The Devil’s Alphabet, Daryl Gregory’s second novel puts monsters in small town America, and for the most part, the people in this town accept it as part of the landscape. That’s one way of describing this thought-provoking novel, but it is so much more than that. About 15 years prior to the events depicted in the novel, a strange disease -Transcription Divergence Syndrome (TDS) -swept through the town of Switchcreek, Tennessee physically changing the majority of the inhabitants in three very distinct ways. New strands of humanity were mutated through their DNA being changed by TDS, the charlies are the grotesquely obese; betas are hairless and described as seal-like, and the argos are giant grey skinned versions of what they once were. The town was quarantined and like the wind, the disease left as swiftly as it arrived.
Gregory’s protagonist is Paxton Abel Martin, Pax for short. Pax was one of the few residents of Switchcreek not affected by TDS, and because he was unaffected, he is considered a “skip.” As a result, his father, a preacher and a charlie, urged him to leave. Pax settles in Chicago and fifteen years later, Pax is called back to Switchcreek to attend the funeral of Jo Lynn who was his closest friend as a child. What Pax finds most surprising is that her death is ruled a suicide. When he returns to his childhood home he finds his father in worse condition than he could have imagined. Pax soon learns that one of the side attributes of the grotesquely enormous charlies is the secretion? of the Vintage, essentially a new drug. Pax is unable to not try the vintage and it sends him into an incredible, hallucinogenic high.
What Pax learns about his father; however, is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The theme of small town secrets is prevalent both in real life and in fiction, and Gregory does an incredibly convincing job of revealing the many secrets of Switchcreek. Though some of the secrets are both dark and benevolent at the same time, the path Gregory wends in revealing these secrets is clever and plausible.
Initially, Pax seems a scared individual, almost a wimp, reluctant to return to a place that signified a darker time in his life. Once there, he cannot help but get to the heart of the truth of matters. He initially found it extremely difficult to believe Jo Lynn killed herself. His memories of her just couldn’t match that and again, Gregory does a stellar job of portraying Pax’s anguish and need for truth. The more he learns about Jo Lynn, her daughters and what the people of Switchcreek thought of her, the less he could believe she killed herself.
Pax also has a difficult time reconciling with his father, whose small flashes of sanity in his dark and horrific life almost string Pax along for what could be an unrewarding ride. Gregory set up the three offshoots, charlies, argos, and betas, as distinct societal groups within Switchcreek. Lording over everything is the outwardly charming and matronly Aunt Rhoda who, in the intervening 15 years since Pax left Switchcreek, has become mayor. At times she is very supportive of Pax in welcoming him back to Switchcreek. Other times, when Pax wishes to get his father back home and out of the halfway/healing home, she vehemently, but very politely, tells him he should let things be as they are. In many ways, Aunt Rhoda reminded me of the character Frau Totenkinder from Bill Willingham’s superb comic book series Fables – on the surface warm and welcoming, but beneath the surface lies a depth and cunning.
One element of the book that slowly comes to light is how the majority of the characters who hold power are women. Aunt Rhoda, arguably the most powerful character in the novel, is of course a woman. The top doctor in town is a woman. The specter of Jo Lynn, who to me seemed the smartest character in the novel even in death, is a woman. There’s another play with gender since Pax becomes as dependent on his father’s vintage as a child is on his/her mother’s milk.
It is difficult not to compare The Devil’s Alphabet to some of Stephen King’s novels about the small fictional town of Castle Rock, like Needful Things or even It. Not so much because the big evil at the heart of the story, but in what King does best in his fiction, portraying real people, small town virtue and secrets, against the backdrop of things seemingly out of control changing their lives for the worse.
I can see why this book was on Publisher’s Weekly top Science Fiction/Fantasy novels of 2009 (http://www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6704595.html). However, part of what I enjoyed about the book is how it slipped in and out of the related genres of fantasy, science fiction, and horror. Overall, a very solid novel that has me regretting I’ve yet to read Gregory’s debut novel, Pandemonium. An oversight I will remedy.
© 2009 Rob H. Bedford