It’s the end of the world as we know it… and no one’s feeling too great about it except Upstairs and Downstairs, honestly. Time to start Good Omens!
I should preface here by adding that this was technically my first Pratchett and my first Gaiman novel. It was recommended by a friend, and I quickly fell down the well with this one. It’s dear to me, in ways I cannot adequately express. Honestly, “The Apocalypse, but make it charming AF” is a good selling point, and my spouse and I went as Crowley and Aziraphale for Halloween a few years back, so this one is pretty much engraved on my heart. Ahem.
It’s the seventh day of creation and an angel (Aziraphale) and a demon (Crawley) are talking at the Eastern Gate of Eden. The demon is currently a snake, and suggested to Eve that she try a nice apple, and the angel felt so bad about their expulsion from the Garden that he offered them his flaming sword. They muse about whether the angel possibly did the bad thing and the demon did the good one. They decide that wouldn’t be good at all.
Eleven year ago (which, for the purposes of the book’s publishing, would have been roughly 1979), Hastur and Ligur are lurking in a graveyard. They are Dukes of Hell, and they are waiting to hand off the newly-born Antichrist to Crawly—who now calls himself Crowley. Crowley is less than thrilled with this turn of events, as he’d really been getting the hang of things in the 20th century. He’s given instructions to head to a hospital run by Satanic nuns in Lower Tadfield. Mrs. Young is currently giving birth in that hospital, along with Mrs. Dowling, who is wife to an American Cultural Attaché. The Antichrist is supposed to be swapped with Mrs. Dowling’s baby, but due to general scattered-ness on the part of Sister Mary Loquacious, the Antichrist is instead given to the Youngs. Their son goes to Mrs. Dowling, and her son is… unaccounted for by the end. After a roulette of possibilities, Sister Mary suggests that Mr. Young name his son Adam.
Far away, an eight-year-old Anathema Device is reading out of a prophecy book written by her many times great grandmother, Agnes Nutter. In Dorking, Surrey, a twelve-year-old Newton Pulsifer is messing with a Bakelite radio and brings down the power to his whole house. He believes he is going to be at the forefront of computers when he’s grown. Later that night, Hastur sets fire to the satanic church before returning to Hell. (No one is badly hurt, but everything in the building is destroyed.) Aziraphale and Crowley meet in St. James’ Park to feed ducks and discuss Armageddon, both agreeing that they’re not all that keen on the world ending. They head to the Ritz to have lunch, then head back to Aziraphale’s bookshop in Soho (which is really just a place to store his books), and get absolutely wasted. Crowley convinces Aziraphale that it might be part of the divine plan to interfere with the Antichrist’s evil upbringing, so they agree to both oversee the kid and thwart one another.
A woman named Scarlett starts a war in a city in Africa before deciding to switch from arms dealing to newspaper journalism. A man named Sable is drinking Perrier at the Top of the Sixes in Manhattan, thinking of a restaurant that serves practically no food. A man who is called White or Chalky or Albus is a deckhand on an oil tanker that spills its cargo into the sea. And then there’s another, who haunts all of these places, and everywhere else, doing his job. Harriet Dowling comes home with a baby she names Warlock; he has a Nanny named Ashtoreth, who advises him to be wicked and terrible, and a gardener name Francis, who advises him to be good and kind. The two retire at the same time and are replaced by tutors; Mr. Harrison teaches him about rabble-rousing political speeches and Attila the Hun, while Mr. Cortese teaches him about Florence Nightingale, and art appreciation, and free will. Crowley finally tells Aziraphale that he thinks Warlock seems too normal, and that he’s going to get a hell-hound for his eleventh birthday. When he names the dog, that will give the animal its purpose. The two agree to be present for the birthday and see what happens.
It’s Wednesday. Crowley is working with the caterers at Warlock’s birthday and Aziraphale has decided to do his magic act as the entertainment. (He doesn’t use his powers and he’s not very good, seeing as he learned the act in the 19th century.) He makes the mistake of materializing a lace-edged silk handkerchief in a secret service guard’s pocket, which catches on his gun and sends the weapon flying. Warlock grabs the thing, necessitating more miracles to prevent manslaughter, and the whole party breaks out in a food fight. The dog never shows. Meanwhile, in Tadfield, a hellhound arrives and is drawn to the voice of his master. Said master is Adam Young, sitting with his friends in a nearby quarry the adults call The Pit. He’s talking about how he’s going to get a dog for his birthday, though his friends don’t believe him. They ask him what kind, and he describes a small mutt that’s smart and has one funny ear. And then he says that he’ll call him Dog. Dog manifests according to those wishes and goes to meet his master.
Aziraphale and Crowley are driving in London and trying to figure out what went wrong while they both panic. Crowley realizes that there must have been a third baby, and suggests they head back to the hospital to find records. A nineteen-year-old Anathema is doing some surveying of the area and Crowley and Aziraphale are trying to find the satanic hospital—Crowley hits her bike with his car. Aziraphale fixes her broken arm and her bent up bike, adding a lot of little flourishes that weren’t there before, which makes Anathema confused and suspicious. Crowley wants to drive on, but Aziraphale materializes a luggage rack and straps her bike in, offering to take her home. Crowley asks about the hospital, but Anathema only knows about Tadfield Manor. They drop her off at Jasmine Cottage, which she is renting. After they’re gone, she realizes that she doesn’t have The Book, grabbing her torch to go look for it.
