It was only a matter of time before I read this one. I work at a popular San Antonio bookstore, and I try to shelve the sci-fi and fantasy books whenever I can. It was the cover of The Devil’s Alphabet that initially drew my attention with its gloriously creepy upside-down eyes staring back at me every time I walked by. The synopsis proved interesting enough to suck me in, and Daryl Gregory’s unique combination of science fiction, horror and small-town secrets kept me hooked.
It’s been fifteen years since Paxton Martin left the small town of Switchcreek, Tennessee, and he’s done his best to put his past behind him. Now he has returned to his hometown to attend the funeral of an old friend—her death ruled a suicide. However, Paxton has his doubts concerning the events of that night, and a few questions and some snooping around prove that there just may be more to Jo Lynn’s death than originally thought. This in itself provides the backdrop for a pretty standard, run-of-the-mill mystery; but Gregory doesn’t stop there.
Switchcreek, Tennessee, is the place where the changes happened.
Before Paxton left town, a mysterious, unidentifiable disease wiped out a third of the population and transformed most of the rest into one of three different types of beings. Argos are painfully stretched into hunched, chalk-skinned, twelve foot tall humanoids of immense strength and speed. Betas are a hairless, wine-skinned people whose women conceive children without intercourse. Charlies, like Paxton’s preacher father, are bloated and obese, the elder males of which produce blisters which leak a drug-like substance known as “the vintage.” Only a few residents, Paxton among them, are spared the pains of the transformation.
The town has moved on during Paxton’s absence, its people adapting to their new lives. The different clades have found ways to fit in, and their representatives strive to meet their new needs as citizens. The betas have grown into a cult-like people, living on a compound and revelling in their natural births. The charlies have also found a way to fit in, harvesting the vintage for an unknown purpose. Paxton finds himself having to learn to live in a new society, one that has evolved around its new inhabitants.
Gregory definitely has fun with the story. Not to be content with a mere estranged father/son reunion tale, Gregory’s Paxton is a chemically dependent slacker whose motivations may be based less on love than on the hallucinogenic side-effects that his vintage provides. Likewise, his take on local politics involves a bit more as well as now we have the different clades jockeying for more dollars to suit their new needs. It’s nice to see what he can do to small town life just by throwing in a little sci-fi weirdness.
Gregory does play with the fantastic, but like in real life, not all of his questions are answered. While the questions surrounding Jo Lynn’s death are resolved, I was left with quite a few “what-ifs” to kick around. But that’s not neccessarily a bad thing. Just as his take on small town life has enough true-to-life flavor to feel real, so does a story that only answers a few of the questions it poses. One question I do know the answer to: I’ll definitely be on the lookout for more stories from Daryl Gregory, upside-down eyes or not.