Laughing at the Great God Pan
K A. Laity
In 2001 Camden Joy and Colin B. Morton wrote Pan, a book purporting to be ‘A work of imagination endeavouring to recount the Extraordinary yet True events occurring within the City of New York upon April the Seventh, Nineteen Hundred and Ninety-Eight when: numerous hearts are engaged; feats of Astonishment and Daring unfold: a man loses his found love: a primitive power draws manifold strangers into a supernatural dragnet: a father’s gift sends a son across the ocean: space-time continuums (QSTs) are repeatedly straddled: tears get shed: after which the assemblage of cross entertainers known as The Fall ceases working together (yet again) and everything threatens to remain exactly as it has been’ which is a nicely balanced evocation of bombast and litotes.
There are lots of books about, by and inspired by The Fall. Ex-band member volumes are a hefty shelf themselves and just about all of cracking quality, too. ‘Inspired by’ is a more tenuous category and by ‘tenuous’ I mean there’s some rubbish out there. I’ve always heard Pan spoken of as one of the better ones, so stuck in lockdown and floundering on any number of overdue projects, of course I decided to pick up a copy to finally read.
It’s not cheap to lay hands on; I reconciled myself to the price because I’ve not had to pay for lots of things since March. As frequently happens with things connected to The Fall, a crazy mix-up ended up giving me half-off on the price, so yay. It’s really more of a novella, so I sped through it in no time, even with stopping to look things up that jogged my memory.
The book itself is lovely, a product of Tom Devlin’s Highwater Books, which I knew mostly from comics by folks like Megan Kelso and Matt Madden. It was designed by Matt Lerner of Rag and Bone Shop with exquisite typeface and a subdued yet unsettling image of Pan on the cover and printed on luxurious paper. The title page with the above précis features calligraphy by Nancy Howell and is just beautiful. There’s a pull quote from Jon Langford of The Mekons to offer street cred to the unwitting innocent (i.e. non-Fall fan) who might pick up the book. My copy is signed twice by Joy.
What about the story itself? Buring the lede again: it’s fun. Do you have to be a Fall fan? Possibly, though I think Ballard and Dick fans may enjoy it for non-Fall related reasons. People who prefer their fiction meta will get a kick out of it. Fans of Pan, you will deffo enjoy. It kicks off right at the epigraph which purports to offer a mini history of Pan in the Western world by ‘Magnus the Good’ (resonant of Olavus Magnus but not quite) and translated by an ‘R. Totale’ in two volumes back in 1923.
The epigram establishes the impetus setting all the action in motion: the god of Panic, having been subdued by fire and death was then bisected, his head buried by the Celts, his body taken to the ends of the earth by ‘the North sea-dwellers’ or as we call them, Vikings. ‘His Head, kept by the Celtae in the ground, occasioned sorcery to render the grave as hot as the fires a warrior finds in beastly dens…’
The book opens in a Manhattan office, overlooking the Seagram’s building with Clarke suddenly meeting two very strange fellows who seem rather…shall we say, alien. Clarke being part of the music biz, that’s not so outlandish as it might seem to others, but he begins to be unsettled, especially once they mention his friend Vaughan (I have to believe that’s a Ballard ref). Are they private eyes? Fortunately his boss crashes in with news:
‘The Fall!’ Brandon shouted at Clarke from a short distance. ‘Clarke, hey! The Fall; tonight at Brownie’s; you remember; punk rockers from England? God, Clarke: fuck I always hated all those guitars; no more; The Fall’s in town!’
If you’re not a Fall fan you won’t know the cataclysm that announcement contains. There are bad gigs – and with the Fall legendarily bad gigs – and then there’s the meltdown at Brownies (if you want to see it for yourself, you can). An apocalypse no one thought the band could survive.
[Spoiler: it did (but that’s another story).]
‘Meanwhile, in a far-off place called Newport, Wales, the bell of a record shop rang and Colin B Morton entered.’ Yes, it’s that kind of book where one of the co-authors is a character in the wildly esoteric adventures. His dad, as it happens, has given him the head of Pan which had been dug up at an archeological dig at Caerleon (notebooks out, medievalists). The head has told him to head to New York and to play the fruit machine at his local to provide cash for the journey.
The scenes in the record shop and the pub are excuses for a lot of Fall fan jokes: ‘This amused Colin, for it was the cry of every Fall fan down the ages. At any given moment, The Fall was not as good as it used to be.’ Pointed mentions of Mark E. Smith’s procog intrigue the girl on the not-so-megastore check-out desk to the point where she ignores Colin and pores over the FallNet.
He leaves for the pub to join his mates for a few pints of Brains Skull Attack and discussions of everything from the occult, the Mekons, Swamp Thing, Pan’s head, the Liverpool Scene, and of course, the finer points of why The Fall was not as good as it used to be.
Colin heads off to NYC and many disparate threads begin to intertwine, strangle one another and fray like the band is about to do onstage. While it is not always about The Fall, it is always about The Fall in the sense that physics exists only to examine the finer point of whether the band 1) exists 2) is better or 3) is worse than it is any other given point in the time-space continuum.
‘Do you remember last year, in Belfast, when all the members dispersed? Snook believes that, in the brief period, The Fall still existed. It’s just that there was nobody in it, you know?…Snook also believes…that, for those few moments when The Fall existed with nobody in it, it went spindizzy about the world. Like some sort of prowling phantom, you know? It traveled around the globe, almost as a virus or something, disrupting various musical personalities in which it did not belong.’
Precog: it’s a drug. Like love, I guess. So if this sounds like something you’d enjoy hunt it down like a lost Fall member and lay your hands on it. Don’t lay your hands on ex-Fall members though. They’re not books.