Wednesday, April 11, 2012

What the Hell? When is the Devil’s Torment Too Much?

I recently finished the third novel in my (dark) comedy series consisting of The Substitute, Oh, Heavens, Miss Havana! and The Training Bra. I have been through a few self-editing passes on The Training Bra—and received one disturbing comment from a female beta reader—but I have not sent the book to a publisher as yet. The disturbing comment troubles me, and I wish to pursue it in this blog. I need some opinions on the following question: if a novel is based in hell, can a writer go too far in describing the despicable conditions encountered there?

First a little background. All three novels are chock full of comedy/parody and they have no relationship to anything or anyone real. Heaven and hell, as presented in the books, are figments of my imagination and nothing else. The three books follow the lives and deaths of one main character, Miss Havana, through her spiritual growth from being absolutely evil to being somewhat tolerable. She makes lots of mistakes, but generally pulls out a redeeming quality when she needs one. The characters that surround my heroine are primarily the devil, Lucifer, the daughter of the devil and Miss Havana, Lilith, and a couple of brute-like shadow creatures named Waldo and Croco. Many less important characters populate the stories, but those just mentioned are the main ones.

Although comically presented, hell is described in the series as being a pretty nasty place. There is a long waiting line to get in that is only three-feet high where people wait in stooped position for eternity. Broken hot glass lines the walls and sulfur fumes choke the air. So does the smell of the person next in line. Croco manages the waiting line with an iron fist, branding anyone who dares violate his arbitrary rules with “line jumper”, “strike one” and other short messages.

Waldo’s job is less well defined because, as you might imagine, he’s hard to find. He shows up when Lucifer needs him, but stays hidden most of the time.

The other three characters can be ordered on a scale of evilness: Lilith (most evil), Lucifer (so-so evil) and Miss Havana (least evil). In the novels, the three characters jockey for power, fighting each other to determine which one will control the underworld. As the characters vie for prominence, they do despicable things to each other: electrocution, murder, hot coals over the head, mustard packs under the toilet seat bumpers … that sort of thing. And this is where the burning question comes in: how much is too much? After having his throne ripped away by his daughter, how much retribution can the devil heap on his daughter’s head before a (real) reader is offended?

My thinking is this: hell isn’t a nice place, so dirty tricks can be pretty seedy. The characters involved in the power struggle do a lot of scheming, plotting and bargaining, and the stakes are high—one slip and it could mean the end of existence for their soul (what little they have). Family means nothing—they all pretty much hate each other—there is no love lost between any of them. They are all users and abusers, but generally in a comical way.

Okay, here it is. At one point the devil cuts a deal with Waldo and Croco that could transfer control of Lilith to the two beasts for eternity, assuming Lilith can be unseated from the throne of power. She is the strong one; all the others are subservient to her, but everyone watches out for their own self-interested and no one can be trusted. Trying to gain a few important followers to overthrow his daughter, Lucifer “trades” his daughter (if she can be deposed) for the loyalty of the two shadow creatures. The word “rape” is never used, but it is clear that will happen if the two ever get their hands on her. The devil considers the deal a good one because Lilith has screwed him so often in the past and, besides, she has no soul to permanently scar. Furthermore, if the two are abusing Lilith, he won’t have to watch his back one hundred percent of the time.

This is where my beta reader got concerned. All the killing and maiming didn’t bother her (souls heal quickly in the books, so most of the time a supplicant can be returned to service, and further pain, rather quickly), but the thought of Lilith being violated by two monsters pushed her over the edge. Just for background, my beta reader is eighty-four-years-old and quite brilliant. I generally listen to her with rapt attention, but this time I’m not so sure. So I thought I’d ask those of you who might read this blog: can a writer go too far in describing the evil conditions in hell? Is bargaining with his daughter’s fate—literally promising sexual servitude—too despicable for Lucifer?

I would appreciate hearing from some of you, but you don’t have to answer the question in a vacuum. Below is the excerpt where it happens. At the time of the excerpt, Lucifer is haunting one of Shelly’s classmates, a boy named Dick, and Miss Havana is haunting Shelly. Lucifer does not know Miss Havana’s spirit exists within Shelly, or he’d kill Shelly outright, and Miss Havana doesn’t know Lucifer’s spirit inhabits Dick’s body, or she would kill Dick outright (like I said, no love lost between the main characters). The excerpt is from Lucifer’s point of view.


