Hell is Other People: Happy Hour in Hell by Tad Williams

Following recent events, the angel Doloriel, also known as Bobby Dollar, is effectively on administrative leave while his inscrutable supervisors in Heaven figure out what to do with him. Now that he doesn’t have to worry about his job of acting as a witness for the newly-deceased, Bobby has plenty of time on his hands. Time spent obsessing over the woman he loves, the demonic Caz, Countess of Cold Hands, last seen being dragged back to Hell by her own boss and ex-lover.

So Bobby decides he’s going to sneak into Hell and rescue Caz. It’s better than sitting around on Earth while a deranged serial killer stalks him, better than worrying about the secret conspiracy hatched between high-ranking angels and demons, better than hiding from one threat or another. Disguised in demon flesh, Bobby finds one of Hell’s lesser-known entries, and infiltrates the single worst place in all of Creation for an AWOL angel to be. No problem.

But that’s just the start of a truly harrowing journey, as he painfully traverses the numerous levels of Hell, experiencing one horror after another. In Hell, nothing is too extreme, too disgusting, too depraved. In Hell, trust no one. Abandon all hope, ye who enter. If Bobby wants to see Caz again, he’s going to have to survive everything Hell can throw at him, knowing that death may not even be an option compared to what some of its inhabitants have in store.

What’s worse than getting into Hell? You guessed it. Getting out. And just remember: even when you get what you want, it’ll probably come back to bite you in the rear.

The second in Williams’ new urban fantasy series, Happy Hour in Hell follows The Dirty Streets of Heaven, though it primarily abandons the familiar (if fictional) streets of San Judas for the disturbingly complex afterlife. Here, Hell is imagined as an immense, treacherous, sprawling series of levels, which get worse the further you go down. At the top: where the powerful demons make their homes, and Bobby’s ultimate destination. At the bottom: the unspeakably awful prison of the Damned. In the middle: the not-so-pleasant suburbs for the working-class demons, and so on. Seeing as how a very large portion of the storyline involves Bobby’s torturous slog up and down and in and out of Hell, it’s no surprise that the setting is pretty much a character in its own right, and needs to be discussed as such. It has a feel, weight, and lasting effect, and Williams goes all out in bringing his vision of Hell to life. Hieronymus Bosch would have nightmares. It ranges from the petty and cruel to the obscene and brain-numbing. Worse, when you consider the balance between casual banality and inspired horror, the mixture of psychological, physical, spiritual, mental, and yes, sexual torment that spills across the pages. And seen through Bobby’s eyes—the eyes of an angel, the eyes of a man who’s always believed in hope and redemption—it’s worse even still. Poor Bobby experiences quite a few of these horrors during his journey, and it leaves a lasting impression.

But it wasn’t just the heat that made me feel like I was dying now, it was the words turning into pictures in my brain, with no work from my own imagination. Somehow the depth acted on me like increasing pressure, forcing images into my head, endless halls full of screeching voices, reflect cries for help that the screecher knew wasn’t coming, chambers as big as grand ballrooms full of stone tables, each table with a ruined but still living body writhing atop it, animals without eyes, rooms full of thunder and blood spray, the pounding of metal against vulnerable flesh, basking dogs, howling wolves, and through it all a sensation of unparalleled misery and hopelessness that squeezed my skull like a monstrous pair of pliers.

And that’s just while taking Hell’s elevator in the wrong direction. Yikes.

All of this delicious, crunchy, Hellish fun is wrapped around several loosely-tied plot threads. Bobby’s basically a guy looking to rescue his girl from Hell. Flashbacks to his time together with Caz reveal more of their previously unseen interactions and the edgy, unsteady chemistry that bonds them despite their opposite factions. Is it love? Is it lust? Is it something else born of shared experiences that masquerades as a relationship? That remains to be seen. They work well together, for what little time they have, but there’s so much baggage on both sides that you get the impression Bobby’s quest really is a foolhardy, suicidal one. And of course it ties back into the other major storyline, involving the Grand Duke of Hell who bargained with an as-yet-unidentified angel to create something outside of Heaven and Hell altogether. Through no fault of his own, Bobby came into possession of a feather from said angel, which could be a key to revealing its identity. Naturally, everyone wants that feather, either as evidence, blackmail material, untapped power, or more. And that paints a huge target on Bobby’s chest.

I enjoyed Happy Hour in Hell. Bobby’s odyssey makes for a compelling, page-turning experience, chock-full of visceral sights and sensory overload. And that’s the book’s major weak point as well. Because I can so easily sum things up as “Bobby Dollar goes to Hell to rescue his girlfriend, and spends most of the book traveling from one place to the next while truly awful things happen around or to him.” Williams doesn’t hold back as he builds up the nature, the sights and feels of Hell, and it drags down the actual pacing. And then he has to go through it all over again to get out, because it’s never that easy. But since part of the overarching storyline does involve people trying to find an alternative to Heaven and Hell, it’s important to see just how bad the original options are. This is a Hell that needs serious reform or replacement.

I remain fascinated with the cosmology Williams has introduced, and I’m hoping we’ll get to see more of the big picture as he moves forward with the series. Perhaps he can find a way to make Heaven as varied and memorable as Hell—it can’t all be rainbows and clouds and happiness, right? It’s obvious something big is in the works, regardless.

Happy Hour in Hell isn’t quite as strong or fascinating as its predecessor. Mostly, I suspect, because of the relative balance of setting to plot. The first book had more actually going on, and remained in fairly normal territory. Here, the plot moves forward slowly, each step taken in agony, or so it feels. Bobby’s in a different place at the end, but even his successes don’t feel like they mean much. It’s a lot of set-up for the third book in the series (and some last-minute revelations definitely lay the groundwork for that next book). In the end, it feels like Williams strayed from the noir fantasy of the first volume to very dark fantasy bordering on outright horror, an unexpected tonal shift given how the series started. It’s a great read, but it suffers by comparison. But will I be back for round three? Absolutely.

Happy Hour in Hell is available now from DAW

Michael M. Jones is a writer, editor, and book reviewer. He lives in Southwest VA, with a pride of cats, way too many books, and a wife who translates Geek-to-Mundane for him. He is the self-proclaimed High Pornomancer of the Golden Horde, and the editor of Scheherazade’s Façade. For more information, visit him and an ever-growing archive of reviews at Schrodinger’s Bookshelf.


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