To spend eternity doing something you are really bad at and do not enjoy is just plain Hell. At least that is Mark Cain's interpretation of Hell in his short, humorous novel, Hell's Super. I confess that at first glance, Hell's Super sounded like a book that might be singing the praises of the netherworld. It turns out that the first of four books in the Circle's of Hell series provides a slightly less dark vision of Dante's 9 circles of damnation.
Steve Minion, whose parents actually saddled him at birth with the first name of Minion, was a prideful and unsympathetic Economics professor until a graduate student decided he needed a bullet in the head. The whole Pride thing got Steve damned for eternity. In addition, pre-dead Steve had been notorious for looking down on the 'minions' he paid to do his own handyman work. So, the resident powers of Hell felt a suitable punishment would be to put him in charge of maintenance. Despite an odd knack for lassoing things with duct tape, Steve sucks at fixing things.
For Steve, never ending torment boiled down to boredom and incompetence as the indistinguishable days, months and years slogged by. That is, until a major crisis, the sabotage of Hell's escalator, forced Steve to accomplish something that was important to his boss, the demon Beelzebub, and top dog Satan. With relevance came privilege and meaning in the super's otherwise worthless existence. Perhaps even love ... or NOT. This is after all, Hell.
This book is written from the first person point of view of Steve, which allows the reader to effectively follow the super's evolution of thought as he tries to tolerate, understand and even affect the damned environment he must endure. The story's time frame is short, only a few days, and takes place less than a hundred years after the earthly Steve met his end.
Though the snapshot into the super's hell-bound travails is small, this does not stop author Cain from introducing and doing a surprisingly good job of developing a number of other major characters. The setting allows him to introduce famous and infamous personalities. The metaphysical characters like Satan, Beelzebub and St. Peter are of course omni-present. The filmmaker, Orson Welles, is Steve's assistant. While bossy and controlling in life, in Hell Orson is never allowed to 'do' anything himself, only assist an incompetent boss. Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and Nicholas Tesla are forced to help solve mechanical issues, while Alan Pinkerton reprises his detective skills in assisting Steve in solving the big crime. Florence Nightingale, not one of the damned mind you, is voluntarily spending time in the netherworld to ease the suffering of the dead, just as she eased the suffering of the living while alive. While not exactly a history lesson, all of these notable figures have their known traits fully displayed in a glaring and humorous way.
For the most part Cain's style can be described as subdued. Steve and his fellow damned are caught up in solving a mystery and fixing problems. There are more than a few hell-fire beat downs when the denizens of hell do not toe the line, and Steve does suffer in a back alley confrontation with a group of wannabe hoodlums. Yet, all of the real conflicts in Hell's Super are internal to Steve. Even the eventual confrontation with the rebellious and mysterious group of saboteurs is treated as an afterthought while Steve is preoccupied with personal issues. His vision of damnation is both vivid and dynamic as his routine is upset and he broadens his circle of acquaintances and experiences. Is it about boredom? Is it about punishment fitting the crime in life? Are the sufferings of so many of the damned unjust given that they seem to be nice folks? Are the evil demons and devils all that bad? His final conclusion, after his brief affair with a love life culminates in complete humiliation for he and the people he cares about the most, is that true misery boils down to lonlieness.
The humor is Hell's Super is not laugh out loud stuff, but it does stay silly enough to generate more than a few smiles and a chuckle. I think Steve's character and the thought evolution he undergoes will appeal to anyone who is not offended by an irreverent and humorous take on religion and the afterlife. Cain is respectful, but does not take his story, the setting or the characters too seriously.
Cain does a good job creating a plausible, if silly setting and does well with his characters. The world he builds is consistent. The ending might be anti-climatic to a reader searching for a good fight scene but this works in the book. From the start Hell is hell because the suffering and torment are eternal and for lack of a better word, mundane. The dead are all well aware that what they are suffering today will be what they are suffering tomorrow and a thousand tomorrows to come. Steve and his peers should be less concerned about a momentary elevation of excitement, resolving the escalator issue and the accompanying comedic rebellion, than they are about coming to grips with their everlasting ordeal.
One of the few issues I had with Hell's Super was in fact the well-developed world Cain introduces. On a few occasions Cain uses multiple pages to explain constructs and concepts that, while they may be deemed important to the universe Hell's Super lives in, could be taken care of in fewer words and at times, as a more inline part of the story.
Another minor issue I had was the very few times Cain used severe language. These slips, and they were very few in number, were totally unnecessary to the story and I wish he had left them out. This is not a desire on my part to be prude. There is a somewhat revealing sex scene that was handled fairly well. It was detailed, and this scene was in fact important to the core of Steve's story.
Besides these lesser critiques I found Hell's Super to be a thoroughly enjoyable read that I will recommend to audiences of all ages, from high school to old people.