This pair of novellas presents dystopian views of the afterlife, both in Heaven and Hell, with styles ranging from surrealism to bizzaro/splatterpunk as well as erotica. Unfortunately, whatever inventiveness and creativity these stories possess is overshadowed by childish writing, clichéd ideas.
Mellick’s Ugly Heaven is a woeful example of childish writing aided by trite ideas which has no higher goal than to disgust the reader and revel in our discomfort. Mellick’s prose hurls words like feces, the more the better. Consider this passage, as the protagonist Tree enters a hotel room:
Pecan vomit emotions as Tree enters the Topo House. Rowak slams the door between them with click-scurries and a whimper. The room is dark grey chaos. A war zone. It overwhelms Tree, too much for his virgin mind to process. He sees spiked vibrating balls and greasy swollen penis-tubes clogging the open space. Spicy lard sounds in the air.
If this sounds like promising writing worth reading, then you’ll be more than happy with Ugly Heaven, which is full of similar cases of guerilla prose. There are some segments reminiscent of William Burroughs’s heroin novel Naked Lunch, except that by comparison Burroughs’s writing is judicious and tasteful. Mellick should receive no accolades for his cheap thrills, tiring sentences, and car-crash voice; such a complete lack of reserve is more a sign of laziness and ineptitude than anything else—as if the only way he knew to move us was through overkill.
Perhaps this disaster prose could be redeemed by novelty in the plot, but there is little to speak of here. In Ugly Heaven, Hell’s damned have invaded and Heaven is a desolate wasteland. Tree is forced to wander this desolate plane into ever-stranger environments in order to find something he can call a suitable afterlife. There isn’t much to this convoluted storyline other than the idea that Heaven may not be everything we thought it was; this certainly doesn’t suffice to rescue the novella from its infantile style.
Thomas’s Beautiful Hell fares substantially better, using a more cohesive plot, considered diction, and imaginative themes. In this piece, Hell is more or less the desert of inconceivable torment we imagine it to be, but in the midst of a demon rebellion not just against Heaven, but against itself. The civil war is between humanoid demons and the newer squid-like punishers, considered new and improved models of demonkind for their complete lack of sympathy towards the damned. God, wracked with guilt over the demon war, has come with a delegation down to Hell to see things for himself.
Caught in the middle is Frank Lyre, a writer and lover of the humanoid demon Oni. Oni and Frank struggle to understand what their sexual relationship has become as Hell falls apart around them as Frank’s saved wife comes down for a visit. The politics of this strange world are more complicated than would appear at first glance, and Thomas manages it well, and it is up to the reader to decide which side is in the right.
The sex scenes plague this novella, as their graphic detail of human-on-demon action is almost completely unnecessary to the functioning of the plot. But they are the worst of it, and especially compared to Mellick’s disaster, Beautiful Hell is a far more enjoyable read. Unfortunately, it’s little beyond that; Thomas’s prose is capable but not exceptional, the themes imaginative but not too deeply probed. But the greatest detriment to this more or less average novella is its pairing with Ugly Heaven, making the book as a whole hardly worth it.