12: Escape From Hell! by Hal Duncan

A hitman, a hooker, a hobo and a homo die and go to hell: a dark imitation of New York City, where their punishments reflect their sins – prison; an endless succession of johns; a life on the streets, invisible and Forgotten; a “gay cure” clinic. In other words, they each receive what some people in the real world would say they deserved, for what they did (or who they were). After tasting what Hell has in store for them, these four find themselves attempting the impossible: Escape From Hell!

This started out as a screenplay concept on Hal Duncan’s blog, later expanded into a novella. It’s a homage to blockbuster action films and a send-up of religion, with Hell as the ultimate dystopia and the group of outcasts fighting to beat the system. Hell is governed by the Archangel Gabriel, breaking men’s spirits by order from up high; Lucifer is not a ruler but Hell’s most important prisoner. There’s probably not a single page of this book that wouldn’t offend any number of fundamentalist Christians (and probably a lot of more ordinary Christians, too). Hal Duncan’s in his element, with God and Gabriel as his villains, and deranged, flamboyant Lucifer the voice of reason in a Hell not that far removed from reality.

For his heroes, Duncan chooses not to give us the easy image of the unfairly condemned escaping – though little seems fair about this vision of damnation – but alongside the innocent, closeted, virgin Matthew gives us a whole range of “sin” right up to the hardened career killer Seven, an undeniably bad man. Seven might be evil, by most definitions, yet still it’s hard to agree with any person being submitted to the eternity of extreme confinement and torture that was to be his fate.

The story is full of little satirical touches, too – the entry to Hell a customs and immigration checkpoint, where the souls are treated more like luggage than people; the inhabitants of the city are treated to 24 hour TV news that glorifies the carnage and suffering; in the anti-gay clinic the “cured” go on to become staff, victims of indoctrination and institutionalisation.

But most of all Escape From Hell! is a fast-paced, action-packed, insert-more-movie-trailer-cliches-here. I highly recommend it, so long as you’re not easily offended.

Next week: The Third Bear by Jeff VanderMeer


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