In Pandemonium, Daryl Gregory's snappy and clever debut novel, demon possession is a way of life in America—and has been since the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. However, "the modern possession epidemic" (p. 205) that besets Gregory's engaging characters initially made its mark in 1944, when the Captain, the demon who possesses soldiers, first appeared. Subsequent sightings of the demon-characters known as the Kamikaze and the Truth occurred; and, by 1949, the Boy Marvel, the Little Angel, the Hellion, and Smokestack Johnny had all preyed upon human victims. Demons are single entities; each demon only possesses one individual at any one time. Possession is a random act. No one is immune.
In 1955, while President Dwight D. Eisenhower was enjoying an afternoon of golf, a plane piloted by a man with a white scarf tied around his forehead crashed into the golf course. Eisenhower was struck by shrapnel and suffered a heart attack; he died the next morning. The collision was the work of the Kamikaze, the demon who possesses Japanese men and compels them to nosedive planes and kill innocents on the ground. In Los Angeles, in 1995, as O.J. Simpson stood in a courtroom to hear the jury's verdict in his murder trial, a janitor dressed in a black trench coat and wide-brimmed fedora and brandishing two silver pistols shot an officer to gain entrance to the courtroom. Once inside, chaos erupted, gunshots roared, punches were thrown, and bodies plummeted to the floor. It was the Truth, the demon who seeks out and punishes liars, who'd possessed the janitor's body. The Truth set his sights on Simpson, and the two stood face-to-face. "O.J. Simpson, forty-eight years old, and one of the greatest rushers in collegiate and NFL history, did not run" (p.102).
And as the novel opens, at Chicago's O'Hare Airport, Del Pierce, a 20-something slacker with a graphic arts degree and no job, witnesses a possession. The demon identified as the Painter is crafting his requisite farmhouse scene out of the materials at hand: broken glass and plastic; ripped wrappers from junk food and candy; and pulverized popcorn. To Del, the Painter's picture seems somewhat familiar; there is a hint of recognition. The Painter winks at Del "conspiratorially" (p. 4), and the "scraping sensation" (p. 3) wrestling in Del's head, which had been undisturbed all morning, rouses up again.
These noises in Del's head are not new—and in fact, they're not really noises at all. "[T]hey weren't exactly sounds," Del explains. "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" (pp. 11-12). There is indeed a cage in Del's mind, and the demon known as the Hellion—who possessed Del when he was five years old—has been kept captive there. Del's certainty that the demon has "set up house in [his] soul" (p. 132) is fueled by the fact that confirmed sightings of the Hellion have been scarce for the past 20 years or more. Del's been able to keep the Hellion's "thumps" (p.21) under control since their first breakthrough when he was in high school, but a recent car accident has triggered the return of the "scrabbling" (p.12) in his head. He's losing control of the "wordless whisper that stitched and scraped inside [his] skull" (p.21). It's becoming stronger and more insistent. To Del, it feels as if the Hellion, the "eternal prankster" (p. 40) who possesses boys and transforms them into "scampering brats with Woody Woodpecker laughs" (p. 40), wants loose from his cage, and Del isn't sure he's strong enough to stop the escape.
The idea that the Hellion has remained inside Del runs contrary to the accepted pattern of possession. Demons jump from body to body to body in bursts, moving according to "their own free will" (p.129) and to their next victims whenever they want to "play out the next episode" (p.129) in their unknowable plan of events. And once a demon occupies a body, there is no way to force it out. They cannot be overpowered or killed, but they can be persuaded to "go somewhere else. To someone else" (p.128).
You couldn't reason with them, argue with them. They weren't people, they were archetypes—two-dimensional characters acting out a familiar, ever-repeating script. Their goals were always the same, their methods predictable. The hosts changed, the specifics changed, but the story was always the same. ... The key was to learn the story, then subvert it. (pp. 129-130)
Subversion, persuasion, whatever the method might be to rid oneself of a demon, Del is convinced that none of them will work for him. He researches various treatments and discovers the clinical trials of neurologist Dr. Sunil Ram, who has determined that portions of the temporal lobe are activated during possession and that possession may be a physiological disorder of brain function. If Dr. Ram is correct—Del reasons—then disabling parts of the brain might purge the Hellion from Del's mind and free him from possession. Del seeks all sources for aid, and he pursues Dr. Ram.
