After the relatively "normal" fictional worlds of Helm and Thoma, the realm visited by Tony Burgess in The Hell Mouths of Bewdley (ECW Press, 180 pages, $12 trade paperback) comes as a dark surprise. Bewdley, Ontario, population 510 (primarily male) is, literally, a hellhole of a place. Its denizens are perverse, treacherous, violent, and, for the most part, coolly amoral, their savage activities depicted with a clinical ease. The opening segment features, for instance, two bodies tied to a tree, one dead, the other severely injured but conscious. What follows is a sharply detailed, tightly written account of the survivor's state of mind before he too dies. The detached tone helps create both an overwhelming feeling of menace and a surreal edge to what is being described: "He feels sharp spines of pain coming to life in his cheeks and settling to ache around his eyeballs. Beside him his friend is stiffly doubled over. The back of his head is open and pink and black. He is astonished by a small beetle that is weaving a trail along an escarpment of bone that sweeps to a frayed point out from his head."
In the next piece, a doctor hits a tree while driving a snowmobile, and we witness his body decomposing. In the third piece, a man drowns. In the fourth, a man, instead of preventing a friend from committing suicide, commits suicide with him. In the fifth, a man kills his male rape victim and pins the blame on a third. And on it goes, page after page. It's as if someone had taken pictures of the ghastliest scenes he could find and compiled them into an album to be passed around for viewing. Burgess handles words well-in fact at times superbly-but to what purpose? We all know that the possibility of evil lurks in all of us; that it is powerful, that it is an inescapable component of the human condition. But graphic depictions of hell for their own sake are nothing more than that: mere depictions. Once the initial shock wears off, they're ultimately pointless.
One final comment: This book-despite the publisher's disingenuous press release claim that it "is a series of stories hiding in a novel"-is definitely not a novel. It is a collection of sixteen stories set in the same town. I realize that billing virtually any book-length work of fiction as a novel has become a trendy and lucrative marketing tool, but the practice is starting to verge on the ridiculous.