Disclaimer: This is not normally a review blog. I do not consider myself well enough educated, or analytical enough to review things on a regular, or even semi regular, basis. With that in mind, I’m still going to post a review of this anthology, for reasons which will become clear in reading it.
Disclosure: I have written for Anne and Jared’s geek culture blog Pornokitsch twice in the past. There is a working relationship of sorts between us, but at no point has there ever been anything transactional in the nature of it. I wrote for Pornokitsch because what they asked of me sounded fun and interesting; I neither asked for, nor received, payment in cash, goods, services or in any other considerations.
With those two notices out of the way, to the review! Onwards!
Pandemonium: Stories of the Apocalypse, is a small press anthology with distinctive and unusual roots. The fledgling Pandemonium Fiction is a writer’s cooperative, which for its début release is working with the Tate Britain and the Clarke Awards in releasing an anthology inspired by the work of the Romantic artist John Martin, an man of unique talent and unusual historical significance (or lack thereof, depending upon fashion). Proceeds from the sales of the collection are split between the contributors and various other literary causes; in this the case the Arthur C. Clarke Awards.
The anthology collects original works by of eighteen of the brightest rising stars in SF, fantasy and horror, including such luminaries as Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Lauren Beukes, Sophia McDougall, Kim Lakin-Smith and Chrysanthy Balis, all apparently given one simple instruction. Look at Martin’s work, then write. The results are varied, wildly imaginative and brilliant. The stories within all follow the themes, settings or atmosphere of Martin’s work perfectly and, in one particularly clever case, use the exhibition itself as the starting point of a searing reaction to the confused, inarticulate, consumerist nihilism of the London riots and the reactionary, pro-vigilante discourse that followed them.
Some of the stories are quite obviously set on this world, some equally obviously are not, while others retain a pleasant ambiguity about setting. They vary in tone from comic (The Architect of Hell, Chislehurst Messiah, The End of the World) to bleakly depressing (OMG GTFO, Πανδαιμονειον, ), taking detours at touchingly human (Closer, The Day or the Hour, Another Abyss), gloriously dark (Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion) and achingly romantic (Not the End of the World). The apocalypses portrayed range from implied in the setting (Deluge, The Last Man), to explicit on the page (Deluge again (trust me)); from the literal apocalypse, to the deeply and intensely personal (A Private Viewing) end of an individual’s world; from the biblical (Evacuation), to the mysterious (At the Sign of the Black Dove), to the science fictional (The Harvest, The Immaculate Particle) to the gloriously unclassifiable (Postapocalypse). Although I’ve highlighted certain descriptors with particular stories, they all fit several of the descriptors mentioned and none of them are one dimensional.
The first thing to note is that Pandemonium contains no dead wood; no filler, obligatory inclusions, or unnecessary stories. Every work in the collection, as well as being individually superb, sings for its supper; serves a particular purpose within the thematic framework of the anthology and is placed with great care at a specific place within the book as a whole to aid in the pacing, structure and emotional response of the reader. A short story collection can, of course, be read out of order; Pandemonium is one that merits a full reading in sequential order at least once. To do otherwise is to miss the thematic subtleties and structural cleverness of the editors.
This is a rare thing to say about an anthology, but there were no stories I disliked; nothing which I thought to be weak, or badly written; nothing which I found myself trawling through, wishing only to get to the next story. There were, of course, stories which stood out for me personally or which took me so much by surprise that they still linger days later. I’ve highlighted a few below, although it bears saying that even the stories not chosen are worthy of highlighting in their own right.
(Some spoilers between the asterisks)
Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion, by Archie Black
I thought that Archie Black’s ‘Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion’ was a relentlessly black, magnificently downbeat exercise in the stripping away of humanity; the ambiguously detailed historical apocalypse is mirrored perfectly by the descent of the narrator into depression, despondency, barbarism, degeneracy and, ultimately, death. This story was a particularly pleasant surprise, as before starting Pandemonium I’d never heard of Archie Black, even second hand; I’ll certainly be keeping a very close eye on her career from this point on.
OMG GTFO, by S.L. Grey
I’d heard of the gestalt entity that is S.L. Grey, usually in glowing terms, before reading Pandemonium, but this was my first encounter with them. ‘OMG GTFO’ took me by surprise, not for the high quality (which met my absurdly high expectations and proves that hype isn’t always unjustified), but for the cynical nihilism on display within it. Horror, despite accusations to the contrary, is often the most human of genres; with each survivor, we reject death; with each monster defeated or contained we reject chaos; with each boundary or moral line not crossed, we reaffirm our humanity.
