A 25-year-old collaboration between two of fiction’s stars produced an end-times fantasia that cries out to be shared with a new generation
We’ve recently moved house and acquired, for the first time, an attic landing. It’s just large enough to stack up several of the wine boxes that were a student solution to bookshelves and will doubtless accompany us into our dotage, packed with books waiting to be shared with our daughters over the next few years. The ones not written for children but that I first devoured when I was young: Aldous Huxley and Evelyn Waugh, Virago classics like Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career and Antonia White’s Frost in May, Stevie Smith and ee cummings, all of Douglas Adams. It’s where I’d put Terry Pratchett if he hadn’t been permanently shared with my book-stealing little sister, and Stephen King if reading The Tommyknockers hadn’t put me off him for 20 years.
And it’s where I found and had to pick up again Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s collaborative novel Good Omens, published in 1990, when Gaiman was known for Sandman rather than American Gods and when you could still count all the Discworld books on the fingers of two hands. Written through the exchange of floppy disks and daily phone calls, it’s a marvellously benign, ridiculously inventive and gloriously funny end-times fantasia featuring angels, devils, 17th-century prophets, witches and witchfinders, and the four horsemen of the apocalypse in modern guise. Famine sells diet foods and invents nouvelle cuisine; Pestilence spreads pollution; War is a glamorous global reporter stirring up trouble. Only Death never changes, having never been away.
The book began life as a parody of Richmal Crompton’s Just William books called William the Antichrist. This is evident in the passages about “the Them”, the gang led by young Adam Young. He is the son of Satan who, thanks to a muddled baby-swap, grows up not so much the Antichrist he’s intended to be, as the ideal of a rural English mid-century schoolboy with tousled hair and a strong will. The eternal battle between good and evil is personified by the angel Aziraphale, a gently fusty rare book dealer, and the demon Crowley, a slippery individual in shades. As they have more in common with each other than with anyone else on earth, above or below, their enmity has mutated over millennia into friendship.
Then there’s Anathema Device, who has inherited the only accurate book of prophecy ever written, passed down over generations from her ancestor Agnes Nutter, burned in the 17th century as a witch (a demise that she did, of course, foresee). These “Nice and Accurate Prophecies” inform the characters that they’re living through the world’s last week – unless they can change the rules of the cosmic chess game…
I can’t wait to share how clever and silly this book is, often in the same sentence – a supernatural being thinking, “That Hieronymous Bosch. What a weirdo”, never fails to crack me up – and how lightly it wears its cleverness. My daughters will learn the etymology of “nice”, for a start, before the book even begins. The countryside where Adam lives is summed up thus: “If Turner and Landseer had met Samuel Palmer in a pub and worked it all out, and then got Stubbs to do the horses, it couldn’t have been better.” (You can really tell throughout that for Gaiman and Pratchett there are parts of rural England that are a little spot of Heaven.) It should spur them on to read Revelation, and GK Chesterton.
It’s refreshing to find Pratchett’s humour and erudition trained on Earth rather than mediated through Discworld, and the footnotes – apparently Gaiman and Pratchett often footnoted each other’s sections, a lovely insight into how their styles and humour mingled – show them at their best (“Shadwell hated all southerners and, by inference, was standing at the North Pole”). You can see in Good Omens a lot of what Gaiman would go on to do – the mythological riffs and reboots of Neverwhere and American Gods – as well as a perfect example of Pratchett’s personal philosophy: that good and evil are less helpful concepts than a million shades of grey, and that the most fantastic supernatural creatures could never come close to the depths and heights of humanity.
Twenty-five years on, the book has lasted surprisingly well. Pratchett and Gaiman’s obsession with tech meant they were ahead of the curve when it came to the “slim computers” that demon Crowley likes so much. Some things haven’t changed: “All that lather comes up from the centre of the Earth, where it’s all hot,” says a member of Adam’s gang. “I saw a programme. It had David Attenborough, so it’s true.” And the real end of the world that Adam foresees is closer and scarier than ever: “Everyone’s goin’ around usin’ up all the whales and coal and oil and ozone and rainforests and that, and there’ll be none left for us. We should be goin’ to Mars and stuff, instead of sittin’ around in the dark and wet with the air spillin’ away.”
I remember longing, after finishing Good Omens all those years ago, for another Pratchett/Gaiman book, something that was never likely to happen and is of course impossible now. In retrospect, it seems amazing that two such singular and prolific creative energies could share the writing of a novel: an extraordinary congruence of hard work, good timing and readerly luck. Last word to Terry Pratchett: “In the end, it was this book done by two guys, who shared the money equally and did it for fun and wouldn’t do it again for a big clock.”