Monday, August 17, 2009

Back into Hell – The Descent

You can’t get away from the underworld. No matter how old the story is, or how new fangled the tale proposes to be: there is always a moment where the main character must descend into the dark heart of the world and face the most brutal of fears.

Not too long ago I did a blog about “The Writer’s Journey” a book that explained how to use and understand the mythic hero’s quest style of storytelling. The journey into the underworld is a key moment in that mythic structure, and you see it in many forms in stories.

Sometimes it’s obvious, like in the Greek myth of Orpheus. The famous poet literally go into Hades to find his dead love and bring her back to the world of the living. He faces many trials and tests and completes most of them. But it is the final test, what should be the simplest, that ends up betraying Orpheus and causes him to turn from a hero into a tragic character. Find a good book of Greek myths and give the tale a re-read, it’s actually a great example of Underworld mythology.

Want something a bit more recent and less B.C. How about the most recent Star Trek film? The finale of the film takes place aboard the dark and dangerous Romulan space ship. Kirk and Spock must sneak inside, wander around in the darkness, face the king of the underworld (Nero in this case) and rescue the captured companion (Captain Pike). It’s the last major test for the heroes, one that ends up changing all of them and pushing them to their limits.

Well enough of those examples, let’s take a look at the book I read, Jeff Long’s “The Descent”. The title itself is a bit of a give away, but the bulk of the story is a journey into the underworld. The premise is simple, hell does exist and it is revealed to be a huge network of underground caverns that houses a civilization of beings that aren’t quite human, but seem to be a splinter of homo sapien.

Soon, “hell” is invaded by countries, armies and corporations. They do their best to eradicate the “demons” below but things might not be as easy as that. The main story follows an expedition that is sent into hell. It is comprised of scientists and a mercenary band for protection from the “demons”. At first the journey seems to be simple, straightforward exploration of a new frontier (very “Journey to the Center of the Earth”). But it becomes apparent that there are different loyalties among the group and that an operative among them might have a very different goal. Following along with this main story is a side story about a group of scholars and their search for Satan. They figure that since hell turned out to be a real place, that Satan must be real too, or at least based in historical fact. This search provides some clues that end up affecting the readers perception of what the explorers are experiencing.

So very literally Jeff Long has created an underworld and based his whole novel on the search and exploration of this world. The explorers initial journey into hell is actually one of the best parts of the book. It seems to be a simple matter of taking a colossal elevator/train to the bottom of the sea and then traveling in the underground corridors to the frontier settlements. But Long does a good job of allowing the reader to follow along with Ali, a nun who specializes in languages. Her journey from the upper world, the only one she’s known, down into the darkness of hell is actually the crux of the story. By giving you Ali’s perspective the reader feels the weight of the journey. As she travels deeper into the earth, the more the reader feels her wonder and her horror at the discoveries.

Of course no one can journey into the underworld and not change. Ali is an interesting character because as a nun she has seen horrors. She worked with the poor in Africa, and saw the toll that war and famine could take on humans. What she sees in hell is a new type of basic and elemental drive – something primal and almost bestial. It challenges what she felt she understood. This includes not only her teachings as a nun, but also what she felt was the basics of humanity. At the end of the story Ali is a very different person.

Ali is only one of several characters who makes the descent and each of them is changed in different ways. The book is interesting in its take on the underworld, and is worth reading for these elements (as a whole the book was good, but something was missing to make it a real knock out). It was interesting to see what Long did with his concept of making the underworld a real place.

What are your favorite stories the feature a plunge into “The Underworld”? Have you read “The Descent” or any of its follow up novels? Do you think the use of “the underworld” is a valid storytelling technique or is it too cliché?

No comments: