Terry Pratchett Book Club

Terry Pratchett Book Club: Good Omens, Part II

We’re back, and you’re about to join the Witchfinder Army! We’re here again with Good Omens.

Summary

Aziraphale insists to Crowley that the area they’re driving through feels cherished, though Crowley doesn’t sense a thing. They get to Tadfield Manor, and are promptly shot because the place is no longer a satanic nunnery—Sister Mary Loquacious is now Mary Hudges, and she stayed behind following the fire, read some books, got the place spruced up, and turned it into a center where businesses could hold “management training” of the sort where employees get to shoot paintballs at their coworkers. The angel and demon head into the Manor, when suddenly the shots ringing out in the training exercise are coming from real guns: It’s Crowley’s doing, and chaos breaks out. Aziraphale is mortified, but the demon promises no one will actually be hurt. They find Mary Hodges and Crowley puts her into a sort of trance, asking after the Antichrist. Unfortunately, she has no idea where he is, and all the records were destroyed in the fire. Also the police have arrived at the Manor due to all the shooting, so Crowley and Aziraphale leave. On the way back to London, they discuss getting some humans to search for the Antichrist since they can’t sense him, and agree to contact their “people” separately.

As the Bentley pulls up to the bookshop, Aziraphale notices a book in the backseat, realizing that Anathema left it behind. Then he reads the title, drops his keys several times, and rushes inside with the tome. He makes some cocoa, puts on rubber gloves, and begins reading. Far away on an island, war correspondent Carmine Zuigiber is taking a vacation, and war has broken out around her. As the fighting escalates, an International Express delivery man shows up and brings her a package. She signs for it (using a much shorter name), opens the package to reveal a sword, and seems elated that it has “finally” arrived.

It’s Thursday and the Them are talking about the witch (Anathema) that has moved into Jasmine Cottage. The Them are Adam Young and his gang of friends, Pepper, Wensleydale, and Brian. They get into an argument over whether there are lots of witches about, and spout (largely incorrect) understandings of witch history and the Spanish Inquisition. Adam decides they could do the Inquisition over. They come back after lunch with various “Spanish” items, and begin their first round of “torture” on Pepper’s little sister. Later, Adam wanders by Jasmine Cottage, hears Anathema crying, and inquires about what’s troubling her. She tells him about the book she’s lost, though he’s disappointed by its lack of robots and spaceships. She invites him in for lemonade, to which he asks if she’s a witch, but she explains that she’s an occultist, and he’s fine with that. Dog doesn’t want to go into the cottage due to the horseshoe over the door, but Adam insists, and more Hell burns out of the hellhound. Anathema tells Adam about her various and varied beliefs, many of which contain words and concepts that Adam has rarely heard uttered, so he’s spellbound. She talks about rainforests and recyclables and nuclear power plants, and much more. Anathema finally realizes what is off about the boy—he has no aura. She figures she’s just tired and loans him some copies of her magazines. That night, Adam reads through a bunch of them, and thinks that he would like to do something that could make Anathema happy… so he falls asleep and a nuclear reactor disappears from a nuclear power plant.

It’s Friday and Raven Sable is checking on his conglomerate that sells foodless food to the masses. The delivery man pops up again, this time with a package containing a set of brass scales; Sable has his chauffeur book him a ticket for England. Adam wakes up and tells his friends about all the things he’s discovered in the magazines, bursting with brand new ideas (mainly about Atlantis). That morning, Anathema notes that the ley-lines around her are shifting, spiraling inward toward Lower Tadfield, and she hears a report on the radio about a nuclear reactor going missing. Several thousand miles away, the captain of a pleasure cruiser stumbles upon the lost continent of Atlantis. Adam brings up the Hollow Earth theory next, which doesn’t go over well, but he insists that it’s true, and that Tibetans are living in tunnels under the earth because they’re the teachers who escaped Atlantis’ sinking. Aziraphale has a thought after reading all of Agnes’ prophecies and asks the phone operator for the number of the Youngs in Lower Tadfield—their last digits are 666.

A few weeks back, Newton Pulsifer sees an ad in the paper for a job listing “to combat the forces of darkness” and talks on the phone with Witchfinder Sergeant Shadwell, who asks after his number of nipples and tells him to bring his own scissors. Newt subsequently becomes a private in the Witchfinder Army under Shadwell—a racist, paranoid old codger who lives next to Madame Tracy, a middle-aged woman who gets by doing seances and sex work. The scissors are for cutting out clippings from newspapers that include evidence of witches or unexplained phenomena that might lead to them. Newt tries to point out the nuclear reactor business and Atlantis returning, but Shadwell isn’t interested. Aziraphale calls and requests Shadwell (who is his “people” he’d mentioned to Crowley) send someone to Tadfield to investigate. Tadfield happens to be one of the places Newt noted as sporting strange phenomena (perfect weather for the time of year, every year). Shortly after Newt leaves to check it out, Crowley also calls Shadwell to request the same thing Aziraphale did.

Commentary

(Sorry, didn’t realize that I had us ending this week a page before the “Saturday” section started, so I just read through to there, whoops.)

We get two sections in succession with very prominent gun usage, being Warlock’s birthday party and the training at Tadfield Manor. And, interestingly, the only way these things make their way into the narrative is through American influence. Warlock’s parents are American diplomats, and of course, these are the people who would think armed guards at a child’s birthday party were warranted. (Do they think the American Cultural Attaché is going to be assassinated at their private residence during his kid’s birthday party, I mean, really, how much security to these people actually need.) And yes, Crowley is responsible for giving everyone real guns at the Manor, but it comes at the behest of one participant who is fancying himself a sort of Clint Eastwood for the purpose of the exercise. It really makes you think about how much American culture is bound up in guns, even in the most general terms. And then there’s the fact that the guns at Warlock’s birthday were omitted in the television series because this book was written pre-Columbine, pre-Sandy Hook, and pre-Parkland, so showing that would have created an entirely different tone.

The transformation sequence that explains how Mary Loquacious became Mary Hodges is good for a laugh, but also very much a product of its time. The ‘80s and ‘90s were obsessed with narratives about women learning business and gaining power, and questioning whether or not those lives made them happy. (Often they didn’t, unless you’re watching Working Girl.) Thankfully, there’s no nonsense in here about Mary Hodges thinking her life is empty now that she’s a small business owner with an eye toward making Tadfield Manor a destination spot for corporate retreats. She just gamely trades one sort of life for another, and finds that it suits her quite well.

Here’s a thing I never really thought hard about: If Crowley hadn’t changed all the paintball guns to real ones, they would have had more time to question Mary, and they might have gotten somewhere. (Okay, they probably wouldn’t have, but it’s a possibility.) He kinda screws them over by being his own demonic self. Aziraphale would smugly say something about evil containing the seeds of its own destruction—which is exactly what he says in this section—but to that point, pretty much everything Crowley does falls far more under the category of “mischief” than “evil.” By that same token, you could argue that most of what Aziraphale does falls under “maintaining the status quo” more than “good.” Which is the whole conceit, yes, but moreover, it makes them both more interesting characters.

Again with my fascination around how time changes the way things in this book come off. The whole background of Pepper’s mother joining a commune and giving her kid that name—it was a thing in the 70s. The Lord of the Rings was a counterculture staple, and there were lots of young hippies (and folks a little too young to be hippies, but still falling into that general group) who named their kids like that. But these days you read the name Pippin Galadriel Moonchild and just think “oh, Pepper’s mom was a nerd.” The recent series kept her mother’s backstory, which leaves me with with a load of questions, namely, where are all these communes in the English countryside now. But once you update the narrative to an Apocalypse in 2019, the Them were all born in roughly 2008. So the real point is, Pepper’s mom was extremely into those movies when they came out (and probably fantasy in general), because those dates line up perfect.

The way the Them speak to each other is one of the places where this book feels far too real for its own good. The first time I ever read Good Omens, I was still too young to appreciate that aspect—it was too close to my actual experiences because I was a teenager—but as an adult, it lands differently. The meandering nature of their conversations, the way everyone is so distractible and intent on providing their own expertise, little bits of dialogue where the grammar is off like saying “we should of” and so on. And of course there’s this bit in discussion of their Star Wars-based games: “The Them were, anyway, temperamentally on the side of planet destroyers, provided they could be allowed to rescue the princesses at the same time.” Which, yet again, gives you a very good idea of where the group is headed in this story. They may be a chaotic crew of tween misfits, but they’re keen to save things heroically too.

