Thursday, March 16, 2023

Thorne, Hell Spring (2021)

Isaac Thorne, Hell Spring. Lost Hollow Books, 2021. Pp. 374. ISBN 978-1-938271-55-7. £19.99.

Reviewed by Rachel Verkade

So… this one is weird. And I do not say that lightly. Let me try to describe how this book opens. It opens within the depths of hell, in a wood ringing a field surrounding a giant penis. Buckle up, folks. We’re just getting started.

Within the woods are hellhounds. All of the hellhounds are female, and describe themselves as sisters. They must leave the wood into the Penis field in order to consume sin that has seeped in from the mortal realm. These forays must be precisely timed, however, as at particular intervals the giant penis ejaculates, and should any of the hellhounds be touched by the ejaculate, she dies by bursting into multiple, smaller hellhounds. If the ejaculate touches the ground, it transforms into “eyeless white snakes” that pursue any nearby hellhounds, causing them, again, to swell and explode into multiple juveniles. This is apparently how hellhounds reproduce. Oh, and they all refer to the giant penis (which is very lovingly and explicitly described) as their father.

(Insert [Sigmund Freud Intensifies] meme here)

This is all within the first fifteen pages, folks.

Honestly, part of the reason this review has taken me so long is that I genuinely did not know how to approach this book. On its surface, it’s a simple bottle episode; a group of seven townsfolk are trapped by a flood and being stalked by a demon. But then we get into how the very bizarrely Freudian origins of the demon, the fact that she’s taken the form of Marilyn Monroe, and the weird morality that the book is setting up, and… it’s a very hard book to critique.

So, basic premise; the escaped hellhound, who finds lust and sexual sins particularly delicious, manages to escape to 1955 Earth, whereupon she reads the mind of a nearby lustful teenage boy and plucks the most sin-inspiring image from his mind, that of Marilyn Monroe, and assumes that form. She then takes a human man as her Renfield. As a terrible storm washes over the town, Marilyn, Renfield, and six other locals are trapped in the general store by the resulting flood. The locals are all haunted by various sins, from the young teenagers struggling with adolescent lust and the repressive sexual mores of the era, the disillusioned priest who has begun committing petty thefts to feed himself, the young mother who finally snapped and killed her abusive husband, the domineering self-righteous and miserly mother. Marilyn at first is believed to be yet another lost soul seeking refuge from the flood, but as time goes on she picks off the townspeople one by one, searching their minds for guilt and sin and feeding upon them until there is nothing left.

It’s a pretty good setup, and I even liked the touch of Marilyn taking the form of what she interpreted as the embodiment of sin. It seemed at first that the author was suggesting that sin, particularly sexual sins, are purely a construct of human culture. The human characters are not evil people; they’re just struggling to survive and navigate a very repressive culture. The thieving priests doesn’t make enough money to live on. The murdering mother thought her abusive husband was finally going to kill both herself and her young baby. The self-righteous shop owner is struggling to raise her boy to be as good a man as she understands it, and to provide for him since the death of her husband. The teenage boys are teenage boys who have just been taught that sex and masturbation are wrong. And the Renfield is a middle-aged gay man currently in an interracial relationship with a black man. I liked the complexity all of this suggested, and though at first it seemed problematic that the only queer character appeared to have allied with the villain, but as the story progressed it became clear that Renfield was actually the protagonist, and his arc was all to do with overcoming his self-hatred and the trauma inflicted by his abusive mother. By fighting against Marilyn’s control, Renfield fought against the internal voices of his mother and his culture telling him that his desires, and his love for his boyfriend, were immoral and sinful. That aspect of the book was handled quite well.

But there are two major issues that I had with the novel. One was that one of the emotional cores of the book was meant to be Renfield’s relationship with his boyfriend. The trouble is that we only see them together in two scenes; the chapter in which they’re introduced, and the conclusion. And while the boyfriend has the potential to be an interesting and nuanced character, he’s not developed well. We don’t really know why they fell in love, what they like to do together, what they love about each other. It’s difficult for the reader to be invested in their romance when we see them so little. I honestly found myself caring very little if they got back together, and that’s a real shame. The result is that the heart of this story hardly beats at all.

