Archive for 15 July 2022

A Visitor’s Guide to Hell

Back in 2016 I was hanging out in Vancouver, on the set of a certain movie – two movies, actually, being shot back-to-back – and feeling slightly surplus to requirements because it seemed my job as screenwriter was pretty much done. In fact I don’t even think I was on set when I got the call from the Props department.

You see, in these movies our heroine had just landed a job with a publishing firm, and in the slush-pile had discovered what she thought was a promising work – a political thriller based on Dante’s Inferno. The shooting script called for a short montage of her poring over the manuscript; the problem the Props department had was, there was no manuscript. They couldn’t just provide a sheaf of pages typed up with gibberish – the text would be shown on camera, in close-up. So, they asked, as the accredited writer on the movie, how would I feel about providing a few extracts from this work of alleged genius?

How could I say no? ‘Alleged genius’ is my entire resumé. How many pages, I asked, and when do you need them? Four from the start of the book, they said, and two from somewhere in the middle. And we’re shooting the day after tomorrow.

I have to admit I love jobs like this. No time to fret, no time to daydream, no time to worry about my place in the pantheon of great Irish writers (currently #60120 in line, I checked.)

I downloaded an English translation of the Divine Comedy, skimmed a hundred cantos, and set to work outlining a novel – about a burnt-out American war correspondent, I decided, travelling the world researching a story about a woman he’d once loved: a campaigner for truth and justice, who had since married someone else.  That done, I sat down and wrote not just four pages but an early chapter, set on a Greek island where refugees seek salvation, as the souls of the dead do in Dante. The later extract I set in a Moscow ruled by a corrupt and brutal kleptocracy. (I worried at the time I was being harsh on Russia; I’m less worried now.)      

That evening when my wife came home from work – on the same movie set, by a bizarre coincidence – I showed her my pages, and she read them, and said, ‘Where’s the rest of it?’ If the point of the exercise was to create passages that looked like a sample of a much larger work, she felt I’d succeeded, and all too well.

The thing was, I shared her excitement. The story had come from nowhere, told in a voice I had never used before, written without time to back up or back down or pick holes in my own work like all writers do, and that was immensely liberating. Maybe someday I could actually write that whole novel.

However, back then I had other projects to finish – M, King’s Bodyguard being one – and the Dante idea went on the back burner… but sometimes ideas need to simmer a while in the unconscious.      

Then came the Big Lockdown of 2020. Sitting in my office, I needed a project, but I couldn’t go anywhere to research or check facts. Well, I thought, I’m pretty sure Dante didn’t actually travel through Hell, guided by the poet Virgil, in search of Beatrice….

And so I present the e-book, currently available on Amazon: A Heart Within the Beast.

It’s changed a little from that early outline: The narrator is no longer a war correspondent, but a cynical travel journalist who has squandered his talent, and the woman he’s researching, once his lover, is long dead. Like Dante, our hero a lost soul, and the only way to redemption leads through Hell.

If you are here because you are a fan of those movies I worked on, and/or the books they were adapted from, be warned: A Heart Within the Beast is no romance.  Yes, there’s romance in it, but there’s also drugs, violence, cruelty and perversity – and not the fun kind. In his epic poem Dante wandered through Hell, where demons tormented sinners with punishments appropriate to their sins; my protagonist wanders this earth, where the demons are human, the innocent are punished by the guilty, and love and truth and justice seem like childish dreams.

With thanks to Dante Alighieri, whose genius I had never appreciated – English degree notwithstanding – before I dived into the Divine Comedy, and to the late American poet John Ciardi, whose vivid and lucid translation of The Inferno made studying the work such a joy.  And thanks too, of course, to my wife, not only for her encouragement but for her brilliant cover design.