Not so, in ‘OMG GTFO’. What at first comes across as a sly parody of religionist insistence that there are no atheists in foxholes and the idea that the stick serves a deity far better than the carrot for bringing in the sheep, quickly and neatly sidesteps into a pitch black insistence that humanity is kept human by only the thinnest of civilised veneers and at the end of it all, we’re all fucked anyway. Hell exists all right, we live here. Wonderfully thought provoking.
Deluge, by Kim Lakin-Smith
Kim Lakin-Smith’s ‘Deluge’ surprised me in multiple and confusing ways. First of all, for the fact that it is, nominally at least, my ‘least favourite’ (please note the semantic difference between ‘least favourite’ and ‘don’t like’) story in the collection, yet it absolutely point blank refuses to leave my head. Secondly, for the fact the story was not set at the bottom of a deep, oceanic abyss; I have never read a story which left me with such a strong sense of pressure, compression and abyssal depths; each mention of air, desert, rain,wheels, wind or sand in the text hit me like a drop of cold water in the face, reminding me that the story occurs on dry (very dry) land.
This isn’t for lack of clarity on the part of author, I should point out; short of her coming to my house and sprinkling sand in my sock drawer, the desert environment couldn’t be made any more unambiguous by Ms Lakin-Smith. Saying that, every sentence of ‘Deluge’ felt as disorienting as sounds heard while underwater. Louder and closer than is strictly comfortably, yet always more distant than you think.
While I can quite easily, and truthfully, tell you that despite being exceptionally well written the story didn’t quite click for me, I can simultaneously, and with equal truth, tell you that I’m deeply fascinated with reading more about Wakatire and would eagerly snap up any further stories set there, as well as hunting out the author’s other works with great haste. As I said, confusing. Like all top quality writers, when a story doesn’t click you doubt yourself and your understanding of it, as much as, or more than, the story itself.
Not the End of the World, by Sophia McDougall
‘Not the End of the World’ by Sophia McDougall, is the final story in Pandemonium and the perfect story with which to close out such a volume. A subtle, heart warming, heartbreaking and devastatingly human end to a roller-coaster of an anthology.
Equal parts historical tale, tender romance, ghost story, war story and urban fantasy, Ms McDougall paints intimate portraits of six disparate characters with remarkable deftness, lightness of touch and brief, yet illuminating, intimacy. Through meticulous use of repetition, exactingly precise use of vague recollection of earlier passages and events and effortless shifts from a chatty, intimate viewpoint to a broad and poetic narrative prose, she takes the reader from the domestic claustrophobia of Friedenstrasse 77, through the timeless space of what could well be an eternity passed in what may be only nanoseconds and, finally, to a rejection of the comforts of routine, mundane, unchanging now and a willingness to embrace the future, even though that future may contain horrors not yet known, uncertainty, or instant and painful death.
Failure to embrace change is a failure to exist fully and the end of the world in ‘Not the End of the World’ comes not for Elly with her rejection of eternal safety in a never ending present, but for those who remain in Friedenstrasse 77, preserved forever, but as untouchable and unliving as Frau Holl’s precious ornaments. Sophia McDougall achieves as complete and satisfying an emotional transformation in one short story as many writers struggle to illustrate in an entire novel, which is remarkable.
Why do I feel the need to review this anthology, when I read so many things and review, well, none of them? Because this anthology feels, forthcoming mockable hyperbole duly noted, like the beginning of something special. Not a beginning for Pandemonium Fiction, this may seem cold (Sorry Anne and Jared!) but imprints start or stop every year, but of a generation of writers, and two hugely gifted anthologists, about to hit the big time. There’s a famous photograph taken at Sun Studios in Memphis, which shows the young and not yet famous group of musicians, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, gathered around a piano having fun. This collection has that same feeling of fresh, new and limitless potential. Even taking the vagaries of publishing into account, I find it hard to believe that at least a few of the writers here won’t go on to become huge names. I will take huge pleasure in watching to see which ones and cheering all from the sidelines.
It’s worth noting that I started writing this review five hours before writing this final paragraph and most of that time was spent agonising over which few stories to highlight individually and wish I had the space to write about the fourteen that remain. With that firmly in your mind, you should be heading over to Pandemonium Fiction and making sure that you get your copy of Stories of the Apocalypse just as soon as it goes live. It will surely be talked about a lot in the coming weeks and months.
Pandemonium: Stories of the Apocalypse is released on November 4th 2011 in ebook format and in a limited edition hardback run available for purchase at the Tate Britain.