Sunday, November 22, 2009

Hell and The Necromancer; my book report by Karloff's Ghost

I read two books in a row. One was called Hell by Robert Olen Butler and one was called Johannes Cabal, The Necromancer by Jonathan L. Howard. They were both about Hell, though I didn't plan to read them both in a row. I guess I should worry that I subconsciously chose two books in a row about Hell, but I won't. They were very different from each other, but were both very good.

Hell took place, unsurprisingly, in Hell. The main character is Hatcher McCord, the newscaster for Hell's evening news. Hell is not like most ideas of Hell we've seen in the past. There's fire and brimstone and acid storms, but it's a big city (Hell enough for some people) that runs just like a terrestrial big city. Hell is a lot more devious than lakes of fire. Hell is pretty subtle- doing things you know will not work, or will only disappoint you, but being compelled to try anyway in the hopes that, maybe this time, things will be different. Hope springs eternal in Hell, as does disappointment. Hell is populated with quite the array of guest stars: Humphrey Bogart, the Clintons, G.W. Bush, Hitler, even (though implied rather than stated) the author himself. And not just them- a number of surprising folks turn up. Some of the most interesting and thought-provoking parts of the novel are the descriptions of the sufferings of the famous. But, this isn't simply a 'Who's Who' of the damned. When Hatcher learns there may be a way out of Hell, he begins a journey that takes him from one end of Hell to another, and a journey through the ideas of personal pain and suffering, human connections, free will, and the possibility of redemption.

It's not light reading, by any means- though the language is hardly florid, the directions Butler takes with his characters, often veering off into stream-of-consciousness internal monologues on the suffering of the damned, can take you out of the 'plot'. However, these side trips into their suffering are really an integral part of the meaning of the book. Some of these moments, especially when revisiting the damned, make for some of the most emotional moments of the book. By the time the novel ends, you have traveled nearly as far as Hatcher has, and the ending hits the reader profoundly, all the moreso for its understated nature. Its impact is only reinforced as you look back across the events of the novel. I found myself repeatedly thinking about the novel after I'd finished it, wondering at the deeper meanings of some of the events. It has been said that Hell is other people, but after reading this novel, I believe that the author, at least, thinks that Redemption might be other people, as well.

Johannes Cabal The Necromancer does not take place in Hell. Or at least, not entirely. Most of the story takes place in a carnival. Which could be like Hell for some folks. Especially those not liking clowns. I'm not really sure how best to describe the story- though the plot is pretty straightforward: Man sells soul to the devil in order to discover the secrets of life after death, decides that wasn't the best way to learn, then renegotiates his contract, trading one hundred freely-given souls in one year's time for his own back. And he has to collect them using a carnival. It takes places in an unspecific time and place- I was convinced it took place in Victorian England, until they started referring to things like radio and genetics. it's somewhat reminiscent of the mysterious European country that so many of the Universal monster movies took place in- filled with superstitious villagers alongside modern technology.

I found myself often rooting for Cabal, then realizing he was still collecting the signatures of people to send them to Hell. Hardly a typical good guy. In fact, there's very little immediately likable about him- he's not only soulless, but pretty much amoral as well. However, he's very good at what he does, and his determination and unflappability in the face of Satan himself, help to make him a more sympathetic lead. The whole book is written in a quirky, slightly off-center way that's become very popular in recent years. I found it very reminiscent of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett's Good Omens, or the movie version of Big Fish, though with a bit drier sense of humor. The novel is populated with an interesting array of characters, not least among them Cabal's business partner. The novel itself, once it gets rolling (so to speak; it's a carnival that travels by train), unfolds in a series of vignettes at each stop along the rail. Each stop brings some new challenge to Cabal's plan, or to Cabal himself. It's not meant to be as philosophically engaging as Hell, but is quite enjoyable as an above-average supernatural humor/adventure story- one that also deals with ideas like suffering, human connections, and the possibility of redemption.

Those were the books I read. I would recommend them to anyone who likes to read and isn't afraid of the Devil or Hell or laughing or thinking or all of the above. I do not recommend reading them both in a row, or letting people know you are reading books about Hell- they might wonder what's going on in your mind. Or not, if they know you well. Thank you.


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