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Hell to Pay by Matthew Hughes


Hell to Pay by Matthew Hughes (Angry Robot Books, 2013) is the third and final episode in the To Hell and Back series. I guess that makes it a trilogy although, when it comes to writing the book, you can get different ideas about how many copies there are in each edition and, at the discretion of the characters, earlier books in the series can be rewritten or, if things are not going so well, more books can be added until the plot comes out to everyone’s satisfaction. That’s the big advantage when the whole point of the series is that God and the Devil are sitting down together in the Garden of Eden with a labour lawyer turned pastor acting as referee and editor-in-chief to get a draft of the “book” both can agree on. Once the book gets into the final draft, all this uncertainty can be swept away and the world will be a better place (or not if a compromise or two has to be made made to placate the Devil). From this, you should understand this is a trilogy that fails to take the Christian religion seriously. This makes it convenient to compare this to the Sandman Slim serial by Richard Kadrey.

Initially, you might think them thematically similar in that both play with the ideas that God might not be quite so decisive and all-powerful as the literalists would choose to believe with the Devil and his minions slightly less unpleasant than Pieter Brueghel the Younger and others have been painting them. But there’s a radical difference in tone. In the nicest possible way, I’d describe Kadrey as a thoughtful badass from LA whereas Hughes is an essential rather nice man with roots in Canada and Britain, a combination giving him a rather more mellow view of the world and its afterlife. Although they are both comedic in outlook, there’s a rather more relentless quality to Sandman Slim thanks to his mixed parentage, whereas Chesney Arnstruther is less competent. This is not Chesney’s fault. He was born with a form of autism so the usual socialisation fails to take and leaves him unable to relate to the world. Fortunately, he’s wonderful with numbers. Had his lack of empathy more profound, we might perhaps have classified him as an idiot savant. As it is, he’s an innocent Everyman with dreams that, one day, he can become a superhero. The result of a compromise deal when he turns down the usual offer of fringe benefits from the sale of a soul, are great fun — definitely not in the same ballpark as Sandman when he starts to kill.

Matthew Hughes

Matthew Hughes

On balance, Matthew wins. First he knows when to stop. He had a three book deal and does a terrific job in constructing a very elegant plot which plays through all the arguments about the nature of good and evil, and comes to a genuinely surprising conclusion. This is undoubtedly the right place to stop, but the Kadrey juggernaut rumbles on through the plot variations as if there’s no place he can’t take his characters. Second, the humour in Matthew’s books is a deft way of puncturing the bubble of hypocrisy that tends to envelope the religion “thing”. He sneaks up on some profound questions and has you into the debate before you realise the enormity of what he’s suggesting. Kadrey has the Sandman shoot and maim but, as a character, he’s not the greatest thinker. I suppose all this is doing is reveal a cultural preference for the style of humour closest to my own. Finally, there’s the question of the plot. Matthew’s primary concern is the nature of empathy and how it colours our relationship with the world. If selfishness prevailed, the general notion of fairness in interpersonal relationships would disappear. So the angels are on a need-to-know basis and the lower orders of Hell do what they are told. Their world is literally ordered. Only humans have free will but, even within the human race, we have variations like sociopaths and those suffering from autism. In other words, humans don’t always come out of the mould quite as they should.

In a way that’s why Chesney is good at relating to the junior devil allocated to him. They both end up interested in exploring the limits of what they can and cannot feel or do. In theory the devil is limited by the instruction rule book for Hellions, but it turns out there are nearly always loopholes. Chesney ought to be constrained by the laws of physics and human laws but, when you have a devil prepared to bend things around a little, the human can also get superhero things done. In the end it turns out every one in the plot is fallible. Even the Devil and God are forced to admit they haven’t got it right (whatever “it” is). That’s why they are in the Garden of Eden negotiating. Except, in a way, that means they have both taken their eyes off the ball. Chesney and other players are still loose in the world and can continue bending “things” even further out of shape. This final volume builds up to a pleasing metafictional climax in an alternate universe where God was trying out a different approach before our current reality. It’s great fun.

I note the coincidence of a mouse in this final volume who has a question — I was reminded of Douglas Adams in a good way. Overall, Hell to Pay is a very satisfying conclusion to an immensely pleasing trilogy. I suspect even Christians would enjoy it if they could only get past the idea of reading some irreverent.

I note another nice illustration of key plot elements in the excellent cover art by Tom Gauld.

For all the reviews of books by Matthew Hughes, see:
Costume Not Included
The Damned Busters
Hell to Pay
The Other
Song of the Serpent

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  1. September 8, 2013 at 10:43 pm

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