Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Down to Sheol: A Review

I’m glad I read Down to Sheol, even though it is well outside of my normal bailiwick.  This book contains no ogres, princesses, zap guns, hyperspace malfunctions, or hungry gods lurking in lava filled arctic caves.  Instead, it’s a modern day noir set amid the small stakes of rural south Texas county politics.  Add to that, I’m a PG guy who tries to avoid R rated media, and Down to Sheol is a brutally explicit book filled with explicitly loathsome villains.  The camera never looks away from them as they engage in their various depredations. 

Right off the top, let me just state that I bought this book after reading a few articles that the author, M. T. White, had posted on Return of Kings.  Those articles provided independent confirmation for the Pulp Revolution’s push for masculine narratives that reflect real people and real relationships is not an outlier.  In fact, the Pulp Revolution is not unique.  There are a wealth of people coming around to the need for actual heroic protagonists.  For whatever reason, there is a growing market for stories featuring black and white morality coupled with men driven to do the right thing no matter the cost, and who win against all odds.  M. T. White is an author who came to that conclusion outside of the Pulp Magazine framework, and I wanted to read Down to Sheol to get a sense of the parallel development of these ideas inside the modern day thriller world of self-publishing.  If my initial scouting foray is any indication, masculine writing is in the nascent stages of making a real comeback.

M. T. White writes with a ruthless minimalism that results in a gripping read.  This story of small town politics might read like a small stakes version of the Dallas TV show, but White’s characters leap off the page and his plot races ahead at breakneck speed.  This is the closest thing to a modern day noir story written with the plain-writ style of a Dashiell Hammett or Mickey Spillane that I’ve read in a long time.
I could have done without the explicit sexual content.  As mentioned above, my preference is for scenes where that sort of chicanery occurs off-screen.  A few hints and suggestions suffice; my imagination can fill in the details.  That’s a personal preference, and if you have a stronger stomach for that sort of writing, don’t let my warning hold you back.  That said, none of these scenes felt gratuitous.  They each provide an all-too-clear look into the dark souls of the novel’s antagonists.  These scenes revealed their true character and helped establish the stakes and give the reader concrete reasons to sneer and feel disgust whenever the villains were on screen.  The brutal honesty with which White presents these villains is as transparently manipulative as it is forgivably effective.

I have an easier time reading explicit violence, but found myself wincing at times.  White's writing isn't just graphic, its gripping.  He writes fight scenes in such a way that you almost feel each blow land yourself.  It's powerful stuff, and it gives his fight scenes a weight and suspense that you don't read very often.  The stakes in each scene are very real, and even if you think the right man will win, the action goes so fast and so visceral that you always have that little shred of doubt whether the hero really will make it out alive.  
The villains are balanced out by protagonists who are both fully fleshed out, completely sympathetic, and good-hearted down to their core.  The female lead starts off in a very compromising situation, and watching her slowly extricate herself from the clutches of evil is gratifying.  The hero of the piece has his flaws, but they are understandable – it’s not paranoia if they really are out to get you.  He is the strong, plain-spun, quiet and capable type of hero that’s hard not to root for.  He also has a wisdom beyond his years that give him that competent underdog status that again, makes your heart go out to him.  As if that wasn’t enough, White presents him as a natural romantic leading man.  He doesn’t white knight – his first meeting with the female lead, he basically shuts her out…which of course makes her all the more intrigued by him.  It’s refreshing to read a masculine lead who knows how to handle a woman like that.  It’s a rarity these days.

This is a good read.  Due to its explicit nature, it wasn’t a particularly a fun read for a square like me.  Even so, White’s writing pulled me in.  The man knows how to craft a good story with great characters.  If you need a break from the aliens and dragons, then you should give him a shot.  If he keeps writing like this, he’s going to be one of those self-publishing authors who succeeds based on his own talent and hard work, not due to his friends in the publishing world.


  1. You're spot on. I happen to like a branch of fiction that's being dubbed Appalachian Noir, about hard men, criminal families who've gone from running moonshine to cooking meth. It's visceral and engaging. Brian Panowichs' Bull Mountain comes to mind. But if you want a sample platter, there's a short story kindle book named, "Maybe I should Just Shoot You In The Face." It's hard boiled and edgier than pulp fare but man it's a page turner. -Oghma_EM

  2. Also, thanks for the review. It's in the wishlist now.