ELVIS MAY HAVE LEFT THE BUILDING, but he has passed into popular culture as an historical figure and as a metaphorical/mythological presence. These latter two were first found in songs, especially after his death. They can now be found in movies and literature, including Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s “Good Omens”!
His presence is less prevalent in literature, but it is there. He pops up in the background in the novel Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. The book is a farce about the birth of the son of Satan and Armageddon, and humorous attempts by an angel and a demon who team up to undermine the plans of their Masters, as both are fond of their long-lived lives among humans.
The story is a rarity—a genuine collaboration between the two authors. Pratchett wrote about 60% of the original story (the basic plot and narrative) and Gaiman about 40% (the twists and turns f the subplots).
Then each rewrote huge sections of the other’s part, with Pratchett in charge of making the actual changes to the manuscript. There were daily phone calls where corrections and additions were made.
I highly recommend that you watch the movies Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen before reading the book Good Omens.
Each author claims that he can’t tell which words are his and which his partners’. The book does read fairly seamlessly as the work of one voice and vision.
It is a good read and is genuinely funny, and I recommend it to any and all readers. It is the type of fantasy that can be enjoyed even by those without a predilection for role-playing games and fantasy conventions.
First UK hardcover edition (Gollancz, 1990). The book is subtitled The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch.
Good omens and big bang theorists
My sole complaint is that it’s written in that light-weight British manner that can seem silly—if not actually precious and indulgent—to Americans. (And if you’re one of those people who watch The Big Bang Theory and recognize your species in Sheldon Cooper, then you’ll enjoy the book even more.)
Be forewarned that a viewing of two movies is a must to enjoy the basic plot device: Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Omen (1976). Of course, if one is reading this article, one might be inclined to read the original novel of Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin from 1967. As a book, The Omen is a novelization of the movie by David Seltzer.
The above is all you need to know about the plot. One of the characters in the story is a man called Sable, which is an Earthly guise for Famine, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The Horsemen are described in the Book of Revelation (6:1-8), the last book of the New Testament of the Bible. They are Death, Famine, War, and Conquest, the latter also known as Pestilence and even occasionally as the Antichrist.
Sable is a wealthy entrepreneur, a ruthless businessman. One of his properties is a chain of fast-food restaurants (sic) called Burger Lord. The account below occurs about one-third of the way into the story (pages 84-85). The text below is taken exactly as it appears in the novel. So, read on . . .
Good Omens (excerpt)
Sable sauntered into the Burger Lord. It was exactly like every other Burger Lord in America. [But not like every other Burger Lord across the world. German Burger Lords, for example, sold lager instead of root beer, while English Burger Lords managed to take any American fast food virtues (the speed with which your food was delivered, for example) and carefully remove them; your food arrived after half an hour, at room temperature, and it was only because of the strip of warm lettuce between them that you could distinguish the burger from the bun. The Burger Lord pathfinder salesmen had been shot twenty-five minutes after setting foot in France.] McLordy the Clown danced in the Kiddie Korner. The serving staff had identical gleaming smiles that never reached their eyes. And behind the counter a chubby, middle-aged man in a Burger Lord uniform slapped burgers onto the griddle, whistling softly, happy in his work.
Sable went up to the counter.
“Hello-my-name-is-Marie,” said the girl behind the counter. “How-can-I-help-you?”
“A double blaster thunder biggun, extra fries, hold the mustard,” he said.
“A special thick whippy chocobanana shake.”
First US hardcover edition (Random House, 1967).
She pressed the little pictogram squares on her till. (Literacy was no longer a requirement for employment in these restaurants. Smiling was.) Then she turned to the chubby man behind the counter.
“DBTB, E F, hold mustard,” she said. “Choc-shake.”
“Uhnnhuhn,” crooned the cook. He sorted the food into little paper containers, pausing only to brush the graying cowlick from his eyes.
“Here y’are,” he said.
She took them without looking at him, and he returned cheerfully to his griddle, singing quietly, “Loooove me tender, looooove me long, neeever let me go . . .”
The man’s humming, Sable noted, clashed with the Burger Lord background music, a tinny tape loop of the Burger Lord commercial jingle, and he made a mental note to have him fired.
Hello-my-name-is-Marie gave Sable his MEALS and told him to have a nice day.
He found a small plastic table, sat down in the plastic seat, and examined his food.
Artificial bread roll. Artificial burger. Fries that had never even seen potatoes. Foodless sauces. Even (and Sable was especially pleased with this) an artificial slice of dill pickle. He didn’t bother to examine his milkshake. It had no actual food content, but then again, neither did those sold by any of his rivals.
All around him people were eating their unfood with, if not actual evidence of enjoyment, then with no more actual disgust than was to be found in burger chains all over the planet.
He stood up, took his tray over to the PLEASE DISPOSE OF YOUR REFUSE WITH CARE receptacle, and dumped the whole thing. If you had told him that there were children starving in Africa he would have been flattered that you’d noticed.
There was a tug at his sleeve. “Party name of Sable?” asked a small, bespectacled man in an International Express cap, holding a brown paper parcel.
“Thought it was you. Looked around, thought, tall gent with a beard, nice suit, can’t be that many of them here. Package for you, sir.”
