When You’re Going Through Hell …
By William J. Donahue author of Burn, Beautiful Soul by Cosmic Egg Books
His name is Basil. He has coal-black reptilian skin, horns that curve toward the sky, and hooves as sharp as the edge of a razor. He stands an imposing eight feet tall, and a snake-like tail juts from the base of his spine. Apart from his imposing physical stature, he’s not so different than you or me.
Basil is the protagonist of my forthcoming novel, Burn, Beautiful Soul. He has spent his whole life in darkness, leading a kingdom of demons far below Earth’s surface. His home very closely resembles the place many of us might imagine if asked to envision Hell: eternal fire, mayhem and murder, acid-belching dragons, mammoth vampire bats, tentacled monsters prowling the depths of a bottomless lake of blood. He has seen truly awful things, and has done awful things in his quest to maintain power. But there’s a significant difference between Basil and most of the bloodthirsty demons he leads: He aspires to something better.
Without giving away too much of the story, Basil decides to leave his subterranean home and ascends to the mortal world, to live as a demon among humans. When he arrives in a small Nebraska town, his appearance unchanged, he discovers a world he has seen in his dreams. He also finds that he cannot truly escape the unpleasantness he left behind, though he learns to calm his mind by immersing himself in the natural world. The whispers of tree leaves, the music of birdsong, the art of sunrises and sunsets—all of these new wonders inspire and sustain him.
I’m reminded of Winston Churchill’s famous quote: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” For matters of context, Churchill meant these words to rouse the fighting spirit of his people in the midst of a war that at times must have seemed unwinnable. It was his way of saying never give up, even when times seem as though they could grow no darker.
Basil chooses a different path: He tries to outrun his problems, but when he arrives at his destination he discovers a place that in some ways is no better than the hellscape he left behind. Religious zealots, violent biker gangs, and other forms of humanity’s ugliness end in conflicts that more often than not turn bloody. Still, the solace he has gained from the natural world helps him contend with the world’s many woes.
I know the feeling. Twelve years ago I was mired in the most tumultuous period of my life, which I tried to cure by drinking heavily and wallowing in depression and self-pity. My marriage and career had both unraveled, and the economic recession limited my employment prospects to freelance work and odd jobs. Like my character Basil, nature gave me the escape I needed. I passed countless hours walking in the woods, climbing mountain trails, and sitting in solitude on the banks of rivers and creeks, either reading novels or filling the pages of notebooks. As corny as it sounds, this time away from the so-called “real world” helped me heal.
Two experiences in particular changed me: My introduction to Adirondack Park in upstate New York, spending four days climbing the High Peaks with three strangers, though I had convinced myself these individuals were werewolves who had lured me into the wilderness for the sole purpose of consuming every part of me; and my first trip to Yosemite National Park in California, where I went to scale Half Dome with a small group of friends. Spending time in these places, so old and grand and immune to the smallness of human problems, enabled me to put my past traumas behind me.
We gain so much from spending time in nature, and not only when times have become difficult. The late novelist and poet Jim Harrison put it better than I ever could: “His reaction to bad luck was to run to the woods and his reaction to good fortune was the same.” The noise of the human world—smartphones, video games, binge worthy TV—can offer wonderful momentary distractions, but they may also divert the mind away from the good work it needs to do to help us contend with our problems. At least that has been my experience.
My near-divorce, as well as the self-inflicted wounds that made me take several steps backward in my career, seemed at the time like the end of the world. My problems seemed so huge, distinct, and insurmountable, but hindsight has taught me otherwise. It may have taken me several years to find my way out of the fog, but I credit the quiet reflection that came from spending so much time with no company other than the trees above and the soil beneath my feet. It was my therapy.
In my novel Burn, Beautiful Soul, Basil claws his way out of the morass and into the sunlight, searching for something he cannot quite define. Although he does not succeed in escaping what he calls “the sounds of human movement,” he finds peace beside babbling brooks, tranquility beneath the canopy of elms and oaks, and a sense of awe as he stands in an ocean-like pasture and watches raptors soar overhead. In doing so, he finds the strength he needs to move forward, even in his darkest moments, and heal from the traumas of his past.
I’m happy to say I did the same.
In addition to the novel Burn, Beautiful Soul, William J. Donahue has authored three short-story collections: Too Much Poison, Filthy Beast and Brain Cradle, one of which (Filthy Beast) was a finalist for Foreword Magazine’s Book of the Year Award. When he’s not writing fiction, entertaining his cats, or wandering quietly in the woods, Donahue works as a magazine editor and features writer. He currently oversees three monthly lifestyle publications serving the Philadelphia area, and he is also on the editorial staff of a literary journal focused on the remarkable people, places, and history of Bucks County, Pa. He lives in a small but well-guarded fortress in Pennsylvania, somewhere on the map between Philadelphia and Bethlehem.
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