Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Book Review: Demons by John Shirley

Demons by John Shirley

372 pages, Paperback

April 2003, Del Rey Books

 There are books that change your life, no matter how great I think it is, I doubt that this book will have the effect on most of you that it did me. When I discovered the work of John Shirley I had just made the decision that I wanted to take my own writing seriously. I was getting lots of advice, and mostly I was trying to learn lessons from the greats I grew up reading. The discovery of this book and John Shirley at Bluestocking Books in San Diego upended my thinking and was a huge influence on me as a writer.

I bought Crawlers and Demons, in part because they were Del Rey books, a brand I mostly trusted, and this writer who I missed until that point somehow. It had blurbs from Clive Barker and William Gibson, wait he wrote The Crow!!! When I looked him up he had a career in both Science Fiction and Horror. I kept getting advice to pick a lane, and this dude was doing both. That was a goal I had. By all accounts, he was political and radical in his thinking. That was something I was craving in the genre. He fronted some of the first Punk bands in Portland??? This guy rules!

Demons is two novellas put together, and I think the first one is an absolute masterpiece, a genius piece of work. The second one is good and important but it has the unfortunate job of following up a story that was complete. The first book was published with a indie small press, and the thinking was that needed to be expanded to make it a full book to be published for a national market. At the time doorstop, huge epics were all the rage in publishing. Demons is not that but it had to be longer. Trade paperbacks of novellas were not in like they are today.

The fact is the first book is worth the cost of admission. The whole shebang opens with the narrator saying it is amazing what you get used to. The people in this novel have gotten used to eight clans of demonic creatures attacking and killing people across the globe. An invasion from where? And by whom? These monsters are described in a helpful and hilarious glossary before the story starts. Bugsys are described as a parody of humans, and tricksters, The Sharkadians have head-like jaws, wings and apparently female. Nightmare stuff. Spiders and massive leviathans called Tailpipes, just to name a few.

When the demons show up society has no answers, the people just have to run and survive. There is fun monster action, and in the hands of most authors, this would set up a kaiju story that might have a message that goes over the heads of most readers. This is a John Shirley book, the radical voice of the genre that wore a spiked dogged collar to Clarion and scared the shit out of Harlan Ellison (who read part of this novel’s audiobook) by jumping out of a tree onto him while tripping balls.

Demons is not a typical kaiju end-of-the-world monster mash because the person who wrote it is a radical voice commenting on the world. Published in 2000, and written in the late 90s Demons is a book in the SF horror tradition of ecological horror. The Sheep Look Up by John Brunner released in 1974 might be the best example of this. Brunner’s book is so bleak it makes McCarthy’s The Road look like a rom-com. Demons also makes a powerful statement about the destruction of our ecology and tie it to capitalist assholes profiting from it, and does it with a sense of humor and fun.

Demons doesn’t just take aim at the capitalists; it finds a way to comment on in sly little ways about nearly everyone. You can’t do a story about demons without talking about religion.

“If the commentator was Christian, he said it fulfilled revelations. The Jews, the Sikhs, the Muslims pointed to other prophecies, the fundamental Christians, anyway, were easily refuted: the Second Coming never came about. They waited and waited for the Judgement; for the angel with the flaming sword, for the Rapture, for the dead rise, but not (now and then the demons raise the dead but not the way Christians expected), for Jesus to come in his glory.
Jesus was a no-show. Naturally, the evangelists rationalized his conspicuous absence: The Sacred Timetable, don’t you know is a little off, that’s all but the most “righteous” of them were eaten alive, a limb at a time, in public no differently than sinners. I remember when the demons rampaged through Oral Roberts University. The sniggering delight that some hipsters and cynics took in the brutal series of blood atrocities was most embarrassing - for the rest of us cynics and hipsters.”

This passage was a huge indication in my first read all those years ago, that Shirley had zero-f's to give if his commentary hit a little too hard for some in the audience. I grew up with lots of safe voices in the genre, who wanted to appeal to everyone. I had read the splatterpunks, and needed more voices like that. Here was a voice in the genre who had stood on the stage in a basement as the focal point of a punk band and was channeling that energy into a book of ecological rage, using hilarious metaphors of this demonic invasion.

Who are the demons? In the end who are the demons? The rampaging monsters or the capitalist forces that caused them to rise? Are the storms, heat waves, forest fires, and dust bowls of climate change the monsters of our future? No the reality is it is the suits making cash in board runs, the capitalist bastards trading your grandchildren’s future for money. John Shirley’s Demons is about exactly that.

“Yes, the little city of Hercules,” Nyerza said. “all but wiped out a few years ago in an industrial accident. Very like what happened in Bhopal in the last century,I understand. Perhaps you lost friends or relatives there?”

One after another they traced the demons you these accident sites where sacrifices caused the demons to rise. This is a hardcore allegory and one that instantly hooked me as a Shirley fan. He was the voice in genre I was looking for all these years. That was almost two decades ago now. I have a three-layer John Shirley shelf. I have written extensively about his career and work, including the bonus features for the e-book of his horror masterpiece Wetbones. I worked with John to adapt one of his short stories for a screenplay. My love for his work is pretty boundless but the spark that lit this flame was this allegory.

Demons book one is a short, funny, and exciting novella that services that allegory. It is not a spoiler, as there are many laugh-out-loud and holy shit moments. It is what I call idea dense with moments that seem like a throw-away joke but provide great commentary.

“You guys are staring at me like I’m nuts, but you’re special- they have that mobile Fox Channel transmitter, on that bus that uses that satellite info and dodges the demons. They have that show The Clans and it’s pure demonphile stuff.”

Keep in mind this line, obviously, a dig at shows like COPS was written before the rise of reality TV. Shirley has had a habit of mocking the future before it came true. If you read his most recent SF novel Stormland you should be worried. As far as the Demonphile stuff, we have seen in our current times that the MAGA cult has taken a criminal moron like Trump and turned him into what they view as a saintly figure. They do this when the list of his anti-American actions is endless. They worship him.

As for Demons book two. While it is not the unfuckwithable masterpiece that the first half, it is also saying important stuff about today. It doesn’t have the humor or the monster action but it is very much about how we as a society bury the obvious right in front of us in an attempt to just carry on.

I think Demons is an underrated book. Reading the reviews online it is funny to me how many people just don’t get it. Now that I have read everything by Shirley I don’t rank as high as some novels Wetbones, City Come’ A Walkin, Transmaniacon, and The Song Called Youth trilogy are absolute masterpieces. Stormland his latest SF novel I think will be one of the SF books that with time will sadly pre-date stuff.

Anyways I pulled this one on the shelf on a whim, planning to re-read one of my favorite scenes, and got hooked. Demons rules. Shirley is right the cultists in boardrooms are wrecking the planet and killing you in a ritual sacrifice, the problem is they are raising money, not demons but you are in no less danger.

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