Title: Pandemonium: Stories of the Apocalypse
Editors: Anne C. Perry and Jared Shurin
Publisher: Jurassic London
Published: October 2011
Genre: short stories, science fiction fantasy horror
Source: review copy from author Sam Wilson
I debated reviewing Pandemonium. I received a review copy in November 2011, but it’s only now that I read the whole thing cover to cover. When I finished, I learned that Pandemonium was a limited edition. Very limited: it was available for just over a year and now it’s out of print in both paper and digital formats. Questioning the merits of reviewing a book that no one can buy, I figured I could perhaps help someone decide whether or not to take it off the tbr pile, borrow a copy from a library or friend, or perhaps check out some of the stories if they appear elsewhere. And of course there might be another print run. So, on with the end of the world!
The apocalypse is, of course, the theme of this anthology, but it’s also inspired by the work of John Martin an English Romantic painter famous for grandiose apocalyptic visions based on his intimate knowledge of the Old Testament and related mythology (such as John Milton’s Paradise Lost). The cover of Pandemonium features the painting Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion, which is also the title of one of the most harrowing stories in the collection. I’d seen The Fallen Angels Entering Pandemonium in the Louvre last year, and the anthology encouraged me to check out more of Martin’s work online. And I must say – it’s impressive stuff. It’s epic. And I love the idea of an sff and horror anthology based on those paintings.
Admittedly, it doesn’t encourage a great deal of variation in apocalyptic visions. With John Martin and his art in mind, many of the stories use Christian mythology, so there are plenty of angels, demons, and worlds ending in fire. But while a few stories are a bit dreary, others offer creative twists or alternative visions. Many don’t actually seem to take much inspiration from the paintings, but I guess it’s an anthology based on the apocalypse, not an anthology based on John Martin.
The collection starts out very strong. The first story, “The Architect of Hell” by David Bryher, is still one of my favourites. It’s written as a series of hilarious letters from the demon Mulciber (the architect of the demon city Pandemonium in Paradise Lost) to John Martin himself, asking John to design Pandemonium for him. Mulciber lost all his creative abilities when God threw him out of heaven and Lucifer’s going to be really angry if Mulciber can’t deliver.The story is clearly based on the golden city in The Fallen Angels Entering Pandemonium and is actually a surprisingly bright start to the anthology: it’s quirky, funny and ends on a note that’s doubly apocalyptic but hopeful too. Also, the apocalypse – or rather post-apocalypse – depicted in the story is the fallen angels’, not the humans’.
There’s actually plenty of humour here; perhaps the best way to deal with the end of the world. The second story, “Chislehurst Messiah” by Lauren Beukes is a kind of black comedy horror set in an affluent English suburb. A snooty upper middle class bastard plays a Facebook game while his wife dies horribly, and he thinks about how this is an easier way of getting her money than divorcing her. The world is ending, but his thoughts remain ridiculously selfish and narrow-minded:
He needed to get to the gym; his abs were turning into jelly. Too much stale bruschetta and salty snack foods. But the one in the building’s basement stank like an abbatoir and the Stairmaster was practically alive with maggots. (25)
High on the uppers he stole from one a neighbouring apartment, he imagines that he could be the Messiah for the supposedly aimless lower-class “chavs” who are running riot in England as society falls apart.
“OMG GTFO” by S.L. Grey is another satire, with a narrative composed of emails, interview transcripts, Twitter feeds, and so on. It describes a world descending into chaos as politicians, celebrities and other prominent figures are randomly possessed by dead people who describe visions of hell. But is it a vision of hell itself or hell on earth? The humour comes from the kind of speech you get on Twitter and in emails, the rubbish that spews from the mouths of air-headed celebrities, and the little ironies that emerge as the world degrades. It’s a great story.
