I finished Hal Duncan’s Escape from Hell! last night. A homeless man, a murderer, a junkie whore, and a gay man wake up on a ferry boat after dying. But this boat is no dingy, nor a wooden raft with crooked Charon at the helm. No, they find themselves on a New York-style commuter ferry with other confused passengers, and the city of the dead they are shuffling towards looks an awful lot like a blasted-out Manhattan. Duncan’s hell is a police state, where cowardly cops inflict pain to escape their own weaknesses, where “Vox” news airs the city’s catastrophes 24/7 from ubiquitous televisions, where waterboarding and rape and electroshock and starvation are all part of daily life. If you haven’t figured it out already, Duncan’s hell looks a lot like the United States of the past decade.
The four characters, after suffering enormous torment in various ways, all come to the conclusion that they can’t take it anymore, and so stage a revolt against the forces of Hell, searching for the mythical “Key” which will unlock their freedom. And so they venture through levels of Hell, down into ossified caverns and creature-infested halls to a room where Lucifer’s soul has been kept inches from his body for four thousand years. It only takes one look for the adventurers to give Lucifer back his body. Then the fun begins. They blast themselves out of Hell using a flaming sword.
And the flaming sword is no coincidence. It’s right out of William Blake. Like Blake’s evil in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, evil in Duncan’s universe is self-inflicted pain, the self-flagellating confines of a belief system that, for instance, believes homosexuality to be a sin or that sends people to eternal damnation who have committed suicide. The hero here, as in Blake’s work, is Lucifer, the light-bringer, who did not trick or tempt Eve in the Garden of Eden, Duncan says, but offered her knowledge of the lunacy of God and the hope that thereafter humankind would be free. Instead of mankind rebelling against this absurdity (in this case, I believe Duncan is alluding to our blind-faith in the absurd tenants of modern faith), we clothed ourselves and hid in shame. Hell then, Duncan says, is a creation of man, something from our nightmares, and heaven, if such a place exists, is freedom from shame. God does exist in Duncan’s world, but he’s a crazy, sadistic bastard.
I really enjoyed this one. My only complaint is that the typesetting was terrible. I’m not sure if this was because I got my copy free at the World Fantasy Convention, and therefore it was an ARC with typos. But there were hash-marks between every section, and too many spacing issues to count. Regardless, it was a fun and quick read, and I highly recommend it.