Friday, 23 December 2011

Pandemonium: Stories of the Apocalypse - Review

Firstly, before I start this review, I'm just going to assure you that I'm not about to review my own story in this anthology. I've mentioned 'The Day or the Hour' below, so that's going to be missing from my comments on the stories here.

Anne Perry and Jared Shurin have done something rather brave and marvelous with their debut anthology; they've tied this book in with a public art event (the exhibition of John Martin's paintings at the Tate) and in doing so have achieved a culture outreach between the world of genre and the art world itself. It's a move that they pulled off to great success. There was a launch event for Pandemonium at the Tate (which I was sadly unable to attend) and the Tate are stocking a limited hardback run of this anthology in their shop. (Which obviously makes a perfect Christmas gift for those looking for last-minute pressies).

Being an anthology of apocalyptic stories, the tales herein are on something of a 'large' scale. Not all of them directly reference the works of Martin, but most of the stories link in with the themes of big things happening to little people. The first story in the anthology, 'The Architect of Hell' by David Bryher does indeed reference Martin, as it features a demon corresponding with the artist himself on a 'home improvement' project for Hell. It's a nice conceit and Bryher pulls it off marvelously, marking a strong opener for the collection. Following this we have Lauren Beukes' 'Chislehurst Messiah'. Beukes is the author of the hit novel Zoo City (which is brilliant, by the way, so go check it out), so I was expected her story to be rooted in South Africa. It's not, but Lauren still writes convincingly of a London gone to Hell and a misguided individual who would be King. Lauren again shows a mastery of dialogue and pace in her work, which is just one of the reasons she's fast becoming one of genre's most exciting new voices.

Next up we have John Courtenay Grimwood's 'The Last Man'. I loved Grimwood's Effendi series, and here the author shows the same knack with a complex narrative and innovative prose. This is the most science-fictional of the pieces on display and makes a great tone change, while enriching the anthology overall.

Some may say that we have already seen hints of the apocalypse in our society with the riots that erupted over the country this Summer, and certainly the news images of such chaos were very frightening indeed. With 'OMG GTFO' S.L. Grey takes some of those images of rioters and mixes it into a story about the denizens of Hell revealing a horrible truth. It's a funny and dark tale and its mix of Tweets and reportage is ably handled.

Things get even darker with Archie Black's 'Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion', the only title in the anthology that's also one of the names of Martin's paintings. This story of a trek to find either redemption or, indeed, oblivion is extremely visceral. You feel the pain of the characters as they trek their way across a truly miserable landscape. Black's descriptions of the dissolution of the characters health is convincingly portrayed and marks a writer in control of her descriptive prose. It's just a short story, but Black manages to make it feel like an epic story. Black is certainly an author worth watching.

A change of tone for the next story with 'Another Abyss' by Magnus Anderson, in which a group of middle-aged, middle-class friends wine and dine while trying to ignore the apocalypse happening all around them. It's a piece that feels theatrical in the sense of a Mike Leigh or Alan Ayckbourn play and Anderson's dialogue is funny while also being desperately sad. A tragi-comedy that makes for a great addition to this collection.

We're back to more recognisable Martin territory with Tom Pollock's 'Evacuation' in which an angel searches for the very last survivors of the human race. I've not read Pollock before but this story really makes me look forward to his forthcoming novel. The story clips along at a terrific pace while still having a real emotional core. Angels aren't always the easiest creatures to write about, but Pollock handles the winged beings admirably.

Scott Andrews ventures back into riot territory with 'A Private Viewing' which features Martin's paintings themselves, here used to torture a rioter imprisoned by an embittered gallery security guard. Anybody who has read Scott's St Marks Trilogy for Abaddon Books, knows that he does cruel oh so very well. He does sympathetic characters well too, but that's not what this story is about. This is a real howl of rage and incomprehension at a world falling apart. It's a deeply chilling and deeply convincing story and reminds readers why Andrews is an author very worthy of your time.

Next we have Andy Remic's contribution and I can't actually type the title of the story on this blog, as I don't have access to the characters required. We're venturing back into Hell here and Remic's story entertainingly portrays a moral dilemma with a truly gruesome conclusion.

Ogood Vance takes us to a baseball game at the end of the world with 'Closer'. The prose here is great and Vance draws you into the story immediately with a strong authorial voice. The thing with this tale, however, is that I know utterly nothing about baseball so pretty much all of the sports stuff was over my head. It is, though, a very well written tale and makes for a great addition to Pandemonium.

Lou Morgan - author of the forthcoming Blood & Feathers, which features Hell very prominently - takes us all to the pub for the end of the world with 'At the Sign of the Black Dove.' And where better to be than in a pub when it all goes tits up?' Except the Black Dove is exactly where you don't want to be. Lou's characterisation is as brilliant as ever, and she demonstrates here why she is one of the most exciting new writers in genre.

'Deluge' by Kim Lakin-Smith is bulging with ideas and images and poetry and, well... everything. That Lakin-Smith is a writer interested in narrative complexity and big canvas ideas is obvious, but there's so much in 'Deluge' that it feels a bit crowded. There is striking imagery, but it feels a bit like the story needed more room to move. Nevertheless, an interesting read.

Next we have me with 'The Day or The Hour' and for more on that see a few posts below this one.

With 'The End of the World' by Den Patrick we essentially have an argument between demons and their master outside a pub. It's a funny story, with a rather touching tale of love woven into the narrative. Patrick shows that the denizens of Hell can't be all bad.

'The Immaculate Particle' by Charlie Human has to be a play on the idea of 'The God Particle' that has been brought into public consciousness by the experimentation at CERN. Human ably plunges us into a dark and complex world and explores the idea of an extreme faith having risen from a mix of scientific speculation and skewed theological thinking. I've not read Human's work before, but this makes me think that we'll be sure to see much more of him in the near future.

'The Harvest' by Chrysanthy Balis is a nice response to those rapture novels so beloved of the Christian Right. The idea that one can entirely know God is in itself fairly comic, but Balis's story doesn't concern itself with just that, and the pay-off is both cruel and funny.

Sam Wilson's 'Postapocalypse' takes the form of a theological and scientific discussion. It's packed full of complex ideas but Wilson's gift is in making those ideas clear to the reader while also challenging them at the same time. This is challenging in the way that good hard SF can be, though this story is much more than that, and the debate that this story raises is a fascinating one.

Closing the collection we have Sophia McDougall's utterly brilliant 'Not The End of the World.' McDougall writes beautifully and hauntingly. This story, set in a tenement building in Germany during the Second World War, reminds me of the work of Jonathan Carroll, yet McDougall has a strong authorial voice of her own. It's a moving story about love and letting go, and the complexities of existence. There are big things going on here, but in small quiet ways. It's a stunning closer to the collection and a story that I'd love to see in next year's Best Of collections.

Pandemonium is an exciting debut from those genre philanthropists that bring you the brilliant Pornokitsch, and shows why Anne and Jared are establishing themselves as editors and bloggers who understand the best of genre and celebrate it on every level.

You can get your copy of Pandemonium here or here or here

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