In the tradition of Dante, Milton, Marlowe, and Goethe, Dale E. Basye is bringing hell and its demons alive to new generations of readers—with, perhaps, less cultural finesse than his illustrious predecessors.
In the opening chapter of the first book of his series, Milton and Marlo Fauster (10 and 13, respectively) are killed when a giant marshmallow grizzly bear explodes. Though Milton has always been a good boy, his less scrupulous older sister tricked him into shoplifting lip-gloss in what turn out to be the final moments of his life. Rather than proceeding up to heaven, therefore, the deceased children plummet downward.
Upon their arrival, they learn that children are not deemed responsible for their actions and must wait in Heck, a reform school-like place, "for all eternity—or until they turn eighteen, whichever comes first." Once they come of age, they can be relocated to the appropriate eternal home. While Heck is not really "h-e-double-hockey-sticks" (as "hell" is referred to throughout the series), it is nevertheless a highly unpleasant place. Toddlers sleep in gingerbread coffins and have Boogeymen read them bedtime stories from the works of Edgar Allan Poe, the cafeteria serves Brussels sprouts and liver with sulfur water to wash it all down, and the boys are all forced to wear yellow lederhosen and wooden clogs. Very quickly, Milton and Marlo begin planning their escape from Heck.
Though only five are currently in print, Basye intends there to be nine books in the Heck series, with each book set in a different circle of Heck. Milton and Marlo begin in Limbo, then journey to Rapacia (for greedy kids), Blimpo (for plump kids), Fibble (for lying kids), Snivel (for whiny kids), Precocia (for kids who grow up too fast), Lipptor (for kids who sass back), Sadia (for really, really mean kids), and Dupli-City (for dirty, two-faced snitches).
Those readers who are familiar with classic literature, mythology, and history will recognize numerous allusions and puns beyond the Dantean structure of Heck. The first names of the protagonists, for example, recall John Milton, author of Paradise Lost, and Christopher Marlowe, author of Doctor Faustus, and their surname is Fauster (as in Faust, who sold his soul to Satan). Milton quickly makes friends with a fellow Heck resident named Virgil, who happens to have a map he uses to help Milton and Marlo find their way. The principal of Heck is a female demon named Bea "Elsa" Bubb, and one of her rivals for the affection of "The Big Guy Downstairs" is Lilith Couture. In preparation for the "Soul Aptitude Tests" that determine their eternal fates, the children all attend classes: ethics with Richard Nixon, biology with Typhoid Mary, home economics with Lizzie Borden, physical education with Blackbeard, and singing with Elvis Presley. These allusions are entertaining, though it is doubtful that the average fifth-grade reader would recognize the majority of them.
We live in a culture that likes to ignore sin and death whenever possible. I recently had a conversation with a middle-school student at church in which the topic of death, heaven, and hell arose; the student reacted very strongly against the idea of death and eternal consequences for sin. In many ways, this response is completely understandable. When you are 13 years old, you feel as if your whole life is before you!
But the reality is that every human being on earth will die at some point. Furthermore, one of the fundamental tenets of the Christian faith is that the way we live in this world determines what will happen to us in the next. While the very premise of Basye's series may seem somewhat morbid, therefore, it provides an excellent opportunity to have discussions with young readers about sin, death, and their ramifications.
The focal character flaw for each level of Heck is a version of one of the sins identified in Scripture (greed, gluttony, deception, discontent, etc.). Though Marlo and Milton are relatively well-rounded, some of these flaws are exaggerated in certain characters to show how sin affects us. As one of the demon teachers explains to the children, "You can only conceal what's in ya fer so long before all that was in is hangin' out." It is important for us to teach our children, and ourselves, how to examine our lives and deal with the sinful nature we all possess before it consumes us.
The major problem with the Heck series is the distorted presentation of how our eternal destinations are determined and who determines them. Christian Scripture makes clear that "it is appointed for human beings to die once, and after that comes judgment" (Heb 9:27). Most importantly, we are judged not by a Soul Aptitude Test, the weighing of our hearts by an Egyptian dog god, or the scheming of an archangel committee. A holy, just, and loving God (who has already won the battle against the "Powers That Be Evil") judges us. All of us are held accountable for how we live, whether we are 10 years old or 100 years old. Though we will all struggle with sin throughout our lives, our eternal fates are ultimately determined by whether or not we have accepted Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.
Apart from the ambiguous theology and satirizing of religion generally, there is nothing overly objectionable in the Heck series. There is no profanity; despite the subject matter, Basye cleverly avoids saying "hell" or "damned," preferring instead to talk about "Downstairs" and being "darned." The series is definitely geared toward young readers who revel in the disgusting. Descriptions of sewage, decay, bodily functions, nauseating foods, and repulsive demons permeate the books and actually overwhelm the storyline at points. The first several books get repetitive, but they may still appeal to middle-school readers.
Image copyright Yearling. Review copies obtained from the reviewer's local library.
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