Understanding demon possession, and then perchance finding a cure, has in this alternate world preoccupied the minds of researchers, scientists, psychiatrists, and theorists throughout the ages. Some posit that there exists a "biological trigger" (p.27) to possession, something "viral, or genetic, or bacteriological ... something in the environment" (p. 27), which could possibly be controlled by some type of inoculation. The Jungians, a group of psychotherapists who interpret possession through psychiatrist Carl Jung's theory of archetypes and the collective unconscious, have evidence that "archetypes [have] been seizing human minds since prehistory" (p. 205) and believe that their research will one day reveal possession's meaning and motivation. The Rapturists view possession as prophecy, an omen of the end of days: "Armageddon was being waged now, between angels and demons, with human bodies as the battlefield" (p.56). And then there is the "Human League" (p. 107), an organization that follows the science fiction writings of A. E. Van Vogt—in particular his 1946 novel Slan. Human Leaguers deem that "powerful telepaths are secretly in charge of the planet ... and they're possessing people for their own entertainment" (p. 106); and that Van Vogt "used the word 'slan' as a code for what popular culture has mislabeled demons" (p.152). Regardless of all manner of conjecture, however, it is clear: possession inflicts chaos on the lives of those who are inexplicably possessed—trauma and bruised psyches are left in its wake.
These competing theories are a deft storytelling move, giving Gregory's novel a sense of profundity and creating a space within which readers can ponder the implications of demon possession and debate humanistic principles. If it is discovered that there's a "genetic predisposition" (p.27) that explains why some fall prey to possession and some do not, should society treat those who carry the "demon gene" any differently than those who are gene-free? Is there some kind of higher power responsible for possession, and is aligning oneself with a particular religious dogma the way to be protected? Does possession negate one's intrinsic value or dignity as a human being? Pandemonium's diverse philosophies allow for such free-flowing contemplation.
In Del's quest to obtain refuge from the Hellion's enfeebling and intrusive thwacking, he meets Mother Mariette, a priest of the Latin Tridentine Church and exorcist who has successfully eradicated demons from several possession victims. Mother Mariette's real name is Siobhan O'Connell and she hails from Ireland. (Incidentally, the bald-headed and cigarette-smoking O'Connell is a dead ringer for singer/songwriter Sinéad O'Connor.) Del is certain that O'Connell can exorcise the Hellion from him and he implores her to help. O'Connell, who's had her own battle with demons, summarily deflates Del's expectancy: "I'm retired" (p. 125), she deadpans.
Despite O'Connell's reluctance, she and Del embark on a wide-ranging, search-for-the-truth crusade that climaxes with the appearance of a very determined cohort of demons. Within this commotion, Del learns the exact nature of his possession. He must then decide what to do in order to confront and accept his newfound self-awareness.
Pandemonium is intriguing, challenging, and stirring. If there are too many instances of Del running his hand through his hair (pp.128, 196, 208, 232, 272), a few go-nowhere passages, and a few extraneous characters, they are forgivable. Gregory has produced a debut novel that combines suspense, philosophical conundrums, Jungian psychological theory, aspects of American pop culture, and a touch of neuroscience with skillful and ambitious storytelling.
In 1596, a boy from the English town of Burton-upon-Trent named Thomas Darling became possessed. He ran around on his hands and his feet, exhibiting fits of extreme behaviour which left his community shocked and fearful. He vomited. He spasmed. He was unable to eat, lost control of his senses during extreme visions; he would talk to an invisible presence. By all accounts, his possession had begun after a chance meeting with an old crone, who had brought a demon upon him for breaking wind in her presence. After being so cursed, he would point at a green spirit no one else could see, proclaiming it an invisible malevolent force which tormented him and sought to drag him from the path of righteousness. His contemporaries feared for his soul, until a renowned exorcist named John Darrell visited Burton and cast out the demon. Exorcised, Darling's symptoms dissipated: he was dispossessed.
I know all this because my better half is just concluding a doctoral thesis on the spiritual experience of children in early modern England. So when Daryl Gregory's first novel, Pandemonium, showed up on my doormat advertising itself as a modern-day spin on demonic possession, my thoughts inevitably turned to historical cases like Darling's, and to my knee-jerk instinct that recasting demonic possession in a modern light could only result in a weaker, and fundamentally patronising, fictional phenomenon. But then something occurred to me: Darrel, the exorcist who "saved" Thomas Darling, was ultimately exposed as a fraud, and Darling's case a fabrication. Believed by the populace or not, this particular exorcism, too, was thorough-going fiction. Unsurprisingly from a writer of his intelligence, this is the hinterland in which Gregory picks up the thread.
