#68. Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
Good Omens is a humorous collaboration between two famous authors, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, and published by Workman Publishing Company in 1990. This unique alliance was the idea of these two friends, who have known each other since 1985. Gaiman claims that the book was originally began as a parody of the William series by English author Richmal Crompton. It was to be called William the Antichrist. But it soon grew into something so much more with the addition of Pratchett to the project. Due to the fact that Gaiman was also working on comics for Sandman magazine, and that this was novel, not a graphic novel, Pratchett was the overall editor or the project, and responsible for the stitching, filling and slicing. An interesting game of sending floppy disks back and forth and daily phone calls brought on the creation that holds the sixty-eighth position on the 2003 BBC’s Big Reads. In the end, the book was by two guys who shared the money equally and did it mainly “for fun”.
The book offers a comical perspective of the birth of the Antichrist, and the collaboration of an unlikely pair to divert the final battle, the end of the times. Through the third person omniscient point of view, we learn that the demon Crowley and the angel Aziraphale are quite comfortable with the lives on earth and have made a deal with each other to protect that lifestyle, which means derailing both Hell’s plans for the Antichrist, and Heaven’s plans to bring on the Final Battle. Both are, however, extremely pleased with the lifestyles they have acquired on earth, and admit that both Heaven and Hell lack the things that please them the most. Crawley, later renamed “Crowley” because “Crawley” didn’t fit him, was the very “snakey” demon who tempted mankind out of the Garden of Eden. He loves his black 1926 Bentley and his fancy suit. Aziraphale, the angel assigned to the east gate of Eden, cherishes his books that he stores in his Secondhand Bookstore Soho, from which he never sells a book. He also loves music, and worldly foods. While everything is presented in a lighthearted manner with eccentric characters, the book presents some deeper thoughts very real perspectives of the world.
“They lost the Antichrist!” I tell my husband. And because of this significant fact, Adam Young, the real Antichrist has grown up without diabolical or divine influence and guidance. The failure or success of the Final Battle, depending on what side you are on, ultimately depends on the decisions and actions of this little boy. Adam steps back, in the end, and leaves the ultimate decision of man’s fate to man himself. The book, while never questioning God’s existence, does question the visual often portrayed by clergymen, of a giant cosmic chess game between God and Satan, suggesting that this scenario brings God down to Satan’s level.
“God plays an ineffable game of his own devising; which might be compared from the perspective of the other players, to being involved in an obscure and complex version of poker in a pitch dark room, with blank cards for infinite stakes with a dealer who won’t tell you the rules and smiles all the time.”
“It can’t be a cosmic chess game, it has to be just very complicated game of Solitaire. If we could understand we wouldn’t be us.” (page 360, para. 8)
With this statement, the authors acknowledge that God’s nature is impossible for ANYONE, whether mortal or immortal, to really understand.
A secondary plot emerges with the arrival and meeting of the Four Horsemen. For those of you who are not familiar, the Four Horsemen are the very same mentioned in several books of the Christian Bible, but most specifically in Ezekiel and Revelations 6:1-8. From this, we learn that the Four Horsemen represent War, Famine, Pestilence and Death, but as a comical twist, we are told in Good Omens that Pestilence retired in 1936 after the discovery of the wonders of penicillin, and Pollution has stepped up to take his place. With the 4th Horsemen, we are connected to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, as Good Omen’s presentation of Death is too similar to that of the personification of Death in his series to be considered a mere coincidence. Upon his final interaction with Adam, the Antichrist, he even calls himself Azrael:
“BUT I, he said, AM NOT LIKE THEM. I AM AZRAEL, CREATED TO BE CREATION’S SHADOW. YOU CANNOT DESTROY ME, THAT WOULD DESTROY THE WORLD.” (page 329, para 1)
I read the American version of this book, which features a 700-word section at the conclusion, tying up a few loose ends about Warlock, the American diplomat’s son that was mistaken for the Antichrist by all those who were watching. It also features footnotes that are absent in the British editions to help explain some of the words and phrases. I enjoyed that there were no traditional “chapters”, but rather time-labeled sections that grouped the corresponding activities and plots. It allows the reader to incorporate everything that is going on into one story pushing towards the climax by inserting the subplots into the main plot at the key moments. On the back cover, it showed a comment by the New York Times as: “A direct descendant of The ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’” but I have to completely disagree. I cannot see relating a book like Good Omens with a book written on a third grade reading level.
An interesting note is that the names “Nutter” and “Device” are actual names of people accused of witchcraft in the Pendle Witch trials of 1612. Elizabeth Device and her children James and Alison Device, along with Alice Nutter were amongst the twelve that were accused of witchcraft in and around the Pendle Hill area in Lancashire, England. They were executed at Lancashire on the 20th of August, 16I2, for having bewitched to death ‘by devilish practices and hellish means’ no fewer than sixteen inhabitants of the Forest of Pendle. Amongst those who died “at the hands of witchcraft” were Robert Nutter, John Device, Ann Nutter, and Christopher Nutter, the family members of the accused. The trial took place on August 18-19, along with the Samlesbury witches. This trial is amongst the most famous and best recorded trials of English history of the 17th century. Interestingly, many of the allegations resulted from accusations that appear to have been made from competition families who were trying to make a living from healing, begging and extortion.
So do you think that you might recognize the names of these authors, but cannot place them? You may recognize some other works by them. Some other pieces by Neil Gaiman, as Coraline, Mirrormask, Stardust, and American Gods. Terry Pratchett is infamous for the Discworld series.
World Fantasy Award Nominee for Best Novel – 1991
#68 BBC Big Read – 2003
#68 BBC Top 100 Books List – 2011
Locus Award Nominee for Best Fantasy Novel – 1991