So the rundown is as follows: This is one of my favorite books. While it drags at the beginning, and some of the segments seem like they don't go anywhere, Daryl Gregory created a masterpiece of fiction, dealing with family, identity, and creating works. Buy this book, and if you haven't ever read it, seriously consider it, because chances are its much-deserved shelf space in the public consciousness is being taken up by something a lot less fun.
"At this moment, some teenage Japanese girl is pouring over a manga, a Hindu boy is praying Shiva to life. These sensitives are a little closer to the boundaries. Their grip on the consensual world is a little tenuous.”
“You mean they’re crazy.”
“Let’s not debate cause and effect. All we know is that when death comes for them, when the darkness calls, some of them do not go gentle. They refuse to be pulled in, and so they pull something back out.”
- Del and VALIS
Pandemonium by Daryl Gregory takes place in an alternate version of the US where people are "invaded" by fictional archetypes called "demons". These daemons cause their hosts to do things, from creating paintings to grabbing a trash can lid as a shield and engaging in vigilante-style justice, and everything in between. Del, the narrator of the work, was once possessed by The Hellion, the spirit of a mischievous child who played harmful, often dangerous pranks on people. When Del was ten, the Hellion mysteriously left, causing Del no amount of stress and emotional issues, as well as sparking a debate on whether it left him completely, or was just trapped in his head. Del is certain that with his own meditation and relaxation techniques, he'll be just fine. And he is, until a car crash on the way to visit his family shakes...something loose.
And then things get weird.
With The Hellion awake in his head, Del has to fight twice as hard to make it leave for good in a desperate search for clues and methods to gain control of his own body and mind once more. His search leads him to a bald exorcist nun, a paramilitary group intent on wiping out the demons' presence with severe body modifications, a convention full of possession fetishists and demonologists, and a re-examination of his own childhood. But with everyone looking to study him as some kind of "cure" for demons, and the Hellion fighting for control of his head, Del's answers may be far more dangerous than the questions have led him to believe.
The first thing I need to comment on about this book is the feel of it. The central story of the book-- Del's quest to define who he is and keep control over that definition-- is one with a lot of potential for heart and substance, and Gregory hits all of it. Del is a very human character, and the people around him react in very human ways. Emotion is a big part of how the book pulls you into it. We can identify with Del, and the underlying themes he's exploring are very personal themes that everyone deals with: Identity, family...hell, even self-control is a pretty big thing. So when Del runs from method to method, from escape to escape, we can relate, and it draws us further into the story. Del never feels distant, but no one else feels any less important that he does. They're all human, they're all trying to survive, and it works in the book's favor.
Adding to this is the atmosphere. Daryl Gregory is clearly influenced by Bradbury* and Philip K. Dick, to the point that a reference to Dick's VALIS** is actually a solid plot point in the narrative. He wears his points of reference on his sleeve, and it helps the narrative that he does. With the obvious points of reference, Gregory creates a kind of literary Kuleshov effect*** that, when combined with his impressive writing ability and habit of drawing us into the characters, allows us to get a feel for the work in a genre mainly known for its spectacle rather than its human elements. When elements are introduced that aren't of the atmosphere, it gives them a better sense of threat-- for example, the scene of anti-demon paramilitary commandos. And in the end, it is this combination of nostalgia, subtle menace, and more or less "commonplace" supernatural events that helps cement the book's sense of place. The setting is real because it feels real.
And finally, Gregory knows how to pull off a fantastic narrative convention. Everything moves when it's supposed to, the plot makes its twists and turns surprising but doesn't make them come out of nowhere, and they make sense. Also, in a time full of detachment and deconstruction, it's nice to have a story that's actually genuinely surprising. Few things actually make me sit up and take notice these days, and so a book that I can actually be surprised with, that I didn't guess the twists to, is something I have to cherish. Pandemonium is tightly plotted, and even when there are a few elements that take some time to get through, everything fits.
And it is there that I have to point out that not everything fits immediately very well. Some of the scenes don't really have any reason save to provide later context, and the book drags in these places. Also, a set piece near the end is a little incomprehensible, but overall, it makes sense in the later context. It's the sort of book where things are called back.
So overall, I highly recommend reading this book. Gregory is an amazing talent here (I still need to read his other two novels), and the meditations on identity, family, and all the rest are well thought-out. The book has a lot of heart, a lot of humanity, and twists you probably won't see coming unless you look very hard. This is one of my favorite books, and one I should definitely bring out more often, considering it falls under the "Who?!" section of books I talk about more often than not. In any case, read this. Enjoy this. I'm sure you will if you can find a copy. Buy this and give it to other people (Hey! Christmas is coming!). It's well worth the time.
- Anno Dracula by Kim Newman (and possibly the whole series)
- Brain Thief by Alexander Jablokov
- The best books I've read this year
- And as always, much more. Feels good to be back in review territory, right?
*The opening sequence? Tell me that isn't at least in part influenced by Bradbury, as well as some of the plot revolving around the magic of childhood.
**What other book would you expect to find a Divine Invasion in? Seriously?
***The Kuleshov Effect is when the audience makes mental leaps based on the images they're shown...it was proven by Lev Kuleshov, who spliced in an expressionless face between shots of things like a woman crying, a bowl of soup, and so on. The audience inferred the expressions despite them being devoid of implication.