A review by Sam Sheikh
Hell’s Gate: A Thriller
By Bill Schutt and J.R. Finch
“Surprisingly, scientists have a better understanding of how many stars there are in the galaxy than how many species there are on Earth.” – World Resources Institute
Why look to the stars for inspiration when there are mysteries and wonders aplenty on our planet, stocked with its abundant life forms? Brazil, the world’s most biodiverse country, is the perfect setting for Hell’s Gate by Bill Schutt and J.R. Finch. The novel stays grounded on Terra Firma, yet manages to tantalize its readers with historical and biological “what-ifs.” (Okay, technically, one character does achieve low orbit, but the real action takes place in Brazil’s steamy, verdant jungles.)
It begins with an amazing discovery, albeit one of a man-made kind. In January 1944, over 750 miles up the Xingu River, a huge Japanese submarine has been found. The grounded derelict is ominously empty, but hints of great Axis mischief. A squad of U.S. Army Rangers dispatched to investigate disappear without a trace. Enter Captain R.J. MacReady, intrepid zoologist and adventurer—also rescuer of “that rich Massachusetts kid” lost in the Solomon Islands. Where the military force failed, MacReady, with his all-around experience and scientific training, has a chance of finding out what the bad guys are up to and returning with that information. Fortunately, he has help on the ground from Bob Thorne, an old friend he hasn’t seen in some time.
Parachuting into the jungle, MacReady stumbles into a ghost village and finds people dead in their huts. Here, he encounters a mysterious “voice” for the first time. He escapes badly shaken. When MacReady finally meets up with Thorne and his partner Yanni, an indigenous woman, he learns more about the strange attacks that leave human and livestock victims dead in pools of their own blood: there’s a nocturnal creature that is able to lull its victims telepathically—the “voice” that MacReady heard—allowing it to kill without a struggle. The locals have also been hearing a strange thunder coming from the Mato Grosso Plateau, Hell’s Gate, the very location MacReady has been tasked to investigate. Evidently, the Germans and Japanese who travelled surreptitiously up the Xingu are building a superweapon. What ensues is MacReady’s race against time to stop the Axis plot without being killed by the enemy, extremely unfriendly indigenous people, nature, and above all, the unknown creature.
Hell’s Gate is very much an old-fashioned adventure set in World War II. The twist is that it is also a modern sci-fi tale that supposes certain ancient creatures in the Americas have survived into the 20th century, much like in a Michael Crichton novel. The authors’ interest in and knowledge of history and science are evident in the effective and convincing details they weave into the plot. Showing their love for the genre, they also scatter sci-fi Easter eggs in their tale: R.J. MacReady is of course also the name of the protagonist in John Carpenter’s The Thing, and the enemy base named Nostromo is a nod to both Joseph Conrad and Alien.
The writing is affable, snappy, and fast paced, the banter light and humorous. Readers will gravitate toward the eminently likeable good guys, especially the tough, resourceful, quirky, and smart MacReady. The bad guys are easily identified by their all-around badness. They’re recognizable by their single-minded ruthlessness to everyone around them regardless of uniform, as well as their dedication to achieving evil at all costs. As Thorne says, “Japs, Nazis, same shit, different uniform.”
Yet, for a sci-fi novel written in the 21st century, Hell’s Gate is surprisingly nostalgic. The difference between good and bad is as neatly differentiated as the stars-and-stripes and the swastika/red sunburst symbol. There is foul language, but also an old-fashioned chastity between the male and female characters. Of course, it will come as no surprise that the good guys win and the bad guys suffer their comeuppance. At a time when many species of flora and fauna in the Amazon go extinct every day even before they are discovered, perhaps it’s no wonder there is a distinct sepia-toned nostalgia to the story.
Nevertheless, Hell’s Gate is a fun read, combining bits of Indiana Jones, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, and, as mentioned, Crichton’s work. It joins the greater body of sci-fi works like a cold low-calorie alcoholic beverage on a hot day, whetting the appetite rather than filling the stomach.