Pandaemonium, n. the capital city of Hell, any very disorderly or noisy place of assembly, tumultuous uproar.
Christopher Brookmyre is probably best known for his caustic Scots detective Jack Parlabane but he’s not all about sticking it to gangsters and corrupt politicians. Oh no, he’s got a wide-reaching range of influences and a pretty impressive store of knowledge, something he proudly parades in the wonderful Pandaemonium. I first read this title years ago back in Scotland, having exhausted his Parlabane series and thirsting for more of the same sarcasm and wit. At the time it made a good impression, I remember thoroughly enjoying it, but on a recent second outing I discovered just how enthralling, enlightening and entertaining a read it really was.
Pandaemonium kicks off in a sweltering, top-secret underground lab somewhere in the Scottish Highlands, peopled by scientists (fair enough), soldiers armed with ridiculously high-tech weapons (hmm?) and a small army of priests led by Cardinal Tullian (wtf?). Scientific second-in-command Merrick journeys through the rocky interior to the heart of the installation where the subject of today’s tests has just arrived through the Dodgson Anomaly, a mysterious artifact created by the particle accelerator residing there. The creature – tall, leathery and, erm, horned – seems to him to be nothing more than some new species, perhaps from another dimension. To Tullian and his team however the truth is all too clear. They are dealing with demons, and the Anomaly is nothing less than a doorway to hell.
Meanwhile, on the nearby country roads, a chartered bus is approaching filled with pupils of St Peter’s Catholic School, Glasgow. Following the fatal stabbing of one of their classmates, the students are en route to a Highland hideout, a former fort now re-purposed to help corporate colleagues feel like they hate each other and their jobs that little bit less. The entourage is the usual mish-mash – Kirk Burns, the resident psycho with his able lieutenants in tow; Adnan, Radar and the rest of the geek brigade; new girl and goth loner Marianne; Yvonne, Julie and the motor-mouthed ned girl crew; and a few other John Hughes stereotypes for good measure. Trying to keep control are the overly stern head, Guthrie; Father Blake, whose faith is somewhat less than rock-solid; Miss Ross, retaining something of a crush on the good Father; and Kane, the atheist physics teacher, odd-man-out and best-friend foil to Blake.
So to recap, we have a secret experiment involving mad scientists, soldiers, the Vatican and demons from the pits of hell. En route to the area are bereaved, angered and scared Catholic school students. The area is isolated and hostile. What could possibly go wrong?
I’m sure you’ve guess the answer is ‘everything’ and go wrong it does, in the most spectacular, bloody and outright hilarious fashion possible. The pandaemonium of the title is soon unleashed as conflicts between science and religion lead to some fatal decisions being made and soon the hapless students find themselves involved in an entirely different kind of retreat. Brookmyre seems to be really in his element here, writing as if creating a movie screenplay rather than a novel. The pace never lets up for a second with the viewpoint constantly jumping from Cardinal to physicist, from girly clique to bully-boy. Initially the build-up manages to give us just the right amount of background and cements our empathy with the appropriate characters, never overloading on exposition or dawdling too much. When the shit hits the fan though things go truly into overdrive, and the passage which marks the transition from order to chaos is absolutely bloody masterful, feeding lines of the prose into the pumping dance music of the school disco as terror descends and gore begins to spray.
It’s not all blood, guts and Buckfast though, there is actually a tremendous amount of thoughtful debate in Pandaemonium and it blends into the story so well you’ll barely notice it’s there. For starters there’s the obvious science vs religion angle, tackled by Tullian, Merrick and resident crackpot Steinmeyer. Then there’s the hoary old ‘has science gone too far?’ chestnut, admirably handled. The highlight though is the series of dialogues between Blake and Kane covering the problem of evil, the inconsistencies of Catholicism and religion in general and also the very nature of faith. These are some big ideas and Brookmyre never ones shies away from them or disposes of them with overly simplistic answers.
And on top of that there’s the hidden game of ‘spot the pop culture reference’, and believe me this book is riddled with them. The mentions of and allusions to Doom, the classic first-person shooter also featuring a portal to hell (the Phobos Anomaly) are legion, not only because one main character retains his grip on sanity by pretending to be living out that very game. Then there are the easy ones like the former US Marine who now minds the retreat attended by the school, one Max Sendak. And for the eagle-eyed there are a few gems hidden away; I wonder who else out there knows why he called one part of the book ‘Bonnie Brae’?
Anyway, enough raving. Time to let you rush out and buy it. Any fan of sci-fi and horror is going to get a kick out of this book but really its appeal should be far wider ranging. The cast of all-too-human characters gives it enough grounding to ensure that casual readers won’t be turned off by the flying guts. Not only that but the mix of action-packed nonsense and serious debate makes it a book for many moods. Now, can we have a movie version please?