There’s an amusing case of denial in “Another Abyss” by Magnus Anderson which features another snooty upper middle class English character. Leticia’s husband Geoff has just been promoted, and she’s hosting a dinner party to celebrate and gloat. She’s extremely upset that the damn apocalypse is ruining the evening with a blood-red sky (forcing her to close the curtains more than is respectable) and lava pouring down the lawn. Leticia is someone who’d be bragging about the cost her antique violin while Rome burned. The burning world-scenario is a common one in this anthology, but like the better stories that use it, Anderson makes it the background of a character-based tale rather than taking the more boring route of putting cliched apocalyptic destruction at the forefront.
“The End of the World” by Den Patrick is not as elegantly humorous as the previous four, with character names like Bumblefuck, Rigorprick, Spittleshite and Candy. But it’s tongue-in cheek, and surprisingly cute – the demon Spittleshite has fallen for a human named Candy and as a result he’s not especially keen about the apocalypse that’s about to begin. The story can be silly and crude, but it’s also hopeful (well, sort of) and quite fun.
Being an agnostic, I enjoyed the irreverent nature of all the stories that address Christian beliefs, which are typically are revealed to be useless or deceptive while the truth is rather disturbing. It helps to have a sense of humour when the apocalypse comes, but being a Christian seems pretty pointless.
Of these stories, “Evacuation” by Tom Pollock is the most beautiful and touching; instantly one of my favourites here. The evacuation in the title is the evacuation of Earth by the angels. The archangel Michael goes to find the last two humans, who have been held back by Michael’s lover, the angel Zaphkiel. The stories segues back and forth between the present story on the burning earth and the history of their relationship in heaven, bringing up issues of the war with Lucifer, and doubt in God.
“The Day or the Hour” by Jonathan Oliver sees Reverend Paul Smith questioning his faith when he finds himself among “the chosen” who have who have “been called to fight the forces of Satan” (164) in the final battle between good and evil. Commanded by cold, arrogant angels, Paul doesn’t feel divine love and inspiration. He feels like canon fodder in someone else’s war.
Like “Another Abyss”, “The Harvest” by Chrysanthy Balis is a story of denial, although in this case it’s extreme religious belief distorting the characters’ perception. Paul and Pepper are fully aware that their world is ending, but they’re delighted, believing that the Rapture is here at last, and soon they’ll be taken up to heaven. They decide that it’s best to wait for God in their expensive “neo-Italianate home” (203) full of earthly comforts, watching the drama unfold on their “75” Panasonice LED flat screen” (204), favouring the Christian Broadasting Network where they “could get the real news”. They’re full of self-righteous, contradictory bullshit, but also some rather funny ideas about what will happen:
“Paul, what about Schultzie [the dog]? […] If we hold onto him real tight maybe he’ll get Raptured along with us?”
“Anything’s possible under the Lord honey,” (203)
“What if He doesn’t come for us?”
Paul had turned stern and taken her by the shoulders. “It’s not possible, do you hear me? We’re plugged in to Jesus. And the Bible says that it’s by His grace alone that we’re saved. Now, if that’s not true then nothing is.” (205)
Jesus is coming to conquer Satan at last, and God’s going to create a New Jerusalem for us to live in.”
“Would we be able to get a house like this one?”
“Sure! […] “But with a bigger pool!”(205)
“What if the Rapture begins but the angels can’t find us because we’re inside?”(206)
All these questions come from Paul’s wife Pepper, a rather daft ideal of femininity. Her daffy character makes sense in the context of the story, but she reminds me of one problem with this anthology: there aren’t many women in it. Of the eighteen stories, only five have female protagonists, and there are only six female authors. Most of the male-protagonist stories don’t have major female characters. The apocalypse, it seems, is considered to be a mostly male affair.
This is particularly noticeable in one of my two least favourite stories, [Pandemonium] by Andy Remic (the actual title is written in a script that my computer won’t copy). The story has some of the least interesting characters. There are three men – a nerd, a hulking goon, and a ferrety goon. Then there’s a hot blonde woman, whose job it is to whine, hang on the hulking goon’s arm, and look hot. But that’s not the only reason I disliked this story. It’s a rather unimaginative portrayal of the basic fires-of-hell-on-earth scenario. Several of the stories use it, but I found Remic’s to be the least engaging, with too much cheap gore. It was the first story I disliked, and marked the point where the anthology took a dip – the middle is rather middling.
