“Roma, capital of the world, choked with summertime heat and filth, the sum and summit of earthly power and glory. This is the arena where the impoverished poet Martial struggles for money and fame.
When Titus, the “Princeps” or first citizen of Roma, asks Martial to be his spy, the shameless poet willingly accepts. Yet what first seems like a trivial assignment grows increasingly dangerous and deadly when the evil witch, Canidia, and Sagana, her ogress sister, enter into a plot with Domitian, Titus’s brother.
With the help of a brave ex-legionary, Martial tries to reveal the plot to Titus. Yet Martial’s efforts to save Princeps only drag him deeper … into a Roman Hell …”
So says the synopsis on the back jacket of Mark Mellon’s third novel “Roman Hell”, his first with Amber Quill Press. But this book contains far more than what that rather bland jacket copy suggests.
The problem with writing a “horror novel” based in the ancient world is that you immediately either have to embrace all of the mythological characters and themes that imbue and saturate our knowledge and views of those ancient cultures that created them and then choose those that you can wield properly and confidently in the landscape of your own story – a daunting task, the danger being that we have by now, most certainly, heard it all before and perhaps have even become immune and/or jaded to such horror stories that have been retold and rehashed over the millennia – or simply, boldly ignore them and concentrate on the everyday sociopolitical horrors of surviving in the streets of those ancient times, utilizing such realities as the environmental backdrop to your story … well, Mark Mellon has chosen to embrace both tactics and his story succeeds on many levels with surprising results.
The story is nothing that experienced readers of horror will not recognize, however, and it is nothing that those who enjoy the reading of mythology will be shocked by – it’s pretty straightforward in this regard even though Mellon does seem to have based his story in the “truth” of Tacitus’s writings, which he quotes from at the beginning of each “Book”. However, what is fascinating is the almost anthropological approach and care with which Mellon has chosen to tell his story. The book is obviously meticulously researched and is beautifully rendered with arresting images and insights into the ever day and commonplace as well as the pageantry and circus-like atmosphere that you could very easily imagine as having drenched that ancient city. Here is a dinner:
“The main course was served on a red-hot black terracotta platter, fresh broccoli mixed with white beans and bacon and garnished by a single, great, fat sausage in the center atop a snow-white pudding of polenta … Condylus, a charming boy Martial had only recently acquired at the market, played a tune on twin pipes, neither rustic nor grave. Another young slave cooled the room with slow sweeps of a large ostrich feather fan.”
Here, a parade:
“The parade started to form up well before dawn at the Flaminian Circus on the Field of Mars. White oxen, with gilded horns and decorated with garlands for sacrifice, were carefully herded into place. Drovers took care to separate them, so no ox was cut or otherwise tainted. Legionaries formed up in their ranks, already sweating in heavy armor despite the early morning’s cool, cursing their lot as soldiers always do. Great, heavy-wheeled wagons were rolled into line, pushed and pulled by hundreds of straining slaves and draft animals. The wagons held platforms where elaborate living tableaux were staged, scenes of conquest and carnage with actual barbarian captives carefully arranged in poses of submission and fear.”
“Roman Hell” is a fascinating read that succeeds in immersing the reader wholly in Mellon’s ancient world through his obvious, substantial talent at researching (he is an attorney with the FDIC) and his wonderful rendering of scenes of Roman life which makes the “horror” of this story that much more involving and exciting for us regardless of whether we have the wisp of a notion that we’ve read this all before or not – you certainly have never “seen” anything like this before in your mind’s eye. It’s almost as if Mellon has done with his ancient milieu what King did in establishing his Castle Rock: once he has set up an environment that rings true and has gained our trust then even the most mundane, commonplace horrors – perhaps even those that we have read before (and King was/is no different) – can move and frighten us, never mind the grand and epic terrors that gradually escalate and await to fill “Roman Hell”.
For those among our horror reading brethren who ever wanted to learn more about ancient Rome and the miserable, scarey, paranoid life that could befall its average citizens from an anthropological and sociological level without ever having to take a class then this is a highly recommended read – there is just enough “horror” tossed in to keep you interested and breezing along.
Visit Mark Mellon at www.mellonwritesagain.com
Published by Amber Quill Press: amberquill.com/RomanHell.html
Paper ISBN 978-1-60272-774-8 ~ Trade Paper 190 pages ~ $13.50
Electronic ISBN 978-1-60272-726-7 ~ PDF download available for $5.25