Wednesday, 16 November 2011

#31 Pandemonium- Stories of the Apocalypse

Well, this is a special day for the blog. More special than our first interview with someone who works in the field. More special even than the time we inadvertently got somebody arrested. Today Chris Writes About the End of the World achieves the dream every blog has when it starts out into the world- the dream of getting a review copy. Because what is the Internet about, if not criticising entertainment that you haven’t paid for?

The book I received to review was the e-book Pandemonium- Stories of the Apocalypse, an anthology of apocalyptic fiction inspired by the paintings of John Martin which are currently on display at the Tate Britain. In the 19th century John Martin was to painting what Roland Emmerich is to movies that- that is, he painted vast, dramatic, often apocalyptic images that were incredibly popular with the general public but which the critics of the time considered beneath them. His work was quoted as an inspiration by Ray Harryhausen, and Derek Riggs, who created the album covers for Iron Maiden. Looking at the images he painted, it’s not hard to see why. It’s not an exaggeration to say that standing a few feet away from a two by three metre canvas he painted is every bit as breathtaking as watching a Manhattan get blown up again on a cinema screen, and if he was born in another time it’s easy to see him designing heavy metal album covers or the green screen backdrops for a blockbuster with the budget of a small country.

It’s not hard to see how these pictures could make good story fuel.

Now, one of the things I enjoy about reading anthologies, especially anthologies by multiple writers, is that it is one of the few times in this day and age when you can jump into a story knowing nothing about it. When you start a story you may recognise the name of the author, you may glean something from the title, but there’s no blurb, and not many websites jumping up and down to try and give away the plot. For this reason, while normally I really don’t mind spraying spoilers all over the place, this time I’m going to avoid going into detail about the individual stories in the anthology, and where I do refer to specifics I’m not going to tell you the title of the story. That way, you have to go into this book every bit as blind as I did.

Instead, we’re going to talk about the anthology as whole- what common ideas emerge from the mess of different writers throwing their brains into the same bowl, how the book works as a discussion (admittedly, a discussion where everybody talks without hearing what anyone else is saying, but that’s not too different from most of the discussions I go into anyway).

First off, Pandemonium- Stories of the Apocalypse, is a great book for reading first thing in the morning. You could also enjoy it as a lunchtime read, or maybe a bed time story to curl up with as it’s pitch dark outside and the clock is approaching midnight. Just don’t read it on a late winter afternoon as the sky turns red and heavy clouds the colour of bruises drift across it. Do that and this book will leave you just a little bit jittery and not quite sure whether you’re living in a nightmare or not.
View from my bedroom window. Yesterday. (The Great Day of His Wrath, John Martin, Tate)
John Martin tended to paint Biblical epics and scenes of Book of Revelations style apocalyptic devastation, plus a few scenes inspired by Biblical fanfic like Paradise Lost and Dante’s Inferno. So it’s not all that surprising that many of the stories in Pandemonium have a pretty heady fire and brimstone flavour going. Many of them deal directly with the Biblical apocalypse, but even the ones that don’t make heavy use of a paint box of horned demons and lakes of fire.

Regular readers will know that I have taken to politely ribbing Christian ideas about the apocalypse once, or twice, or... okay, it happens a lot. But regardless of how hilarious I find it to talk about raptured souls getting sucked into jet engines (the idea of most things getting sucked into jet engines is pretty hilarious to me. I’m a simple soul.) the book of Revelation and its various fan fiction spin-offs have created a rich seam for story tellers.

The stories in Pandemonium exploit this seam for all it’s worth, and what’s interesting is how many of them approach it from a similar angle- to the point where a couple of the stories could be set in the same universe. The perspective several of the writers take is to peak behind the stage curtains of Heaven and Hell and look at the angels and demons for whom the coming apocalypse is just a job with all the usual workplace worries. The old fashioned themes of sin and redemption run right through these stories, and often we’ll see it’s the demons being redeemed and the angels doing the sinning. A couple of the writers look like they may have taken a leaf or two from Pratchett and Gaiman’s Good Omens, but since, as I have explained before, all writers are thieving bastards, and neither Pratchett nor Gaiman has been shy about picking from the best that went before them, this isn’t really a tick against them. And as with Pratchett and Gaiman, the jokes in these stories are often there to get your guard down before they deliver the emotional dragon punch.

While these stories are quick to subvert and criticise this version of the apocalypse, it would be too easy to say that they are anti-religious. One of my favourite stories in the anthology (again, not going to tell you the name, you’ll have to find it yourself) features a character who represents all the best things about Christianity, and a God who is a different matter entirely.
Incidentally, this is what happens if you're a gay. (Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, John Martin, Laing Art Gallery, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums)
The mechanics of the apocalypse is just one theme running through the anthology however. These writers were asked to submit stories over August this year, and several of them, looking for inspiration, just turned on the news. One of the stories is explicitly set in the aftermath of the London riots, but there are others that feature apocalypses populated by feral youths, social media and, tellingly, quite a few out-of-touch middle class characters desperately clinging to normality as the world tears apart around them.

Which brings us to the third theme running through this book, and this can be seen in pretty much every story in here- if not every bit of apocalypse fiction out there. In some of these stories there’s no Biblical fight between Heaven and Hell, no uprooting of the world by an alienated and disenfranchised under class. In some of these stories the world just goes to Hell (literally- to varying degrees). Ordinary people are going about their ordinary lives one minute, and the next minute the sky looks wrong, the city is the wrong shape, the ground isn’t as reliable as they thought it was.

It’s this book’s ability to instil that fear in you that is the reason you shouldn’t read this between three and five pm on a winter’s day...

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