Welcome to the eighth installment of our ongoing American Gods Reread, a rambling literary road trip through Neil Gaiman’s Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Award-winning novel (soon to be an HBO series). Each week we’ll be following the adventures and misadventures of Shadow Moon and his employer, the enigmatic Mr. Wednesday, through a landscape both familiar and deeply strange. Please be aware that there will be spoilers in the post and comments.
This week, we reach the Moment of the Storm, as two armies amass and wait for the climactic battle to begin. Pieces fall into place, conspiracies are revealed, and the gods stand at the brink of all-out slaughter...
Part Three: The Moment of the Storm; Chapter 17:
Two armies gather at Lookout Mountain: the old gods, armed with ancient weapons, and the new gods arriving by limo and Humvee. Horus finds Easter there, and asks for her help. Meanwhile, Laura drinks from the water of time and experiences a change, and Mr. Town cuts a stick from the world tree. Back at Rock City, the Technical Boy asks one two many questions.
This chapter is spent getting everyone and everything into position for next chapter’s final showdown between the gods on one hand, and between all the major characters on the other. It’s suspenseful, but also filled with fascinating detail while going about the business of setting up the action, starting with Lookout Mountain itself.
The site for the coming battle is “the most important place in the southeastern United States,” atop Lookout Mountain, on what was once Cherokee land before the Indian Removal Act forced the tribes out in the 1830s. Looking ahead, I wonder if the location has any effect on Shadow’s ability to go Backstage—he’s clearly connected to “the land” in a way the old gods are not, and his only other experience behind the scenes of reality was just outside of/on the Lakota reservation, so maybe the cumulative power and history of the place itself helps give him some kind of edge?
I also love the descriptions of the various gods gathering at the mountain itself. On one hand, we’ve got the new gods, looking like a bunch of preening, self-obsessed yuppies and talking in like corporate shills or self-help gurus. On the other, the random assortment of old gods mentioned are even crazier—I particularly enjoy the idea Baron Samedi possessing the little goth girl from Chattanooga. The one reference that has always bothered me here is the “once-famous comedian, believed to have died in the 1920s,” whose goat legs seem to mark him as Pan or perhaps just some kind of satyr. I’ve never been able to figure out who Gaiman had in mind, here—most of the famous silent comedians (Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, etc) lived well past the 1920s. Fatty Arbuckle died in 1933. Comedians Larry Semon and Max Linder both died in the 20s (Linder under extremely tragic circumstances, Semon after a nervous breakdown), but I don’t have a strong argument for either one being Pan, here, which drives me a little crazy…
Something that caught my attention after rereading both of these chapter—given Loki’s insistence on the symbol becoming the things and the importance of patterns, does he know that Mr. Town will stab at Shadow with the spear/branch, even though he forbids Town from interacting with him in any way? Loki (as Mr. World) specifically says, “Don’t touch him. Don’t even mess with him. I don’t want you turning him into a martyr. There’s no room for martyrs in the current game-plan.” (442). And yet Town feels compelled to jab at Shadow’s body in the tree, which is exactly what Odin’s ritual requires—he fulfills the pattern, and I assume this is what Loki wanted all along? But later, he mentions to Laura that he ought to go put a stick of mistletoe through Shadow’s eye (since Loki killing Baldur is another repeating pattern). Clearly, the game-plan doesn’t play out as expected, and I suppose I’m just wondering where things go off the rails, exactly…
Finally, Emily pointed out some interesting connections between Horus and Shadow last week, which might explain why Horus is the only god paying attention to his sacrifice and death, and why Horus recruits Easter to help. As mad as Horus is, he starts to remind me of a Shakespearean fool a bit in these chapters—making more sense than any of the other characters, even if it comes out a bit garbled. Maybe all that time spent as a hawk, watching everything from above, helps him see the big picture in a way none of the other gods are capable of. Like the other Egyptian gods, he has no interest in the battle, but he alone understands Shadow’s importance: “If he is lost, it will not matter who wins.”