I was predisposed to Gregory after his 2005 short story, "Second Person, Present Tense," which rightly won the Asimov's Readers' Choice award. In a sense, he performs a similar trick here: that story's power came from the manner in which the fantastical premise was grounded by a beautifully expressed, if wishfully smooth-sailing, science. In Pandemonium, which is rightly being marketed as a fantasy novel but rests similarly on a sense of the practical, Gregory chooses to ensure that some of his main characters have a sound grasp of psychotherapy and neuroscience. The writer's own cleverness does the rest: however unlikely Gregory's premise, his readers are carried along by elegant exposition.
"Demons weren't rational. [...] They weren't people, they were archetypes—two-dimensional characters acting out a familiar ever-repeating script. Their goals were always the same, their methods unpredictable. The hosts changed, the specifics changed, but the story was always the same" (p. 129). Gregory's demons, then, are appreciably different to Darling's: they are more akin to cultural memes than infernal minions of Satan, avatars for folkloric concepts which spontaneously manifest in seemingly random individuals, driving them to particular modes of behaviour and towards predictable, if often inscrutable, ends. There's the Captain, a selfless soldier who will lay down his life for his comrades; the Truth, a gun-toting vigilante wreaking vengeance on liars; and the Little Angel, a young girl who relieves the ill or invalided of their lives by the mere touch of her lips.
Gregory's protagonist, Del, was as a boy possessed by the mischief-maker, Hellion. This "demon" is perhaps most similar to Darling's—it targets little boys and makes destructive imps of them. Nevertheless, he was nurtured back to health not once but twice, first by the soul-soothing of his family and then by the schematised self-exploration of psychotherapy. Perhaps the novel's wisest move comes here: by conflating possession and Jungian archetypes, Pandemonium manages to straddle a whole raft of genres and motifs, which proves crucial to its success.
In Del's world, 90% of all psychotherapists are Jungians. The archetypes of their theories constitute the only readily available explanation for the raft of possession cases which began to occur from the 1940s onwards, coinciding—not accidentally from Gregory's point of view—with the golden age of superhero comics. Captain Marvel, Captain America and their ilk loom large in their cultural backdrop of Del's pantheon of demons, expressing a basic human need for storyable concepts and scenarios. But myths become more complex in the retelling, and the Jungian theories which so grip Del's contemporaries have become master narratives encasing what are in themselves timeless devices. Before spluttering and turning glib in his novel's second half, Gregory seems to suggest that the same human patterns recur throughout time: it is the way we explain them—and particularly the way we turn them into story—which distinguishes us from our polytheistic, demoniac, or Jungian forebears.
If all this sounds a bit over-complicated, the reader will be gratified to learn that Gregory is in such deft and good-humoured control of his material that his ideas never over burden his plot. In one scene, Del and his brother listen in their car to downloaded mash-ups, combinations of pop songs which often deliberately play on the disconnect between the chosen pieces. In his author's note, Gregory explicitly confirms that he is doing something similar with pop culture throughout his book: The X-Files and superheroes sit side-by-side with Philip K. Dick and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, melting under the white heat of Gregory's playfulness into something that is, if not coherent, then at least extremely entertaining, held together by the bare credibility of the author's supple "science."
Especially in the novel's first half, in which its world is slowly revealed and its concepts concertinaed out with quiet inventiveness, this makes for a great ride. Punctuated by short "demonology" chapters in which we are introduced to various archetypes, Del's story gathers a head of steam by allowing the narrator and those around him to unpick the implications of notions their world takes for granted. Possession has necessarily skewed Del's history from our own (the point of divergence seems to be the death of President Dwight Eisenhower following an attack by the demon known as the Kamikaze, and the subsequent commandeering of the Oval Office by his Vice President, Richard Nixon), but just as importantly it has changed how people think about themselves and their environments. The book opens in an edgily secure airport, bringing to mind contemporary fears of the terrorists in our midst, and then takes the fear of the enemy within to a scarier place—it is about how each of us represents our own unknown quantity, and the ways in which we seek to explain the unknowable.
