The notes and blurbs for Steven R. Boyett's new novel, Mortality Bridge all mention three of the big four when it comes to depictions of hell: the Greeks, Dante and Faust; the back of the book jacket mentions Hieronymous Bosch.
Heironymous Bosch was evil.
Mortality Bridge is a mash-up of sorts. The novel's hero, Niko, once made a deal with the devil, like Faust did. In exchange for a successful career as a rock star, Niko will spend eternity in hell. He doesn't know that as part of the bargain all those he loves will also spend eternity in hell.
When his girlfriend is unexpectedly taken down to the underworld, Niko sets off on a journey to set her free combining elements of both Dante, who was looking for his own lost love in Inferno, and Orpheus who travelled to the underworld to win back Eurydice.
Unfortunately, the hell Niko visits is the one imagined by painter Hieronymous Bosch, who was famed for his depictions of hell like the one below.
The underworld of Greek mythology is a bleak place, but not a particularly horrible place. The souls there become mindless blobs of flesh. Actually, they can be accurately described as soulless. They don't really suffer; they just lose everything that made them individuals. It's easy to see why Orpheus wanted to get his true love out of there and why Homer's Achilles said he would rather be the servant of the lowest shepherd than the king of all the underworld. Dantes hell is much worse, but it makes for interesting reading. It's a very organized place; Dante does a very good job laying out the geography of hell. In Dante's hell, the worse the sin, the worse the punishment. However, most of the time the punishment is simply the eternal repetition of the sin. That's a very clever, and terrible idea, if you ask me. Sent to hell for committing cannibalism, spend eternity forced to eat human flesh again and again and again.
Bosch is the worst. His hell is a landscape of tortures performed on people we don't know. Dante's sinners get what they deserve, at least what his society thought they deserved, while Bosch's sinners, who look just like all of us but have no names, get disgusting and cruel punishments inflicted on them for no reason that we can determine. One gets the feeling with Bosch, that he is having a very good time dreaming up all this suffering he is inflicting on the people he has populated his hell with and that he thinks eternal damnation is just part of the human condition.
I love Steven R. Boyett's books. Love them more than they deserve to be loved, probably. Ariel and Elegy Beach are two of my favorite guilty pleasure reads. So I was excited to see that Mr. Boyett had written a new book; it's been a very long time between novels. But I couldn't make it through Mortality Bridge. I gave it 143 pages, but it was just too much Bosch.
Niko finds someone undergoing a terrible torture which is described in detail, then finds someone else undergoing terrible torture described in detail, then finds another person undergoing terrible torture described in detail. Sometimes the person he finds is someone from history, but I didn't find the punishment designed to fit a crime nor was the geography of Hell laid out in an interesting way like it is in Dante.
Instead, Mr. Boyett's hell is the hell of Bosch. It's well done, I suppose, Cory Doctorow and Publisher's Weekly gave the book a terrific blurbs and most of the reviews on Amazon.com are four and five star reviews, but I think a little Bosch goes a very long way. Unfortunately, not long enough to last more than 143 pages.
Not for me anyway.