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Hell's Heart - Director's Commentary

21st April 2007 (15:18)
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While it's still fresh in my mind, here's my Director's Commentary on my recent story 'Hell's Heart', explaining what I had in mind when I wrote it. 

This is inspired by - and a tribute to - the rather wonderful Good Girls Go To Heaven – Bad Girls Go Anywhere by beer_good_foamy . You can consider it a sequel, if you like. 

As I said in a comment to my original post, I was thinking that any God who sends a repentant Faith to Hell anyway deserves a pissed-off Slayer with a Scythe coming after him... 

Faith Lehane, born 30 December 1980, died 19 April 2007. This story is set three days after her death. 

The date of birth I assigned to Faith here is Eliza Dushku's birthday in real life. The shooting script of 'Faith, Hope and Trick' says that Faith is "18ish" during that episode; Eliza herself was 17 years 10 months old when it aired, so making her exactly the same age as her character seems perfectly reasonable. Incidentally, that makes Faith three weeks older than Buffy, who was born on 18 January 1981 give or take one day. (Although to confuse things further, Sarah Michelle Gellar is three years older in real life than Buffy Summers is in fiction.) 

Her date of death is the date beer_good_foamy published his original story which includes Faith's death. As for the three days gap: well, traditionally, that's how long the Harrowing of Hell normally takes before you can rise again. :)

Rating: 15 Wordcount: 1,400
Warnings: violence, bad language, character deathdamnation, blasphemy and heresy.

The 'heresy' part comes from the assumption in the story that Faith's sins have put her beyond the reach of divine forgiveness - something that, as I understand it, most religious believers would say was impossible because God's mercy is infinite. On the other hand, many branches of faith also claim that to deserve that forgiveness you have to actually want it, by which in practice they really mean "accept the doctrines and become a member of our particular church". By that argument, most of us are doomed... 

I was aware writing this that religious belief is something people can feel strongly about, and I didn't want to unduly offend any of my readers, so I tried to finesse this a little in the story. You can read it on the basis that Divine Providence is, in fact, much like the Powers That Be in the Buffyverse: basically well-meaning at least in their own minds, but also arrogant and obsessed with The Rules and The Plan rather than with mercy and goodness. Alternatively, since the only characters I've shown directly are saints and angels, you could take it that they're exercising their gift of free will to screw things up and depart from the original plan. (And if angels don't have free will, how could Lucifer decide to rebel in the first place?) 

Hell's Heart 

The songs of choirs of angels made a soft, soothing hum through the thick walls of the office. 

Note that both the first and last lines of the story mention the choirs of angels. Here they're setting the scene... earthly offices have humming air-conditioning, this one has humming heavenly hosts. In case it's not entirely clear, this office is built just outside the Gates of Heaven, constructed up against the main wall - kind of like the ticket office next to a tourist attraction. It's all shiny white marble (with antique, expensive wooden furniture), and one side - the one facing the Gate - is open. There's a queue of souls stretching out of the office and down the hill which leads away from the Gate back towards the mortal realm, waiting for admission.
The clerk peered at his ledger, ticking off another name. Every soul balanced, every deed accounted for. Everything was right with the world. He smiled his thin smile, placed his pen down on the desk - aligned precisely with the edge of the blotter - and sat back, stretching cramped muscles. 

Time for a short break. In front of the desk, the endless line of souls stretched away, anxious eyes waiting for his approval, but he paid them little mind. They could wait. Impatience showed lack of faith, which was a sin, and there were no sinners here. Pretty much by definition. 

I deliberately avoid giving the clerk a name - partly as a stylistic thing; the only name I use in the entire story is Faith's, right at the very end - but also because I felt a little uncomfortable with referring to him as St Peter all the way through, especially in light of the comparison I make in the paragraph below. :) There should be enough clues to make it clear that's who he is, though. 

It was a pleasant change, he mused. Back in the old days they'd all been brought before him, the righteous and the damned alike, and it had been his job to tell them their fate. He shuddered delicately. The pleas, the tears and curses, the excuses, the frantic attempts to explain. To challenge the verdict of impartial divine justice. All in vain, of course, but he so hated it when they made a scene. Much better now that arrangements had been made to deliver them directly to their eternal punishment. He glanced at the iron door behind him, barred and bolted. It was three centuries now since the last damned soul had been flung screaming down the staircase behind it, and he hoped the door would never need to be opened again. 

The idea I'm trying to project here is that of 'the banality of evil'. The clerk is simply doing his job; he probably thinks of himself as a good and decent man, and the fact that his work consists of sending people to be tortured and damned for all eternity doesn't really bother him. They must have deserved it, or else it wouldn't be happening to them. 

Notice that the 'original' system I describe here was that souls were allowed to state their case to the clerk before being sent to their ultimate fate; but now "arrangements have been made" to send them directly to their punishment without a hearing. This can be interpreted as the point where the saints and angels deviated from the divine plan to suit their own convenience, and thus the place where things started to go wrong, if you want to read it that way. 