Philip K. Dick features as a character in the novel, perhaps possessed by the entity known as Valis. This is the first instance in the book of an over-cuteness which comes almost to overwhelm Gregory in the book's second half, but at first it is a conceit used tolerably well. He quotes Dick as saying:
"You cannot separate science fiction from fantasy. [...] Fantasy involves that which general opinion regards as impossible; science fiction involves that which general opinion regards as possible under the right circumstances. This is in essence a judgement call, since what is possible and what is not cannot be objectively known but is, rather, a subjective belief on the part of the reader." (p. 74)
There ensues a debate ostensibly about genre but in truth about the book itself, but Dick's quote summarises the discussion as well as starting it. What Gregory is getting at, perhaps with an eye to historical cases of possession such as Darling's, is the idea that people can only ever make sense of the nonsensical either by reference to magic or to the potential of common wisdom. (Of course, this makes Darling's possession science fiction, and dooms modern science fiction to be as irrelevant to all but the cultural historian as all those credulous tracts about his exorcist.) In amongst everything else, then, Gregory throws a minor curveball at us: he shows how all the argy-bargy in the genre about what's SF and what's fantasy is hopeless mumbo-jumbo of the highest order.
As if to emphasise his point, he ends up writing some fairly generic science fantasy with comic book overtones. Pandemonium is aware how fragile the concept of genre is, but this doesn't stop it from revelling in its sandbox (indeed, it might even encourage the playfulness). For all its intelligence, this isn't a reverent book. The use of Dick is only the start: O. J. Simpson pops up, taken out by the Truth; backwater America's tacky tourist traps are made sinister and satirised; conspiracy theorists are spot on, but still barking mad. But having built all this wit and ambiguity to critical mass, the extended denouement of the book feels more like a collapse than a climax. It isn't that Pandemonium stops being entertaining: Gregory has enough twists, and his characters enough zip, to keep us entertained. But it does feel as if, for all its cleverness of construction, the book isn't quite sure what to do with itself. The plot thunders towards a satisfying end, but its ideas seem paused at page 140.
Perhaps I expected too much. "Second Person, Present Tense" was keenly insightful from beginning to end, and its big thoughts stayed with you. Pandemonium feels like what "Second Person, Present Tense" would have been like had it watched more network television. The spectacle is grand, but it hasn't stayed with me in the same niggling way that story did. It's not that its central idea is well-trodden, though it is—yes, the stories we make up to explain things are inevitably more to do with us than truth, and, yes, we are trapped within our own hunger for the same old beginnings and the same old ends—since its approach is so novel and well-executed. It's that, once theme and method have been seamlessly stitched together, the novel doesn't wear the suit. It leaves it hanging, asking us to look at how lovely it is, but without a clue as to how to get into it. This is a pity, because Gregory is obviously a very clever writer.
Fittingly, Valis has the last say, towards the end of the novel (though he says nothing which could not have been said at the start):
"Perhaps the Jungians are right, perhaps not. We know that we are more than human, immortal yet polymorphous, incorruptible yet malleable. Consider my case: I am the embodiment of the rational, exactly what Phil needed when he reached for me. He clothed me, however, in the form that allowed him to make sense of me. So, I became a science fiction writer's creation, an artificial intelligence from outer space." (p. 273)
It is perhaps an apologia, an acknowledgement from Gregory that his book, too, is just an iteration of a constant human question, rather than anything approaching a definitive answer. In that sense, and in the way that his novel, like its demons, has no real end to itself, its structure is thematically very neat. But to be entirely successful, a plot's journey forward cannot be divorced from its theme, and by leaving his concepts ossified Gregory robs them of some of their potency. He falls too readily for the novelty of the mash-up, forgetting that the most successful aren't just diverting, arch, or amusing, but are also transformative.
John Darrell, the exoricist in the case of the poor possessed Thomas Darling, was ultimately undone by Samuel Harsnett, a rationalist representative of the established and sober Church. In a clash between a rogue exorcist and an authorised cleric, there was no contest: people naturally tend towards the authorised version. It helps us deal. If Gregory fails to push his questions as far as they could go, he nevertheless asks us which authority we would prefer to choose; and then he shows us that, in truth, we're choosing which authorities we're willing to mash up and for a while pretend to ourselves they make sense together. That's not bad going for a book with a lot of good jokes in it, and makes it worth reading ... if not quite worth remembering.
Amy O'Loughlin is a freelance writer and book reviewer whose work has appeared in many publications, including American History, Citizen Culture, Calyx, and World War II. She is a contributor to Women Forged in Fire, an anthology of essays by women writers, and is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.
Dan Hartland has been doing this too long to think anyone cares who he is.