Hell to Pay is the third book in the To Hell and Back series by British-Canadian author Matthew Hughes. It continues the story of Chesney Arnstruther and his superhero alter-ego, The Actionary, as he tries to do some good in the world, even if his powers come directly from the pits of Hell.
Christopher Moore meets Kevin Smith
Throughout Hell to Pay, I found myself making many comparisons in my mind to the comedic style of Christopher Moore. Hughes has a certain irreverence and cleverness that I find absolutely wonderful, and it kept me reading with a smile and a chuckle. There’s a certain balance between humor and sincerity that is really difficult to maintain; presenting something as funny but then landing on the side of serious makes it stilted, whereas crossing too far into funny makes it farcical. The number of authors who can nail that balance is very low, and I’m happy to add Matthew Hughes to a list that previously only included Christopher Moore, Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, and Spider Robinson.
The other work that kept coming to mind as I read this book was Kevin Smith’s great movie Dogma. I hold the title of ‘staff philosopher’ with Ranting Dragon, so I’m a sucker for books that offer an original treatment of religious and philosophical themes, and this book provides one of the best I’ve seen in a long time. Both thought provoking and hilarious, it manages to somehow trigger “That’s crazy,” and “That’s just crazy enough to be true,” at the same time. There’s nothing quite like reading a book for pure entertainment and coming away from it with something to think about, too.
A very special episode of Ranting Dragon
I haven’t read either of the first two books in this series (yet!), so I don’t know how Hughes portrays this story element, but one thing that really stands out for me is Chesney’s autism and the way it is described. As someone with an Autism Spectrum Disorder myself, I found the descriptions present in this book to actually be very effective; Hughes described the feeling of being in social situations with autism better than I’ve ever been able to find the words for myself.
It really serves to apply a dash of realism to what is otherwise a fairly out-there story and plot. It makes Chesney more sympathetic and human, which goes a really long way toward maintaining that balance between comedy and sincerity I described above. I don’t know if Hughes himself has any first-hand experience with the spectrum, but if he does, it speaks to his bravery and self-awareness to write about them in this way. If he doesn’t, it speaks to his ability as a writer to describe it so well. Either way, it’s very well done.
Why should you read this book?
Well, if you aren’t an unobservant git like me, you would probably read this book because you’d already read the first two books in the series, so you already know if you like them or not. But if you are an unobservant git like me and want to pick up a book without bothering to find out that it’s a book three, it’s still very much worth it.
I didn’t feel like I missed something so vital I couldn’t follow what was happening in this book by not having read the previous ones. And as a stand-alone, it’s still a great story. It’s funny, witty, interesting, the characters are very real (even the fake ones), and the pacing is great.
For fans of Moore’s rational silliness, Pratchett’s amusing slapstick, Robinson’s clever wordplay, and Adams’ surprising deepness, this is a book and author you need to check out.