In her debut novel, Sign Here, author Claudia Lux presents a modern vision of hell as a capitalist bureaucracy of the most inane, obnoxious variety.
Souls arrive in Hell on different levels, depending on how badly they sinned in their former lives. The worst of the worst head to what is known as Downstairs. Some sent there become line workers, tasked with applying various methods of torture. In other cases, they’re the ones on the rack. Protagonist Peyote Trip, however, is a resident of the fifth floor of Hell, so his afterlife is a little less bleak: He lives in an apartment and works in an office as a caseworker. Peyote tracks the plights and problems of mortals, and when one of them has a dire need, to the point that they’re willing to do anything to achieve what they desire, he arrives to make a deal via infernal contract. The mortal gives up their soul, and Peyote uses his abilities to make all their earthly dreams come true.
Despite being an agent of Hell, Peyote tries to treat both his “clients” and his co-workers with dignity and honor, especially when it comes to helping his new co-worker, Calamity, adjust to the myriad annoyances of life on the fifth floor. Peyote and his peers bring five pens everywhere, because the first four will never work. If a soul hates country music, it will be the only station available on their radio and it cannot be turned off. No food is truly hot or cold, and neither is any living space. Lux’s Hell is the epitome of absolute discomfort, like an itchy wool sweater on a humid day.
Calamity soon gets involved in Peyote’s ultimate career goal: securing his fifth and final contract from the wealthy Harrison family. Attaining five souls from the same family, also known as a Complete Set, will grant Peyote an important promotion. Lux tells much of this story from the perspectives of three members of the Harrison family: Silas; his wife, Lily; and Mickey, their daughter. Lux takes the reader deep into each Harrison’s point of view, highlighting their dark temptations, shame and awkwardness in equal measure and creating such a high level of empathy for her painfully realistic characters that it borders on uncomfortable. It all adds to the ever-growing, nearly palpable feeling of imminent disaster. With their desires on such clear display, it’s impossible to forget that any one of the Harrisons could be Peyote’s next victim.
Lux’s unique iteration of hell is consistently engaging, grounded in relatable discomforts yet spiked with surrealist imagery, but readers will also be enthralled with the sheer humanity displayed on each page. No character comes off as mostly good or evil; they’re all just products of their natures and upbringings. With surgical precision, Sign Here captures the difficulties of morality in a complicated modern world.