The Devil’s Alphabet by Daryl Gregory

This is one of the many articles/review that I have reblogged from Caffeine Crew, the collaborative geek blog I write for.  I am in the process of truly posting these here on my personal blog.  While they will be edited for any prior missed errors, I will not be really updating them beyond that so some information could potentially be outdated, erroneous, or defunct.

Content Warning: Discussions of abortion and suicide.


A few years ago I was in the Chester County Book and Music Store (which I sadly believe is now defunct going the way of many brick and mortar bookstores) just browsing/wandering as I often do in such places. Bookstores have fantastic energies that feed my writerly soul so if I’m feeling drained or listless I’ll often venture there to recharge. It’s free energy. In that particular venture I thought a key line of dialogue near the end of my original paranormal romance, and I also ended up picking up a book by a hitherto unknown author by the name of Daryl Gregory called The Devil’s Alphabet.

The Devil's Alphabet

Pretty much any title having to do with angels, demons, devils, or gods will catch my attention and deserves at least a quick glance. Most of the time they’re usually metaphors, which I am more than fine with, and sometimes I get really lucky and I find a story that’s actually about such religious figures. This book fell into the former category, but the blurb piqued my interest as did the first few pages..

“Switchcreek was a normal town in eastern Tennessee until a mysterious disease killed a third of its residents and mutated most of the rest into monstrous oddities. Then, as quickly and inexplicably as it had struck, the disease–dubbed Transcription Divergence Syndrome (TDS)–vanished, leaving behind a population divided into three new branches of humanity: giant gray-skinned argos, hairless seal-like betas, and grotesquely obese charlies.

Paxton Abel Martin was fourteen when TDS struck, killing his mother, transforming his preacher father into a charlie, and changing one of his best friends, Jo Lynn, into a beta. But Pax was one of the few who didn’t change. He remained as normal as ever. At least on the outside.

Having fled shortly after the pandemic, Pax now returns to Switchcreek fifteen years later, following the suicide of Jo Lynn. What he finds is a town seething with secrets, among which murder may well be numbered. But there are even darker–and far weirder–mysteries hiding below the surface that will threaten not only Pax’s future but the future of the whole human race.”

How the hell I didn’t buy this book immediately when it’s about a virulent force that either kills or mutates you is truly beyond me given my fandom background on the subject…at the time my financial situation was not well enough to warrant purchasing another book (this was quite a few years ago when I was far less stable in that regard) so I waited until I could download it on my Kindle.

Prior to the events of the story, the prior named “disease” (if it can even be  called that) comes in waves, the first of which left argos, giant 11-12 foot tall people with chalky colored flesh; the second produced betas, hairless, dark red skinned people who resemble seals; and the final changed people into immensely obese charlies.

The main character Paxton Martin is what they call a “skip,” one of the few that both survived and remained unchanged by the virus. He left the town 13 or 14 years ago after the changes occurred and the quarantine was finally lifted, fleeing to Chicago to escape the legacy of a dead mother and charlie turned preacher father. The story opens with him returning to attend the funeral of his once best friend Jo Lynn Whitehall who turned beta, had twin girls, and purportedly committed suicide. Only expecting to remain through the funeral and aftermath before returning to Chicago and his pretty crappy life as a restaurant server, Pax is pulled into the mystery and intrigue of the town where the “clades” as they call themselves have in many ways become segregated, but still coexist and are held together by Aunt Rhonda, a charlie woman and self-proclaimed mayor.

The clades are as different from each other as they are from the rest of humanity, because TDS essentially rewrote their genetic code and DNA structuring. Argos, betas, and charlies are not technically human, and there is some speculation about the condition being an invader from an alternative universe. Betas can become spontaneously pregnant and always produce girls, often two. This is both a relief and despair to Pax when he realizes that neither he nor his (now argo) best friend Deke are the father of Jo’s twin girls, since the three of them had a very strange/interesting sexual relationship after the changes.

