by: Jeff Long
published by:

I'm sure if Jeff Long were to read my analysis of his latest thriller, he would disagree with what I'm writing. Still, what is most remarkable about his captivating story about a descent into hell and return is what is absent.

This is the second part of a story that began with the novel, The Descent. That book began with a wonderful premise - that hell actually existed, as predicted by ancient myth and legend, deep in the bowels of the earth, and was occupied by a race of humanoids, the Hadals, who were artistically disfigured by accident, intent, and the forces of nature, and who feasted, psychologically, upon pain and terror.

That novel never strayed too far from the typical sci-fi/horror genre, and was jam-packed with knowledgeable action about deep caving, military ops, and danced along the edges of deeper philosophy, along the lines of Dan Simmons' Hyperion.

In this outing, Long jumps in and pummels the philosophy for all it's worth.

In the first novel, we supposedly discover that the ruler of Hades, and the aptly-named Hadals is an apostate Jesuit priest, who has been captured and "turned" by the Hadals, and sent topside to bring down more victims to what he now perceives to be "his" kingdom. Hadals value humans as slaves, as cattle (that is, meat), as canvases for their perverted artwork, and as occupants of a realm they cannot endure, but which they profoundly envy.

Glimpses of these Hadals over the millenia have given birth to persistent stories of a hell, and underworld, a place of torment, occupied by demons bent upon the punishment and destruction of human sinners. In truth, the Hadals are not so discriminating: innocent and guilty alike are captured and dragged downward, and occasionally allowed to escape, to return to the sun with terrifying warnings not to encroach on the world beneath the world.

Modern man stumbles, quite by accident, upon an opening to this unimagined and unimaginable netherworld, and in the way of modern man (or, at least, in Long's view of modern man) immediately sends a paramilitary expedition down to find out what lurks beneath the supposedly solid earth beneath our feet, and exploit its military and financial possibilities. And unbeknownst to most members of the team, "neutralize" the Hadals with the strategic placement of virus-laden bombs.

At the climax of the first book, the Hadals have been killed off, just in time to rescue a couple of main characters.

In this second part of the story, we learn that the Jesuit priest- who perishes, horribly, in the first part - was not, in fact, the ruler of Hades. This vile personage still exists, deeper still, stewing in anger, envy, arrogance, and brilliance, and ironically, unable to do the one thing he most desires: escape.

One by one, over the eons, this creature (who is not specifically named) brings, or has brought to him, a collection of humans, Hadals, and experimental creations of his (he claims) own devise or siring. Of each he demands the same tribute: give me the key to the surface. As long as each amuses him, he overlooks their inability to deliver his freedom. Eventually, each runs out of questions to ask and answer, and each becomes another experiment in pain, which he insists will give each subject what none can provide: liberation.

In the course of his toying with the one creature who actually escapes his grasp - a man named Ike, and whose initials, IC, are left engraved throughout Hell as a sign of his passing (inevitably raising the notion of Jesus Christ, the one Being who, the story has it, descended into Hell but arose again on the third day) - we learn that this Satan is, or claims to be, the author of mankind's ascension from dumb beasts, that he is the Architect of Intelligent Design, from the orderly procession of colors across the spectrum to the chambers in the shell of a Nautilus. This Satan has spent his days of captivity (the word "damnation" never being used in connection with him) tinkering with blind evolution, improving upon Nature's mindless schemes. It is this captive entity who has added those fillips of pattern and whimsy that have made man believe that creation was not simply generated but was planned.

Long's imaginative depiction of Hell is everything it should be: nasty, frightening, alien, and remorseless. It is even sensual, after a fashion, the Hadals, and Satan in particular, taking an epicurean delight in creative physical cruelty (impaled people's legs are lopped off for food, prolonging their agony; the mythical minotaur keeps a "meat pet," whom he both cossets and slowly ingests; another creature is fed his own body parts for which he begs, as he is starving). Humans are seduced into the world of the Hadals - which, in truth, is not to be confused with the world of Satan, as Satan is merely a captive in the Hadals realm, but no more associated with them than with humans - and come to almost love their stoicism, their clan fealty, the practice of using their bodies, and the bodies of slaves, as cavasses upon which to write their tortured histories.

What is missing in this story (ok, here it comes) is God. If there is a force - Satan - playing with mankind in an at best indifferent, at worst, malicious manner, and if this force has somehow been trapped - where is the opposing force? Who has trapped Satan in his nightmare world?

Satan tells his human captives that they have done it to him, but one of them rightly points out that he was confined below before they ever came to be - how could they possibly have not only trapped him, but have the key to his escape? And if not they, then whom?

Satan never names a nemesis. One of the main characters has disavowed this presence in the first book, and never reverts. The one character in the second book who seems to call upon God as a guiding light in the second sounds more like she is using God as an amulet than a fact of faith.

This lack of dynamic tension ultimately makes the book end with a whimper. Divided into four main parts: the narrative of Ali (former nun, present atheist and Hell survivor); the narrative of Rebecca (figure head leader and mother of a stolen child); "artifacts," or scraps of news, military intel, government activites, and the like (all of which lead to the inevitable conclusion that governments are nothing much more than war machines, the Republicans leading the way); and conversations with Satan; the book builds up to a disappointing conclusion.

We never truly understand why Satan is confined. We are slightly horrified that one of the characters sacrifices herself to keep him that way - though we never really understand the mechanism, or the point. We do see Ike "resurrect" to the surface, but maimed and scarred as he is, and frankly, hopeless, we can't see what good he will do once so restored to life. If there is meant to be hope or reconciliation at the end of the book, it just wasn't visible to me.

If we are to believe that there is neither good nor evil, merely a childishly selfish force who uses and abuses creation for his own cruel amusement - so what? Does this enlighten us, or offer us any insights into the meaning of life? Come on, Jeff. Life is tough enough - if there is no force for good looking out for us, then it seems only fair that a nasty bit of business like Satan couldn't be all there is, could it?

Maybe there will be a book three.


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