It's not often a book begins with its protagonist having killed himself with a shotgun blast...especially where the rest of the narrative is not a flashback of his death foretold. But then Jeffrey Thomas is not your everyday author. Into his several short story collections and novellas, Thomas has infused a unique fevered imagination. Tinged, yes, by classic and popular dystopian fiction and movie culture, but not derivative. If Worship the Night was a wonderful contemporary homage to the spirit of H.P. Lovecraft and Boneland a terrific piece of futu-noir à la Philip K Dick, Letters from Hades is his attempt at epic action fantasy.
Of course, it is not immediately apparent. For a good while, our protagonist is a lonely newcomer in Thomas' rendition of Hell, a world that draws on Dante's Inferno, with heaped helpings of smoke-and-engine-oil steampunk and a healthy spoonful of Guillermo Del Toro style baroque horror. Our hero (never named) starts at Avernus - the portal to Hell - as one of the Damned. Subjected to soul crushing labor and squirm-inducing tortures by their demon warders, the damned are cursed to never die - even if grossly mutilated, their body parts grow back with all the associated pain for them to once more go through the cycle of unimaginable agonies. The biggest struggle the hero faces is to retain his humanity in the face of all he must undergo. He keeps a diary of his experiences (which serves as our chronicle) in a book that houses as punishment the eye of another damned with whom he develops a sympathetic understanding.
Sympathy is what distinguishes our hero and drives his actions. At one point when making his way through a hostile alien jungle, he rescues a demoness from death by a group of the damned, a deed that will trigger further consequences. He eventually reaches the city of Oblivion (some whiff of influence from China Mieville's Bas-Lag?) and discovers that Hell is not much different from a seedy version of Earth. Thomas covers in some loving detail the industrial yet almost sentient architecture of Oblivion, and you can almost smell the rust and toxic fumes. There he once again meets with the demoness he rescued and the aforementioned 'further consequences' are set into motion. Without going into spoiler territory, I can say Thomas sets off a powder keg of incendiary action with a literal war between demons, angels and the damned, our hero and his demoness in the midst of it.
Letters from Hades does not aspire to be high art. The interracial (or inter-species) romance is more mainstream than how Mieville would have dealt with it, and the depiction of angels in Hell as bike-ridin' shotgun-totin' toughies is a little on the nose. But what it is, is a thrilling ride with some terrific horror and action set-pieces, brisk to the point of breathless with an ending that simply begs for more. The book would make for a kickass blockbuster film if Hollywood were visionary enough to fund Jeffrey Thomas' imagination for, say, the price of your average Marvel Studios product. Perhaps Mr. Del Toro can be convinced to helm?