By Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
Fantasy/Transworld/1990, reissued 2019/Paperback/416 pages/$18.19/Available here
While everyone is waiting with bated breath for the sequel to the hit 2019 Amazon Prime series, why not revisit the book it is based on?
Fans of British fantasy authors Pratchett and Gaiman will have a good time trainspotting which bits were written by which writer.
In this quirky take on 1976 horror film The Omen, the Antichrist baby gets mistakenly placed with a regular, stoic English family instead of an American cultural attache, thanks to the inept machinations of a flighty Satanic nun.
The mix-up is discovered rather late in the game by the angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley, supernatural foot soldiers stationed on Earth to oversee developments, that over millennia have come to "an Arrangement" with each other.
A scramble ensues to find the Antichrist and prevent Armageddon from destroying humankind, Earth and Aziraphale's access to good classical music and sushi.
Other secondary characters include the witch Anathema Device, guided by the "nice and accurate prophecies" of her ancestor Agnes Nutter; budding witch-hunter Newton Pulsifer; and the four horsemen of the Apocalypse.
The characterisation of the horsemen is very much in Gaiman's darker style. War is a slinky femme fatale. Famine is personified as a capitalist entrepreneur making millions off diet and fast-food fads. Pestilence gets updated as Pollution.
Death is borrowed from Pratchett's Discworld novels (1983 to 2015), with his penchant for speaking IN ALL CAPS, but is otherwise a grimmer version.
There are bits that do not quite hold together. Some scenes unfold because the authors are evidently having way too much fun writing them to delete them from the narrative.
But this is really a minor quibble because the reader will be laughing too hard to mind the various oddball detours.
The footnotes, a Pratchett speciality, are especially entertaining. And there are some astonishingly thoughtful diversions into philosophy and the nature of good and evil.
Some of the jokes are dated - there is, for example, a running joke about how any cassette tape left in Crowley's car long enough metamorphoses into a Best Of Queen album. But most of the humour has aged fairly well.
This turns out to be a strangely comforting read, despite the doomy premise of looming Armageddon. There is something heart-warming about the determined stiff upper lip of the characters that are all just trying to do the right thing in a world gone mad.
As a reader, one can draw a surprising amount of hope from this.
• Shelf Care is a twice-weekly column that recommends uplifting, comforting or escapist books to read while staying home during the Covid-19 pandemic.