I’m going to say something that sounds unkind, but really it’s a compliment from me: for a long time now I’ve kind of thought of Daryl Gregory as something of a poor man’s Sean Stewart. I must first admit that this happened before I actually read any of his books (this one is my first), and was based on what I could glean of them from the jacket blurbs and comments/reviews. It probably also comes from the fact that I once ran across a posting made by Gregory on a message board or blog somewhere where he bemoaned the fact that Sean Stewart was no longer writing and wished that he could still look forward to more books by him (a desire which I have ardently shared ever since Stewart decided to move on from writing into online game design) and so I thought maybe he was taking the bull by the horns and writing his own in the Stewart mould.
I then started looking a bit more closely at Gregory’s books, of which I had been only peripherally aware, and noticed that hey, they really did seem to cover similar thematic and conceptual areas: both men wrote what I suppose would be classified as ‘urban fantasy’ (though I hate the tag and don’t tend to gravitate towards the stuff that normally ends up in that bin); both seemed to centre on a very ‘realist’ approach to character and setting with the major caveat that their worlds were impacted by one major ‘speculative’ element (whether it be magical or ‘scientific’) that introduced the bizarre into our mundane world; both seemed to be concerned not so much with stories about world-shaking battles or larger than life figures as much as about how the significant changes in their worlds impacted the lives of ‘regular’ people: how they struggled to maintain normalcy in the midst of chaos and confusion. Still I had never quite mustered up the desire to pick up one of his books for one reason or another until now. Maybe I was afraid of being disappointed. So how did this one go? In a nutshell I enjoyed it, but I wasn’t blown away.
Gregory’s world-bending conceit in Pandemonium is certainly interesting: demonic possession is real, but these demons aren’t satanic minions from Hell (or at least we aren’t sure of that — no one quite knows where they come from), but are instead more like semi-Jungian archetypes from the collective unconscious. They are monomaniacal entities obsessed with fulfilling some particular role or action: it might be the Painter who forces the possessed to depict the same picture or set of pictures over and over again in whatever medium happens to be handy whether it be paint, chalk, or the destroyed pieces of a popcorn machine; it might be the Captain, a shield-slinging hero who tends to manifest when people, especially soldiers, are in danger; perhaps it’s the Truth, a much darker ‘hero’ who guns down anyone whose lies have offended his fine sensibilities; or maybe the Hellion, a Dennis the Menace-like nuisance whose antics just might literally make you lose an eye.
The victims of possession don’t remember what happened while their body was being controlled from without, and many don’t survive the experience. Our hero is Del Pierce, a man who has been drifting through life as little better than a loser, unable to hold down a regular job or maintain normal relationships ever since he was possessed by the Hellion as a little boy. For many years he has been able to keep the voices in his head at bay, but recently something has been scratching at the back of his mind and he is returning home from a short stay in a mental institution, nearly broke and grasping at his last straws, in the hopes that he will be able to deal with his demons, whether real or imagined, once and for all.
Del is quickly plunged into the bizarre world of ICOP, the international conference of academics and scientists who study the demons: each with their own, usually contradictory, theory of what is happening and how it might be fixed… and none of whom have managed to achieve any conclusive result. That is, of course, except for Dr. Ram, a rising star in the world of demonology whose new controversial theories just might give Del a chance at truly living a normal life. Paired with ICOP is the other side of the coin: the unsanctioned ‘conference’ DemoniCon: a mass of cosplaying demon-aficionados each of whom yearns for the ‘glamour’ of being possessed and many of whom see the demons not as a bane on human existence, but as a gift to be reveled in. Now all Del has to do is convince Dr. Ram that he is not one of these looney ‘demon groupies’ and that he is, in fact, the only person who has been able to do the impossible: to trap the demonic entity of his possession within the bowels of his mind.
Gregory populates Pandemonium with an interesting and varied cast of characters, from Del Pierce, the tortured possession survivor, and his long-suffering brother and mother who have tried to help him deal with his broken life, to the sardonic exorcist-priest Mother Mariette (an obvious direct homage to Sinead O’Connor), and many of the other oddball figures that populate both ICOP and DemoniCon (including a direct analogue to Philip K. Dick and his AI construct/demon VALIS). Despite many of the outlandish things that happen and entities that populate this world, it was always believable because it was grounded in these characters who really did feel like real, multifaceted individuals. Gregory also manages to keep the plot moving at a good pace, with enough twists and turns to keep me interested. and wraps it all up with a satisfying resolution.
So what more did I want? I don’t know that I could say anything was really missing. It was a fine book that simply didn’t quite blow me away. Maybe it was just a ‘first novel’ thing. I’ll certainly pick up another one of Gregory’s books and see how he tackles his next foray into the real world turned upside down.