The Devil's Alphabet: A Novel
The Devil’s Alphabet, Daryl Gregory’s second book after 2008’s premier Pandemonium, starts simply enough: The prodigal son returns. In a mash-up with the classic Stranger Comes to Town storyline, Paxton Martin returns home to a small town in Tennessee called Switchcreek, where he’d grown up and been cast out twelve years before, after a biological disaster called Transcription Divergence Syndrome killed a third of the population and changed the rest into three new species of humans: giant twelve-foot-tall argos, bald and all-feminine betas, and massive, round charlies. Pax was one of the very few who wasn’t killed and wasn’t changed, what’s called a skip, and because of it, he could leave Switchcreek in an attempt to get a normal life in Chicago. He grew up there, knows the whole town and most of the people intimately, but he’s a stranger, someone who hasn’t called or visited since he left as a teenager, and grew up isolated, damaged, strange.
And the whole town is strange.
He only returned at all because his childhood best friend Jo Lynne was found dead of an assumed suicide, leaving her two young daughters and a huge mystery behind her. Now he’s angry, confused, rebellious, and right back in the middle of the small-town politics and the rocky relations he’s had with his former pastor father since his mother died during the second wave of the Changes (the wave that changed Jo Lynne into a beta after the one that changed his other best friend Deke into an argo, and before the one that changed his father into a charlie). As Pax flounders around, disconnected emotionally and lost mentally, getting more and more angry and irrational while simultaneously falling into a drug addiction and hopeless depression, he starts to unravel the new workings of his old hometown. The new people are organizing into clades, each kind with their own, both working together with the others and against them, and all three against the normal people and the government in the rest of the world.
The Devil’s Alphabet is a complex, far-ranging book that manages—almost miraculously considering the weird and off-the-wall subject matter—to keep itself within a fiercely personal scope. Most of the story is told from Pax’s slightly unreliable point of view with a few forays into Deke’s and Aunt Rhonda’s (the leader of the charlies).
The Changes happened more than a decade ago, a new generation has grown up with them, and the main conflict in the book is between those who remember being normal humans and those who know nothing but their new bodies—and all of this is shown through the eyes of the people who have to sort out the new ways of doing things. Pax doesn’t know how it all works, and blunders around getting beat up and addicted to a new side-effect of being Changed, hoping to find why his old friend died and what it means to the town and himself.
Deke has to think about all his people, who are the only ones of the three to be unable to breed, and only wants to help his wife find a way to conceive a child. Aunt Rhonda wants to keep the town alive while controlling the new problems that have cropped up and bending it all to her own view of how the town should be. Jo was kicked out of her clade’s commune because she didn’t want to be forced by biology or ideology to be a baby-maker after she was the first of the beta girls to start reproducing asexually—and then they all started doing the same, and decided that it was better that way. And all of this and more stays personal, allowing gut reactions and real emotional connection with the characters.
The book is cleanly written and wonderfully characterized. In the grand tradition of the southern weird, Gregory has managed to create a town that doesn’t exist, but could. A reader feels she could go there and visit these strange people. The roads are delineated. The homes are described in personal detail. The people are alive and real. And it’s always surprising. Perhaps it’s because Pax generally has no idea what’s going on, but the story manages to always have something new to show you, always brings a new twist the reader isn’t expecting—and yet, it never once gets too convoluted that the path can’t be deciphered when the new information presents itself.
The Devil’s Alphabet is compelling and easy to read but by no means simple, and, best of all, it doesn’t spoon-feed, but assumes the reader is smart enough to keep up, smart enough to figure it out, even if Pax isn’t. And in the end, it’s the story of a broken, really-messed-up boy learning to make peace with what happened to him as a kid, learning to make peace with is dad, and learning that there are bigger things he could be doing with his life.
The book ends in a bleak snowscape, a long way from the hot Tennessee summer it started in, but it’s hopeful in an entirely unexpected way. And it’s more than worth the read.
Reviewer Samantha Holloway is a freelance writer and editor, and is working on her first novel. Her most recent short story is in Fiction International’s FREAK issue and an upcoming anthology, and her academic work has appeared in The Essential Science Fiction Television Reader, and at various conferences.