Title: The Devil’s Alphabet
Author: Daryl Gregory
Genre: Horror, Science Fiction
Publisher: Del Rey
Publication Date: November 24, 2009
Paperback: 400 pages
Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel
How did I get this book: ARC from the publisher (via Sacramento Book Review)
Why did I read this book: Funny story, actually. I received an ARC for In Great Waters by Kit Whitfield – another upcoming title from Del Rey. Imagine my surprise when I opened the ARC and found an entirely different book inside! Instead of Ms. Whitfield’s novel about an alternate speculative fiction history, I found The Devil’s Alphabet by Daryl Gregory. While I do wish I had the chance to read In Great Waters, I was still excited as The Devil’s Alphabet was one of my highly anticipated reads for the year! So, while a major ARC Fail, I still got some goodness out of the misprint.
Summary: (from amazon.com)
From Daryl Gregory, whose Pandemonium was one of the most exciting debut novels in memory, comes an astonishing work of soaring imaginative power that breaks new ground in contemporary fantasy.
Switchcreek was a normal town in eastern Tennessee until a mysterious disease killed a third of its residents and mutated most of the rest into monstrous oddities. Then, as quickly and inexplicably as it had struck, the disease–dubbed Transcription Divergence Syndrome (TDS)–vanished, leaving behind a population divided into three new branches of humanity: giant gray-skinned argos, hairless seal-like betas, and grotesquely obese charlies.
Paxton Abel Martin was fourteen when TDS struck, killing his mother, transforming his preacher father into a charlie, and changing one of his best friends, Jo Lynn, into a beta. But Pax was one of the few who didn’t change. He remained as normal as ever. At least on the outside.
Having fled shortly after the pandemic, Pax now returns to Switchcreek fifteen years later, following the suicide of Jo Lynn. What he finds is a town seething with secrets, among which murder may well be numbered. But there are even darker–and far weirder–mysteries hiding below the surface that will threaten not only Pax’s future but the future of the whole human race.
Pax is, on the surface, a very average guy. Living in Chicago, working in a restaurant, Pax lives an average, normal, life. Until one day, he receives a message from back home telling him that one of his best friends, Jo Lynn, has died of an apparent suicide. Frightened but determined to at least pay his respects, Pax leaves for his hometown of Switchcreek, Tennessee, even though it means returning to a past he has distanced himself from for fifteen years. For all that Pax seems normal, his past is decidedly extraordinary, tied to his small, remote hometown. Switchcreek was a place like any other, until one fateful day when its inhabitants were stricken by a strange disease – some would die immediately, many would change, and only a few – like Pax – would remain untouched. This mysterious illness, called Transcription Divergence Syndrome (TDS) later by the government, remains a mystery to the outside world – as soon as TDS appeared in the town of Switchcreek, it vanished from the face of the planet. TDS proved non-contagious and oddly contained only to those initial residents of the town – those who became large, elongated “Argos,” those who became strangely hairless and self-reproducing “Betas,” and those who became impossibly obese “Charlies.”
When Pax, a rare “skip” (one of those who remained human, and who has “skipped” town), returns, he discovers a past that has been patiently waiting for him, that refuses to give him back up to the outside world. Every small town has its share of dirty work and secrets, and soon Pax learns that Switchcreek is no exception – with the truth about the dead Jo Lynn as only the tip of the iceberg. Between the strange new divisions between the three conclaves within the changed town, a dangerous and lucrative narcotic drug, and the possible spread of TDS, Pax faces a hard past and an even more difficult future.
I really, really wanted to love The Devil’s Alphabet. The cover and the intriguing premise had me, hook line and sinker. A mysterious disease that transforms the inhabitants of a small town; family angst and lost friendships; an in-depth evaluation of the meaning of humanity – what’s not to love?! Then, when I learned this sophomore novel from Daryl Gregory made it on Publisher’s Weekly’s Top Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Horror picks for 2009, I was even more excited to dig in. Sadly, The Devil’s Alphabet never lives up to this promise, lacking the cohesion of its admittedly strong ideas and themes.
