“I have to laugh. There isn’t much else to do. Go down into the deepest darkest parts of Hell, and you’ll see what I mean. They laugh all the time down there.”
Aloha From Hell is Richard Kadrey’s third SANDMAN SLIM novel. Jim Stark was betrayed by a fellow magician and dragged alive into Hell. Eleven years as an arena fighter for audiences of Hellions and fallen angels did not improve Stark’s attitude, and when he clawed his way out of Hell, he had some unfinished business with Mason, his betrayer.
Dealing with Mason is at the top of Stark’s to-do list, but in Sandman Slim and Kill the Dead, various things like world-destroying anti-angels and a zombie apocalypse distracted him. Stark did manage to send Mason to Hell. This might not have been a good choice, since Lucifer had gone back to Heaven, and Mason immediately took over the place.
In Aloha From Hell, the demonic possession of a Los Angeles rich kid starts a trail of brimstone-scented breadcrumbs that leads Stark straight to Mason, who has teamed up with the psychotic angel Aelita. Aelita plans to murder God. Mason’s plans are bigger. He wants Stark out of the way, and he’s using as bait the one thing Stark won’t turn his back on — the soul of Alice, his true love, who was murdered by one of Mason’s followers.
Stark is a great character and his love/hate relationship with Los Angeles (and Hell) keeps me turning the pages of these books even when I think the plot is too twisty to be believed. Part of the pleasure is Kadrey’s use of tiny details about life. In Aloha From Hell, he describes the window lettering on a drug lab as being in “a reassuringly scientific-looking serif font.” Stark’s diamond-carbide wit sharpens up the social commentary.
… I half-way expect Remington cowboy sculptures and a giant flat-screen playing football or wrestling or some other macho backslapping good old boy to inject just a little more testosterone into the place. I don’t know if I’m in Hell or the CEO’s office at Halliburton.
Suddenly I’m sorry I’m wearing big steel-toed boots. I should be in Hello Kitty slippers.
With the help of a goddess named Mustang Sally who could have stepped right out of a Neil Gaiman book (and that’s a compliment) Stark returns to Hell to rescue Alice’s soul and take care of Mason permanently. Once in Hell, Stark dithers a bit. “I’m going to save Alice!” Okay, cool. “No, I’m going to free fallen angel Semyaza from Tartarus.” Um, okay, that’s good. “No! I’m going to save Alice and then rescue Semyaza from Tartarus!” Okay, dude, whatever.
Tartarus is post-post-modernist-America-scary: gloomy, bleak and mechanistic, truly soul-destroying. Before he goes there, Stark gets put back into the arena. The arena informs a lot of Stark’s character and in this harrowing scene we see Sandman Slim unleashed — half angel, half monster, all killer.
I’m not sure Stark’s plan for the battle between Heaven and Hell really works. And I’m not sure I care. I don’t think I grasped the logistics, but I sure remember Stark racing a red Ferrari Testarossa down the freeways of hell, followed by an army of demonic mechanical hellhounds, facing a Heaven (a giant oil refinery) filled with golden blazing angels. I remember Stark’s few tender moments with Alice and his bewildering ones with God. I have to say, when it comes to identifying and developing talent, Lucifer might be the best CEO ever.
SANDMAN SLIM is “urban fantasy” the way a shot of Everclear is “a beverage.” Kadrey fills his books with grit, wit, gore and Gnosticism — a little G.I. Gurdjieff philosophy added like a dash of Angostura bitters. Aloha from Hell is a cocktail that could only have been invented in L.A’s Cadillac desert, shaken and stirred. And Stark would probably put a little paper umbrella in it, just to mess with you.
I look forward to getting my hands on the fourth book, Devil Said Bang. Urban renewal in Hell? That’s only the beginning.