My thoughts of deep revenge are interrupted by the musings of my host. He is seated on a bench on campus ogling young girls who pass in review. The idiot actually believes he can see through clothing without my help. What a fool. Without me, all he will get is eye strain to add to his headache. This is my game, not his.

Shelly said she could see through clothing, too. I wonder if that was a lie, or if there really is something going on within her. If she can see past solid objects like she claimed, then she could have a spirit within her, like Dick has me, perhaps one Lilith sent to ensure I don’t sample the merchandise.

My mind is muddled on this point because I did not initiate the attempted sexual encounter with Shelly. No, she came on to Dick and kept fanning the flame. If Lilith ordered a spirit to spy on me from within Shelly’s mind, like she ordered me to observe Shelly from my Dick host, then what’s really going on? Surely a spirit from within Lilith’s camp would not attempt to offer me pleasure.

I find it equally hard to accept Shelly could be infected by a spirit from the other side because the other side would not have initiated anything like that. No, if there is a spirit in her, it must be one of ours. Either that, or Shelly is the first surface dweller to develop the ability to see through solids. Maybe that’s the real reason Lilith wants me to watch the kid; maybe Shelly really is different.

All I know for sure is that multiple personalities are running around in Shelly’s mind. Her accident could have caused that, or Lilith could be involved. As I contemplate the possibilities, deep in thought, I accidentally press the button on my collar while mindlessly rubbing the back of my neck with my hand. The 100,000-volt Tazer embedded in the collar immediately reminds me of my mistake. The smell of ozone follows the crackling sound of current surging over my skin, and … UNHOLY ALIANCE OF LILITH AND WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION! A burley shadow creature must have come through the side door, picked me up and savagely body slammed us both to the floor, over and over and over again.

I wake in the fetal position with dry tears irritating my eyes. My body is soaking wet, both nipples are on fire and my testicles are either missing or tucked up deep inside my body. My left arm is twisted under my body in an odd position and there is tingling in my legs. I hear unusual dog whining sounds in the distance, lots of them, like the restrained half-laugh of hyenas holding back because laughing of any ilk is forbidden in Lilith’s realm. Her dog things must be hovering in the blackness just out of range to avoid being slammed by my body flopping all over the slimy floor.

My triceps, right thigh and both nipples continue twitching as my body comes to rest. My face feels like it has been shot up with Novocain, and my bottom lip weighs eighty pounds. Drool runs down my chin. I think I’ve crapped myself, but I’m too numb to know for sure and my sense of smell is missing.

I take a deep breath, trying to see anything in the darkness. That’s when the dogs attack. Now those bastards are laughing! Their onslaught is vicious, and I hear Lilith’s stern voice mock amid the high-pitched whine of the dogs gagging on flesh ripped from my arms and legs, “You’ve picked a bad location for a vacation, Father. You had better have a damned good reason for being here, besides stupidity.”

I shake my head as the dogs fall back and my eyes adjust to the dim orange glow of molten sulfur and flickering torchlight. Lilith glares down at me, waiting for my reply. I hear distant whispering from the gallery, “Hen pecked, hell, he’s buzzard fodder.”

I stand with great effort; my knees are weak. Regaining as much dignity as possible under the circumstance, I brush off some of the mess the dogs deposited on me and respond, “This shock thing sucks—did you really need a new pan to burn things in?”

Her glare deepens. “Don’t make me smite you, Father. You know the rules. All trespassers will be maimed; survivors will wish they were dead.”

What a haughty bitch. I look at her with disgust, realizing full well the old saw, “childbirth is not for the meek, but it does seem to be for the stupid,” applies to both males and females equally. I glare back with all the hatred I feel at that moment, which is considerable, and my body lurches forward on automatic pilot.

Before I can reach out to grab her by the neck, a huge canine creature bites down on my shoulder, stopping me dead in my tracks. With a smirk that seems to further disfigure her face, Lilith mocks, “Tut, tut, Father, don’t do something permanently stupid because you are temporarily upset. Maiming you isn’t the last thing on my list, but it is on my list.” She motions to her dog to release me, and jams her index finger toward the slimy cavern floor. “Subservience is a virtue. Learn it well.”

