Hell’s Gate by Bill Schutt and J.R. Finch (2016)

HellsGateCover blurb

When a Japanese submarine is discovered abandoned deep in the Brazilian wilderness, a smart, adventurous, and tough zoologist must derail a catastrophic plot in Hell’s Gate.

1944. As war rages in Europe and the Pacific, Army Intel makes a shocking discovery: a 300-foot Japanese sub marooned and empty, deep in the Brazilian interior. A team of Army Rangers sent to investigate has already gone missing. Now, the military sends Captain R. J. MacCready, a quick-witted, brilliant scientific jack-of-all-trades to learn why the Japanese are there—and what they’re planning.

Parachuting deep into the heart of Central Brazil, one of the most remote regions on the planet, Mac is unexpectedly reunited with his hometown friend and fellow scientist Bob Thorne. A botanist presumed dead for years, Thorne lives peacefully with Yanni, an indigenous woman who possesses mysterious and invaluable skills. Their wisdom and expertise are nothing short of lifesaving for Mac as he sets out on a trail into the unknown.

Mac makes the arduous trek into an ancient, fog-shrouded valley hidden beneath a 2000-foot plateau, where he learns of a diabolical Axis plot to destroy the United States and its allies. But the enemy isn’t the only danger in this treacherous jungle paradise. Silently creeping from the forest, an even darker force is on the prowl, attacking at night and targeting both man and beast. Mac has to uncover the source of this emerging biological crisis and foil the enemy’s plans… but will he be in time to save humanity from itself?

My thoughts

More than a century ago, Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote The Lost World, an adventure story in which a small expedition finds dinosaurs and apemen living atop one of South America’s famous tabletop mountains, called tepui. Hell’s Gate is set in the same region, but instead of dinosaurs, authors Bill Schutt and J. R. Finch populate the surrounding rainforest with a species more likely to have survived in that part of the world. I won’t spoil the identity of the animal other than to say it is one of the more original takes on a prehistoric monster I’ve seen in a long time. The problem is the authors turn what could’ve been a good “creature feature” into an adventure straight out of one of the wackier James Bond films, but with Nazis instead of Soviets. I enjoy a good spy movie, but I can’t get over the feeling that Hell’s Gate is a missed opportunity.

The book opens in the closing days of World War II with a Russian army being decimated by a mysterious Nazi weapon. We next jump to R. J. MacCready, a U.S. Army biologist whose field expertise makes him the perfect person to investigate why a Japanese sub has been run aground along the banks of the Amazon river, deep in the rainforest. “Mac” is parachuted in and soon learns that local livestock and villagers are being killed by what natives believe are chupacabras – mythical, blood-drinking “goat suckers.” The attacks began not long after lights and noise started emanating from a nearby forbidden valley. I’m not spoiling anything by pointing out the Japanese army and Nazis are behind the disturbances, which have driven out something long hidden in the forest.

There is a lot I like about Hell’s Gate. It is an old-fashion pulp adventure, but with scientifically plausible monsters thrown in. The first half of the book gripped me, as the nature of the creatures and the Nazis’ plans were slowly revealed. Unfortunately it looses steam in the second half. Once the monsters are identified, they largely drop out of the narrative so the authors can instead focus on the ludicrous reason why the Axis powers have taken up residence in the Amazon. Imagine if halfway through Jaws the movie stopped being about the shark so the characters could instead do battle with a mad scientist intent on world domination, with Jaws making a quick appearance at the end to remind the audience that, yes, this is a shark movie. That’s Hell’s Gate.

Another factor not helping is the book’s hero Mac may be the most useless hero I’ve encountered in adventure fiction. There is a popular joke about how Indiana Jones is unnecessary in Raiders of the Lost Ark because the Nazis would have died anyway when they opened the ark. Mac is even more superfluous in that he just blunders from scene to scene and really has no part in stopping the villains’ plans. To be fair, he does make life uncomfortable for the Nazis near the end, but the bad guys ultimately fail because of bad luck and sheer stupidity. A hero with more agency would’ve made for a more satisfying story.

Hell’s Gate isn’t necessarily a bad book, but it feels like one where the authors didn’t have confidence in their most unique idea – the creatures – and so shoehorned in Nazis and a weird science MacGuffin to win over readers. This could have been a great horror novel with a neat scientific rational behind its monsters. Instead it is just a so-so adventure story.

Trivia

  • J.R. Finch is an “author, history buff and, cave explorer” who lives in New York City. Bill Schutt is… well, telling you would spoil the identity of the creatures. But if you want to know, then head to the author’s website.
  • If you want to know more about the monsters, this is a good place to start.
  • Two other non-living species make appearance in the novel. One actually existed but I’m pretty sure the other is fictional.
  • There is at least one anachronism the novel. Legends about “chupacabras” didn’t start and spread until the 1990s, so there is no way villagers in 1944 would have known the term.
  • The title takes its name from a real battle between German and Soviet forces during the final years of World War II. 
  • A sequel featuring Mac, titled The Himalayan Codex, was published in June 2017.

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