Every so often I read a book that reminds me of the absurdity of the “genre fiction”/“literature” divide. Robert Olen Butler’s 2009 novel Hell is just such a book. It takes place in another world in the near future. Prominent contemporary and historical figures are presented as caricatures of themselves facing recurring punishments that range back and forth between absurd and grotesque.
If Robert Heinlein had written it, it would be shelved in Sci Fi. If Phillip Jose Farmer had written it, it would be shelved in Fantasy. Since Robert Olen Butler wrote it, it’s shelved with literature. It’s also a good if inane and ultimately pointless read.
The story follows Hatcher McCord (anchorman for the Evening News from Hell) as he interviews his way through Hell’s many luminaries and has beens in search of the ultimate story: how to get out. Along the way he meets Virgil, Osama bin Laden, the Clintons, Lucifer, King Henry VIII, and many other great and petty evils.
In Nomine de Promus
In an overt nod to Dante, Robert Olen Buter has made his hell a gigantic city. One where people have found many and various ways to inflict tortures upon themselves and others even without the attention of demons (though they definitely do exist). What’s more, Hatcher McCord moves through the main television station of this metropolis.
As such, Butler’s Hell offers some ideal source material for someone looking to set an adventure in either Hades or Perdition (the realms of Asmodeus and Nybbas respectively). Landmarks, luminaries, and punishments work just as well in either version of the infernal realm.