Pandemonium, Daryl Gregory

Am I just reading a lot of good speculative fiction lately, or is speculative fiction being extra awesome recently?

The beginning: Pandemonium has a killer premise in a lot of ways. First, the basic premise baldly stated — a world exactly like ours except that starting in the 1940s/1950s, random acts of demonic possession started happening — is awesome. Second, the particulars of the premise — there are only about 100 known demons, who possess people for brief periods of time (a few minutes to a few days, usually), act out fairly consistent scenes, and then jump to another victim — is awesome. Third, the dilemma the protagonist (a one-time victim of possession) has is awesomely horrible. It’s so awesomely horrible that I’m going to need to quote it directly.

When I was a teenager I had a swimming accident, and after that I started hearing the noises. That’s what I called them, anyway, what everyone in my family called them. But they weren’t exactly sounds. I didn’t hear voices, or humming, or music, or screams. It was more physical than that. I felt movement, vibration, like the scrape of a chair across the floor, a fist pounding against a table. It felt like someone rattling a cage in my mind. …Every few minutes, I felt a lurch and a flurry of clawed scrabbling, like a raccoon in a cardboard box.

Not recommended: Reading a passage like this before you go to sleep at night. I am hella suggestible, and I ended up with a pounding headache. And anxious thoughts about what I would do if a maybe-demon was living all up in my head. I waited until morning to read the end because I was afraid it would be too scary.

The end (spoilers in this section only; skip down to “the whole” if you don’t want to know): OH SHIT this is so great. I have a goofy grin all over my face from what the ending revealed to me. Anastasia says she figured this out before the characters, so maybe it’s not as much fun if you’ve had time to think about it. But speaking as someone who’s coming from the first couple of chapters, this is an excellent reveal: Del was never a boy trying to keep a demon contained; he was a demon trying to keep a boy contained. The scratching in his head is little human Del trying to get out. HOW CREEPY IS THAT?

The whole: No wonder Daryl Gregory won a Shirley Jackson Award. If there is one thing Shirley Jackson would have thought of but just didn’t get to in time, it’s having a something inside your head scritch-scritch-scritching at your brain box trying to get out. I finished this book a couple of days ago and that idea still sends shivers up my spine.

(Shirley Jackson wouldn’t have tried to explain the demons though. Shirley Jackson strikes me as the sort of person who would think demonic possession was what we should have expected all along anyway, in the same spirit as when you go to the store desperately trying to buy sugar so you can make a damn last-minute birthday cake for your friend whose birthday you’re trying to pretend you didn’t forget, but then of course the damn store is all out of damn sugar because of course it is.)

In more reasoned analysis, Pandemonium is a first novel with some first-novel flaws. The premise is so fantastically creepy that attempts to explain how the possessions work and what might be causing them fall flat. Gregory rescues it at the end, moooooostly, from feeling too X-Files-y (I’m speculating; I have watched very little X-Files), and the very ending, the final chapter, is quite strong.

Mainly, the book is fun, and specific in a way that keeps catching you off guard: The first demonic possession you witness is a demon called the Painter, who uses the body he’s possessing to make a picture on the floor of the airport. Science fiction writer Philip Dick shows up at the demonology conference, alive and well and pretending (?) to be possessed by a demon called Valis. It’s fun. I can’t wait to read another book by this author.

Thanks, Anastasia, for recommending this! See, I wasn’t lying! I did promptly check it out and read it! (Well, promptlyish.)

Happy St. Patrick’s Day, everyone! This is sort of an apt post for St. Patrick’s Day, right? He didn’t cast out demons but he did cast out all the snakes from Ireland, which is sort of like demons! I’m not wearing green today because I own almost nothing that’s green. Hopefully nobody will pinch me. That is annoying.

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