The other is the question of sin and how precisely it works within the book’s universe. It is established from the beginning that Marilyn feeds upon sin. But sin itself seems to be in the eye of the beholder. The teenage boys and their mothers believe that masturbation and sexual desire is a sin. The Renfield feels much the same about his own homosexuality. It wouldn’t be the first story I’d read that believed sin to be arbitrary rules put in place by an unjust and tyrannical god, but then we come to just how Marilyn feeds and how that affects the humans.

Marilyn psychically consumes the sin, but the only immediate effect upon her victim is that they cease to feel guilt. The sin—whatever it was—has still occurred, they still remember it in every detail, but they no longer feel any sort of guilt regarding it. In some cases this feels well deserved, but in others it’s puzzling. So is this meant to imply that sin only exists because we feel guilt? If Marilyn were to encounter a true psychopath, one who is incapable of feeling guilt, would she be unable to feed off of them, even if they were, say, a murderer? And bizarrely, Marilyn’s sin-eating seems to work as a warped form of therapy for the characters, as the lack of guilt allows the characters to reflect honestly upon their actions and come to terms with them. In most cases they realise they had nothing to feel guilty for in the first place, or at least are able to forgive themselves.

But it becomes yet more complex, and to get into this I will have to reveal some spoilers. So, apologies, and skip to the end if you would like to read the book for yourself.

So, once Marilyn has consumed the sins of her victims, each of them eventually realises that she has done something to them. They all take this as a negative, though I’d say frankly that trading sustenance for free instantly effective therapy is a pretty good deal. They attempt to attack her, which results in Marilyn then doing… something… that turns them from humans into large crayfish-like beetles, which she proceeds to collect in a bucket. Apparently Marilyn has the ability to consume not just sin, but everything that makes one human, reducing her victims to these insects. This is odd in and of itself (why doesn’t she do this from the beginning? Is sin or guilt part of what makes us human, like in Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Is it humanity itself that is the sin?). But what happens next cranks the insanity level right up. Because Marilyn proceeds to consume not just the adults in the room, but the baby.

Is this a Catholic universe, then? Is the baby guilty of original sin? Or does Marilyn truly just consume humanity in and of itself? But then why make this distinction about sin in the first place? For that matter, do Marilyn and her sisters (and the giant explosive dad-penis) exist in Hell? There are souls writhing in the “lava” surrounding the giant explosive dad-penis. So in that case, there must be reasons for souls to be condemned to Hell. But we really get very little idea of what actually causes that. Is the infant doomed to hell because he wasn’t baptised? Were the various characters damned because of their guilt over their sexualities? Was Marilyn saving them from hell by taking their sins upon herself, a literal version of the historical sin-eaters? And in turn, how does one get to Heaven? Is there a Heaven? There’s nothing to suggest it except for a revived corpse that states that “There is no God in Heaven. There is only empathy… and those who feed…” So I suppose the implication here is that humans are responsible for creating an arbitrary and oppressive system of morality. Did the Hell then manifest out of the shame and rage of humanity?

But we’re still not done. Once the Renfield is left alone, the bugs (or soul-dads, as he eventually calls them; a portmanteau of “soul” and “crawdad”) begin to communicate with him. They say that Marilyn used their sins to manipulate the characters and turn them all against each other. But that now they are unburdened by shame, they can join together and fight to defeat her. But the only way to do that now is for the Renfield to take their power into himself. And the only way he can do that is by eating them. Yes, including the baby.

This is a pretty dark turn for the story to take, and it’s one that I quite appreciated. I enjoy stories where protagonists are forced to make difficult, sometimes morally ambiguous decisions. But… it just seems like this leads to more questions. The other characters insist that the Renfield specifically consumes the baby because the baby’s innocence and purity gives him particular power to defeat Marilyn. And it’s moments like this that are the real source of confusion for me. Because it seems on its surface that the entire plot is an absurdist condemnation of religious morality as a whole, but then there’s a plot device like this that seems to lend that same moral system credibility. And I don’t get it.

 It all comes together in an ending that is bittersweet, and meant to be heart-rending, but that is emotionally a little lackluster. The writing is decent, I like some of the ideas, and you certainly can’t fault the author’s creativity. But having said that, while it’s possible I’m putting way too much thought into this, the more I think about the message behind the book, the more that it bothers me.

But I will say this: it is hands down, the best book involving a giant penis that ejaculates acidic monster dog-exploding sperm that I have ever read.

No comments:

Post a Comment