Written in Hell, by Jason Helford: A Review

Written in Hell is one of those occasional books I like more the more I think about it. Once in a while a book or a film comes along that is better from a distance, when contemplation and synaptic action has had a chance to allow the images and words and messages to coalesce and connect. I had the same reaction to the last film in the ‘Cornetto Trilogy’, The World’s End. Also comic science fiction, there were details and actions in the film that didn’t work for me at the time, but after a few days, I realized I had quite liked the film, perhaps more than quite liked it. Written in Hell has engendered the same reaction.

The protagonist, Nate (or “Ate”) is a failed writer; his one book, a western bordering on pornographic, has not sold well at all. He takes his sense of failure out on just about everyone, sneering at them via his extensive vocabulary. But Nate isn’t quite the failure he believes himself to be: his book has done exceptionally well in one place. Hell. So well that the Devil is tired of Hell’s denizens role-playing characters from the book, and recruits Nate to write another one.

Anyone involved in a creative pursuit will likely relate to many of the images in the book. Not, perhaps, to Nate himself – he’s not a particularly likeable character – but to certain other concepts: the thick skin Nate finds he’s grown; the misinterpretations of his characters; his helpless lack of control over his intellectual property. The comedy is at once both slapstick – strong physical comedy focused on Nate’s lack of control over his body – and much more subtle. The ending, without spoilers, has Nate facing what is likely the deepest fear of most writers and artists.

I can’t fault Written in Hell on any of the usual issues of plot or voice or grammar. I will say the pacing may be a bit uneven, with perhaps too much time spent on repeating some of the more physical issues Nate faces. If you’re offended by swearing, this book will offend you. Characters were not stereotypical, especially the Devil, and the plot had twists that just couldn’t be expected. It’s never going to be a favourite book, but if the role of art is to change the way you see the world, …well, I’m never going to picture the Devil the same way again.

The author provided me with a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

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