Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman Good Omens
Corgi 2011 (1990)
Good Omens is the inventive comic fantasy you’d expect from both these authors, a eschatological novel which in 1990 documented the final week of History. The cast of characters whose individual actions and thoughts gradually coalesce for the final denouement are easily distinguishable, from the angel who guarded the gates of Eden to the angel “who did not so much Fall as Saunter Vaguely Downwards”, from Witchfinders to fortune-tellers, from the group of mostly ordinary kids entertaining themselves over the summer to the Four Horsepersons of the Apocalypse (Equal Opportunities apply to supernatural beings these days too) appropriately sporting Hell’s Angels on their motorcycle jackets. Has Armageddon really arrived? Only this book can tell you.
Dedicated to G K Chesterton, “a man who knew what was going on”, Good Omens seems to also to have a nod to a number of other authors, including Aleister Crowley and Richmal Crompton. The serpent in Eden, ‘Crawly’ as he was then, has morphed into Crowley by the end of the twentieth century, and has a working arrangement with Aziraphale, who now deals in rare books instead of gatekeeping Heaven. Into the mix comes Anathema Device, descendant of a witch who, unlike Merlin, Mother Shipton and their ilk, has accurately and in only marginally gnomic fashion predicted the future in The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch. Which witch somehow comes into contact with Aziraphale and Crowley (that’s Crowley the fallen angel).
So much for Aleister Crowley and predictions in his Book of the Law; where does the author of the Just William books, Richmal Crompton come in? In a move reminiscent of William and his gang of Outlaws — Ginger, Henry and Douglas — Adam the Antichrist and his friends Pepper, Wensleydale and Brian form the Them, a gang constantly in trouble with authority. In keeping with their literary antecedents they are also notable for their homespun philosophy, general good intentions and a dog (William had his Jumble, Adam has a Hellhound called … Dog), spending their days in the quarry discussing schemes and riding their bikes hither and yon. And, of course, saving mankind.
The authors noted Chesterton as an inspiration. Presumably this is a reference to The Man Who Was Thursday, a novel which used the days of the week and contemporary obsessions with anarchist bombers to fashion a Christian allegory. Here, Pratchett and Gaiman borrow the format of seven chapters, each representing a day of the week, to calibrate the lead-up to the End of Days. This being a comic fantasy and not a religious allegory, the earnest humour of Chesterton is replaced by a broader delight in the ridiculous along with mild satire and veiled critique of fundamentalist thinking.
A working knowledge of the relevant parts of Genesis and Revelations is advantageous, but there are also witty footnotes for North American readers unacquainted with the idiosyncrasies of late 20th-century British life. Some of these are sideswipes at verbose US officialese (as mouthed by servicemen), fast food franchises and conservative British letter writers of the Disgruntled, Tunbridge Wells brigade opposed to such innovations as decimal currency. The authors provide the sustained patter of drollery consistent with their reputations, justifying this work’s inclusion in the 2011 World Book Night giveaway, but equally impressive is the concluding paean to golden summer days and idyllic school holidays.
This edition also includes the authors’ Foreword from 2006, an appendix giving us The Facts, and the authors’ commentaries on each other, all worth reading, in whichever order you fancy. But if I were you I’d read the novel itself from beginning to end.
Repost of review which first appeared on June 11th, 2013