November 03, 2016
(++++) HECK AND DARNATION
Lost Gods. By Brom (Gerald Brom). Harper Voyager. $27.99.
Vast, sprawling and pretentious, determined to be Dantesque but at its best when it settles for grotesque, Lost Gods by Brom (who uses only one name professionally) is packed with everything from the standard (a fallen-but-basically-admirable hero, an evil creature driven entirely by destructive urges) to the distinctly non-standard (an angel besotted by lust, a dead-but-still-fighting leader of Civil-War-era commandos). Enlivened, if that is the word, by Brom’s suitably gothic illustrative renderings of various characters, Lost Gods sprawls and oozes beyond itself and periodically trips over the feet of its own plot, and if that sounds like a mishmash of a metaphor, it is right in keeping with Brom’s extravagant writing style, which overreaches as often as it reaches for (and sometimes finds) a strong human connection with readers.
Aside from the fact that its protagonist is dead, this hefty novel (almost 500 oversize pages) is in essence a traditional quest tale. Chet Moran, a minor-league criminal, has decided to turn his life around and do right by his pregnant girlfriend, Trish – who, however, is in the clutches of her father, an Alabama judge right out of the Old South, who reigns supreme in his jurisdiction and would just as soon see Chet dead. He never knows that he gets his wish. Chet claims Trish and flees with her – in a scene that involves an inadvertent killing-by-car that figures in the plot later, rather unnecessarily – and the two head for the only place where Chet thinks they may be safe: Moran Island, South Carolina, his ancestral home. There are some signs that not all is well there, including demon-spawn former children, various magical wards, and the fact that what was left of Chet’s family got out of there years ago as quickly as it could. But Chet and Trish have nowhere else to go, so they find their way to the home of Chet’s grandmother, Lamia. Bad move. Lamia turns out to be the lamia, an ancient evil spirit who soon dispatches Chet and makes decidedly unwelcome advances toward Trish’s unborn child. Chet, his protective instincts in full flower despite the fact that he is, after all, dead, is determined to find a way through the underworld/afterlife to protect Trish and the baby. And so he sets off on a quest – on which he is sent by an angel so enthralled by Lamia that his angelic powers are fading and being used for decidedly non-angelic purposes. The angel, for reasons of his own, gives Chet a bag of coins and a knife with special powers – quest heroes always have objects of some sort to take with them and learn how to use – and it is these that initially help Chet get into Purgatory so he can seek a way to protect those he has left behind.
The ins and outs of Brom’s Purgatory are the main attraction of Lost Gods, whose title refers to the fact that “old gods” of various kinds continue to exist, rather dimly, in Purgatory, kept active only by the devotion of their now-dead followers and losing power both through follower desertion and through attacks by roving bands of souls determined to overthrow the gods’ rule and be free to live life, or live death, in their own way. Actually, the motivations make little sense, and the idea of death-within-death (souls, already dead, can be made really dead by being separated into ka and ba and blown away by a whirlwind) is rather silly. And any possible philosophical considerations of rule-by-gods vs. rule-by-humans vs. rule-by-oneself are wholly ignored: there is no profundity here. There is, however, plenty of action. And Brom conjures up some exceptionally interesting subsidiary characters to interact with Chet. One is Yevabog, a spider goddess in whom no one believes any longer, who nevertheless retains some powers and is periodically able to wield them to useful effect; another is the soul of a man whose life was so miserable that he genuinely enjoys being in Purgatory for the short time that his soul remains in one piece; another is a giant golem, a sort of monstrous moving furnace that, properly fueled, leads the followers of one of the old gods on a trade-and-worship mission. Throughout his encounters with these and other outré characters, Chet manages to remain focused on Trish and the baby back up above, seeking a mystical key that is supposed to set things right on Earth but that the fallen angel, Senoy, will use to cement his and Lamia’s nefarious purposes if Chet follows instructions and brings it back.
It in no way diminishes the power of the story to note that Chet, of course, does eventually get the key – with the help of one of his own ancestors, a known bad guy who, not surprisingly, turns out to have considerable good in him after all. And Chet does, of course, bring it back to Earth. But he uses it in his own way – another “of course” occurrence – and while there are limits to what he can do (he cannot bring himself back to life, for example), he can more or less set things more or less right and open the way to a better future for Trish after he himself returns, as he must, to the underworld. Brom’s imaginative view of Purgatory, which includes snippets from various belief systems as well as his own vivid imagination, is the central pleasure of this novel, which never seeks profundity but provides a grand roller coaster of a story. The essentially one-dimensional grotesqueries described in Brom’s prose and shown in his illustrations all have, at bottom, comprehensible emotions and motivations, and Chet’s encounters with them are believable if rarely surprising. Chet himself is a recognizably heroic/anti-heroic Everyman, wandering through a world not of his own making and one he comes only slowly and partially to understand. It is the chance to join him on his quest and undergo its trials and triumphs that will pull readers into Brom’s Purgatory and interest them in encountering even the most enigmatic and unpleasant of the Lost Gods.