Escaping Hell! with Hal Duncan – Interview

Today we join forces with Hal Duncan to talk Hell! Duncan is the author of two novels: Vellum and Ink. Vellum was nominated for the World Fantasy Award and BFS Award for Best Novel honors as well as getting nominated for the Locus and and Crawford awards for Best Debut Novel/Author. We talked about them with Hal when they were released, in fact, we did it twice.

Next month, his latest, Escape from Hell! is set to be published by Monkeybrain books as the next part of their line of original novellas. We’ve talked to Hal at length on a couple of occasions so today we keep it short and sweet, in a single topic manner that we’ve also done with Paul S. Kemp, Jeff VanderMeer, and Chris Roberson (who is name checked by Hal in this interview as well).

Today Hal and I chat Samuel L, Hell, Neil Gaiman and more!

Jay Tomio — Do you even believe in hell?

Hal Duncan — As a metaphysical realm? Not even remotely. As a state of mind, on the other hand? I think a lot of us find ourselves in Hell at some point in our lives.

Jay Tomio — Your novella, Escape From Hell! is set to be published by MonkeyBrain Books next month. Can you give readers the low down?

Hal Duncan — It’s a hitman, a hooker, a homo and a hobo in the ultimate prison break… escape from Hell itself. It’s about these four people damned for their sins — murder, fornication, sodomy and suicide — deciding, “fuck this shit,” and trying to blast their way to freedom. Think if you took a Neil Gaiman story but turned it into an early John Carpenter movie. We’re talking fast-paced, balls-out pulp fiction, an action/adventure story with angels, lost souls and a whole lot of gunfire.

Jay Tomio — What was the impetus for this project. Why Hell, why now?

Hal Duncan — It all kicked off as a discussion with a mate of mine called Mags who works in television. We tend to throw ideas at each other for movies we’d like to see, brainstorming characters and plots just for the fun of it. With this one we were thinking, OK, what’s the ultimate prison? And obviously, it’s got to be Hell, right? So we started riffing, and I got really excited about it, ended up going away and developing the whole story in synopsis, virtually scene-by-scene. Cut to a year or so later, when I’d gotten bogged down in trying to write a novella for Chris Roberson at MonkeyBrain. I’d passed the deadline and was totally blocked on the idea I’d originally pitched to him, then it struck me that I already had this story that was the perfect length for telling as a novella — more meat than a short story, but more boiled-down than a novel. There’s an old idea that novellas are easier to convert to film than novels, so I figured the whole process should work just as well in reverse. So I touted the idea to Chris and he loved it.

Coming after the 400,000 word, non-linear mindfuck monster that was The Book of All Hours, it also offered a radical departure that appealed to me, something that was all about pace and plot, pure narrative drive. I suppose a part of that appeal comes from my contrarian nature; I like the idea of doing the exact opposite of the huge, sprawling, experimentalist tomes that readers of Vellum and Ink may have come to associate with me. Mostly though, it’s just that I grew up on all those old SF novels that were 150 pages max. I love that stuff, but it’s hard to find a book these days that’s not at least twice that length. That’s OK if you’re in the mood for something that might take you a week to read, but I have a range of tastes as a reader and I want to keep stretching my range as a writer. So the MonkeyBrain novella line seemed like a great way to get back to that old pulp spirit.

Jay Tomio — So, you escape Hell — what’s the first thing Hal Duncan does?

Hal Duncan — I’d take my tobacco and papers out of my pocket, roll up a cigarette, and light it on the fires I’ve just walked out of, take a long slow draw and blow the smoke out through my evil grin. Then I’d do pretty much what the characters do. But I can’t tell you what that is without blowing the ending.

Jay Tomio — Over at Notes From the Geek Show in your blog post pointing to our excerpt of Escape From Hell! you mentioned Samuel L. Jackson in passing regarding casting the roles in the novella. Jackson is known for one liners — you are writing the screenplay to the Escape from Hell! You have Jackson in your cast — what’s the one liner you give him?

Hal Duncan — An answer to the question, “How can you kill someone if they’re already dead?”:

“Motherfucker, if you got the mouth to annoy me with questions, you got a head I can blow off your motherfucking shoulders.”

Or words to that effect.

Jay Tomio — A hitman, hooker, a homosexual kid, a hobo, hell. Hal, that’s a cast of alliteration. If you had room for one more who would it be and why?

Hal Duncan — Maybe a hunchback. Thing is, the characters are all “othered” in some way or other — cast as “outsiders” in terms of race, gender, sexuality, social status. To some extent, they’re all where they are because their paths in life have been shaped by the perceptions of society. Way I see it, there’s really only one of them whose “sin” is even a real crime — the hitman. The rest are there because of bullshit religious mores that scapegoat anyone outside the norm, anyone who bucks some bogus “natural order”. A woman who fucks for money, a kid who wants to suck cock, a man who takes his own life — in the infantile “morality” that condemns those, it’s deviance from “the way of things” that’s the real issue, and that difference is equated with wrongness. Abnormal equals unnatural and unnatural equals bad. This is the same sort of bullshit that invents the idea of “miscegenation” as a crime, says that it’s not how things are “meant to be”.