I don’t have an opportunity to protest. Croco’s huge fist smashes against the back of my neck, and I wither in screams of pain as the shock collar administers another of Lilith’s gifts. The demons and shadow creatures in the gallery hoot and jeer while throwing feces and vomit to demonstrate their delighted approval. In all eternity, I never considered my afterlife could suck this much.

Still jerking with violent spastic muscle ticks, Croco hauls me off to his waiting line. Talk about irony. I helped the oaf set up that tunnel of horror an eternity ago, but I never thought I’d be hauled to the woodshed there myself. Croco slams me against the fire-hot broken glass that lines the wall and growls, “When you stop twitching and can show proper respect, she will see you.”

The brute turns to leave, but I stop him with an observation. “Croco, my old friend, I couldn’t help but notice the huge bulge in your pants that crops up on its own when you’re near the Princess. Was her delightful body, perhaps, a gift to you from my ex-mate while I trained Lilith on the surface?”

He pivots into a war-like crouch and his beady eyes seem to recess even farther back into his sloped skull. “There are worse things than death, my former tormenter.”

I smile and begin with a bit of useless conversation before re-engaging with meat. “Lilith has also alluded to that. I wonder what it could be. I’ve been thinking, old friend, about the time you saved Miss Havana from certain death. I would have killed her without your intervention. Why, Croco? Why did you intervene on her behalf?”

The brute glares and drools but remains silent. I interrupt his lack of discourse, lying like I already know the answer. “There is only one reason, old friend, and I have confirmed it with Miss Havana. You had Lilith. Her body was your sex toy while I trained her spirit on the surface. I can also see in Lilith’s reaction to you that she doesn’t know about the arrangement between you and my ex. Imagine Lilith’s fury when I mention that arrangement to her. Imagine that. The halls of hell will shake to the ground, and you, old friend, will be at the bottom of that particular heap of rubble.”

Of course, Miss Havana never shared anything with me. However, in the eternity I ruled the underworld, I grew proficient at reading the slightest nuance of body language that reveals the truth behind the torrent of lies my victims spewed. I watch Croco now as he considers what I might or might not know. A huge fart gives him away. I have touched a nerve; his bowels must be in turmoil. My incredible powers of observation have again served me well. Before I can pat myself on the back, Croco turns to lumber down the corridor, leaving me with only two last words, “Fuck you!”

Okay, that’s not acceptable at all, and I call out, “Croco, my dear friend, Lilith will call for me soon. Are you entirely certain you want our little secret exposed?”

Croco stops with a halting jerk, and then slowly turns as his eyes flash red from his deeply recessed sockets. “If you are issuing a challenge, Lucifer, remember where you stoop. This is my waiting line; it is no longer yours. I can do what I want here … to whoever I want.”

I believe the walls of the narrow passageway vibrate under the footfalls of the giant as he marches within inches of my face, never taking his threatening glare from my eyes. I ignore his stinky bad breath and smile. “Now Croco, let’s not get too excited. There could be a huge benefit in this for you if you take a moment to consider your options.”

His throat rumbles with anger, but he doesn’t attack. “Go on.”

“You see, dear friend, I have a plan … a way to restore things to the way they were in the good old days. Remember when we tormented souls together? Don’t you sometimes miss those times of anguish? Now you are relegated to this long and narrow little passageway and never get to come out to play with Waldo and me. How very sad, so very sad indeed.”

His glare softens a tiny bit. He does remember some of the good times, when he and Waldo ripped the arms and legs off supplicants who came before me. The gallery especially enjoyed those little tug-o-war games he and Waldo played. “Wouldn’t it be fun, my friend, to re-live those good times, and I could throw in a special bonus for you. How about I give you Lilith to do whatever you want with, say every other day? Wouldn’t that be fun? Think back, old friend, think back to the way it was while I trained her spirit on the surface … when Miss Havana offered you her body for your loyalty. Lilith is still suspicious of that, you know. She still doesn’t understand why she had such a terrible yeast infection when she returned from the surface.”

Of course, I strongly suspect Lilith didn’t have a real yeast infection. That was just a lie Miss Havana told Lilith, and it worked to a limited degree. At least Lilith didn’t kill Miss Havana outright when she had the opportunity. If Lilith knew for sure what happened, I suspect things might have been different. In fact, perhaps I can work that to my advantage. I wink and pat Croco on the forearm. “We both know it wasn’t yeast at all, don’t we dear friend, you nasty oversized bull?”

