Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, Good Omens, (The Nice and
Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch)
(HarperCollins, 2006)

Both Neil Gaiman (Anansi Boys, Coraline) and Terry Pratchett (Thud, Where's My Cow?) are world class fantasists and giants of popular literature. But back in 1990, when they were, in their own description, "not yet Neil Gaiman and just barely Terry Pratchett" (Locus, February 2006), they wrote a book together. They did it for fun, thinking it would be amusing. And it is. However, since they were themselves (even if they didn't quite know it at the time), it is much more than that. Over the years it has grown in audience and import, and now -- mirabile dictu! -- it has been reissued.

Good Omens is a very funny, very serious book about the end of the world. The Antichrist has been born and is now 11 years old, and all manner of classically predicted phenomena are manifesting. Naturally, most of them are being ignored, misinterpreted or missed altogether. And since this is the work of Gaiman and Pratchett, there is a darkly comic twist to the action.

For instance, the Antichrist has been mislaid -- Heaven and Hell think they know where he is, but they're wrong. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse do know where he is, but they've been delayed by groupies. Also, they are lost. The only people who have correctly identified him are not, actually, people. One of them is a Hell Hound, currently incarnated as a small dog with a humorously floppy ear; and the other is an accurate but dead witch whose 500-year old prophecies would explain the whole problem, if only anyone understood them.

Crowley and Aziraphale, the respective minions of Hell and Heaven, have been assigned to bring about Armageddon. However, they have come to the conclusion that they like the World (not to mention the Flesh, the Bentley and Antique Books) and have absolutely no desire to end it. The rest of the legions of angels and demons, though, have had nothing to do for all these millennia, and are ready to rumble. The last two members of the Witchfinders Army are loose in the countryside, being distracted by an aging dominatrix and the last descendant of Alice Nutter, the Witch of the title. Atlantis is rising. Gardens everywhere are being menaced by tunneling Tibetans. And in these troubled modern times, the evils personified by the Horsemen of the Apocalypse might very well include Cruelty To Animals (pro or con not specified) and Embarrassing Personal Problems.

Part of the genius here is Gaiman and Pratchett's uncanny ability to take any situation to its dreadfully logical extreme. Somewhere in the hysteria, you realize they are describing very real horrors, and that laughter is not so much a reaction as an escape. Portions of the book are satisfyingly grim -- the rage of the kraken and the revenge of the rain forest come to mind. Cover blurbs universally refer to the humor of this book; and it really is very funny. But it's a lot more than merely funny. The artfully done humor here is of the British, rather than American style. It owes less to the pratfall than to the deadfall: we go trustingly along until the ground gives way beneath us, and the unexpected is revealed. The authors present a compassionate but merciless view of the human condition: the Apocalypse happens to everyone sooner or later; all our worlds end. And what matters is not to be Good or Evil Incarnate, but Human Incarnate.

If you have never encountered this collaboration between two very original minds, I urge you to jump at the chance now. Personally, this was almost the first work by either of the authors I ever read -- it's hybrid vigor led me to the oeuvres of both Gaiman and Pratchett, thus enriching me twice over.

Aesthetically, this is a very handsome reprint of the original book (Workman Publishing, 1990), with delicious extra material fore and aft. There is a proper little foreword, just long enough to whet one's appetite for the main course of the book. Following the entrée are essays on both authors (by one another) and a Good Omens FAQ, described by the authors as "hallowed lies." All are enormous fun, especially if this is a reader's first go-round with this book.

Of course, you may be cherishing your battered original copy. The authors claim to have received requests to sign copies literally loved to pieces, presented as loose pages in a baggie. Here is a chance to upgrade to a lovely fresh volume -- the text is unchanged, and there is all that lovely expository material. It's worth investing in the reprint.

Presented in a tres cool black and white format, with elegant splashes of red, this edition is very easy on the eyes. I rather miss the weird little woodcut illustrations from the original -- especially the bat-winged hourglass. I think it's an hourglass with bat wings - but the demon Crowley lounging on the cover of my American issue is charming. According to Locus Magazine (February 2006), the British issue has the angel Aziraphale on the dust jacket. The gentlemen are equally attractive.

[Kathleen Bartholomew]