Welcome back to Hell.
Of course, we knew we’d get here sooner or later, since we were set up to see Season of Mists as a kind of Orpheus and Eurydice quest, but Episode 2 throws a wrench or two in the engine of our expectations. Quest stories often tend to be structured as a series of picaresque adventures, with each turn of the tale increasing the stakes for the protagonist, like walking up a giant metaphysical staircase. If Season of Mists were that sort of quest story, it would have been much harder for Dream to get to Hell, and he might only have gotten there toward the middle of the full story arc, having overcome various obstacles along the way.
But Gaiman’s got more complex things in mind, and what seemed like a straightforward quest structure gets blown into fractal bits when Lucifer announces he’s quitting his job and closing the gates of Hell.
Because I am not reading ahead in the series, and have for the most part written each of these columns immediately after reading the issue under discussion, I occasionally get to see the concerns and questions I raised about one issue addressed or exploded in another one. That’s exactly what happened here with the second episode, where many of the questions about Hell that I dithered with in my most literal-minded way through the first episode are now both answered and complexified. I love that — I have a fondness for illusions and con games, not because I can pull them off myself (I’m a terrible liar), but because they offer the thrill of performance and misdirection. Tricks keep us humble; they offer a vision of something more complex than what we could, for a moment at least, understand. I am fascinated by how tricks are achieved — whether stage illusions, elaborate heists, close-up magic, or stories — because the secrets are usually so banal that the performance seems even more amazing, the crucible turning base materials into the glitter of magic.
There’s a type of storytelling that has a lot in common with the illusionist’s (and con man’s) art, and these first issues of “Season of Mist” display some of that, beautifully misdirecting our expectations and providing the pleasure of bigger tricks inside the little ones we previously thought were big.
Lucifer reveals that Hell is a not a place to which bad people are sent by some omnipotent judge — Hell is where people who desire punishment go. If he speaks truthfully, then, the realms beyond life are shaped by human yearnings and wants, whether conscious or unconscious. Hell is for the masochists, the people who think they deserve punishment (and who therefore want to be punished) and the people who enjoy pain and suffering.
The character of Breschau, whose torture looks an awful lot like a torture at the end of the marvelous Clive Barker movie Hellraiser, is proud of both the enormity of his deeds when alive and of the suffering inflicted on him in his afterlife. He doesn’t want Hell to end, because his entire sense of identity is tied to the idea of his monstrosity as performance — Lucifer destroys him by telling him that nobody remembers him anymore. The denizens of Hell are not just people who have been monsters; they are people who need other people to know they have been monsters, and who also want people to know that they are suffering for their sins. Their persecution is the necessary, beloved second act of their drama.
Persecution is not always something people want to end. Persecution and suffering offer righteousness, and many privileged people have a powerful sense of being oppressed, one that they would really be reluctant to give up. Populist politicians thrive on just such a universal sense of oppression, but so do elitist politicians — in the United States right now, our kleptocratic overlords work hard to convince the majority of the population that the upper 5% of income earners are persecuted by taxes and government regulations. Everybody wants to be David, nobody Goliath; I’m sure The Man thinks he’s fighting The Man. No wonder Hell is such a vast place.
But Lucifer is not enough of a masochist to want to be stuck with the masochists forever. (Or so it seems … we may be in the midst of another bit of narrative legerdemain.) He says he’s tired and bored, both of which seem to me curiously human feelings. The lords of the various realms often display strongly human psychologies and motivations, the residual effect, perhaps, of being born from human needs.
We end this chapter of the story with Dream chopping off Lucifer’s wings, and Lucifer giving him the keys to Hell, telling him he is now the new, sole monarch.
The last words of the last panel are Dream’s: “I feel cold.” It’s the opposite, of course, of what we expect from Hell’s fires, and there’s no telling what it portends. I’m intrigued by Lucifer’s reference to the dead starting to come back to life — by closing Hell, has he sent them all back to the land of the living? Is the Earth about to get awfully crowded?
Matthew Cheney has published fiction and nonfiction in a variety of venues, including One Story, Weird Tales, Locus, Rain Taxi, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and elsewhere. A collection, Blood: Stories will be published by Black Lawrence Press in January 2016. He is the former series editor for the Best American Fantasy anthologies and currently a co-editor of the occasional online magazine The Revelator. His blog, The Mumpsimus, was nominated for a World Fantasy Award in 2005. He is working toward a Ph.D. in Literature at the University of New Hampshire, where his research focuses on the work of Virginia Woolf, J.M. Coetzee, and Samuel R. Delany.