“HELL’S MUSE” (Book Review)
To avoid judging a book by its cover is accepted wisdom, but darn if the state of that cover unavoidably colors one’s perceptions. And Jack Wallen’s HELL’S MUSE (Autumnal Press) knocks on the reader’s door in a dishevelled tizzy, with bruises (editorial boo-boos like the phrase “his most perfect work” in the back cover blurb, or paragraphs of text accidentally printed twice in the author bio) and scars (blurry graphics and horrendous, confusing title typography). Take heart, because the old axiom proves correct; HELL’S MUSE is better than its shabby outer appearance would suggest.
Composed as tale-within-a-tale, MUSE finds Bob, an aspiring novelist, nose-deep in crafting what he’s certain will be his breakout hit. Bob’s story stars a scheming and bitter has-been horror writer named Bronson Coulter, a man visited by an emissary from the underworld and compelled to commit his black dreams to paper in order to please this lower power. Coulter’s resulting success parallels Bob’s rise to prominence in the real world, but as Coulter’s negotiations with his demon begins to cost lives, so too does Bob learn the Devil’s taxations can never be settled by mere money.
This story of a writer’s fictional bricklaying having a voodoo doll effect on actual events is nothing new –there are dozens of examples previous, but for MUSE think a brimstone amalgam of Stephen King’s “Word Processor of the Gods” with Carpenter’s IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, and maybe even a soupcon of BARTON FINK. What propels MUSE is the dynamic between Bob and Coulter, with Bob a sympathetic figure whose narration is peppered with likely autobiographical details from Wallen of navigating shifts in the current publishing industry, while fallen Coulter makes for a deliberately unlikeable “douche” whose lack of both moral fiber and audience appeal Bob wrestles to justify throughout his manuscript writing. Wallen’s playful sense of humor (loved Bob’s mash-up diary) helps to mediate some of the heavier stretches of violence and Sturm und Drang demonic dialogue, although Bob, Coulter, and Wallen by default share a fondness for painfully clunky sexual metaphors; try “the words poured from my system like porn star semen” on for size. Ugh.
While MUSE is for the most part a serviceable Faustian retread, the best passages come in the form of Coulter’s fleetingly sketched narrative of Hell—wild descriptions of infernal politics and devilish denizens. It’s an unrestrained heavy metal lyric writ large, with alpha demon dog The Nameless crushing his terrified, squeaking minions like a diabolical Darth Vader. Here’s one hoping that Wallen’s own muse might one day propel him to expand Coulter’s universe into a grand, unhinged epic.