The longer Croco remains silent, the more convinced I am that I have guessed right. No wonder my faithful servant betrayed me when I returned from training Lilith. Miss Havana bribed him with Lilith’s body. The brute is still a lecher, and he knows he will never again have the opportunity to violate Lilith without my help.

Yes, yes, I know. Some might think it a tad shady of me to offer my beautiful daughter up in such a brazen swap for loyalty, even if the loyalty is only temporary, but hey, it’s not like violating her will permanently scar her soul or anything like that. That would require her to have a soul and, let’s face it, she doesn’t. I see a bead of drool slip from the edge of Croco’s mouth. He’s thinking my proposal over. He knows Lilith mistreats me constantly, so he’s not suspicious of my motives. In a few moments he grunts, “What’s your plan?”

Of course, I don’t really have one, so I offer, “All in good time, Croco, all in good time. For now, old friend, bide your time. Let the creatures of the cavern and all others below know I will soon return. Let them know … and let them fear. But if a single creature should breathe even the slightest hint of my impending return to Lilith, I will rain pain down on it the likes of which it cannot imagine. Let all creatures know—be watchful—the time of my arrival will be crystal clear to them.

“Tell them I will send ahead a sign of evil they cannot misunderstand, a sign for all to see, a harbinger of my imminent arrival. And when I take the Throne of Judgment that is rightfully mine, any of my creatures that do not support my return to glory will suffer a fate far worth than spiritual death … far worse than eternal pain. Tell them, when I sit upon the Throne of Judgment once again, that their loyalty will be tested individually. If I detect even the slightest hint of wavering or disloyalty, I will entertain the gallery with the sound of their crushing bones and the wailing torment of their souls.”

Croco bares his broken teeth in what could be interpreted as a smile. “Sometimes I do miss … the old days, but why every other day? Why wouldn’t I have her every day?”

I grin internally; he’s hooked. I pat him on his huge forearm again. “My dear Croco, we can’t be too greedy. After all, Waldo will want a piece of her as well, now won’t he? The important thing is that you will be first.”


Okay, so that’s it. Take your best shot. Were you offended?

Thanks for reading,

James L. Hatch


Author for Solstice Publishing, Eternal Press and xoxopublishing.com


Tina Donahue said...

Well, I wouldn't want to see this happen in real life. Given that it's pure fantasy (hell and all), it seems in keeping with his personality even though he's her father (gad). I, personally, would like to see her fight back and keep this from happening.

James L. Hatch said...

Hi Tina. Thanks for the input. I'm torn. I hope I get lots of comments on this today.

Liz said...

since none of us can describe either heaven OR hell I'd say Go For It...very creative stuff...
well done

Anonymous said...

Yes, somewhat... but not by that point, specifically. It's just the general scenario. I don't find torture funny. On the other hand, I don't watch the news on television either... I think anyone who had read the first two books would know whether or not s/he has the stomach for the third. I would also be guided by the guidelines of the publishing company you have in mind. Presumably if the ms is accepted, then that part will have the okay.

James L. Hatch said...

Hi Liz:

Thanks for the input. I never really considered anyone would read this stuff seriously. To me it was like slap-stick comedy. In the first two books, the devil gets beat up pretty bad by Miss Havana and Lilith. In this one, he recovers a little. In the follow-on (The Trophy Wife) I thought Miss Havana might become God's main squeeze (more havoc). I try not to isolate anyone from the mayhem.

James L. Hatch said...

Hi Anonymous:

The torture is another item, indeed. I never considered it offensive either, since I tried to make these books comedy, and present that kind of thing like a pie in the face. The people in hell are there for a reason. You have, however, given me a great idea. In the next book, Miss Havana (as Gods mistress) could change things up, and make hell more like heaven, kind of a vacation spot for rotten souls. That might be cute.

Thanks for you input.

Anonymous said...


I wasn't offended at all. I think you presented the idea of the 'trade' well, without going into graphic details. I have a feeling it would work well within the rest of this story and the series.

KateMarie Collins

Sarah J. McNeal said...

