I’ve read tragically little of Edward Lee’s work. A smattering of short stories, his novella The Cyesolagniac and his segment of Triage (which is a collection of three novellas by Lee, Jack Ketchum and Richard Laymon). Everything I’ve read, I have enjoyed.
Then why have I been into horror for so long and mostly shied away from one of today’s big authors? I don’t have a good answer for you. It’s probably not his reputation for writing “extreme horror,” as Laymon and Ketchum are pretty extreme and are regular staples in my literary diet. Whatever the explanation I planed on rectifying the problem when I bought City Infernal.
City Infernal is the first book of Lee’s popular “Infernal Mythos.” I like to know very little about books before I dive in (you’ve seen how neurotic about spoilers I can get), but because Lee is known in the horror community for his stomach-churning gore (everything I had read prior to this confirms this) I figured that I was in for a sick, if a bit guilty, pleasure. In truth what I got was something much stranger and, in my opinion, much more interesting. Lee’s book is less Takashi Miike’s Ichi the Killer and more Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials.
You read that right. I compared Lee’s ultra-violent trip through hell to a children’s book. I do so favorably.
Like The Golden Compass (or similar, lesser books) Lee builds a world that is both strange, but familiar. It is a setting that is clearly fantasy but still very much reflective of the place we live. Also, like Pullman’s novel, the parallels between Mephistopolis (Lee’s Hell) and our current society are not always in the most flattering.
The plot concerns Cassie, a young woman who finds herself in Hell, literally, after moving into her new house and making some new (dead) friends. Not only that but hell isn’t all fire and brimstone, it’s a thriving city that runs on despair an carnage. Cassie decides to plunge deeper into the metropolis to find her twin sister, who died of a suicide. But wait, there’s more, because Cassie is a mortal in Hell she has crazy mystical powers that would give Satan the ability to manifest on Earth, thus she becomes a target of his demonic constabulary. It’s not as exhausting as it sounds.
I really love the way everything about Lee’s version of Hell “adds up.” There is a clever and nicely explained piece of exposition for almost every economic, political and social facet of Hell. It’s an odd novel in that the explanatory passages are the most interesting. The wildlife and social strata of Hell is captivating and disgusting. Lee masterfully mixes the thoughtful with the repugnant.
No book is without its minor faults and Lee’s is no exception. The biggest problem I found is somewhat symptomatic of the fantasy genre itself, so Lee can’t much be blamed. There are a number of times where Cassie and friends are helped out of a bind by some archane hell magic that the reader (and Cassie) has not been previously introduced to. These moments all feel a bit too deus ex machina, but are not really that distracting and like I said, are native to this kind of story telling.
City Infernal has been optioned for film in the past, I don’t know if it still is. Any filmic translation, however unlikely, would have to be big budget and thus way toned-down, but I can’t help feeling that in the right hands (Guillermo del Toro?) City Infernal would make a really fun movie.
City Infernal is a brisk read and should have cross genre appeal, anyone who wants some horror in their fantasy or fantasy in their horror should pick up a copy (some of you probably already have, seeing how it was first published a decade ago: I’m way late to the party, as usual). I have already purchased the next part of the series on Kindle and I am very interested to see what else Lee has in store.
On a bit of a negative final note: What a fugly cover. Leisure: I love the books you put out, you make horror affordable and give great authors massive exposure, but why the covers? They’re tacky without being the awesome kind of tacky. They were never high art, but paperbacks used to have some pretty cool covers.