Hell’s Empire – John Linwood Grant (ed) – REVIEW

Sorry about the silence recently. Some of it has been an enforced silence (minor surgery with subsequent complications) and some has been connected with things I am not allowed to talk about (no, I haven’t joined MI6 or MI6 or GCHQ, but there are secrets which must remain hidden for the nonce*).

Anyway, I recently bought a copy of Hell’s Empire, an anthology of weird/horror tales around a common theme.

Imagine Them – the demons of Hades, the Empire of the Damned, the Dukes and Earls of Hell, commanding legions of the damned to battle against the heartland of the Empire on which the sun never sets. Martini-Henrys and Maxims bark and chatter against fanged, clawed horrors that rip off heads and splay intestines in obscene eldritch patterns.

And then imagine another kind of Hell – that of an editor who must collect fourteen stories and two poems, independently created by sixteen writers, and bind them together into some sort of coherent sequence and chronology.

John Linwood Grant (interviewed here) has descended into this second Hell, and produced a wonderful collection of tales of the end of one Empire (the British) to the gain of another (Hell).

The demons vary in shape and size between authors, but all display an unearthly** single-mindedness and determination to fight, slay, mutilate and conquer. Nearly all, anyway. Some stories provide some of the demons with character, and one tale makes an oddly sympathetic hero out of one of them, but for the most part, the tale is told by those fighting the demons: soldiers and sailors, yes, but also priests, witches, and those living among us who have otherworldly components in their make up.

In many of the stories John Dee and his Enochian languages help to quell the assaults of these hellish forces of darkness, when chanted, or inscribed upon projectiles or blades. Faith, Christian, Jewish, even Muslim and Parsee, and holy water work miracles*** against the dark hordes.

The stories, on the whole, do not try to strike a Victorian note in their style, at least as far as I am concerned. Whether this is a failing or not, I am unsure. I think I would have attempted to create a nineteenth century ambience, which can be achieved without overt references to hansom cabs and crinolines, though a few of the stories do recreate Victorian military hardware rather well.

Grant’s interpolative notes help to provide a sense of continuous narrative,  and do provide some solid historical background to the alternate universe spread before us in this volume. I particularly like the way that “Bertie” (and if you’re not a Victorian, you won’t get the reference) shows himself in his true colours – as I and other pro-Ted7ers feel that he did after his mother died.

[I’ve removed a part which was a little personal and was best removed] There are a few typos outstanding in the print edition (inevitable, as I know to my cost).

However, this shouldn’t put you off buying a rather unusual book – one which combines a steampunk and a horror/weird atmosphere – and does it successfully, in my opinion.


*for the nonce – what a wonderful expression that is.

**what do you expect from demons, anyway?

***that’s why it’s called holy water, innit?