Review: Escape from Hell! by Hal Duncan

Escape From Hell! by Hal DuncanEscape from Hell!
Hal Duncun
Monkey Brain, 2008

-You hear that? she says. What the fuck is that sound?
A siren waver so faint only the peaks of pitch and volume are audible over the drip of pipes. Then, too clear and close to mistake, an answer or echo, ragged as a cat’s yowl or a baby’s wail.
-Fuck me, says Seven. I’d say that’s exactly the sort of creepy shit you don’t want to hear in an abandoned lunatic asylum.
-I’m not sure it’s abandoned, says Matthew. It’s just that all the doors are open.
– That’s really not comforting.

Hal Duncan’s Vellum is a challenging and thought provoking piece of fiction that bounces back and forth between familiarity and originality never settling on one side of the fence for too long. By the time its sequel Ink came along I was too busy and bit too far removed from my reading of Vellum to finish out the series. Thus when Monkey Brain Books published his novella Escape from Hell! back in December (oddly enough, two months prior to Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s Escape from Hell) I was excited to give Duncan another try. While it has take me a while to finally get around to reading the novella I am most definitely glad I did.

Escape from Hell! is like an action movie smashed into 140 pages. Maybe that isn’t quite fair to Duncan’s work here since amongst the almost non-stop action he manages to include scenes of startling horror and desperation while, at the same time, crafting a scathing commentary on the Christian notion of Hell. The Lucifer of Duncan’s creation is one part Milton, one part folk hero, and one part mad genius. He is a character that doesn’t fail to acknowledge his own fault but manages to accept them.

It is an interesting reading experience when Duncan gets to Lucifer at last. Part of this is the second person narration for Lucifer’s point of view. It isn’t as jarring as it sounds and, rather than placing the reader in Lucifer’s role I read it more as the fallen angel’s self-aggrandizing, slightly insane internal narration. Coming to a book like this with a strong Catholic upbringing certainly affected my reading experience as well. I couldn’t help but take everything Lucifer said with a grain of salt and found myself extraordinarily disturbed, and more than a little surprised when some of what he was saying made some sense. It was an certainly a personal question and I could ask little more from fiction than to force me to confront hard truths about myself and my faith. It is Lucifer’s comments on the nature of hell that really go me thinking:

You humans, you say. So literal. You know how this place works. You’ve all figured it our…somewhere inside. It’s fear and shame that holds this place together, holds you in it. Despair and regret. Hell is life you dream for yourself when you die, the one you think you deserve. You think you belong here, you thing there’s no way out, so that’s how it is. Think about it, why don’t you? The Key is hope.

It is an fascinating bit of commentary that provokes some though with regards to both metaphysical Hell as well as the own personal hells we create in our daily lives.

It is, perhaps, only a small spoiler to reveal that the archangel Gabriel is the “man” in charge [of hell] for the majority of the novella. Lucifer’s jailor, Gabriel, is the corporate shill played against Lucifer’s free-thinking, free-wheeling ways. He wears a suit, he talks on a cell, he is smug, and arrogant and the very picture of the stereotypical businessman. It is a fascinating contrast that plays well to the complete destruction of the conventional interpretation of the good/evil binary.

All this somewhat heavy thinking and commentary is certainly helped by that fact that Escape from Hell! is fast paced read that is overflowing with cinematic action. Hell resembles a post-apocalyptic New York city, a smarmy news reporter employed by Gabriel attempts to indoctrinate prisoners, and our “heroes” embark on a madcap escape that is two thirds action movie, one third horror movie. Duncan manages to create some very disturbing images as we follow our prisoners. They fight hordes of mangled condemned (like creatures out of nightmare ripped apart and put together wrong), they wade through excrement and gore, they cross what amounts to a river of cast of souls, but they all somehow manage it with a stoic, action-movie response that manages to keep the horrific imagery from overpowering the story.

Escape from Hell! is fast-paced entertaining read that, despite its bare 143 pages, manages to be a toothsome piece of fiction. The characters aren’t always likeable, but they are always interesting and frequently tragic. The final quarter of the novella is packed with more action than some novel three times its size that leads to a conclusion and final page that leaving aching for a follow-up. This is a strong read that seemed to fly below the radar which is shame since it is a fine piece of fiction.

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