The thing about this book is, there are certain themes they’re trying to hit awfully hard, so they get a tiny bit repetitive. For example, the point that Crowley is always thinking about, being that Heaven and Hell aren’t that good or bad—it’s people where you find true grace and evil. It gets brought up more than once and we’re barely a quarter of the way through the book, and it’s going to come up a lot more. Granted, it’s an important theme for the story because it’s not just a philosophy issue, but a roadmap for how we’re meant to be thinking of the Antichrist. If he’s raised outside the influence of Heaven and Hell, then humanity has the full say in Adam’s development. Now we’re just left wondering what that might mean.
Aside from those repetitive themes, this book is just… I mean, I don’t want to say flawless because that’s hyperbolic, but it comes damn close. It’s so sharp and streamlined, it feels like a massage on my brain. There’s nothing superfluous to how things are introduced or presented, and the rhythm of the prose is just correct. There are certain things that benefit from teams of writers, and comedy is one of them, which is why the humor of the book never lets up. Pratchett is always good at making readers laugh, but with a partner, it’s like his powers increase manifold. Sometimes I think that more writers should try out writing in pairs. Truly magical things occur with another brain, if you’re good at working with others.
The narrative is peppered with references that cannot work for Discworld because it’s a fantasy setting outside of our own world, and they’re just stellar here. Lots of real-world notes that you can guess Pratchett had been dying to use somewhere. (Also, the point I made about using the Four Horsemen in Discworld being the wrong call and better here still stands. The Horsepeople work here, and they provoke all the anxiety that they should.) I know a lot of the information about witches is him, and I wonder if he didn’t bring all the information about the Infamous Bibles to the table because how could you not.
If there’s one thing that fascinates me about the book now, though, it’s how incredibly dated it’s become. The story is thirty years old, and it makes a difference in dozens of very subtle ways and a few unsubtle ones. Even just the difference of Crowley driving a car from 1926—in the book, that car is sixty-four years old. By the time they made the miniseries, his dear old Bentley is pushing a century. And one of the places where it really stands out is Mr. Young. I’d forgotten that we were dealing with a guy who was likely born in the 50s and very much a hallmark of his time. Much concerned with the “right and proper” way of doing things, and thinking about how his wife had strange ideas about childbirth because he let her get her own newspapers. I forgot how much clear and blatant sexism was present in the guy.
Of course, there’s the development of Crowley and Aziraphale’s relationship over time, which is important because of how things read. The mere concept of “two guys hang out together all the time, one of them called the other one angel, ooohhh they’re gay” is maybe the most 90s joke. And it simply doesn’t play as humor anymore because gayness isn’t a punchline. All the wink and nudging going on over how queer Aziraphale is (which we get more of later in the book), it can’t help but come off as vaguely homophobic, which is why so many fans of the book have ignored those aspects and believed that Aziraphale and Crowley were in love for decades. That was the fandom I entered into as a teen, and so that will always be an important aspect of the book to me.
But more on that later.
In the meantime, I have to mention that I’ve always loved our introduction to Adam being the naming of Dog. Because right out the gate, we actually learn everything we need to know about him. He just wants a dog that’s a dog. One that gets into trouble and is smart and adores him. And before anything happens in the book at all, we’ve got a clear path to precisely where we’re headed. (The description of The Pit remains perfect, too.)
Also, I’ve got some thoughts on the use of guns at Warlock’s birthday party, but they dovetail with my thoughts that will come up for next week’s section at Tadfield Manor, so I’ll wait until then.
Asides and little thoughts:
- Sometimes I think about how this book talks about most Satanists being rather nice people, and then I think about the current Church of Satan and how it’s all about bodily autonomy and doing what you like as long as you don’t hurt other people, and I think… well there you go.
- Crowley knowing all of Aziraphale’s weird interests, all the way down to Regency silver snuff boxes is just—Crowley, come on. I get that he’s your only friend, but you don’t make an effort to care that much about anyone else’s preferences. Because you’re smitten, guy (who’s not a guy).
- There are few things in this world that delight me half as much as Crowley trying to tell the story about the bird sharpening its beak on the mountain and Aziraphale, angel of the Lord, suggesting that it could get to said mountain by using a spaceship.
- The joke about the devil having the best tunes, but Heaven getting all the best choreographers is certainly a laugh, but I have to admit, it’s kinda hard to believe. If you know anything about the most famous choreographers (have you heard even a little about Bob Fosse?), you know that plenty of them have real reputations for being monstrous.
- Top of the Sixes no longer exists in New York, and I’ve been annoyed about that for ages.
- Okay, but Pepper says it’s sexism to give people girly presents because they’re girls and she’s right. In a truly mundane way, it’s just a bang on observation—if you wanna get a gift for a kid, you should know what they like as a person. Nothing is so disorienting in childhood as being made aware that adults see you as the gendered aisle of a toy store.
- Wait, somehow I’d forgotten that Pratchett lent Anathema Magrat’s bread knife defense. I love this.
They sat in embarrassed silence, watching the raindrops bruise the first flowers.
Secondly, the Earth’s a Libra.
It wasn’t all bad, being a demon. You didn’t have to buy petrol, for one thing.
Deep in the leather armchair of his soul, Mr. Young knew that God got embarrassed at that sort of thing.
The only thing about Anathema her teachers ever had the nerve to upbraid her for was her spelling, which was not so much appalling as 300 years too late.
Aziraphale collected books. If he were totally honest with himself he would have to have admitted that his bookshop was simply somewhere to store them. He was not unusual in this.
The children watched him in blank, disdainful incomprehension. Behind the buffet Crowley, in his white waiter’s coat, cringed with contact embarrassment.
Aziraphale looked embarrassed.
Then a cream cake hit him in the face.
Next week we’ll read up to “Yer armor o’righteousness.” See you then!