“At the Sign of the Black Dove” by Lou Morgan is my other least favourite. It appears to be about a group of people drinking themselves into oblivion and waking up to find that the world is ending. Worst hangover ever? Meh.
“Closer” by Osgood Vance takes place in a world about to die, where most people have already been claimed by heaven or hell. The remainder are essentially the most average people on earth in terms of both skill and morality. I actually really liked this concept, but Vance uses it to tell a story about a baseball match – a group of Americans’ last stab at a bit of joy before they are all consumed by darkness. It makes sense – if you think about being average in terms of skill, then sport would be one of the things you’d think about – but I’ve never been interested in baseball and the story isn’t kind to non-fans, with its name-dropping and technical details about scoring.
There are three stories which weren’t bad, or even average, but just didn’t do anything for me – “The Last Man” by Jon Courtenay Grimwood (although, notably, ‘the last man’ is a female cyborg), “The Immaculate Particle” by Charlie Human and “Postapocalypse” by Sam Wilson. Each of them actually have interesting ideas – the cyborg, vanishing city blocks in “The Immaculate Particle” and apocalypse via postmodern thought in “Postapocalypse” but for reasons that are probably entirely subjective none of these stories left much of an impression.
In contrast, there are a couple of stories I wanted to single out for being more creative than others. They’re not necessarily better, but I liked the ways they differed from the norm. “The Architect of Hell” and “OMG GTFO” both use alternative narrative forms – letters in the former (not groundbreaking, I know, but it stood out) and media excerpts in the latter.
“Sadak In Search of the Waters of the Oblivion” by Archie Black disturbed me more than the visions of hell and burning. It’s set in a world ravaged by climate change where the earth hasn’t died (some landscapes are breathtakingly beautiful) but is horrifically hostile to humans. A research team heads out on an expedition, only to find themselves constantly assaulted by insects and micro-organisms, wading through a swamp and forced to sleep in it so they never get dry. Bugs nest in the flesh of the humans, horses and dogs in the team, their bodies rot while they’re still alive and the pain drives them mad. It’s heartbreaking and utterly revolting; if predictions of starvation isn’t enough to scare people into taking climate change seriously, then this would.
“Deluge” by Kim-Lakin Smith, inspired by the painting The Eve of the Deluge also features a post apocalyptic world ravaged by climate change, but in this case they’re about to experience a second apocalypse – a flood. Eve, the daughter of a pirate philosopher and a ‘weather witch’ in her own right, realises that the flood is coming, and tries to warn her society, a city built on a dried-up ocean floor. But, as with Noah, no one believes her. It’s only by turning to the pirate aspects of her heritage that she’s able to find salvation.
“A Private Viewing” by Scott K. Andrews is the only story besides “The Architect of Hell” that actually uses John Martin’s artwork in the plot. This story is not about the apocalypse itself, but suggests that the paintings themselves are apocalyptic forces inspiring unrest or madness. In the novel a man is forced to sit and stare at one of the paintings for hours every night and it gradually unhinges his mind.
After my interest had waned midway, I was hoping that the editors had saved a really great story to end the anthology. I wasn’t disappointed. “Not the End of the World” by Sarah McDougall is a poignant story set in Germany in WW2; or at least it seems to be. It follows a small group of tenants living in a house where ghosts from the war occasionally appear. It’s sad, but brave and hopeful; an elegant note on which to close the book.
Overall Pandemonium is a strong collection; I wished I’d read it earlier so I could review it while it was still in print. On the other hand, this also seems to be the year of the short story for me. seldom paid them much attention in the past but suddenly I’m reading or listening to at least one every weekday. It’s given me fresh appreciation for this form of fiction, so in that sense maybe it’s good that I waited until now to read this. It’s a pity that it’s out of print, but get a copy if you can, or see if you can find some of the stories elsewhere. They’re all quite short (except for the last) and most of them are worth the diversion.