There’s that intriguing Death cameo; we get Baron Samedi taking over the body of a goth girl with a black top hat. Of course that’s a visual cue for Death of the Endless, but here’s my question—is Death in all its incarnations simply attracted to that form? I highly doubt that we’re meant to assume that the Baron has overtaken Endless Death, and in a way they are one and the same, or at least closely related. So perhaps that look is simply one that Death in its many forms is attracted to. Kind of like that idea.
I always find it funny that Shadow becomes a surrogate-ish family member of the Egyptians gods since they’re nowhere near his pantheon. Ibis just claims that they taken a shine to him of sorts in the previous chapter, but I think we can pair this down to Gaiman’s personal preference; I remember reading that he fell in love with Egyptian myths as a child, and that those stories were really some of the first that led him to this love of mythology in the first place. I sympathize—got bit by the Egypt bug when I was about nine or ten, and it really never goes away.
Oh, and my vote goes for Larry Semon as the Pan/satyr comedian because he was in the silent film version of The Wizard of Oz...
Then there’s a locational thing here that I don’t think we’ve discussed yet. Does Horus know where people are because he’s a hawk and sees everything? I always found it interesting that he knows exactly where to locate Easter, where the battle is occurring. Of course, Wednesday knew where to find everyone on his little road trip and we never really learn how. If locating other gods was incredibly easy, you might think that the new gods would have had an easier time catching Shadow and Wednesday, which leads me to wonder if it isn’t just an old god thing, that they simply keep track of each other. That sort of makes them sound like the graduating class of a high school that sort of keeps tabs on each other, but never comes to visit. Which is pretty funny.
Part Three: The Moment of the Storm; Chapter 18:
The old gods, impatient, decide to start the battle, while Shadow’s nothingness is interrupted by Whiskey Jack. Just as Shadow finally figures out the game Wednesday’s been playing all along, he’s called back to life by Easter and Horus. On the way to Lookout Mountain, Town is falling fast for his beguiling hitchhiker…until Laura kills him and goes to confront Mister World. Shadow arrives on a Thunderbird, finds Wednesday and a dying Loki (impaled by Laura on a spear), and pushes his way Backstage just in time to reveal the two-man con and stop the battle. As the storm clears, he reunites with Laura, and at her request vanishes the gold coin, leaving her at peace.
Again, I enjoy all the fleeting glimpses we get of various gods as they gear up for battle—from familiar faces like Kali, the Morrigan, and the Nameless God from Vegas to deities we haven’t encountered before, like Sha Wujing (as depicted in Journey to the West) and Antinous, who was deified by his lover Hadrian and tromps around Lookout Mountain with a retinue of leather daddies. Hilarious. And I could be wrong, but he might be the only specifically Roman deity mentioned in the novel...
How much should we read into the fact that Whiskey Jack addresses Shadow as “cousin” when he interrupts his Nothingness? Their conversation—about America as a bad land for gods, and the helpful distinction between gods and culture heroes—still makes me think that Shadow falls somewhere between the two, in a category like “demigod” or “semi-divine hero,” with ties to both the land and the old Norse pantheon. I’m wondering if the combination of the gods’ tradition with the American tradition of belief and worship (as described by Whiskey Jack) is precisely what makes Shadow so important, so essential that Horus and Easter have to bring him back. It’s not just that he’s Wednesday’s son and/or an incarnation of Baldur—it’s that he also embodies the American understanding of the land itself as sacred, a holy entity in its own right.
We’ve talked a bit in previous posts about Laura behaving as femme fatale, and she really embraces that persona in this chapter, from batting her eyelashes at Town and actually using a line about “the kindness of strangers” to asking him if he wants to find out what happened to his poor dead friends just before she snaps his neck. She’s devious, and it’s fantastic—even the scene with Loki has a weird seduction vibe about it, as he puts his arms around her from behind to take the stick/spear. Not to get too Freudian, but one moment, he’s condescending to her “in a way that struck her as being both patronizing and indefinably male,” and the next she’s impaling him on a spear…Laura’s batting her eyelashes and playing the part of the “good girl” (as Loki calls her), right up until she runs him through. And in dedicating his death to Shadow, she is able to die (again) on her own terms, this time—as a warrior and protector of the person she loves, not as a pawn.
