A World Gone to Hell
The Italian poet Dante Alighieri is a tough act to follow. His epic poetry tour de force, the Divina Commedia (Divine Comedy), ranks as one of the single greatest achievements in all of world literature. It was a major reason that the dialect from his native Firenze (Florence, Italy, later to be the cradle of the greatest Renaissance in Europe) was codified as the principal language of Italy, even to the present day. One segment of this magnum opus, the Inferno, is among only a handful of literary pieces that has transcended its creator’s original intentions to rank in the same echelon as (among others) Homer’s dual narratives The Iliad and The Odyssey, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and The King James Edition of The Bible. Not only are these works a core foundation of Western thought and erudition, but they also stand as monumental artistic expressions of unfettered genius. The other two pieces of Dante’s Commedia – the Purgatorio, and the Paradiso – while dazzling efforts, do not quite rise to the same level as theInferno.
The fact of its rank among humankind’s singular greatest creative representations – not to mention its powerful political subtexts and religious preoccupations — has not intimidated others from trying to emulate Dante and his astonishing feat. Nor should it: Dante’s masterpiece has inspired writers, artists, dramatists, musicians — even filmmakers — for hundreds of years, as any great work should. Such is the power of the written word wielded by a keen intellect, honed by a sharp wit, and expressed with passionate conviction.
The book in your possession is an example of one of the many attempts at something new that has taken Dante’s seminal classic as a springboard. Additionally, author Connie Corcoran Wilson has chosen to pay direct homage to the Italian maestro by capitalizing on his reputation for political acumen, scathing characterizations, and the fascinating physical structure of his conceptualization of the Underworld. In lesser hands, this could easily become a silly contrivance, or even an irritant, but I am pleased to report that Wilson not only pulls it off, she also leaves the reader wanting more, and renews interest in the original work that obviously so inspired her in the process.
When I first met Connie, she was a bit of a blur: Fast-talking, fast moving, on the run. I had a passing acquaintance with her work through our mutual connection to William F. Nolan. Once we were able to talk a little, and I read more of her work, I was pleased to see that she had an abundance of talent, a lot of drive, and was a good writer, to boot! I don’t report that lightly: Earth is polluted with the detritus of godawful grammar, infected by an accumulation of misplaced modifiers, populated with the teeming chimera of egregiously mixed metaphors. With the Print on Demand (POD) boom, the sadly abundant illiterati have proliferated at an astonishing pace. One thing I’ve noticed: Bad writers suffer from logorrhea. They write, all right, and write a lot. Enter Connie Corcoran Wilson: She has a brevity that is refreshing, a style that is stripped down, yet evocative, and cool ideas. She’s also funny, down-to-earth, and courteous. Who better to lead us through Hell and back? I was flattered that she asked me to craft an Introduction, and was even more pleased that the book was in the manner of Dante, one of my personal literary heroes. Even better, it was patterned after theInferno, one of my all-time favorite pieces of literature.
So, how is the book? Well, in the first of the eleven tales (divided among the Nine Circles of Hell as defined by Dante), we have an interesting reversal of the Inferno. We begin our plummet into the chaos that is Hell with a character in Circle One: Limbo (by way of the story Cold Corpse Carnival) who is communicating to us beyond death, and in a state of being permanently frozen (in the Inferno, Satan is imprisoned in the Ninth Circle of Hell, which is a dark, frozen wasteland as far from the warmth of the sun [and therefore Paradise] as can be imagined). It is an auspicious and fascinating start to our voyage into the black heart of humanity. As we assume the unconscious role of Dante, Wilson metaphorically dons the mantle of a dispassionate, but silently contemplative, Virgil. This sleight-of-hand is effective and strangely comforting, allowing us to experience the horrors yet to come at a safe, albeit painful, distance.
Wending our way ever downward, through the terrible events inCircle Two: Lust (particularly the well-executed The Shell), pastCircle Three: Gluttony (The Champagne Chandelier), and into Circle Four: Avarice and Prodigality (with the haunting, meditative A Spark on the Prairie), Wilson hits her stride. In this heartbreaking and compelling episode of our government’s institutionalized genocide of Native America, the shame, regret, and loss are sharp, and Wilson demonstrates some fine writing chops, avoiding pity even as she examines the horror up close (the opening quotation is chilling, and all-too accurate).
Suffice it to say that Wilson acquits herself nicely in the stories that follow. Whether dealing with family secrets and their unintended consequences (Letters to LeClaire, from Circle Six: Heresy), wordplay with a political menace (Oxymorons from Circle Eight: Fraudulent Behavior, Political Corruption), the tragi-comic repercussions of a sudden impulse to murder (Circle Seven: Violence and the story Room Service), or the icy deliberations that lead people to misjudge those they thought they knew, and ultimately are their own undoing (The Bureau from Circle Nine: Treachery has the feel of something that Old Scratch would perpetrate), Connie Wilson does an outstanding job of creating believable characters enmeshed in nightmarish scenarios. She also brings a bit of levity and black humor to the proceedings, à laDante (namely both stories in Circle Five: Wrath & Sullenness; M.R.M.and A Bridge Too Far, respectively).
I enjoyed Hellfire & Damnation II and feel certain that you will, also. I think even ol’ Dante himself would have a chuckle, and an appreciation for the imaginative interpretations that Connie Wilson has brought to his Inferno! Connie, you done good.
–Jason V Brock