A Town Called Pandemonium
edited by Anne C. Perry and Jared ShurinA Town Called Pandemonium is an unusual anthology because the stories have recurring characters. They are set in and around the New Mexican town of Pandemonium in the mid-19th century, a lonely and lawless place that has already seen better days. It's full of rogues and people with dark secrets and mean streaks. It's the kind of place where there would be a tax on smiling, if anyone paid tax.
This anthology is most memorable for its gritty atmosphere. Will Hill's The Sad Tale Of The Deakins Boys goes from mean to horrific as a family of men go looking for silver in a cave, and get more than they expected. This was quite a visceral story, but I wasn't sure what it was really about.
Sam Sykes' Wish For A Gun was one of my favourites from the book. It's the story of Matthias, an old man who is burying his wife. Sykes is a pretty atmospheric writer, and this is no exception: you can almost taste the grit and bitterness. There's a nasty seeming mermaid in a well who offers Matthias a bargain. I particularly enjoyed the way the author plays with our expectations of what the main character is going to do. I thought this was a high impact story about grief, with a consistent ending that's satisfying, if a little downbeat.
However, I didn't think any of the other stories were as strong, because in most cases I couldn't figure out what points they were making. In fiction there's always a balance to be struck between being too preachy and seeming to say nothing. A Town Called Pandemonium veers too far towards saying nothing for my liking. Either the metaphors are too subtle to be noticed, or this really is an assortment of vignettes which aren't a metaphor for anything.
Aside from this, many stories are notable for their vivid descriptions. Joseph D'Lacey's The Gathering Of Sheaves is a gross and visceral tale of a botanist out in the wild. Sam Wilson's Rhod The Killer introduces a naive newcomer into town, and I enjoyed the comic moments in this. Den Patrick's Red Hot Hate is much meaner and grittier, which is more in keeping with the tone of the rest of the stories. I thought the ending was a little predictable, but getting there was interesting.
I wasn't fond of many of the characters, particularly a few of the recurring ones, because they seemed too mean and dissolute. But the standard of writing was such that I wanted to keep reading about this mean old town, and all of the hapless characters who get stuck there like flies on sticky paper. It's just a shame that the endings didn't have more direction, because often I was left wondering what it was all about.
17th November 2013
Review © Ros Jackson