Hellboy: The God Machine by Thomas Sniegoski is the fifth Hellboy novel, based on the comic book series created by Mike Mignola. Religious artifacts and other random objects of worship have started disappearing without a trace, the identity of the perpetrator a complete mystery and their motives unclear. Following a tip from an unlikely source, Hellboy and Liz Sherman foil a museum heist attempted by crude, undead cyborgs, fashioned together with scrap technology and powered by the souls of the dead. These creatures were created by a small order of fanatical psychics, who plan to use esoteric technology to bring a new messiah into the world. If they succeed, it could bring about the complete annihilation of humanity.
Having read a good number of Hellboy books now, my expectations are usually not that high. While the comic book series itself can be quite exceptional, the novels and anthologies that I’ve read thus far have, for the most part, been more middling reads; they’re pulpy and fun, but fairly simplistic and without a lot of depth. All the same, something had always stood out to me about The God Machine. I’m not sure if it is because it’s harder to get a physical copy of than other novels in the series, but I was just more curious to learn what this one was all about. Though not mind-blowing by any means, it was a decent cut above the others I’ve read so far.
Something that struck an appealing chord with me very early on was the fact that the premise of the story is based on actual historical events that I happened to be familiar with. It’s such a weird little series of events that took place during the Spiritualism movement in the 19th century, when medium John Murray Spear claimed to be in communication with spirits calling themselves the “Association of Electricizers”, who bid him to construct The New Motor, which was hailed as the mechanical messiah. The real motor may have been a dud, but borrowing from such an obscure and weird piece of real history was a nice touch. I’ve enjoyed looking it all up again and seeing all the little similarities drawn into this novel.
The band of Electricizers of this book are rather different than the history, each of them a spiritual medium brought together by an otherworldly entity that wishes to be incarnated on Earth, promising paradise and salvation, but secretly determined to bring about devastation. Sniegoski made a compelling creative choice by giving these characters an equal, if not greater focus within the story than Hellboy and his comrades at the BPRD. At the forefront of their perspective is Absolom Spearz, the leader of their band. He was the most interesting of the bunch, made out to be less of a typical religious fanatic, blindly listening to the sweet nothings from a presence beyond the veil, and more a good man who truly believes he is ushering in a Golden Age. He still does bad things and needs to be stopped, but you can empathize with him too.
The other members were unfortunately shallow by comparison, but not without their idiosyncrasies that made them stand out. Each is a spirit inhabiting the body of a living person (after they were first thwarted nearly 100 years previously, their original bodies now ash), which just so happen to be a family that had moved onto the grounds of their initial experiments. So, we get some interesting developments as each must adjust to bodies unfamiliar to them.
One is a lecherous old man who inhabits the body of the mother, to creepy effect that even Absolom himself tries to reign in. Another gets the short stick and becomes the family dog, but ends up loving it, requiring only a few modifications from their leader’s skills with otherworldly technology to speak and use hands. So much about them and their work is so macabre that it makes for some great horror elements too, justified by the characters as a means to an end. The story was too focused on the plot to explore these character experiences more deeply, but the little details nonetheless contributed some much needed flair, giving them some dimension while pursuing their goal.
Hellboy’s side of the story is typical fare, which isn’t a bad thing. They have their roles as agents of the BPRD and they fulfill them well. In some respects I enjoyed that this felt like just another case to them, despite the stakes. Hellboy brawls with monsters, parleys with fae creatures, and pals around with ghosts. Nothing outside of the box, but enjoyably typical. At a few points he does stop to consider his place in the world, as how he got here was not unlike what the Electricizers are trying to do, but not much is done with this beyond him pondering it a few times. Tom Manning, the director of the BPRD, actually gets a surprisingly emotional little subplot, despite his limited role in the book, concerned with the spirit of his uncle. He is their initial source on what the Electricizers are up to and the baggage that comes with him was subdued yet relatable enough to be rather effective. The climactic battle at the end was particularly well-executed too. While the resolution may have felt like a forgone conclusion, my investment in the characters gave it weight.
Hellboy: The God Machine is a very good novel, telling a fairly formulaic Hellboy story that is elevated above others thanks to the care and attention paid to the villainous characters. An obscure bit of history is rehashed in a really interesting way too, though if you’ve not heard of that event before such trivia could easily pass you by. I still consider this novel to be pulpy fun, at the end of the day, but there’s just enough going on that if you’re curious about these spin-off novels, this would be the first I’d recommend. If you have even just a passing familiarity of Hellboy, Liz, and Abe, that would be more than enough of a primer.
My Rating: 3.5 out of 5