At first glance, The Devil’s Alphabet seems to be a coming-home drama with a Stephen King-like flair. There’s a murder mystery, an estranged father and son relationship turned upside down by a bizarre addiction, a government conspiracy, internal power struggles between the different conclaves of non-humans, and an overarching theory of alternate parallel universes. While these disparate ideas are fantastic on their own, when thrown together into a single book these separate parts never quite click. The Devil’s Apprentice isn’t sure what it wants to be, switching scale from small-town drama to pseudo-science fiction thriller, creating an overall effect that is awkwardly paced and slightly schizophrenic. Following different characters in their separate schemes, from Pax’s past ghosts (unleashed through his addiction to a pus secretion from his father’s Charlie-transformed body called “the vintage,” a drug that produces a narcotic effect), Deke’s frustration at the Argo inability to reproduce, to the deceptively ruthless machinations of town mayor Rhonda, the story stumbles and plods along unevenly throughout. The entire drug/addiction storyline with “the vintage” (produced only by elderly Charlie-transformed men) is essentially pointless (besides perhaps evoking a disgusting reversal of a child’s reliance on a parent’s bodily secretions – simply substitute mother’s milk with father’s heroin-filled pustules). The suicide/murder plot is hardly a mystery; certainly, it’s not enthralling enough to keep readers engaged and on their toes. The most intriguing plotline by far is in the novel’s second act, when a larger city in Ecuador suffers a massive outbreak of TDS – the government, doctors and folks in Switchcreek postulate what could have caused a non-contagious disease to suddenly flare up in an entirely separate location, and what the possible ramifications may be. Even with this intriguing thread, however, the story suffers from clunky dialogue and pseudo-sci-fi posturings about parallel mirroring universes. Moving along in more stalls than starts, I found myself growing bored and frustrated with The Devil’s Alphabet – which is all the more infuriating because there were teasing glimmers of greatness throughout.
Among these strengths are Mr. Gregory’s vivid descriptions and most especially, his dedicated characters. Mr. Gregory’s writing is richly detailed, conjuring great and terrible images of these different “monsters” that occupy Switchcreek, and breathing life into the formerly quiet small town itself. The idea of these four different species’ and how they interact together – argos, betas, charlies and humans – is expertly realized. The giant stature, grey skin and low timbered voices of the Argos, the wine-stained, selkie-like skins of the Betas, the grotesque fatness of the Charlies are evocative images that Mr. Gregory wields with undeniable skill. Even more impressive than his descriptions, however, is his dedication to character. Each character in The Devil’s Alphabet is nuanced and genuine, each working through their own quiet problems and issues. Deke, the massive Argo and Switchcreek “chief” tries to comfort his old friend Pax, and meanwhile grapples with he and his wife’s inability to reproduce (as no Argo seems to be capable of procreation). Rhonda, representative of the Charlie leadership, quietly runs the town with an iron fist, trying to even the scales for her own conclave. The Betas, with their asexual reproduction unchecked and devoted maternal instincts driven to the brink of fanaticism also pose an intriguing question of procreation and human nature. And, finally, there’s Pax. Human, flawed, forever changed Pax – he struggles with addiction, with emotional detachment, daddy issues, and the bonds of old friendship and love. Pax isn’t a particularly likable character, but he’s a solidly real one; weak, flawed, and undeniably human.
For all Mr. Gregory’s skill at writing characters and his genuinely intriguing ideas and themes, The Devil’s Alphabet never manages to integrate these parts into a convincing whole. There is more than enough here, however, to prove that Mr. Gregory is a talented new voice. I certainly will be looking forward to his next book – and hope that with time and experience, cohesion between plot and character will be achieved.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From Chapter 1:
Pax knew he was almost to Switchcreek when he saw his first argo.
The gray-skinned man was hunched over the engine of a decrepit, roofless pickup truck stalled hood-up at the side of the road. He straightened as Pax’s car approached, unfolding like an extension ladder. Ten or eleven feet tall, angular as a dead tree, skin the mottled gray of weathered concrete. No shirt, just overalls that came down to his bony knees. He squinted at Pax’s windshield.
Jesus, Pax thought. He’d forgotten how big they were.
He didn’t recognize the argo, but that didn’t mean much, for a lot of reasons. He might even be a cousin. The neighborly thing would be to pull over and ask the man if he needed help. But Pax was running late, so late. He fixed his eyes on the road outside his windshield, pretending not to see the man, and blew past without touching his brakes. The old Ford Tempo shuddered beneath him as he took the next curve.
