Reviewed by Scott A. Johnson
Written by Kim Paffenroth
Published by Cargo Cult Press
There has seldom been a more debated or creatively interpreted subject in the world of horror as Hell. Hell on earth, hell of the mind, the hell of the horny dragon, they all deal with the suffering of man in some form of penance to God as a way of atonement for reaching the divine. While we have seen interpretations of Hell of Barker and King and hundreds of others, all of them pale in comparison with that of the poet Dante in his epic Inferno. And while many have built off Dante’s frightening image, few have captured the work or interpreted it in a new or exciting fashion. Add to the list of those who have done an admirable job of just that Kim Paffenroth, with his novel Valley of the Dead: The Real Story of Inferno.
Taking meticulous research and interpretation of several key elements of Dante’s poem, Paffenroth urges the readers to suppose that what the poet saw was not a vision, but something he truly encountered in his travels, and told about as fiction so as to keep people from thinking him mad. In his poem, Dante describes sinners engaging in acts of cannibalism, but he specifies that the cannibals devour a specific part of their bodies: their brains. It is in this one moment that Paffenroth decides that what Dante witnessed was not just famine or disease, but legions of the living dead and a war against them. Zombies ala Dante. The result is heady work and cleverly done, bringing the reader an engaging story that will warp the way a reader will interpret the classic poem, and brings the zombies out to play.
Paffenroth treats this as a novel rather than re-imagining the poem, taking specific portions of the source work and expanding on them with his own living-dead spin. Each chapter is prefaced with a few lines from the poem, upon which he builds a more “accurate” telling of what Dante saw. There really is nothing more to tell about the plot or story of the book, except that it reads well and, if you’ve read Inferno, you’ll recognize where you are at all times.
Paffenroth’s style is at its best here, elevating the story from mere “horror” to literary fiction. While I’m certain there will be some who cry foul at his zombie-izing such a classic work, his writing stands on its own and shows not only intelligence with the subject matter, but also a deep respect for the source material (which is something that much of the film industry could learn a thing or two about).
Valley of the Dead is not available through Amazon or any other book store, but is instead available from Cargo Cult Press through Horror Mall as a limited edition, signed and numbered, and will only be on sale until August 31. Which brings me to the only negative point about this book: the price. While fifty bucks may seem a bit much for the book, it really is a piece aimed at Dante enthusiasts, those who have read and studied The Divine Comedy, and people who always wanted to see a little undead rotting flesh in their literature. In all honesty, it would take one hell (no pun intended) of a book for me to shell out fifty clams, and for this one, I’d gladly do so.
4 1/2 out of 5
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