Escape from Hell: Too Tough to Read?

I’m not sure what to do with my novelette Escape from Hell. This is a topic I’ve written about before and it’s still ruminating around my brain without an answer appearing. The story is a faith-based fictional story about a man who spends time in both Heaven and Hell. (Spoiler-free post).

The Heaven section (if I am allowed to praise my own work) is heart-warming, uplifting and a worthy attempt at touching the wondrous nature of what I believe Heaven will be. I think that’s a fair evaluation. It will be so different and so amazing that it is beyond comprehension. I thoroughly enjoyed writing the ‘Heaven’ section and love how it’s turned out, and I think most readers will also enjoy it.

The premise I have constructed for Hell is really clever (or at least I think so). However, it’s not a pleasant place. In writing it, I’ve really let my imagination ‘go dark’. (I should caveat this by saying I don’t read or write horror normally). There has been no point where I’ve pulled back from writing something because it was too evil in my descriptions.

That is not to say I’ve picked the worst things I can think of; I haven’t. It isn’t horror-porn but it is horrific-by-intent. I’ve taken literally the maxim that characters should be tortured by the plot. I’ve committed that torture with acts, events, circumstances, relationships and the kitchen sink (okay, not the last one). And the Hell section comprises the majority, in length, of the novelette.

Therein lies the problem: Even reading it, will push a lot of people well out of their comfort zone. The first Hell-based chapter already had a beta-reader squirm. However I think the first chapter is like O[rientation]-week at university, you don’t do much: it’s all fluff and bubbles. I’d say it was a 3 on the nasty-dial. Future chapters dial it up closer to 8. (My dear mum does an editing pass for me to catch what my eyes miss, and I’m not even sure I want her precious and timid soul to read any of the darker chapters!)

If a level 3 causes discomfort, what will an 8 do? Will the readers simply disconnect because it is so unpleasant? For an analogy of how I feel I could use Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ or Hacksaw Ridge. Neither movie is enjoyable movie to watch and yet I feel as though both are important to watch. Each movie contains unpleasant truths, very graphically displayed, that are valuable to be remembered. The Passion of the Christ reminds us of the incredible cost Jesus paid to offer a path of reconciliation. Hacksaw Ridge portrays the brutal nature of war which ought to help it be not entered into lightly.

I’m not sure how to deal with this situation. If you have any ideas, I’d really appreciate hearing them in the comments below. I can think of a few possibilities, but I feel as though I need more tools in my toolbox as though I haven’t yet discovered the right answer or combination of answers. And I’d always prefer to have too many options – even some silly ones – because the right answer could be in a synergistic mix.

The simple answer, of course, would be to dial back on the graphic nature of Hell. Take it from and 8 down to a 5. Tone down the violence, obscure the threat, make it a little more pleasant. I could have a good crack at making it more palatable while still keeping the not-a-nice-place vibe. Doing so might mean that it gets more readers who can persist through to the end, not put-off by the yuck-factor.

I am reluctant to do that. I believe Hell is going to be horrific, and I want my character’s experience to be that. In the same way that I think Heaven will be better than we can comprehend, so too I believe Hell will be worse than the human mind can conceive. I’ve taken a stab at describing a pretty diabolical Hell, and I want it to stand out as much as The Passion of the Christ and Hacksaw Ridge. These movies showed something important; they were not feel-good movies where Jesus’ trip to the cross and the Allies victory were Sunday picnics.

Another option is to break up the horror by interspersing it with intermissions. Scene(s) that provide the readers a chance to take a ‘breather’. Something lighter and happier. I’m not a big fan of flashbacks or dream sequences, normally. Initially I didn’t like this idea, but now it’s growing on me. If done correctly, the breather could also fit nicely into the narrative, and might also intensify the ‘dark’ scenes.

Another options is to bring forward the intrigue in the story. Provide the reader with a promise of the direction of the story to encourage them to continue turning (and actually reading) pages.

Of course it’s not all about how I’m writing it. I can also get a better understanding of how if affects the reader by getting more alpha readers. What affects one reader might not affect another. I need more people to properly understand what buttons my story is pushing, and how far those buttons can be pressed.

If you have any thoughts or suggestions on how I could tackle this issue, let me know.