This week I’m recommending a book which was published as Horror but contains enough magic (and dragons) to interest Fantasy readers. `An Agreement With Hell’ by Dru Pagliasotti came out in 2011 and is available in paperback and as an ebook. You have probably noticed that there are a lot of angels about in Fantasy novels and films at the moment, so I’m declaring this `Angel Month’. Almost every possible variation on this theme has been tried over the past twenty years. We’ve had imprisoned, lost or fallen angels, killer angels, evil spirits pretending to be guardian angels, electric angels,  gay angels, angels who fall in love with humans or demons, or long to know what it’s like to be mortal, even an angel who takes on the persona of a Russian hooker. I’m not making any of these up and if I read one more novel in which the big twist is that the hosts of heaven turn out to be worse than the bad guys I shall say something distinctly unangelic. It’s a relief to come across a book like `An Agreement With Hell’ in which men are men, angels are angels, and devils are devils – at least until they are forced into an unusual alliance.

In the world of this book, Heaven and Hell are locked in eternal combat and the beings known as the mal’akhim only perceive humans who are very good or very bad. `An Agreement With Hell’  is set at a small Lutheran College in California where some of the Faculty are more than they seem. Ex-priest Professor Andy Markham is an expert on Angelology and an exorcist with attitude. When he gets an anonymous email about a location in the desert he sends his friend Jack Langthorn to investigate. Jack is an aging biker and folk-singer who also happens to be a powerful practitioner of High Magick. He finds devils circling round a wounded angel `like ants around a dead bird’. Jack drives away the devils and receives an angelic vision of a field streaming with blood, a bone staircase going down into darkness and `worms seething through raw meat’. This grim vision starts to come true as building work on campus uncovers a pit of bones which may date to the time when the college was founded.

On the night when Andy and Jack are entertaining the mysterious Professor Todd to dinner a murder is committed. Jack spots a Watcher angel, which is always a sign of major trouble and after the police damage a clay seal in the bone-pit all hell seems to break loose. Eathquakes shatter the campus and flesh-eating giant worms emerge. During the chaos, Todd is revealed as an ancient `Walker Between the Worlds’ with an eight-legged demon familar called Amon. Meanwhile two of Todd’s students, questioning Alison and conservative Christian, Jarret, are having to cope with a live apocalypse. Alison is determined not to be the sort of horror-story blonde who just screams and dies, so she decides to take the fight to the worms. With help from a dazzling archangel, Jack and Andy discover that the worms are just the tangible part of vast beings from another dimension. Only Todd and his demon can take Jack along the Hell-roads to where he needs to be to work his protective magick. Should Jack risk his soul to save the world?

I have my faults as a reviewer and one of them is that I often warm to imperfect books more than perfect ones. I’m not going to pretend that this is an entirely successful novel. Even the people in the story can’t decide whether they are in Horror, Fantasy or Science Fiction. The Horror elements to the plot are all fairly standard and the back-story of the `curse’ on the campus is treated in a perfunctory way. The author obviously enjoys trashing the fictional California Hills University, possibly because in real life she teaches at a very similar institution. The fact that this book is dedicated to her colleagues and students tells you a lot about Professor Pagliasotti’s sense of humour. Horror is now expected to be self-referentia, which can make it harder to take the characters seriously. I feel the weakest strand in the book is the one featuring bright student Alison, who compares the killer worms she encounters with the ones in the witty `Tremors’ films. Alison may be plucky but she’s also rather annoying and Pagliasotti doesn’t give enough page space to developing the contrasting characters of the two boys who get involved in her action plan. We are given some curiously convincing scenes from the point of view of the interdimensional dragons who serve the Verminarch. If these scenes read like Science Fiction, I’m assuming that this is deliberate.

For me there were two aspects which made this novel well worth reading: one is the author’s knowledge of angel-lore and Christian magic and the other is the interplay between her three main characters. Pagliasotti  has obviously done a lot of research into arcane areas of scholarship that most people aren’t even aware of. She knows the angelic names invoked in Jewish and Christian magic and the angels we meet in her story aren’t sweet or bland. They are highly dangerous and awe-inspiring beings. Pagliasotti has also created a truly good man in Andy Markham, which means that he isn’t always a comfortable friend for flawed Jack to have.  Andy discerns black and white where Jack only sees shades of grey and he constantly points out that the ends don’t justify the means. The ex-priest who uses prayer `like a knight flourishing a shining shield’ doesn’t believe that Todd, who mocks Heaven and Hell, can be morally neutral. Hellbender Todd regards himself as a  practitioner of post-modern magick who studies possibilities and he refuses to see the world `in terms of binary oppositions’.  Pagliasotti has fun with Todd’s jargon but the character has an underlying sadness. A long way in space and time from his original home, Todd’s only close relationship is with a disgusting flesh-feeding demon. Jack himself is not your average Fantasy hero. He’s middle-aged and recovering from a stroke. He drinks and smokes  too much and he has never got over failing to save his girlfriend from an early death. He can’t get a proper job because, as he says, `I don’t have much of a resume. Folk singing, bike repair, and high magick.’  The folk-singing allows Pagliasotti to use haunting snatches of traditional ballads throughout the book. Jack knows that he has `holes in his soul’ but he keeps on trying to do that right thing. Jack’s view of how the universe works is challenged during  `An Agreement With Hell’ but few of his problems are solved.  I finished the book hoping to meet Andy, Todd and above all, Jack, again in a sequel. Perhaps you will too. Until next week.