Monday, December 22, 2008

Review: Escape From Hell! by Hal Duncan

Hal Duncan stormed on to the SFF scene a few years ago with his much talked about, love-it or hate-it, debut – Vellum (US, UK, Canada). Since, he’s become known for long, thoughtful and often angry posts at his blog (sadly, it’s fairly silent these days) and reports from various conventions speak of a fun guy who really likes his drink. Escape From Hell! (US, UK, Canada) is his new novella from MonkeyBrain Books – and it’s just as wildly unconventional as I expected.

To borrow from the refreshingly un-PC words of Duncan – a hitman, a hooker, a hobo and a homo die and go to Hell. This version of Hell looks a bit like New York City, is run with a painful bureaucracy, and is well covered by Hell’s own media star. These four very different people find themselves swept up in events and choose to do what hasn’t been done before – escape from Hell. As they fumble along the way, leaving a bigger and bigger ‘body’ count, they free the angel Lucifer who has been held prisoner by the actual lord of Hell, the angel Gabriel, and real chaos begins.

Duncan gives the reader an insanely wild ride like nothing I’ve read before – the closest it comes to would be a wonderfully offensive B-movie. The jacket cover proclaims ‘it’s Escape From New York meets Jacob’s Ladder – and I have to agree that it’s a pretty good description.

The book is fast-paced, yet executed in a way that allows us to know the four main characters rather quickly. We start with witnessing each of their deaths – one goes out in a blaze of sinful glory, two are unceremoniously beat to death, and the crazy hobo throws himself from rooftop. Next we see them processed into their personal level of Hell. And finally, escape.

A strange sympathy develops with the characters – I quickly felt that the homo and the hobo certainly don’t ‘belong’ in hell, the whore seems to be more of a victim than anything, and the hitman is the perfect example of someone ‘deserving’ of damnation. I found myself instantly routing for each. Meanwhile, Duncan impressively and subtly condemns the damnation of each as he furiously advances the story.

The majority of this novella is set-up for what can only be described as the ‘kick ass’ escape itself. The novel peaks at the freeing of Lucifer, with a barely controlled free-fall from there. Lucifer provides the final focal mechanism to bring the book together – and the loudest condemnation of Hell and its ultimate creators – God and man together.

Duncan peppers this novel with unfriendly shots at what (presumably) boils his blood. The news channel of Hell is Vox News (sure sounds like Fox), the initial entry into Hell seems a lot like US customs, and Duncan once again references the tragic, hate-filled murder of Matthew Shepard. But the most pointed criticism seems leveled at the media. Hell is literally controlled in part by the media – in fact, in Duncan’s Hell it wouldn’t be Hell without the media.

Escape From Hell! is a wild ride through the literal Hell – a pulp adventure and angry condemnation. I suppose that some may consider it blasphemy – I consider it brilliant fiction. It’s rare for me to think such, but Escape From Hell! would make a great movie, if anyone had the guts to make it. 9/10


ediFanoB said...

Good review. Book is on my list. It will be available at in January 2009.

Just one question.
Is it true that this is only a 128 pages book?
Found this information at

Neth said...

well, my copy is 143 pages, but the font is kinda big. It's a short book - a novella, not a full length novel.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review. This and the prologue you pointed out over at Westeros was enough to get me to buy the book despite my dislike of his previous works. Looking forward to reading it.

Anonymous said...

The book has a Prologue and four chapters: Arrival, Flight, Attack, and Showdown. The Prologue and Arrival are great. Somewhere during the Attack, when all four characters gather together the story starts losing intensity. The last chapter was barely passable and I literally skimmed through it. What a disappointment after the great first half of the book...


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