Moving away from your childhood home usually hurts, and so does coming back. Returning makes old aches ache again, and creates new one as being physically close points out the distance that grows between people as we age and change. Daryl Gregory’s fiction emphasizes that, and demonstrates that all this shit is extra intense if you’re possessed by a demon, or if you’re a zombie, or if your home town was the site of an outbreak of a strange illness that rewrote the genetic code and mutated the bodies of most of the population.

I brewed myself quite a mood this past season, what with the cold and long winter, the cold and long job hunt, and the sleeplessness of my job and my two young kids. Under those conditions apocalypse fiction appealed to me because fuck it let the world end, and especially let it end on the bus before I get to work and not right after I spent the day there. That’s why I started my still ongoing busride to work zombie fiction binge, and while I was asking around for other recommendations someone said “zombie books? check out this book Raising Stony Mayhall by Daryl Gregory.” So I did and then I immediately read his novels Pandemonium and The Devil’s Alphabet and now I’ve started on his short stories. To summarize my response to Gregory’s fiction: god damn.

“Any sufficiently advanced technology,” in a famous phrase from the British writer Arthur C. Clarke, “is indistinguishable from magic.” That seems right enough to me, and ‘advanced’ is relative. Alcohol is a kind of technology, one that I don’t really understand, it’s advanced in that it outstrips my understanding of it. I don’t know why or how it does what it does, it just works. On the infrequent occasions I have time to partake, I put it in my mouth, my mouth feels warm, this continues until I feel relaxed. Likewise for a great many other technologies, some of them old and many of them new. (Not the “I put it in my mouth part” but rather the “I don’t understand it but it just works” part.) The first time I used Skype it felt like being in the distant future. In everyday life I use all kinds of stuff that may as well be powered by angels and steered by ghosts and built by demons. This is part of why I sometimes talk to my phone and laptop when they freeze up – “oh come on, don’t do this, not now, please.”

This gets at elements of Gregory’s work, I think, in that he writes about stuff where science and magic are indistinguishable for the people living with the situations he writes about. Do the dead walk and people’s DNA become suddenly re-written because of spirits or because of viruses that grew in parallel universes and learned to propagate themselves by leaping into other universes in something called quantum teleportation? At the level of the effects on the everyday lives and loves and relationships of the people affected, those causes don’t matter all that much, though at the same time his characters do care about causes in the sense that they try to make their lives explicable as part of trying to make them livable. That trying is a work in progress for the characters; these books are full of people who have not yet fully understood what is happening to them and why, and they have to live within that uncertainty – even when they’re dead.

So, when Gregory writes about weird shit that can’t happen – or that hasn’t yet happened on this Earth in this universe as far as we know – he doesn’t dwell on the explanations and doesn’t much try to make it scientifically plausible. The strangeness of the events he writes about is interesting in its own right, but the work never becomes an act of extended speculation on how that kind of strangeness could actually take place, speculation that’s captivated by the big pictureness of the idea. Instead he treats the strangeness as an open question for his characters in the worlds they inhabit – they wonder about why these events have occurred, and they don’t reach clear conclusions – and above all he focuses less on the weird events themselves as a matter of science-and/or-fantasy speculation and much more on how those weird events shape the lives of his characters. It’s less “whoa this shit is so weird it blew my mind” and more “wow that weird shit would totally fuck people up and then they would have to live with that, and live with each other in the aftermath of that, what would that be like?”

That is to say, in his stories Gregory writes about (what are hopefully) impossible events in a way that brings out the realness of his characters. His characters wrestle especially with departures and returns – characters leaving and returning home feature in the three of his novels and the two short stories I’ve read of his so far, “In The Wheels” and “Second Person, Present Tense” – and with the tensions of relationships pulled between distance and closeness. He particularly emphasizes families – who in their families do people turn to when crisis happens, what keeps family being family, and how do families reconnect after too much time has gone on, all of this comes up in Gregory’s novels. The fact that the crises are demon possession, physical mutation, or the resurrection of the dead doesn’t change those core human dynamics so much as force people into especially extreme circumstances that test them and bring out their deeper humanity, in all its ugliness and beauty.

All of that may make these books sound like awkward, slow, heavy, books that put ideas and themes in front of story. They’re not. They’re fast-paced, suspenseful page-turners with characters I cared about a lot as I read them, and they’re often funny. As I read each of these novels I had to fight to not stay up too late reading, and to put the book away and do stuff I have to do, like walk the rest of the way to the building where I work without slipping on the ice, which requires looking at the sidewalk instead of the book.

One thing that especially jumped out at me in these books is how the characters give each other shit. I’m not sure if that’s a regional term or not, in case it is and anyone from outside the midwest is reading this, ‘giving you shit’ is a term for how midwestern people, or at least midwestern guys, or at least guys from Illinois and Iowa, tease each other aggressively as a form of wordplay and affection. My friend Juan Conatz said it was an adjustment when he moved to Minneapolis and I didn’t notice it until he pointed it out, because Minnesotans don’t seem to do this the same way and to the same degree as people where we’re from. In that kind of interaction between the characters in Gregory’s books I could totally see the interactions I have with my brothers and my Chicago friends and my friends who have never lived in Chicago but kinda seem like they have (and there are few compliments bigger than that as far as I’m concerned), how we fuck with each other, how we give each other shit, lovingly and aggressively. I don’t remember ever having read that kind of interpersonal interaction in a book before and I really liked that.

All of this means that technically speaking Gregory’s books are not in the apocalypse fiction genre (subgenre? super-genre?) that I was binging on when I shambled onto Raising Stony Mayhall. His books aren’t about worlds ending so much as about worlds changing and people adapting, or failing to adapt and struggling to live out of step with the world around them and with their loved ones. That’s a much more hopeful and less bleak thing than global apocalypse and yet a much more painful thing. The human species doesn’t face a threat of extinction in these books, but relationships and families do. Even with the zombies and demons and genetic mutation, that’s some real shit. So yeah. Daryl Gregory’s books? God damn. Go read them. His newest book, Afterparty, will be out in two weeks.