REVIEW SUMMARY: A combination wacky pop-culture alt-history and moving portrait of mental illness
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Del has to try to understand the demons that are possessing him and plaguing the world.
PROS: An excellent integration of fun, plot, and emotion.
CONS: Some of the fun may be padding.
BOTTOM LINE: An excellent effort by an already polished author.
Pandemonium may be Daryl Gregory’s first novel, but it’s not the work of a novice. He is already a stand-out short story writer–his 2006 story “Second Person, Present Tense” won the Asimov’s reader poll that year and was shortlisted for the Sturgeon and Locus awards. Since then “Unpossible,” “Dead Horse Point,” and “Damascus” have graced the pages of several “Year’s Best” anthologies. His writing is conceptually brilliant and very personal–qualities that also inform this novel.
It takes place in the current day, but in a skewed world. In the world of the story, people may find themselves randomly possessed by “demons.” While under “possession,” they act out the traits of whichever demon has control: the Painter finds ways to create the same artwork over and over, the Hellion possesses young children and acts like a Denis the Menace on steroids, Kamikaze hijacks planes and crashes them, Smokestack Johnny commandeers railroad trains. Most people are never possessed, and some only once, while others appear to be magnets, attracting the “demons” over and over.
So why the quote marks around “demon” and “possession?” Because in this analog of our world, not everyone believes in other-worldly entities. Scientists seek secular explanations: environmental and genetic factors, neurological disorders, what have you. The narrator though, Del, he knows better. Possessed by the Hellion as a young child, he never really got over it. An adult now, he’s never totally gotten his act together. He stumbled through high school, majored in graphic design in college, landed a series of minimal-paying jobs. Compared to his brother–who went to college, got a computer degree, got a real job, moved up the ladder, got married, and is living the good life–compared to that Del knows that he’s a loser. Now things are getting even worse. Not stable at the best of times, he feels like there’s something in his head, something trying to get out. It even takes control while he’s asleep–he chains himself to his bed at night. Under these circumstances he loses even his crappy job and is running out of money and sanity. He heads back home, to Chicago. He knows his mother will help him, and his brother too. He underwent therapy after his initial possession, but suspects that it won’t help much this time. First he pins his hopes on a neurological researcher who may have found the brain area affected during possessions; next he looks to a Catholic priest/former possession victim who has had some luck “exorcising” the demons. Finally he starts tracking down a possible origin of the demons themselves. Through it all Del throws himself on the mercy of his loved ones and acquaintances alike, traumatizing many of them even as they’re trying to help him.
Del’s story follows the model of mental illness. Many families have members suffering from various degrees of mental illness. The experiences follow the same patterns: the sufferer is never quite normal, they can never exactly get it together. They go through cycles, gaining independence, failing and succeeding in turns. Often they have to fall back on family for help; almost as often they lash out at their loved ones. Nothing seems to ever permanently “get better,” and it’s hard to know how best to help them. Del’s family–his mom, brother, and sister-in-law–do the best they can, sticking with him through his quixotic quests and letting him go when he needs to (particularly hard for a mother). Gregory does a particularly good job drawing the relationship between Del and his brother; they are loving and surface-level casual, but there’s a constant undercurrent of tension. I especially appreciate the way that you feel that Del’s mother, brother, and others have independent lives outside of Del’s drama–lives they’d like to get back to, but are on hold for a moment. It’s a particularly good portrait of the sort of human condition less often addressed in genre lit: even when mental illness/difference is the trope (of which there are nigh-unto-infinite examples) stories often fail to address the impact on families.
Much of Gregory’s short fiction deals with altered mental states: “Second Person” tells of a person who believes that they are a completely different individual now than they were in the past, taking a different name and everything. This is rough on the parents of a 15 year old girl who doesn’t look any different from she did before. “Dead Horse Point” shows the strain on two people trying to support a scientific genius. The genius is a great person when she’s “here,” but to gain her insights she spends time “away,” in a sort of fugue state during which she’s helpless. The time in the fugue state starts to dominate her life, and her brother and friend have to figure out how to handle it, year after year. “Damascus” imagines religious conversion experiences as a sort of transmissible mental virus, and pictures the communities that grow up amongst fellow-travelers. That one is particularly powerful, especially in its depiction of a community of women.
I realize that I may be making Gregory’s oeuvre, and this book in particular, sound like a huge downer; it isn’t! At its core Pandemonium is a puzzle story: what the hell are these demons, where did they come from, and what do they want? What is the thing inside Del’s head? On the way to finding the answers, Gregory runs through a huge number of pop culture references and fandom in-jokes. Consider that around the annual academic conference on possession topics there convenes an unsanctioned convention of fringe groups and demon groupies called DemoniCon–at which Del meets any number of mighty familiar faces. Possibly the biggest name is a Philip K. Dick who did not die in this universe; here he claims to have been permanently possessed by an entity going by the monicker “VALIS.” How’s that for a Tuckerization? Likewise, when trying to track down the ex-Catholic priest, Del and his brother stay in a run-down small town motel straight out of X-Files or a Sci-Fi Original monster movie–it even has a lake-dwelling man-fish that “protects” the area (the “Shu’garath”). There’s plenty here to keep the reader, whether die-hard Fan or casual pop-culture aficionado, entertained.
Eventually we do find out the answers, and they are satisfying. But going back to the mental illness subtext, Gregory wisely forgoes a wish-fulfillment ending. Although things change for Del, they don’t get easier. He and his family will still have to work out how to help him, one day at a time. There’s a momentary pang when we realize that things can’t all be “fixed,” that we can’t just wave a magic wand and make things turn out OK for everyone. However, it’s a much more authentic ending this way. I’m already looking forward to his next book, to see what else he’ll find to say about these issues and others. I know, whatever it is, it will be worth reading.