The two-lane highway snaked through dense walls of green, the trees leaning into the road. He’d been gone for eleven years, almost twelve. After so long in the north everything seemed too lush, too overgrown. Subtropical. Turn your back and the plants and insects would overrun everything.
His stomach burned from too much coffee, too little food, and the queasy certainty that he was making a mistake. The call had come three days ago, Deke’s rumbling voice on his cell phone’s voicemail: Jo Lynn was dead. The funeral was on Saturday morning. Just thought you’d want to know.
Pax deleted the message but spent the rest of the week listening to it replay in his head. Dreading a follow-up call. Then two a.m. Saturday morning, when it was too late to make the service—too late unless he drove nonstop and the Ford’s engine refrained from throwing a rod—he tossed some clothes into a suitcase and drove south out of Chicago at 85 mph.
His father used to yell at him, Paxton Abel Martin, you’d be late for your own funeral! It was Jo who told him not to worry about it, everybody was late for their own funeral. Pax didn’t get the joke until she explained it to him. Jo was the clever one, the verbal one.
At the old town line there was a freshly painted sign: WELCOME TO SWITCHCREEK, TN. POPULATION 815. The barbed wire fence that used to mark the border was gone. The cement barriers had been pushed to the roadside. But the little guard shack still stood beside the road like an outhouse, abandoned and drowning in kudzu.
The way ahead led into what passed for Switchcreek’s downtown, but there was a shortcut to where he was going, if he could find it. He crested the hill, scanning the foliage to his right, and still almost missed it. He braked hard and turned into a narrow gravel drive that vanished into the trees. The wheels jounced over potholes and ruts, forcing him to slow down.
The road forked and he turned left automatically, knowing the way even though yesterday he wouldn’t have been able to describe this road to anyone. He passed a half-burned barn, then a trailer that had been boarded up since he was kid, then the rusted carcass of a ’63 Falcon he and Deke had used for target practice with their .22’s. Each object seemed strange, then abruptly familiar, then hopelessly strange again-shifting and shifty.
The road came out of the trees at the top of a hill. He braked to a stop, put the car in park. The engine threatened to die, then fell into an unsteady idle.
A few hundred yards below lay the cemetery, the red-brick church, and the gravel parking lot half-full of cars. Satellite trucks from two different television stations were there. In the cemetery, the funeral was already in progress.
You can read the full chapter excerpt online HERE.
Additional Thoughts: Daryl Gregory’s first novel, Pandemonium was the winner of the 2009 Crawford Award. If you haven’t read Mr. Gregory yet, I highly recommend you start with this fantastic debut novel (as opposed to beginning with The Devil’s Alphabet).
A brilliant debut novel from a rising star in fantasy and science fiction, Pandemonium is a wild ride through the American cultural landscape.
It is a world like our own in every respect… save one: Beginning in the 1950’s, random acts of possession begin to occur. Ordinary men, women, and children are the targets of entities that seem to spring from the depths of the collective unconscious, pop-cultural avatars that some call demons. There’s the Truth, implacable avenger of falsehood. The Captain, brave and self-sacrificing soldier. The Little Angel, whose kiss brings death, whether desired or not. And a string of others, ranging from the bizarre to the benign to the horrific.
As a boy, Del Pierce is possessed by the Hellion, an entity whose mischief-making can be deadly. With the help of Del’s family and a caring psychiatrist, the demon is exorcised… or is it? Years later, following a car accident, the Hellion is back, trapped inside Del’s head and clamoring to get out.
Del’s quest for help leads him to Valis, an entity possessing the science-fiction writer formerly known as Philip K. Dick; to Mother Mariette, a nun who inspires decidedly unchaste feelings; and to the Human League, a secret society devoted to the extermination of demons.
All believe that Del holds the key to the plague of possession—and its solution. But for Del, the cure may be worse than the disease.
Verdict: The Devil’s Alphabet boasts a strong premise and layered characters, but fails to deliver a truly engaging story. Still, Mr. Gregory’s distinct voice and eye for description make him an author worth trying and watching out for in the future.
Rating: 6 – Good, but somewhat lacking
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