat domineering mother - whom adult Del now believably regards with a blend of reverence and resentment.
As an aside, it is a minor nitpick of mine that Pandemonium never clearly sets out the ground rules of possession by demons. The possessions that occur onstage are generally brief, and it is not clear just how unusual Del's prolonged experiences with demons are. Early on we learn that Philip K. Dick has been possessed by the godlike demon Valis for many years, but scientists (unaware that Dick should have died in 1982) disagree as to whether Valis is an authentic demon or merely a manifestation of Dick's own peculiar delusions.
Del has never quite put his childhood episode with the Hellion behind him, in part because he is repeatedly a witness to other possessions - apparently demons are drawn to the victims of past possessions. In the opening scene of Pandemonium, Del is there to see a stranger in an airport possessed by the demon called the Painter, who promptly uses popcorn and assorted refuse to reproduce the pastoral cover image of Pandemonium on the floor of the terminal. Del's tendency to run across demons gives Gregory the chance to show us several of them up close, and he supplements that with "demonology" passages recounting notable past appearances of several demons.
To make matters worse for Del, he has recently been in a car accident and since then has felt a foreign presence in his mind straining to get out. He begins to suspect that he never really chased away the Hellion, but somehow trapped it in his mind. Without giving too much away, I can tell you that Del has not fully understood the situation, and the truth when revealed is both shocking and fascinating.
Hoping to rid himself of any lingering demonic influence, Del seeks the aid first of a leading demon researcher, then an exorcist called Mother Mariette, whose real name is Siobhan (pronounced Shavawn) O'Connell and who bears a striking resemblance to a certain fuzzy-headed Irish singer. In this universe, O'Connell was sidetracked by demons and never became a musician. O'Connell has a big heart but is every bit as prickly as the real Sinead O'Connor is reported to be; her aggressive 'tude makes a good foil for Del's earnestness. Their efforts to understand and correct Del's condition lead them on a tour through middle America, where they will have run-ins with a whole cohort of demons.
(Incidentally, I hope Gregory does not get any grief for basing the O'Connell character on a real person. I remember some folks criticizing Geoff Ryman for reinventing an actual person's life in his outstanding story "Pol Pot's Beautiful Daughter". But then, I suppose Pol Pot never did anything quite so unforgivable as tearing up a picture of the Pope.)
As an adult whose life has been affected by his childhood possession, Del's story required that possessions have been going on for many years. Thus, Gregory tells the novel as an alternate history, but as in Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union the alternate history is not the focus of the novel, but rather is used as an interesting backdrop. While there are some amusing tidbits peppered through the narrative - such as how Richard Nixon's presidency and the O.J. Simpson trial were dramatically altered by run-ins with the demons - you should not expect a carefully outlined and detailed alternate timeline.
The alternate history backdrop allows Gregory to put demons into a setting very close to the present day. This near-real-world setting should make Pandemonium easily accessible to non-genre readers. At the same time, Pandemonium verges on being a recursive novel, loaded with references only a science fiction fan would appreciate, such as Philip K. Dick's possession by Valis and the similarity between the DemoniCon convention of demon fans and SF cons in our world. Gregory is having his cake and eating it too, and he pulls it off surprisingly well.
The madcap story elements of Pandemonium work because they are always presented in conjunction with, not as a substitute for, Daryl Gregory's skillful writing. It begins with excellent dialogue, consistently both clever and revealing of the characters' complex personalities. For example, the dialogue in the first chapter immediately establishes the relationship Del has with his brother Lew, his sister-in-law Amra, and even his mother, who is offstage:
"So what have you been doing with yourself?" Lew asked. "You don't call, you don't write, you don't send flowers..."
"We missed you at Christmas," Amra said.
"See, Lew? From Amra, that actually means she missed me at Christmas. From you or Mom that would have meant 'How could you let us down like that?' "
"Then she said it wrong."
Gregory has a knack for inventive metaphors and similes that make for amusing reading and also concisely convey a particular image. A chapter where Del and O'Connell drive through the Midwest begins, "Kansas had the purity of a sixth-grade math problem, an exercise in scale and stark geometry." When Del arrives at his mother's home he finds, "Dinner had been waiting since 1985. The meal was straight out of my childhood..."
Pandemonium is Daryl Gregory's first novel, but it explores in greater depth some of the themes of his outstanding short fiction. In particular, Del shares the problem of the main character in Gregory's award-winning story "Second Person, Present Tense", his body seems to be occupied by two distinct personalities and he has lost his grip on his own identity. As the story progresses, Del comes to realize that O'Connell is just as conflicted, and wonders if his predicament is not as unusual as he thought:
Del's identity crisis is the foundation of the story arc of Pandemonium. His attempt to come to grips with who he is takes some unexpected turns, on the way to an emotionally powerful resolution. Pandemonium also elaborates on the central concern of Gregory's "Unpossible" and "The Continuing Adventures of Rocket Boy": what is the purpose of telling fantastic stories? Gregory offers no pat answers, but one thing that comes through in Pandemonium is that these archetypal, comic book sort of heroes have become anachronistic. The capes and spandex are hopelessly out of place in the modern day, just like the stack of old comics and pulp magazines Del discovers late in the novel. These old gems remain of interest only out of nostalgia; the stories no longer convey the sense of wonder they were meant to. Pandemonium seems in part a clarion call for today's writers to find 21st Century ways to wow readers the way Action Comics and Black Mask once did. As it happens, Daryl Gregory is one of a new generation of writers with the talent to do it.She didn't know who the hell she was, kick-ass exorcist or shell-shocked possession survivor. Maybe everyone in the world was this inconsistent, this fragmented. All we could see of each other - all we could see of ourselves - was a ragged person-shaped outline, a game of connect-the-dots with not enough dots.
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|Copyright © 2008 Aaron Hughes|