Sable signed for it, his real name-one word, six letters. Sounds like examine.
“Thank you kindly, sir,” said the delivery man. He paused. “Here,” he said. “That bloke behind the counter. Does he remind you of anyone?”
“No,” said Sable. He gave the man a tip-five dollars-and opened the package.
In it was a small pair of brass scales.
Sable smiled. It was a slim smile, and was gone almost instantly.
First US hardcover edition (Workman, 1990).
“About time,” he said. He thrust the scales into his pocket, unheeding of the damage being done to the sleek line of his black suit, and went back to the limo.
“Back to the office?” asked the chauffeur.
“The airport,” said Sable. “And call ahead. I want a ticket to England.”
“Yessir. Return ticket to England.”
Sable fingered the scales in his pocket. “Make that a single,” he said. “I’ll be making my own way back. Oh, and call the office for me, cancel all appointments.”
“How long for, sir?”
“The foreseeable future.”
And in the Burger Lord, behind the counter, the stout man with the cowlick slid another half-dozen burgers onto the grill. He was the happiest man in the whole world and he was singing, very softly.
“. . . y’ain’t never caught a rabbit,” he hummed to himself, “and y’ain’t no friend of mine . . .”
Elvis and his good buddy by Adam Gorightly.
Elvis meets Bigfoot
That’s it! That’s Pratchett and Gaiman using one of the mythological and metaphorical Elvises, here as the Elvis who gave away the wealth and trapping of fame and success for the pleasant if humdrum existence of a burger ‘chef’ in a fast-food joint. This version of Elvis takes a Zen-like pleasure in the meeting of the requirements of his day-to-day existence, achieving a serenity that few Westerners ever know. 1
Several pages earlier (65-66), the Elvis-as-cook scene is hinted at while introducing another character, Carmine “Red” Zuigiber. Red is a guise for another of the Four Horsemen, this time War. And here War is a war correspondent for a tabloid, the National World Weekly, which is described this way:
“A typical National World Weekly would tell the world how Jesus’ face was seen on a Big Mac bun bought by someone from Des Moines, with an artist’s impression of the bun; how Elvis Presley was recently sighted working in a Burger Lord in Des Moines; how listening to Elvis records cured a Des Moines housewife’s cancer; how the spate of werewolves infesting the Midwest are the offspring of noble pioneer women raped by Bigfoot; and that Elvis was taken by Space Aliens in 1976 because he was too good for this world. [Remarkably, one of these stories is indeed true.]”
So Pratchett and Gaiman set up the later scene of the unnamed burger cook with this little poke at those weekly papers that we all see at the check-out line of every type of store in the world.
The Elvis joke is carried on one more time later in the book: the Four Horsemen have taken on guises as Hell’s Angels, and are arguing over the year of Presley’s death (pages 148-149). Which is part of the joke, as we have already seen that Presley had indeed faked his death and turned in his life as a depressed, reclusive pop star for that of an easy-going, relatively happy short-order cook. 2
And that is the end of Elvis-as-everyman in Good Omens. Now do yourself a favor and go read the tale of how the demon Crowley and the angel Aziraphale mess up their plans to mess up the plans of their masters . . .
A few words on Neil Gaiman
Neil Richard MacKinnon Gaiman (Neil Gaiman) is an English author of short fiction, novels, comic books, and films. He has won the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, and the Bram Stoker Award, as well as the Newberry and Carnegie medals. Notable works include The Sandman, American Gods, Coraline, and The Graveyard Book. (Wikipedia)
A few words on Terry Pratchett
Terence David John Pratchett (Terry Pratchett) was an English author of fantasy novels. He is best known for his Discworld series of 41 novels. The first Discworld novel was published in 1983, after which he wrote two books a year on average. His final Discworld novel was published in August 2015, five months after his death. With more than 85,000,000 books sold worldwide, Pratchett was the UK’s best-selling author of the 1990s. (Wikipedia)
FEATURED IMAGE: The image at the top of this page was cropped from the extraordinary poster for Paramount Pictures’ 1968 movie. The movie was a huge success and remains a scary watch fifty years later. Aside from Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes as the parents of the son of Satan, it stars Ruth Gordon as a servant of Hell.
POSTSCRIPTUALLY, for those of you who are readers and may have taken on any of Pratchett’s Discworld books and found them not to their taste (as I did), that should not stop you from enjoying Good Omens.
Good Omens was very well received by fans and critics: it was nominated as Best Novel for the 1991 World Fantasy Awards, and as Best Fantasy Novel for the 1991 Locus Awards. Good Omens has sold well and continuously; it remains in print around the world.
1 Of course, that happiness ticks off Sable, who plans to retaliate—not necessarily on the individual, but on the very existence of happiness. For an enjoyable view on the type of reality this Elvis has chosen, see the 1984 movie The Razor’s Edge.
It is a flawed movie, much of it due to casting Bill Murray as the hero. Simply, as an actor, Murray was not up to the demands of some parts of the role. Nonetheless, Murray is so damn goofily engaging that he makes it work.
The Razor’s Edge was a HUGE flop, both critically and commercially. But, like me, you may be one of the few that sees the gem in the rough. The only way to know is to see it!
2 It’s neither a long scene nor an important one; it just seems to be there to carry on the Presley joke.