Del Rey, 2008, 288 pages, C$15.00 tpb, ISBN 978-0-345-50116-5
Since I read current novels more readily than short stories, it’s rare that I will pay attention to authors before their first novels. But Daryl Gregory was an exception, thanks to “Second Person, Present Tense”, an astonishingly good story reprinted in the Hartwell/Cramer anthology Year’s Best SF 11. On the strength of that story alone, Gregory’s first novel was worth waiting for. Fortunately, he doesn’t disappoint.
A mash-up of genres and influences, Pandemonium is best described as a contemporary fantasy taking place in a parallel universe where people can be “possessed” by archetypes. After World War Two, instances of people acting strangely -often exhibiting abilities outside their knowledge- have multiplied, spawning research, fear, catastrophic events and a lot of curiosity. No one quite know how or why those possessions occur, but even the most skeptical have a hard time denying their existence.
Our narrator, Del Pierce, has a closer relationship to those entities than most. As a child, he was possessed by “The Hellion”, a Dennis-the-Menace archetype whose influence had real consequences. A childhood exorcism drove the demon out, but following a car crash, it seems that it’s trying to come back… and that’s not counting the wink that Del gets from another possessed person in the first chapter. Deadbeat, unable to hold on to relationships, severely emotionally afflicted, Del may not be much of a winner but there’s no denying his character.
Looking for clues and a way to get rid of his entity, Del travels to a convention of possession specialists, stalks an expert, partners with a somewhat wrathful nun and makes his way in America’s Midwest to find the origins of his problems. Thanks to a few twists that occasionally echo “Second Person, Present Tense”, it’s a more complex journey than you’d expect. The ending isn’t entirely happy.
There are a lot of things to like about Pandemonium, but the accessibility of the story is perhaps the most obvious of them. Despite the scope of the changes in that world, Gregory manages to introduce the premise smoothly, allowing us to understand the world and how it differs from ours. The telling of the tale is generally straightforward, except for the intentionally shocking twist midway through. The characters are well-sketched, and the prose is easy to read.
There are also a few memorable details. A description of a possession convention recalls a number of SF conventions, and the cameo by Philip K. Dick (himself possessed by Valis, a possession that seems to have had a beneficial effect on the writer) is only the most obvious of the unobtrusive in-jokes that pepper the novel. Gregory has a good handle on pop culture, and Pandemonium doesn’t have to scratch deep to find interesting things to say about our collective imaginary landscape.
If the novel falters a bit, it’s in building a credible alternate history for the universe. Despite significant differences between history of the world (including a rather different fate for Richard Nixon), many pop references remain the same, along with historical event such as the O.J. Simpson trial (although it, too, ends differently). To be fair, the balance between a recognizably similar universe and the changes flowing from fifty years of possessions was nearly impossible anyway: Too much in fantasy and the novel loses its relevance, while too much in realism and the entire thing loses its appeal.
But if you avoid looking too closely at the historical aspects, Pandemonium is a strong first novel, a perfectly satisfying read and a promising step up for Gregory. If you haven’t registered his name after “Second Person, Present Tense” and his other short stories, it’s time to stand up and take notice.