Books, the dying frontier. Endless. Silent. Waiting. This is Adventures in Poor Taste’s reoccurring dueling review set to remind everyone books are still relevant.
Its mission: books fight to the death to see what is worth reading. To seek out and contact words that form sentences that form paragraphs that form chapters that form novels. To explore. To travel the vast published books, and make your search cut in half, and boldly go where no man has gone before. A dueling book review.
Ah. Hell, every writer’s favorite place to meddle with. From Dante’s Inferno to Hellraiser, Hell is a place that can be so cold it burns, so hot it melts, and always a playground for the ambitious writer. Something about imagining the ultimate punishment motivates everyone to create their own Hell. It’s a great place to express ideas and stretch the imagination. Two books came out in 2011 with characters making waves in Hell. Those being Aloha from Hell: A Sandman Slim Novel by Richard Kadrey and Damned by Chuck Palahniuk; but can there be what we consider a winner in writing that focuses on the eternal pit of the damned?
by Chuck Palahniuk
Hardcover, 256 pages
Published October 18th 2011 by Doubleday Canada
Damned is a very interesting little piece of work. It’s a novella following a little girl named Madison, who has been struck dead, she assumes from a marijuana overdose, and sent straight to Hell. Madison has a bit of an attitude problem, but who can blame her when she’s a 13 year old overweight kid born into a posh controlling family.
Each chapter opens with Madison emptying her heart out to God, hoping upon hope he’ll hear her words and get her out of Hell. It’s a riff on Judy Blume’s famous novels, only in this case her letters to God get more and more angry as she increasingly realizes Hell isn’t such a bad place, and she can be happy without the help of the big G.
Oh and be aware we’re all probably going to be seeing this place as there are so many minute ways to be damned it’s not even funny. If you drop anymore than 100 cigarette butts or even honk your car horn over 500 times over an entire lifetime you will be sent straight to Hell.
Madison is a very bitter, mostly due to her parents raising her with the pharmaceutical drugs and glamor that come with Hollywood living. Her mother is a filmmaker, which means Madison’s life before Hell wasn’t the best, being carted around like an accessory. It leads to a very angry tone and a somewhat hilarious take on Hell. Madison explains people will need to take her description of Hell or leave it as:
I am dead, with my blood long ago pumped out and worms munching on me. In my book that makes me the higher authority. Other people, like famous Italian poet Dante Alighieri, I’m sorry to say, simply hoisted a generous helping of campy make-believe on the reading public.
And Palahniuk’s Hell is far, far less elegant and rule based than Dante’s. Palahniuk’s Hell is an original take as it’s constructed to be disgusting yet somehow it all seems so reasonable. Hell isn’t made up of rings or levels, but a flat theme park of disgusting sets. Everything seems to line a road that lead to Satan’s palace. There are no markers, and it’s as if the entire place was erected out of thin air and stuff is just strewn about. For instance Madison encounters mountains of cut toenails, a lake of shit, an ocean of wasted sperm and, a swamp of partial abortions. It all rolls off Madison like it’s no big deal, which makes Hell a lot less sick to imagine. In this book, Hell is a theme park to be viewed, not a place to really fear. It helps that the currency in Hell is candy, and candy liters every inch of the ground you walk on.
As Madison makes her way to meet Satan she explains her parents as Earthy-crunchy, which gives Palahniuk a lot of ammunition in the jokes department. Madison’s father thinks if there was a devil it would be Ann Coulter, her mother thinks if there’s a mortal sin, it’s Styrofoam. They are so progressive they even explain the birds and the bee’s being as politically correct as possibly…if you were a crazy person:
…my dad says, ‘when a man loves a woman very, very much…’
‘Or’, my mom adds, ‘When a man loves a man or a woman loves a woman.’
My father nods…’Or when a man loves two women, or three women, backstage after a big rock concert…’
‘Or,’ my mom says, ‘when a whole cell block of male prisoners love one new inmate very, very much…’
Most of the humor rests on the smug insults this young girl makes, but it works for the most part. This all leads to an interesting impression of the Hell described by Madison. Of course she’s also angry that she’s dead, because being dead means even wastoids are better than her.
So, I hesitate to even mention that I’m dead because everyone already feels so darned superior to dead people, even Mexicans and AIDS people.
