Stark reviews: A Town Called Pandemonium

A Town Called Pandemonium Jurassic London cover

For obvious reasons, you’d be right in assuming that I am the sort to lunge after a good digital anthology. Working solely in this medium (so far) has set the pace for my own Nunslinger series: breakneck, breathless serialisation. It has been both a challenge and a joy, given freedom and flexibility alongside the tight deadlines of classic pulp fiction.

So, of course I was excited from the outset about A Town Called Pandemonium (Jurassic London, 2012) a digitally available, shared-world Western crammed with stories from a whole host of talented writers.

Whilst A Town Called Pandemonium is sitting happily on my kindle, I also had the chance to read it in the wonderful, limited Café de Paris edition hardback: an opportunity too good to pass up. There was something magical about holding that solid, heavy brown book in my hands, knowing that it contained a different universe, vibrant with voices.

And therein lies the difficulty in trying to summarise anything about ATCP. Curators and creators, Jared Shurin and Anne C. Perry talk in their introduction of setting their authors loose into the framework of the world. In writing their tales of Pandemonium, each author has done more than contribute words: they’ve added texture, crosshatchings, grit and dust, stains and scars. They’ve captured, with amazing dexterity, the clamorous, clinging life of a doomed town.

The distinct narrative voices serve to build this town layer upon layer. It is like sitting in a saloon and listening, night after night, to urban myths and twisting anecdotes. As the stories progress, so does our understanding of the place. Pandemonium builds itself – ravine to road – figuratively as well as geographically.

Will Hill’s ‘The Sad Tale of the Deakins Boys’ introduces many of the key themes. The story explores greed, self-consumption, delusion and the erosion of humanity with a gory literality. It sets a tone, washes the grit of Pandemonium’s streets onto our boots, for it to dry there.

Dead ends and treacherous bridges permeate the stories. They represent the grand irony of the frontier: humans surrounded by space, the classic embodiment of freedom, yet trapped by it.

Pandemonium is isolated and isolating, impoverished in body and mind, yet burning itself up in a fever dream. It is threatened from within by greed and from without, ultimately, by the unstoppable juggernaut of industry, thrusting itself into the wilderness on cold, steel rails.

Osgood Vance’s ‘Sleep in Fire’ admirably explores these themes. The contested valley of the story is claustrophobic, closed in and dangerous. It appears through a narrow pass in a rock face before the ‘great, empty space of the north’. The story is, in a sense, a metaphor for what happens when short, brutish life of the frontier meets eternal longing for freedom.

Belle’s story in Chrysanthy Balis’ ‘Belle Deeds’ (gold star for the pun) is something of a nightmarish, cyclical palimpsest. Belle’s passions and dreams both liberate and ensnare; she runs, she changes, yet ultimately she cannot escape Pandemonium, try as she might.

So too in Joseph D’Lacey’s ‘The Gathering of Sheaves’. Time and again in the stories, we encounter the idea that the force which threatens us from outside is also within our own bodies. ‘Humanity’ sits upon many of the characters with a frightening fragility.

If you will forgive an extended metaphor, I might call ATCP part-fugue, part sacred harp music.  The constituent parts are well crafted and precise, yet are also launched into all the energy of the individual author. They have surveyed the guidelines, but chosen their own pitch, their own volume, their own tone. This is not an easily contained anthology of polished nuggets. It is collaboration at its best, vivid, vociferous and absolutely bursting with talent and enthusiasm.

It is an altogether consuming book. Pandemonium left its dust in my lungs and its stories in my mind long after the final page was turned. I’m returning immediately to other Pandemonium collections, like the recent 1913-based Pandemonium: Rite of Spring, and shall eagerly await the upcoming Streets of Pandemonium, scheduled for November 2014, set seventy years after the events of ATCP. 

What’s that? Pick a favourite? That’s mighty unfair. But if I had to, it’d be Sam Sykes’s ‘Wish for a Gun’. I agree, in part, with previous reviewers, who’ve said that it could exist outside Pandemonium, but that’s part of its otherworldly quality: it’s like staring at the rest of the town through thick, distorted glass.

A Town Called Pandemonium is available as a Silver Dollar edition paperback, an ebook via amazon and kobo and of course, on Goodreads.

Find out more about Shurin, Perry and Jurassic London.

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