There’s a clear shift occurring throughout this book with the Them as it pertains to growing up as well. The kids are all eleven, which is a number that generally pops up around chaos and disorder in Christian religious terms, and also in life, as it so happens. Eleven is that age right before being a teenager, where you’re not quite done being a kid yet, but you’re aware that the world is bigger and more complicated than you might have previously guessed. We get it in little asides (like the fact that the boys of the Them are aware that starting a scuffle with Pepper might mean something different now than it did when they were smaller), and in bigger ones, where all the kids note that the world is full of interesting things that adults aren’t telling them. Adam feels this the most keenly, of course, and that leads reality to warp around his wishes.

Throughout this section, Aziraphale busies himself reading the entire book of Agnes’ prophecies. This is where we come to the line which is well-embedded in most fans memories, being that the impression Aziraphale gives is “that he was English, that he was intelligent, and that he was gayer than a tree full of monkeys on nitrous oxide.” This particular quote, and the digressions made from it (being that he is smart, but cannot be English, and that angels are sexless unless they “make an effort”) has been the inspiration for probably… about eighty-three percent of the Good Omens fanfiction out there. Again, people making the assumption that Aziraphale is gay is not, in and of itself, humorous because being gay isn’t funny. But the idea of applying sexuality onto a relatively immortal being who probably understands gender about as well as he understands “bebop” music will always be funny.

We come to the introduction of Shadwell and the Witchfinder Army and Madame Tracy, which is where things start wending their way toward labyrinthine. Shadwell is extremely racist, which is not enjoyable to read, but certainly on par with real people who believe the sorts of things that he believes. And there’s a lot of realism, too, in his relationship with everyone around him, including Newt. The narration tells us that people tend to like Shadwell, even though he’s racist, and sexist, and all-over grouchy and grubby, and that’s because despite being all those things, he largely keeps to himself in such a way that he’s viewed as harmless. With Newt, we get someone who feels a sort of confused affection for the man once he’s spent time around him; he tries to challenge Shadwell’s viewpoints with counter-narratives and gentle corrections to his blatant misinformation. Shadwell, of course, isn’t having any of it… then again, you’re not going to get that sort of man to change his mind by telling him he’s wrong. What Newt is doing is probably the most effective bet for the time being.

But moreover, the point is that both Anathema (a witch) and Shadwell (a witchfinder) are equally bound up in conspiracy theories, right? Conspiracies of different flavors, sure, but conspiracies all the same. We get a lot of that all over this book, in fact, which lends a general absurdity to the proceedings of the Apocalypse. But more importantly, it showcases that humans believe a lot of ridiculous things. Which seems a rather pointed jab in a book that is dramatizing Armageddon for comedic effect. Because we believe a lot of ridiculous things, you see.

Asides and little thoughts:

  • Of course, the aside about the third baby getting adopted and winning prizes for his tropical fish turns out to be true, and that boy is Greasy Johnson, the kid who runs the only other gang in town and tries to bully Adam and his friends.
  • Anathema’s long list of beliefs include “Americans out of practically everywhere down to and including Long Island.” And look, I got married on the north fork of Long Island and… honestly, I agree.
  • Of course, the line cook is supposed to be Elvis, which puts me in mind of Death’s stint as a line cook in Mort. In both cases this seems to be billed as therapeutic, or at least satisfying to each party. Which is amusing to me, because I’ve never met a line cook who was particularly chill about their job.

Pratchettisms/Gaimanisms:

Crowley’s hands itched. Aziraphale healed bicycles and broken bones; he longed to steal a few radios, let down some tires, that sort of thing.

Not that he was actually expecting a sentence like “until eleven years ago the Manor was used as a convent by an order of Satanic nuns who weren’t in fact all that good at it, really,” but you never knew.

The trouble with trying to find a brown-covered book among brown leaves and brown water at the bottom of the ditch of brown earth in the brown, well, grayish light of dawn, was that you couldn’t.

And she held her sword, and she smiled like a knife.

Adam drummed his heels on the edge of the milk crate that was doing the office of a seat, listening to this bickering with the relaxed air of a king listening to the idle chatter of his courtiers.

Cats, Dog considered, were clearly a lot tougher than lost souls.

“Huh,” said Pepper, summing up their feelings.

The WA’s headquarters was a fetid room with walls the color of nicotine, which was almost certainly what they were coated with, and a floor the color of cigarette ash, which was most certainly what it was.

Next week we’ll get up to “[…] a crack of thunder so loud it hurt, and a hard rain began to fall.”

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