Palahniuk doesn’t shy away from disgusting situational “comedy” either, as he’s famously known for in his previous books. For instance, there’s one scene where Madison must climb up an ancient demon’s body hair, thrust a recently severed head into the female beasts crotch to make her orgasm, because it’s the easiest way to get a free ride. It’s a ride alright, and while the plot is interesting enough, the best parts are the incredibly original Hell described.
Aloha from Hell (Sandman Slim #3)
by Richard Kadrey
Hardcover, 384 pages
Published October 18th 2011 by Harper Voyager
Aloha from Hell is the third book in the Sandman Slim series, but above all accounts it can be read stand alone. There are many references to the previous books, but important details are explained so you won’t be lost. The book follows Sandman Slim, a man built with a bad attitude stuck between heaven and hell,who acts as a sort of detective between those worlds and our own. Slim doesn’t necessarily want the job of detective, but since he’s half angel he can survive a fight with demon or angel, so he’s the only guy fit for the job.
Los Angeles is his home, and Kadrey adds a lot of flair to the already hellish place that is LA. Expect many explanations of why LA is already Hell, and why Sandman Slim belongs there. This connection makes LA a character onto itself and further defines Kadrey’s take on Hell. The central story revolves around an old enemy of Slim’s trying to take over Hell and Slim must leave the hell that is LA and go to Hell proper to make things right again.
To get there, just outside LA is Eden, ironically the only Earthly doorway to Hell, and it requires the help from a highway goddess who survives on gas stop junk food. It may sound silly, but Kadrey does a great job creating American myth to go along with what we know about Heaven and Hell. It’s a great way to rewrite what we know about America, and it helps make Slim’s already mythical world that much more grounded in a reality. Slim trudges through miles of desert to locate Eden. Nearly there, Slim comments,
If I ever get out of here, I’m going to find whichever angel invented sand and make it eat this fucking dessert while getting a Tabasco enema.
It’s nonsense writing to some extent, but part of the joy this books bring is the slurry of anger and attitude Slim brings to the adventure. Kadrey does a good job writing in a pulpy way but also slings so many WTF moments it feels like anything can happen. That’s a good and bad thing when reading the book as it makes everything very fan fiction esque, and things seem to just happen perfectly at the right time to keep the plot going. The fast action pace of the book is also a bit of a problem as it doesn’t allow the character to be fleshed out beyond his archetypal detective character. But that’s why this book is good and different from most. You know you’re getting an adventure that’s cheap, easy to read and enjoyable enough.
That said, Hell is an interesting place. Once past the door inside the tree of knowledge a set of rusty stairs leads down into Hell. Everything about Kadrey’s Hell is grounded in reality. Once down the stairs, Hell looks just like Los Angeles, only on fire, with piles of trash burning and hellions running around chasing the damned. Things have changed since Slim first encountered it though,
The sky Downtown used to be all bruised purples and bloody reds. A mean perpetual twilight. Now it’s a solid mass of roiling black smoke. Lit from below, it looks like the belly of a black snake the size of the sky crawling over us.
Hell it seems has gone to shit, because Lucifer isn’t the man in charge anymore, and Hell has become even more Hellish. In Kadrey’s Hell, instead of a land that has been created to show the worst case scenario as in Damned, Hell is what we know on Earth but burning and ruined.
Sunset Boulevard looks like it was blow torched from below…The only thing still standing are the palm trees. They burn like votive candles in a dark nave, throwing more shadows than light. Smoldering fronds fall like burning snow.
Kadrey paints a very vivid place that’s at once scary and beautiful. The description of Hell is something akin to a video game. Things are described quickly and there’s a sense of atmosphere, but Kadrey’s focus is never about the surroundings. Instead, this book is about Slim breaking necks and taking names. It’s an action book first and a descriptive meaningful read a far, far second.
So Who Wins?
Both books give much different takes on Hell than the norm, and both have their own merits. But, as far as describing Hell and making it a rich world to imagine in your minds eye, Damned does a better job. The Damned Hell is imaginative and fun, while the fun that Aloha From Hell brings comes from the characters and action.
Uncle Susan, why do you torment me so?
Damned wins for being as descriptive as my Uncle Susan pictured above in my own personal Hell.