Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Wednesday's Western: HELL IS EMPTY by Craig Johnson

Wow!  HELL IS EMPTY is a tour-de-force, a cross-genre literary parable, something to shout about, and I'm shouting as loudly as I can.  This is seventh in Craig Johnson's series of mystery/westerns, and while the others are very good cross-genre yarns, this one is something else again.

In this blog, I often discuss the use of the trinity in literature, that universal so eloquently described by Emerson--including  (here)(here), and (here). 

 As in Walter Van Tilburg's  The Track Of The Cat (Western Literature Series), the trinity is often stylized with a spiritual man, an animal man, and a middle man, torn between the extremes of his spiritual/animal nature.  All three are one, the human condition.

Some literary works place a duality on top of the trinity, splitting them, Zeus-like, into two trinities, one light and one dark.  The three in the light are the better angels of our nature, while the three in the shadow self are the furies.

The furies appeared in Virgil’s work, as well as in Dante’s INFERNO, and they were a trinity composed of Tisiphone, Alecto, and Megaera (blood vengeance, righteous anger, and jealousy). The furies represent the shadow self, the repressed animal nature of man.  Sopholcles used the furies in the Oedipus plays.

At one of the links above, I pointed out how Joseph Conrad used the furies in Victory, and about how Austin Wright used the furies in Tony And Susan, and about how Cormac McCarthy used the furies in Outer Dark.  All of these furies are also trinities--dark animal man, dark middle man, dark spiritual man; you might see them as a stylized shadow side of id, ego, and superego.  All also used the cat as a symbol of our dark or animal nature.

Along comes Craig Johnson's Hell Is Empty.  I was expecting a high quality genre novel.  It's that, but like the three novels mentioned above, it is also a literary parable about the nature of man.

We are introduced to the furies in the first chapter, a dark threesome headed by the dark spiritual man, a pathological animal man.  When you look into the darkness, the darkness looks back, and the protagonist recognizes some of his own nature in this animal man whose name is aptly, Raynaud Shade:

"I'd been distracted by my thoughts for only a second, but when I paid attention again his pale eyes were studying me from under the dark hair.  He had this unnerving ability that whenever you refocused your eyes on him, he was there with you--like a cat in a cage."

The book is highly ambitious and although I might wish that it was a bit more subtle in its references to Dante's Inferno, I cannot fault it at all.  It is a towering achievement.  Bravo!  A genre western/thriller on the surface with literary nuances galore.  How rare is that!

I've long been a supporter of Craig Johnson's writing, and now even more so.  You don't need to have read Dante or Austin Wright or Joseph Conrad or Cormac McCarthy.  If you haven't read Craig Johnson yet, do yourself a favor and send for Hell Is Empty while it is still available in first edition.  You won't be sorry.

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