March 14, 2013
(++++) DEEPER AND DEEPER
Heck Series No. 5: Snivel—The Fifth Circle of Heck. By Dale E. Basye. Illustrations by Bob Dob. Random House. $16.99.
Heck Series No. 6: Precocia—The Sixth Circle of Heck. By Dale E. Basye. Illustrations by Bob Dob. Random House. $16.99.
Anyone who thinks the phrase “when Hell freezes over” refers to some impossibly distant time has forgotten or never read Dante. Dante’s Inferno is already frozen over: the ninth and last circle is solid ice and is reserved for Satan and the three ultimate sinners in Dante’s cosmos—Judas, Brutus, and Cassius. But if Hell has already frozen over, and many people are unaware of it, then who is to say that there isn’t an almost-Hell out there of which people are equally unaware? In other words, who has the certainty to deny the existence of Heck, a lesser version of “h-e-double-hockey-sticks,” as the really bad place is called in Dale E. Basye’s Heck series? Certainly not Milton and Marlo Fauster (echoes of Faust definitely intended): they have been trapped in one or another of Heck’s various circles for about five years now, Earth time, that being how long Basye has been chronicling Heck and its depressing depredations. Heck is a place for pre-adults to languish, maybe forever and maybe not, but no one seems entirely sure, certainly not the Powers That Be (they know but aren’t telling) or the Powers That Be Evil (they don’t seem to know, but they’re evil, so it’s hard to be certain). Not everyone in Heck belongs there: we have known since the first book that Milton is a pawn in a much larger game, and in the book about Snivel (“Where the Whiny Kids Go”), he has some inkling of this himself: “Milton felt like he and Marlo were at the center of something big. ...But, still, here he and his sister were, side by side, in another dismal destination...” Basye does keep dropping hints about the huge game in which Milton and Marlo are mere playing pieces – in fact, when Milton discovers what seems to be something video-game-like in Snivel, readers are likely to wonder if it is a microcosm of the macrocosmic game being played by the various great powers (some of which, including some of the benevolent ones, are not so great).
Or maybe readers will simply sit back and enjoy the joyride (joyless ride for Milton and Marlo) as Basye spins an unending stream of puns and creates an unending series of weird characters – or re-creates real-world ones in a Heckish context (for instance, real and mythic figures including Orpheus, Edgar Allan Poe, Vincent van Gogh, Nikola Tesla and Baron Samedi show up in supervisory roles in Snivel, not entirely logically, but what the Heck; and Precocia features Madame Curie, B.F. Skinner, Carl Jung, Albert Einstein, Cleopatra and Saint Nicholas). Basye’s punning will zoom right past some of his intended readers, as when he talks about a foiled plot to evict “all humanity from its temperate blue marble of a planet to some dreadful beige rock halfway across the galaxy in the Sirius Lelayme system” (“seriously lame,” get it?). But many other puns and descriptions hit the target very well, such as the Grin Reaper, who, yes, reaps (harvests) grins (and other forms of amusement, although he doesn’t much care for sarcastic laughs). “The only thought in Milton Fauster’s baffled head that seemed to make any sense at all was that nothing around him made any sense at all,” readers find out at the start of Precocia (“Where the Smartypants Kids Go”), and on one level, nothing in Heck makes any sense – but on another, it all makes a weird kind of sense, as did Alice in Wonderland. Just as Dante devised supernatural punishments suitable for various forms of human malfeasance (lust, for example, is punished in his second circle by souls being blown eternally about by intense winds, which represent sinners’ stormy and illicit passions), so Basye comes up with circles of Heck that suit the pre-adults trapped in them: the whiners in Snivel are “unhappy campers” in a place where the lake is kept filled by tears and the rain is constant, and it rains up; the proto-adults in Precocia are forced to act, dress and talk just like adults, attending classes that are structured like jobs, complete with time clocks – if students do not punch in on time, the clock punches back. Basye is negotiating these twisted worlds with increasing skill, while also making it abundantly clear that something is not right, beyond what is supposed to be not right. For example, a bright and sunshine-y girl named Sara clearly does not belong in Snivel, but she happens to be conjoined with Sam, who clearly does, and the two together are known as Sam/Sara, the word “samsara” being the Buddhist term for death and rebirth – oh yes, there is actually some depth here beyond the notion that Milton and Marlo are going deeper and deeper into the bowels (or other innards) of Heck with each book, even to the point of Basye creating a genuine dystopia in Precocia.
However, to be sure things don’t get too dark, there is plenty of self-referential silliness here as well, since one element of the “meta-story” of Heck is that Basye, who himself appears periodically as a character, was given the idea for the whole series by another character (a very unpleasant one) and has simply been adapting that character’s “real” work. “It was a travesty of a story relying far too much on puns and cleverness and not enough on a compelling plot and believable characterization. But it had possessed a certain irreverent charm about it, and Dale…desperately needed something original to plagiarize until it was his own.” Well, umm, yes.
Abetting Basye’s linguistic perturbations are some marvelous illustrations by Bob Dob, showing some of the books’ scenes and many of their bizarre characters – although, unfortunately, the drawings do not always relate to the events of the specific chapters where they appear, and some characters’ visual portrayals are not quite the same as their written descriptions. This scarcely matters, though, because the drawings themselves are a hoot, especially those of the various demons and other odd denizens of Heck. The books fall into a clear pattern in which Milton and Marlo start off together in some new miserable place, get separated, get back together after various adventures and misadventures, and accomplish some sort of something that results in bad things happening to each circle (as opposed to bad things happening within each circle, which is what is supposed to happen in Heck) – after which Milton and Marlo get shunted off to their next destination. The overall schema in which these events take place is gradually, very gradually, becoming clear. It is not entirely certain that Basye himself has figured the whole thing out yet, but then, if he is following Dante, he has three further circles to go. Will Basye stop after the ninth, or is he planning to carry Milton and Marlo onward to Purgatorio and Paradiso? Hopefully not – Basye’s punderful plotting would likely meet its match in an attempt to portray pure (shudder) goodness.