That Dante guy was onto something.
See, I grew up in a Catholic family. Catholic families know from punishment. From month-long groundings to wallopings to threats of violent murder, I’ve heard it all. (My personal fave was my mom’s common refrain of “Come here so I can smack you.” Seriously, is that like some kind of aptitude test? Who snaps to when they hear that ol’ chestnut?) But when it comes to scaring kids straight, the best most Sunday Schools can muster is the old lake-of-fire routine. And sure, it don’t sound good exactly, but for a kid raised on Stephen King and A Nightmare on Elm Street, that hell didn’t hardly impress.
Then I read Dante’s INFERNO. Suddenly, hell had my attention.
Sometime during middle school, this must’ve been. Yeah, I know: I was kind of a morbid kid. But I’d yet to discover punk, so I was all about Poe and King and Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, and I figured “Dude gets lost in woods and wanders into hell” was just the sort of thing I should be reading.
Turns out, it was just the sort of thing I should be reading. And, impressionable child that I was, it messed me up a tiny little bit.
For those who haven’t the pleasure (and it truly is worth reading, even for those not typically drawn to the whole epic poem thing; I’d recommend the Longfellow translation), Dante breaks hell down into nine hierarchical circles, representing the full menu of assorted sins. And in Dante’s conception of hell, each sin comes with its own tailor-made punishment, designed to lay bare the sinner’s greatest flaw for all eternity.
So why’d that scare me so damn much? Easy. As a kid, it seemed to me, the rule book for staying in God’s good grace was long and dense and nigh indecipherable, and here was this long-dead Italian dude saying, “Hey, you know the worst thing you ever did – or in your case, kid, you’ll ever do? Well, hell does. And they’ve got just the thing for it…”
Suddenly, Freddy Krueger didn’t seem so scary anymore.
Fast-forward a couple decades. This idea kicking ’round my head rouses me from bed and yells at me to write it down. (What, your ideas don’t do that? Well, I guess mine are just surlier than yours. Blame all that metal I listened to in middle school.) Story’s about this dead guy named Sam who collects condemned souls for a living and delivers them to hell, only he begins to suspect the young murderer whose soul he’s been sent to collect is innocent of the crime for which she’s been condemned. Rather than do as he’s told and collect her, Sam elects to investigate what’s going on, to see if he can clear her name. There’s something to the idea, I think, but the one thing I can’t square is how the guy wound up with such a lousy gig; he seems nice enough in my head.
Then it hit me. And by “it,” I mean “Dante.”
Sam’s gig is more than just a job: it’s a punishment, picked out special just for him. Once I realized that, the pieces all fell into place, and DEAD HARVEST was born.
Sam’s job takes him all over this world we think of as our own, but to him, our world – and his endless, thankless task – is his hell. Or, to let Sam tell it:
“Hell isn’t some faraway land, Kate. It’s right here – in this world, in this room. Heaven, too, as near as I can tell. They’re just, I don’t know, set at an angle or something, so that they can see your world, but you can’t quite see them. Occasionally, the boundaries break down, and the result is either an act of horrible savagery or of astonishing grace. But make no mistake, they’re always here.”
Kate’s brow furrowed as she looked around the room. “I guess I always imagined hell to be all fire and brimstone.”
I lit my cigarette and took a long, slow drag. “You ask me, I’d guess heaven and hell look pretty much the same,” I replied. “Only in hell, everything is just a little out of reach.”
You may be wondering what Sam did to wind up with such a punishment. To that, I say, you’ll have to read the book. But given that DEAD HARVEST borrows heavily from the pulp tradition, you could probably guess a dame’s got something to do with it.
And then there’s the matter of that girl he thinks is innocent, and refuses to collect. I’ll not tell you how that turns out, either, but I will say this: if hell goes to all the trouble of cooking you up the perfect punishment for your sins, how pissed do you think they get if you say “No, thanks”?