Heck: Where the Bad Kids Go
Author: Dale E. Basye
Illustrator: Bob Dob
Of all the major publishing decisions made in the past few years, this one must have been a major deliberation. In short, Heck is a book about dead children (yes, dead children) confined to a purgatorial hell-school, which they can, in theory, graduate from and ascend to the choirs, harps, and all that, but most head down the putrid, pus-filled rivers to the Other Place (you know . . . H-E-double-hockey-sticks).
The heroes, aptly named Milton and Marlo Fauster (yes, there’s a Virgil too), are blown to pieces in a horrible marshmallow bear accident and are sent to a boarding school of the damned. This makes a certain amount of sense for Marlo, Milton’s older sister, a girl who thrives on theft, nasty behaviour, and general unpleasantness, but not Milton. His record is practically spotless. When they arrive they’re subjected to humiliation after humiliation, classes run by the mad and insane, and a tunnel of such filth and vileness that it makes Tim Robbins’s tunnel-crawl in The Shawshank Redemption seem a pleasant way to spend a Saturday afternoon.
The book is gross, satirical, and downright, laugh-out-loud funny. Just as an example, take a look at the “faculty”: Richard Nixon (Ethics), Lizzie Borden (Home Economics – this is hysterical), Blackbeard (Metaphysical Education). And then there’s the group of toddlers with serious, and to my mind, unprecedented, phonics addiction.
It’s also frustrating.
Heck offers a number of interesting plot points that are never resolved. Like so many YA-fantasy novels out there these days, it’s part of a series. Basye has nine books up his sleeve – one for each circle of Heck (for fans of the Florentine’s Commedia, no, they’re not the same – this is Heck after all, and we’re unlikely to see a frothing Satan gnawing on the bones and gristle of Judas, Brutus, and Cassius), and the reader’s left hanging. I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, like the serials of yore, it’s exciting to see what happens next. Unfortunately, we’re talking about books, not weekly serial films. Books take a long time – 6 months to a year just to publish one, never mind the writing involved beforehand. This book doesn’t live up to the self-contained genius of the Narnia, Harry Potter, or Unfortunate Events series. Heck relies on its hereto-unwritten sequels for resolution.
At least with the Hogwarts students, Baudelaire orphans, and Pevensie children, the books can be read individually and readers are left with a degree of satisfaction. Heck offers a certain amount of annoyance and hope that Basye is either deft with a pen or a keyboard otherwise he’s going to lose his audience. I hope he keeps it up.