Whew! That was a long post and I wanted to read every word so I could give you an honest opinion.
I imagine a reader who choses a book based in Hell would be prepared for the worst. I was not offended by the implied task he required of Croco.
I did however, wonder what the theme of the story is. Most readers want to root for someone they believe has good quailities underneath whatever horrific behavior that character revelas on the surface--something that would redeem the character. It's difficult to imagine a world where everything and everyone is evil with only evil intent. Who does the reader root for? Why should a reader care about a character that is all evil?
Now humor is a good thing but it would have to be used in a way that would at least make these evil characters look like fools to the reader. A reader might get a kick out of seeing how these monstrous characters try to take each other out of power. Rape would not be funny--no matter how hard you might try. What is the message you really want to convey to the reader?

James L. Hatch said...

Hi Sarah.

You are right, of course, and the books do just that. The "good guy" is Miss Havana, but it's a gradual transition (and not shown in this excerpt). In "The Substitute", she goes from bad to worse (people generally feel sorry for the devil), in "Oh, Heavens, Miss Havana!", she goes from worse to "well-intentioned" and in the "The Training Bra" she goes for nice to so-so. She always has at least one redeeming quality. In the next book ("The Trophy Wife"), she should go from so-so to being a real angel, but I don't know if I want her to act like one yet (she is slated to become God's mistress -- that's the reason she has ask Him in every book if there is a "Mrs. God."

Thanks for the comment.

James L. Hatch said...

Hi Kate:

Thanks for your input. The series takes the whole concept of heaven and hell with a grain of comedy, and, as Sarah pointed out, most of those in hell are depicted as fools (some in heaven too -- I am an equal opportunity mocker). Anyway, I was so surprised that anyone would take offense that Lilith "got hers" (she is the worst of the worst) that I had to do this blog to see if it was just me that didn't care that "bad things happen to bad people" (your words ... and I love them). Unfortunately, without the full story, I guess this particular excerpt covers some of the dark humor that runs through the books.

Thanks again,

Fiona McGier said...

Not really my cup of tea, since I dislike violence, even implied. but as anonymous said, anyone who had read the other two books knows what to expect, and they probably won't be surprised.
I've always thought Lilith got a bad rap, since the early Xians had to demonize the female gods that used to be worshiped, in order to usurp that place for their God. Eve was the subservient one, content to be Adam's lapdog. Lilith stood up for herself so was banished, to become a hag who stole legally married couples' babies. I always liked her better.

James L. Hatch said...

OMG, Fiona, you are probably the only one in the entire world who realizes where the name "Lilith" came from. Yes, it was her rebellious spirit that made that character what it is. Yes, there is violence in the books, but in a comical or extreme way that makes a point. There is also a lot of violence in the Bible and other religious texts ... and rape ... and other despicable things. In the case of this series, the violence is usually comical, but is more extreme in "Oh, Heavens, Miss Havana!" where our heroine see herself as the "Angel of Death" and carries out retribution in "God's" name ... unauthorized retribution that puts her in God's woodshed. In the other two novels, violence is always comical (more like "Murder on the Orient Express.")

Thanks for the comment.

BLCSDina said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
BLCSDina said...

Hi James-Great question-And no, that's what is so cool about Hell in fiction-anything is permissible and nothing is too evil. I am also writing about Hell and did plenty of research for my sequel to Halo of the Damned. It's not a comedy. And I go much farther, darker, more violent than Lillith getting violated. On the grand scheme of things, that's a good day in Hell. I don't know your audience, but, as a woman, I think you're safe! Dina Rae

Kathy Otten said...

Hi James,
Who is your audience? Personally, I find rape disturbing as would most women. I suppose like someone said, she should fight back. I also wonder if someone who is reading the story for the humor wouldn't be blindsided by the intensity of the subject of rape. If it was an intense thriller you might make it work. I don't know. Your call I guess.

James L. Hatch said...

Hi Dina. Whew. For a minute there I thought I was the only one around here totally deranged. My beta reader once also said, "Jim, you're sick!" but I didn't blog on that.

James L. Hatch said...

Hi Kathy. The reason Lilith doesn't fight back is because she can't. She is shackled with a shock collar on her ankle (the same collar she had originally put on Lucifer's neck ... but was careless about it when she used her attack dogs on him and they chewed through it). I think I will heed one of the comments though, the one that talked about the woman escaping in thought. In this case, I think she should be casual about it, something like "are you done yet?" ... or "is that all you've got?" That would fit with the rest of the story. Lilith is always ragging on Lucifer for something ... she should do that to Croco and Waldo as well. It's only fair.

Thanks for the comment!