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Hell on Earth by Michael Reaves
(Del Rey, $22.00, 280 pages, hardback; May 2, 2001.)

cover scan

A few years ago, somewhere in the midst of nowhere, a young girl, pregnant by her father, gave birth to a monster that promptly slaughtered everyone in the delivery room before vaulting off through the window.

In the present, strange things are a-doing. New York-based occultist Colin, raised and trained by a Transylvanian necromantic order called the Scholomance, is robbed, by some entity that reeks of wrongness, of his primary talisman, the tripartite McGuffin known as the Trine; immediately afterwards a fabulously lovely lady angel called Zoel arrives on his doorstep offering to help him get it back in return for his assisting her on an enigmatic quest. They are shortly joined in this by the demon Asdeon, who has collaborated with Colin before and maintains a shifty friendship with him.

Meanwhile in Oregon, bestselling journo and crime-book author Liz Russell is watching a serial killer called the Maneater -- who has been stalking her these past few years -- apparently fail to die in the execution chamber; even during the autopsy, after his brain has been removed and discovered to be lacking in the areas responsible for such motor functions as breathing and heartbeat, the Maneater is still able to wink at her. If the vile spirit that has enlivened him is able to hop from body to body, as indeed proves to be the case, then Liz's life is in eternal danger ...

Meanwhile in Los Angeles, bodyguard Terry Dane, a veteran of Desert Storm, during which he had an encounter he's tried to forget with a demonic figure amid the hellish fires and darkling skies, manages only by chance to stop an unkillable madman from assassinating his rock-star client on the street. Later the said heavy-metal artiste, stage-name Chopper, is found so hideously slaughtered in his private, locked-room studio that if the obvious comparison were made there'd be letters from angry hamburgers. The mystery of this murder is one he must solve, even if at the cost of his own life...

Off go these various disparate characters on their various disparate quests, encountering demons and dangers galore. They all finish up in Las Vegas -- the 21st century's Sodom and Gomorrah -- where there is the most dramatic demonic manifestation yet, in the vanquishing of which all three of the main protagonists must play their essential parts...

There is, as you will have gathered, quite a lot of plot in this not particularly long book -- plenty of event to keep the pages turning.

Unfortunately, the net effect is all rather forgettable. This is the kind of novel that used to published originally not as an elegantly produced hardback but as a mass-market paperback, designed to be read once on a long train journey and then abandoned for the next passenger to pick up. The tale is efficiently told and the pages do indeed keep turning, but never with any deep sense of involvement in the characters and their fates or with any compelling urge to discover what happens next. If there are any profundities to the underlying ideas -- indeed, if there are any underlying ideas at all -- then they have all been pared away for the sake of the efficiency of the telling. The reader comes away from Hell on Earth with the feeling that it is one of those novels that can be adequately synopsized simply by: "They have adventures." The plethora of event somehow does not seem to tie together to form a single, unifying, inevitable plot.

There are some good points. The demon Asdeon is a fine fictional creation -- by far the most enjoyable character in the book. Although he's Americanized, with a penchant for Bogart impersonations that actually are Bogart impersonations because of his shapeshifting ability, the precursor I was reminded of most was Albert Campion's butler Lugg in Margery Allingham's novels. Of course, it is not necessarily a good sign that a secondary character should steal the show on every appearance, but this shouldn't detract from the achievement.

Also of note is Reaves's facility for creating pop-culture similes and metaphors, which generously litter the pages -- rather too generously, perhaps, because they can come to grate. The functioning of the Striker saw (device used in autopsies), for example, is described thus: "It worked by high speed vibration and would not harm soft tissue, although it sliced through bone like a kitchen knife through Janet Leigh." Or there's a description of the lovely-to-die-for angel Zoel: "Then she smiled, another one of those smiles that could melt an iceberg faster than Godzilla's fiery breath." All very slick and professional stuff, of course -- despite the image of a halitotic smile -- but not necessarily effective in the task of dragging the reader into the plot.

Then there are the times -- too many of them -- where one has the impression Reaves is laughing at his readers, that he's deliberately revealing the mechanics of putting together a generic supernatural-horror story in order to mock their predilections. After one particular set-piece we read:

Probably he was supposed to feel shock or fear at the sight of the priest's throat wound functioning as a second mouth. Colin felt neither; only impatience. Whoever or whatever was possessing the priest should have known that it took more than this kind of shoddy theatricality to impress him.

And the same, of course, goes for the reader, because the scene in question did smack of "shoddy theatricality". Similarly, three-quarters of the way through the book, Colin exclaims: "I've been too long in the dark. I want some answers. [...] who stole the Trine? Who sent me on this wild goose chase? And why?" They're questions the more perceptive reader, too, has long been asking, because Colin's adventures to date have indeed been a wild goose chase, with the components of the Trine being merely plot coupons -- rather like the various objects you have to gather in a role-playing gamebook for reasons that never if at all become obvious. The suggestion here is that readers are too often satisfied with such stuff, and that those very same readers won't notice the jibe. And right at the end of the book, when Colin has to decide what best he should do next in order to plant the seed of a sequel, a miniature Asdeon appears on one of his shoulders and a miniature Zoel on the other, each urging him to follow a different course, much as in the old cartoons where Donald Duck might be swayed one way and the other by a devil and an angel on his two shoulders.

There's often, in fact, the feeling while reading Hell on Earth that somewhere below the surface there's a comic novel or outright parody just itching to break loose, but being held somewhat insecurely in check. Yet to judge the novel as a romp would be misguided as well, for it lacks a romp's requisite bubbling joie de vivre. What is conveyed instead -- presumably by accident rather than design -- is as noted a somewhat sneering contempt for readers of novels like this one.

Whether such readers deserve all they get is of course another matter...

Review by John Grant.

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© John Grant 2 June 2001