Hell Is an Awfully Big City
Wild Cat Books, December 2009
Review: Hell Is an Awfully Big City
“Hell is an awfully big city, Mr. Quincy,” the devil informs an octogenarian, whose soul he’s making a play for. It’s a definitive statement, and one that becomes both the story’s title and the title for the entire fiction collection by horror writer and Strangeweirdandwonderful.com editor D.L. Russell. Published by Wild Cat, Hell Is an Awfully Big City is Russell’s second book and incorporates his first novella “Maxwell: The Last Vampire” into the series of nine extended stories. The title for the new collection is apt, since the creatures that populate these engaging tales are as beastly and diverse as anything that might emerge from an urban quarter of Hades.
In the title story, the devil--whose icy blue eyes and straight, unnaturally-white teeth alternately suggests a vain day trader, narcissistic banker, and air brushed media personality--describes hell’s exponential expansion and the advance of bars, clubs, and other business opportunities. The population there is apparently rising. Here, Russell offers a particularly insightful comment on our time: develop hell? You bet. I can imagine some real estate moguls who would give it serious consideration: How hot does it get there? Well, we can tell people they’re just really close to the equator.
Even with the more chilling moments of bloodshed, like the auditory descriptions of consuming tissue and bone in “Waas”, there’s a fable-like quality to many of Russell’s stories. In “That Ain’t No Chicken,” the protagonist is a wily Rhode Island Red named Mr. Mudfoot, who valiantly protects his many hens from unjust humans, fox, and the initially unidentifiable worst. Although Mr. Mudfoot, known to his ladies by the affectionate nickname ‘Wollowo,’ may initially be viewed with suspicion when his first caretaker drops dead while performing the morning feeding, he soon reveals himself to be a wary, heroic little character: a David to the Goliath-like creature that attempts to violate and destroy the chickens and their humans. A plucky little rooster on an Indiana farm actually ends up saving the world. It’s an intriguing page-turner with a moral about physical size, intelligence, and heart.
The story “Raymond Doesn’t Remember” is interwoven with flashbacks involving a significant afternoon in the title character’s youth, when he loses the key to his mother’s house and is confronted by a voluptuous witch who uses it to lure him into her home. The key he’s searching for is a symbolic element: figuratively speaking, its loss opens the door to a future he never planned for and deeply regrets.
Sad but also thought-provoking is “Dreams Still on You,” in which a lonely, curmudgeonly used bookstore owner named Walker Fintz meets the woman of his dreams, Paullina. Yet she is in spirit form, a ghost who can take on mass and volume at will. Russell’s descriptions deftly merge the reality of outside human interactions with the fantasy of an apartment-bound spirit lover. His treatment of poignant human emotion keeps readers engaged and expectant: we hope for Walker’s happiness and know the whole of his being becomes intent on sustaining and building a life with something whose ability to inhabit three-dimensions is ephemeral. The ending is both incredibly sad, but tremendously happy. It is a perfect expression of the human need for reciprocated love, which is solid and real, even when the object and dispenser of that love is not. Often it does not come in the form we anticipate, and many of us will follow it anywhere once we find it. Walker does.
Each of Russell’s nine stories reveals a voice sensitive to the creation of scene and emotion. He deals engagingly with conventional horror characters, offering absorbing twists: there are fickle zombies, unexpectedly noble vampires, treacherous werewolves, a pitiless alien, and a startlingly lascivious witch. His descriptive attention to unconventional figures of dark, and frequently carnivorous, nature allows them to become three-dimensional and confidently enter the horror lexicon. Russell’s “Waas” is just one example. The bewildered humans that gravitate around these central figures are also sharply defined, permitting the reader to immerse themselves in and be carried away a flood of fiction about the natural world communing with (and more often colliding with) the deviant and damned.