Writing Lessons from Reading: “Letters from Hades” by Jeffrey Thomas

Letters from Hades coverI found Letters from Hades by googling “novels set in hell.” You get a pretty good list that way. The story is presented as the journal of a man condemned to Hell for suicide. The journal itself is another condemned soul who has been formed into the cover of a book with an eye in its center. The eye sees and reacts to the action during the novel, which is just one of the interesting things Thomas brings to the tale.

I enjoyed this novel and I found some writing lessons, positive and negative, in its pages. Let’s get to them.

Use striking images. The novel begins with the line “On my fifth day in Hell, I found a praying mantis.” It’s an ordinary creature in a bizarre location, which grabs your attention. Thomas takes off from here with a description of his environs with sentences like “When the rain was over, the grounds of the university steamed with scarlet pools and there were even squirming, flopping eels and jellyfish in those pools that I realized were actually organs and entrails.” Vivid, eh? Notice how the description is packed with verbs and nouns.

Vividly imagine the setting and use it to support the story’s action. This lesson is an extension of the previous one. Regardless of where the protagonist wanders in this story, the setting is always played up, almost like a character itself. After his arrival in the city of Oblivion, the narrator describes a “…tower that seemed to support the molten sky like a column. Where most of the large skyscrapers had windows, housing either citizens or perhaps the Demonic class of Oblivion, this one had not a single pane, and its flanks were entirely formed of intricately woven black machinery heavily scabbed in corrosion like dried blood. Further, this machine building thrummed, gonged, chattered, whined, rang, chittered, hissed, rumbled, causing its immediate environs to vibrate. Steam billowed out of vents along its great height, curling like specters escaping from a gargantuan funereal obelisk.” This one building represents the oppressive feel of the entire city and the city itself lends its darkness to everything that happens there. You get the feeling that the things that happen there could happen nowhere else.

In a love relationship, try getting lovers from opposite sides. One of the best-known examples of this idea is “Romeo and Juliet,” I suppose. In Letters from Hades, the protagonist and a female demon named Chara fall in love and run away together. The fact that they are from such vastly different sides of the track and that most of the characters around them are against the relationship ratchets up the tension in the novel, so it keeps you turning pages.

In a first-person narrative, let the reader know the protagonist’s name. I wouldn’t call this a hard and fast rule—not that any of these are, of course—it’s just a touch I think enables the reader to connect with the lead character a little more. There’s no need to repeat it over and over—maybe just once or twice. It seems like this would help with verisimilitude, too—the lead is often in conversation—how likely is it nobody would ever say his name?

Avoid a flat narrative; be sure to have a beginning, middle and end, with a climax in there somewhere. The one objection I have to this novel is that there doesn’t seem to be any climax. It goes something like this: 1) Lead gets indoctrinated 2) Lead wanders, meets female demon 3) Lead goes to Oblivion City 4) Lead and demon fall in love 5) Things start to go badly in Oblivion City 6) Lead and demon escape Oblivion City and go elsewhere; the end. While this novel has several interesting points of conflict along the way, there’s never that big moment where everything is on the line, the situation looks hopeless for our hero, but then at the last instant, our hero prevails.

Jeffrey Thomas has written several novels, including Deadstock, which was a finalist for the John W. Campbell award and Monstrocity, a finalist for the Bram Stoker award. Clearly, the guy is no slouch. I learned a lot from reading Letters from Hades and I imagine I’ll be dipping into the J. Thomas canon in the future.

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2 Replies to “Writing Lessons from Reading: “Letters from Hades” by Jeffrey Thomas”

  1. Hi, Joe,

    Thanks for the comment. I would have preferred to learn the narrator’s name at some point. I don’t think that’s strictly necessary in a first-person narrative, but I think it brings the reader a little closer to the narrator. I suppose the classic example is “Call me Ishmael.” The book still works, but this is a nice-to-have, in my opinion.

    The other thing was that I didn’t see much of a climax in the book, a point where everything’s on the line, the conflict between the lead and the opponent reaches a fever pitch. Instead, the book’s action climbs uphill, with things getting increasingly tense, and then the lead just sort of escapes with his demon girlfriend, end of story. It was as if the novel was incomplete.

    I hope that all makes sense. Thanks again for the comment and the question!

    Cheers,
    Carson

  2. It’s always great to learn from novels, either good or bad ones. After all, what easier way there is to learn but from the mistakes of others?

    You mentioned not liking some things about this book. What were they?

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