The confrontation between Wednesday and Shadow is such a satisfying scene, with all the pieces falling into place, and Wednesday so proud of himself and expansive sure of his success, like a Bond or Batman villain just before the inevitable turning of the narrative tables. I particularly relish lines like “I’m a ghost, and he’s a corpse, but we’ve still won. The game was rigged.” There’s no way you deliver a line like that without a certain maniacal, arch-villainous flair.
And then, of course, Shadow turns those tables, and in classic Gaiman style, he does it by telling the gods a story. Way back in Chapter 3, Shadow reflects that “he did not have the personality to be a magician: he could not weave the stories that were so necessary for belief.” But after all the he’s been through, not only can he really do magic, but he comes into his own—nothing is more important or powerful to Gaiman as an author than the telling of tales, so it makes sense that Shadow saves the day as a storyteller, commanding their belief (and stealing the narrative away from Wednesday and Loki, master wordsmiths in their own right).
I don’t know if anyone else has this association but me... when Shadow takes the ride on the Thunderbirds, I always think of Gandalf and the eagles in Lord of the Rings, specifically of how he used them to get Frodo and Sam off of Mount Doom. It’s a smiliar cavalry ride in my mind, Shadow going to end the war on one of these ancient and wise birds who he can communicate with due to his own special powers.
Patterns. Loki’s comment about the mistletoe, stabbing Shadow through the eye, is a really nice touch. He brings up the idea that these patterns exist and these stories happen over and over. That’s funny, because he doesn’t get his go this time around, so it ends up allowing for an entirely different reading; it lets us know exactly why this story is being told in the first place. There is mythology, and we love it, and we love having it retold to us. And that is why we read books like this, why we reinvent all of our favorite stories. We want them to happen over and over again, in a different time, a different place, in different languages. Loki’s point validates that experience, reminds us why we’re flipping pages in the first place.
It’s always a bit heartbreaking, the point where Shadow knows that Wednesday means it when he says that they wouldn’t have killed Laura if they could have avoided it. You can spend a lot of time on Wednesday trying to figure out if what he says is true or not, if he even knows the difference between the con and what he really feels anymore. But just knowing that he’s sorry for that, that one specific act, lets us know that there is some love for Shadow, that he does regret what they’ve done to him. It makes sense for Loki not to care, but it brings a richness to the story, the thought that Shadow’s time with him really was a weirdo bonding experience despite all the awful machinations going on underneath. His first line to Shadow in this chapter intimates the same, I think: “You have never disappointed me.” Perhaps Shadow never disappoints him, even after he ruins their plan.
There’s a really beautiful connection to be made here between American Gods and Anansi Boys (the indirect sequel revolving around Mr. Nancy’s boy, Fat Charlie). Odin comes from a culture of spoken tales, when people would sit in mead halls and tell their tales to droves of people at big, long tables after a hearty meal. Shadow picks up on this tradition, as Bridget points out above, becoming a storyteller himself. He has to open up to the talents of his father, a talent that is given by blood, and realize that it is a part of him. He has to learn to use those gifts the way that he deems worthy—telling their story to stop the war, vanishing the coin to give Laura peace. And Anansi Boys is just the same, though the tone of the book completely different. Fat Charlie must put himself in touch with the parts of himself that are given to him by Nancy, but he comes from a different culture, one that was better inclined toward rythym and song. Mr. Nancy’s devotion to karaoke is probably my favorite shoutout to that. So his son Fat Charlie’s journey is about opening up to music (I realized a while back that this was the reason I had a stronger emotional connection to that book than to this one).
Next week, we’re in the homestretch of the reread as we we tackle Chapters 19, 20, and the Postscript of American Gods. As always, you can check out this week’s Mix Tape post for some musical accompaniment to the climactic events of the current chapters, and please join us in the comments with thoughts, suggestions, questions, and anything we didn’t get a chance to cover!
Bridget McGovern is the non-fiction editor of Tor.com. She just took a refresher course in the fact that there’s nothing more depressing than the lives (and deaths) of old-timey comedians.
Emily Asher-Perrin has the eye of Horus tattooed on her shoulder. The more faded it gets, the more she likes the look of it.