Conversely argos for the most part appear to be sterile, which is discovered with Deke and Donna, his argo wife, who are going through expensive fertility treatments in order to prove this isn’t so. As for charlies, once the men of that clade reach a certain age they start producing what’s known as “vintage,” a secretion from their skins that is in high demand from younger charlie males since it makes women sexually attracted to them,  but it also makes Pax insanely empathetic and addicted to the secreted substance.  That…was definitely one of the weirder almost incestuous parts of the story where the reverend’s son is essentially getting high off of his bodily secretions. Kinda gross. And through all of this is Rhonda who has a home for the older charlie men where she collects the it.  Gross.

The running plot of the story is Pax trying to figure out what really happened to Jo.  Whether or not she actually committed suicide or if she was murdered. He’s able to find her laptop, but it’s password locked, and a good portion of the book is spent with her twin daughters trying to figure out a way into it.

Honestly, Pax sucked as main character.  (Maybe his name was too “peaceful.”  Ah language puns…) He spent most of his time being strung out or getting beaten up by the huge younger charlie males for trying to sneak his father out of Rhonda’s home. The vintage made him very empathetic, but it was hard to empathize with him.  He was also not very intelligent, which I hate in main characters. Jo, who’s dead throughout the entire story, is much more interesting.

What I did like is all of the issues this novel brings up. Because betas become pregnant asexually, there was a huge question of pro-choice vs. pro-life. This was ultimately what lead to Jo Lynn’s demise. She was kicked out of the beta co-op for having an abortion and then getting a hysterectomy. There was a faction within there of girls wearing white scarves on their heads who believed themselves to be “purer” betas since they went through the change before puberty, had never had sex with a man, and were therefore having virgin births. Jo’s daughters were the first of the second generation betas who look “more beta” than humans changed to beta, as if the invading cells grow stronger in later generations. They were revered because of this, but also hated because of what their mother did.

To the betas, an abortion was the worst possible thing anyone could do. It was as if their bodies were wired to produce children and nothing else and they wholeheartedly believed this like a cult. The issue of drug use and abuse was brought up, as well, but I feel more glossed over whereas the whole abortion thing was very heavily drilled. Paxton is little more than a junkie who almost gets abducted himself in a plot to kidnap his father (who produces the best vintage) by a couple of younger charlie males who are annoyed that Rhonda is reaping all of the profits from this.

I’m also not quite sure where the author falls on the pro-choice vs. pro-birth argument.  Whether or not he was presenting the “white scarf” betas as a fanatical cult or as a beacon of righteousness, and since it’s been years since I read the story, I can’t remember all of the nuances.  While I obviously do not and will not advocate suicide, I still find it poignantly fitting that Jo took her destiny and body into her own hands in choosing to have a hysterectomy.  I can’t say I wouldn’t have done the same.  It’s a shame she was driven to that ultimate decision because her right to choose could not be accepted.

I really wish the novel had come to some resolution as to what really did cause the changes, deaths, or lack thereof in the people of Switchcreek. It felt like Gregory was building up to it. Each chapter/section was written in such a way to keep you reading more and more because you were waiting for that big reveal, but the novel falls flat in this. We never find out what caused TDS or why certain people changed, why certain people didn’t, why certain people died. If the answer was supposed to remain obscure, I feel that the author could’ve done a better job of keeping it that way. Don’t introduce all of these possibilities and then leave them to blow away in the wind. It feels like he presented a ton of ideas to get your mind racing, but then left you in top gear with nowhere to go. I would’ve even been satisfied with a rumor or a clue of resolution. Nothing big or conclusive. Many scientific mystery novels do such a thing. Throw something in that is possibly the answer, but that’s never confirmed. I don’t think Gregory wanted to commit to anything, but when you have such a marked change in human physiology, you need to make a decision. I was more than willing to accept the parallel universe idea; that honestly was fascinating. I think that would’ve worked very well for this story. Cells from one dimension competing with the others for survival taking the ultimate change/sacrifice and throwing themselves into another universe our universe and taking over human bodies. This novel could’ve drawn on an almost Cthulhu like mythos, while still keeping its steady, southern slow tempo. That would’ve been amazing to see such a thing from that lens of view.

I’d say 3 stars for this one for the ability to hold my attention for the length. I’m not entirely disappointed because as I mentioned above the pro-life/pro-choice issue was very well done, but the main question of the novel was never resolved.




4 thoughts on “The Devil’s Alphabet by Daryl Gregory

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