‘How often has Galien walked towards violence? It is all he knows. And yet there is something else about this night. He feels it in his gut. On his skin. He tastes it.’
Set in late middle age Bohemia, Hellmouth is told through the perspective of Galien, an outcast knight excommunicated from the Church and the leader of a vicious band of mercenaries that roam the Holy Roman Empire. Galien is past his prime, a condition he is constantly reminded of every time he wakes up. A former servant of the Church, he blames god for his lot in life. He is violent, vicious and surly, yet at the same time deeply loyal to his comrades. There is also an underlining desire for redemption that guides his actions. He is a truly conflicted character who in turn left me conflicted over my feelings towards him. I found myself both despising and sympathising with him. Kristian has a tendency to instil such a reaction in readers with his excellent characterisation and it is no different here.
‘Twelve more savage and murderous-looking scum of the land you would not see nor want to.’
Galien’s crew are just as conflicted as him, each with their own idiosyncrasies that made it easy to tell who was who. We don’t get much backstory to any of them besides a few passing comments, but that works well here since this is Galien’s story. Nonetheless, I would have loved to learn more about them, especially the devil-mask wearing knight, Gisla, and the former crusader, Ranulf. Another fascinating character is that of Cardinal Cesarini who hires Galien and his crew to hunt a heretic in exchange for an offer they can’t refuse. Cesarini steals the show with his low cunning. All these characters, including Galien himself, are further brought to life by the wonderful voicework of Phillip Stevens, who honestly deserves an Oscar. He is without doubt one of the best narrators in the business.
‘The corpses hang there amongst and above them, naked as infants. A forest of flesh. Unyoked from the earth itself, like souls ascending to heaven. Or descending to Hell.’
In my review for Camelot I referred to a particular atmospheric chapter that I was completely engrossed in. With Hellmouth, it seems like Kristian took that chapter, added a whole lot of body horror and psychological terror and made an entire novella out of it. Every scene builds the suspense, dread and sheer terror of what Galien and his crew have got themselves caught up in. I listened to this late at night, which I highly recommend readers do too. I was so absorbed in the story that at one point my dog barked and scared the living shit out of me.
I have often discussed how Kristian dips his foot in fantasy but never fully dives in. Hellmouth is perhaps the best example of this. I am still trying to decipher what I just read. Is it fantasy? Horror? Historical fiction? Or a culmination of all three? No matter how readers will define it, there is something here for everyone. On one final note, Kristian discusses in the author’s note where the inspiration for the novella came from. I recommend you look it up after reading the story. Very creepy but so fascinating.