A lot of fantasy buys into that bullshit, reinforces it even, by playing on prejudicial programming, gut reactions of revulsion in the face of physical deformity. Nine times out of ten in fantasy, a “warped” physical form is a signal for a “warped” spiritual form, and more often than not the features that mark out the monstrous have analogues in the real-world — a hunched back, a hooked nose, obesity or withered flesh, any disability or disease, any deviance at all. So if I’d had room for an extra character in EfH! maybe it would have been nice to take a swing at that bollocks by throwing that type of “otherness” into the mix as well — except that it might well have smacked of tokenism.

Jay Tomio — The cover to Escape From Hell! is sweet as well. . .hell. Did you have any input or is that just Chris Roberson handling business?

Hal Duncan — Chris put the artist, Erik Gist, in touch with me, and we threw a couple of ideas back and forth based on the synopsis — because the novella wasn’t quite finished at that point. There’s a scene later on that we both thought would have looked really cool — you’d have had the heroes all standing there, tooled-up and facing out at the reader; it would have had a nice “bring it on, motherfuckers” vibe — but one feature would have been a bit of a spoiler. In the end we both preferred the option Erik ran with, which is taken straight from the prologue with just a tiny bit of artistic license used to bring Lady Justice into shot. If I remember right, Erik suggested it in a really early email, and described it almost exactly the way that I’d always visualised the scene. So I was totally over-the-moon that we were on the same wavelength.

Really my input came down to “yes, that sounds fucking awesome,” and “oh, but yeah, this Hell is cold and grey rather than fiery and red”. I mean, the traditional imagery of Hell-as-inferno _almost_ got in the way for a whole millisecond — most images of Hell are all black and red after all, thick crimson skies, darkness and flames — but Erik had actually picked up on the ashen wasteland feel I was going for, so it was just a matter of confirming that his first instinct was correct. The colour palette he used for it is perfect, I think, and I love the little touches of red on the key characters — Seven’s shades, Belle’s rosary and so on.

Jay Tomio — I’m big fan of books like Letters From Hades by Jeffrey Thomas and To Reign in Hell by Steven Brust or Di Filippo’s A Year in the Linear City and obviously you have the Divine Comedy. What are your favorite get out of hell or novels taking place in the inferno and why?

Hal Duncan — Paradise Lost is way cool, of course, and Gaiman’s riffing on that in the Sandman comics is great. There’s the anti-heroic streak to Milton’s Lucifer that appeals to me immensely. He’s still painted as a villain — it’s not an anti-Christian work by any means — but I think it’s one of those cases where the imagery undermines the message, subverts it. Where the the rebel angel’s fall is presented as such wilful defiance, it hints, I think, at a reversal of the ethical polarities; it resonates with the defiance of every underdog who ever stood up to a tyrant. And the Sandman storyline is the nearest we’ve got, in anything I’ve read except maybe Pullman’s His Dark Materials, to my own… anarchist metaphysics. Ultimately, the resignation of Gaiman’s Lucifer isn’t about the illegitimacy of the whole set-up, but it’s still a deliciously subversive notion.

Jay Tomio — Speaking of Dante, his guide for much of the time was a poet, Virgil. If having a choice and unluckily finding yourself ending up in the wrong direction — who would you choose to be your guide?

Hal Duncan — I reckon I’d keep with tradition and choose a poet too: Rimbaud. He wrote Une saison en enfer, after all — A Season in Hell — so we’re talking about someone who’s mapped the territory. He gave up writing at the age of 21 and went off to become a gun-runner in Africa, so I reckon we’re talking about someone who could handle himself in a tricky situation.

Also, with his hotness, his devotion to “a systematic derangement of the senses” and his taste for absinthe, hashish and sodomy, he was exactly the sort of bipolar bad boy I’m drawn to like a moth to a flame. I probably _would_ follow someone like that into Hell just because I have zero sense of self-preservation. We could be great together, in a fucked-up, wild-sex, wild-parties, drive-each-other-totally-psychotic sorta way. Hey, if you shatter any distinction whatsoever between “a good time” and “a bad time”, there’s no real difference between Hell and Heaven, is there?

Jay Tomio — You are — as of now — the first 3-time interviewee of our site. A fate worse than hell?

Hal Duncan — Heh. Not at all. It’s always a pleasure talking to you, Jay. A third term with the Republicans in the White House — now that would have been a fate worse than hell.

protoculture hoarding, devil fruit eating, chilling in a house of leaves. Catch me @biglob