Good Omens, an early work by fantasy legends Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman is in many ways a familiar tale.
The action begins with the delivery of a demonic child, destined to bring about Armageddon. The apocalypse will be presided over by a pair of adversaries pitted against each other since the dawn of man – Crowley, the Genesis-era tempter of Adam and Eve, and Aziraphale, the Angel entrusted with guarding Eden.
There’s one problem with this scenario: in the six thousand years since the Fall, Crowley and Aziraphale have become drinking buddies, and have grown to enjoy the pleasures of earth. Not interested in dealing with the nasty business of the End Times, the two immortals plot to disrupt the infant’s diabolical upbringing – further complicated by the fact that, unbeknownst to either of them, the child has been switched at birth.
Packed with quirky characters, eccentric humour, and references both popular and Biblical, this 1990 cult novel reads like The Omen mixed with Monty Python.
The book features multiple intersecting plotlines, sly running jokes that take hundreds of pages to pay off, and a large cast of angels, demons, humans, children, nuns, witches, and witchfinders.
Given that Pratchett and Gaiman collaborated on the novel in an era before Google Docs (they reportedly wrote the bulk of it through phone conversations and mailed floppy disks), it’s a small miracle that the story is so seamlessly integrated.
The plot meanders aimlessly, driven by Pratchett and Gaiman’s witty narration and whimsical asides. Along the way, the authors provide solutions to a variety of mysteries of the universe: why there are only Four Horsemen in the Book of Revelations (the answer involves a motorcycle accident), how many angels can dance on the head of a pin (a moot point, as there is only one angel who can actually dance), and whether or not Elvis Presley is alive and well and working at a truck stop.
Much of the novel’s humour comes from the pairing of bookish Aziraphale with stylish slacker Crowley. The reluctant demon “who did not Fall so much as Saunter Vaguely Downward,” is frequently surprised to find humans committing more diabolical sins than demons could ever dream up. “They’ve got what we lack,” he concludes. “They’ve gotimagination. And electricity, of course.”
As an apocalyptic novel, Good Omens has its fair share of grandiose imagery, including clandestine meetings of demons and the resurgence of the Lost City of Atlantis rising.
However, the real magic is found in the smaller, character-driven moments – deadpan dialogue between supernatural beings, scenes of Aziraphale and Crowley drunkenly bemoaning the coming apocalypse, or subtle notes like Crowley “blessing” under his breath.
(My personal favourite is an exchange in which a technology-adverse demon is informed that Crowley “drives a car with a telephone in it” and subsequently speculates, “I bet it needs a lot of wire.”)
Good Omens is a clever and irreverent read that might just get you thinking about deeper religious and moral questions. Alternately, you can take it as an amusing joyride through the End Times, set to a Best of Queen soundtrack.
Originally published in The Fulcrum as “It’s lit in the library: Good Omens | Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman;” March 8/2017