He stood up, replacing his chair carefully under the desk, and walked over to the cabinet at the side of his office, oblivious to the waiting eyes. A cup of tea would be refreshing right now, he thought, and opened the drawer to take out his silver tea caddy. 

Of course, he uses loose tea, not newfangled teabags. 

A sudden crash behind him like the crack of doom whirled him around. The silver box fell from nerveless fingers, spilling Earl Grey heedlessly across the pristine marble floor, as a massive weight smote the iron door from the other side. Even as he watched the bolts were bending under a tremendous force, the hinge-nails grinding slowly out of the wall. Paralysed in disbelieving horror, he saw the door shake again to another impact... then in a tortured scream of metal tear loose from its mounting and slam down flat on the floor, cracking it asunder. 

And from behind it, looming dark in the doorway, smelling of blood and brimstone, strode the figure... 

While the comparison wasn't deliberate when I wrote it, this scene reminds me strongly of Glory's first appearance in S5. I'm not sure if a living Slayer could smash down an iron door that way, but now she's dead Faith's strength is limited only by her willpower, not her mortal body... 

...of a girl. A once-mortal girl, clad in torn and ripped rags of denim, head crowned in a halo of singed and blackened chestnut hair. Smeared with blood, some of it her own. Most of it not. Her right hand held a weapon, her left something large and round, which she flung onto his desk. It rolled across the surface, leaving a black trail of gore behind it, and came to a halt with sightless eyes gazing blankly at the ceiling. 

Notice that Faith is described here as having 'a halo', even though in theory she's the damned soul and her opponents are the saints and angels. 

That's Satan's head she's carrying, incidentally - a call-back to the prequel. After all, killing demons is what she was born to do. I've not used Foamy's idea that her soul's form would still carry its death-wound from when she was alive; I'm assuming that in the last three days Slayer healing has kicked in.
 

"I'm here for some answers." 

Her words shook him out of his frozen incomprehension, although his eyes still darted around, desperate for help. This couldn't be happening. It was impossible. He waited for the universe to reimpose its rightness... but she was still here. 

And the crimson blade in her hand looked sharp and deadly. 

Just as I've avoided naming any of the characters so far, I've also avoided naming the Scythe: since this is written from the clerk's point of view, he doesn't know its name. 

"Well? You gonna talk to me, or do I need to see the Big Guy?" 

His voice came quavering and stammery, but he forced the words out. "W-who are you?" 

"Damn. Thought you knew everyone, 'Rocky'. Least, that's what the nuns used to say - you know all our sins, huh?" 

Despite dropping out of school at an early age, Faith still retains a few traces of her Catholic education. 'Rocky' = "on this rock I shall build my church". (And in the next paragraph, 'Angel of the Morning Star' = Lucifer.) 

And of course it was true. He knew who she was. Still, to recover some of his fragile calm, he placed his glasses on his nose and sat down at his desk again. Pulled the ledger towards him gingerly, trying not to meet the cold dead eyes of the former Angel of the Morning Star. He turned back a page, ran his finger down the neat columns. 

Sucked in his breath. Really, he couldn't help it. The stink of death and danger might surround him, but he forgot it as he read this woman's list of sins. It was...impressive. Lust - lots of that. Greed and envy. Limitless anger. Fierce pride and bottomless despair. At least she wasn't lazy...but that just gave her more energy to break even more of the Commandments. Adultery. Theft. Murder. False witness. Coveting. She'd done it all. She'd even managed to dishonour her father and mother - not that they were exactly blameless themselves, he recalled, but that was no excuse. He shook his head. 

That was a fun bit to write. I don't think there'll be much argument over lust - in a mere 20 episodes on the show Faith gets through three separate on-screen sexual partners, compared to Xander who's there for 143 episodes and only manages two (one of whom is Faith herself). She admits to envy of Buffy's life, and in her very first episode she's stealing Buffy's food... Anger and stubborn pride pretty much define her in S3-S4, giving way to despair. I don't know why I always put despair in with the deadly sins, but it seems to fit. Possibly I'm channelling Tolkien ("Pride and despair", the sins of Denethor.) 

The closest she gets to adultery on-screen is sleeping with Riley, but given the picture of her sex life she paints to Spike in S7 (and her initial assumption that Richard Wilkins was going to be her sugar-daddy) I'm fairly sure older married men were a feature of it before she came to Sunnydale. We see her committing theft (the bow and arrows in 'Bad Girls') and several murders directly, of course; and she bears false witness against Buffy when she tells Giles it was her who killed the Deputy Mayor. She covets pretty much everything Buffy has, including her life. The reference to her parents was a throwaway nod to fanon about Faith's early life - note the implication that the clerk remembers them, meaning that they're both dead. 

She had no place here. She had no right. He told her so, his certainty in his own rectitude restoring his courage. 

He's a nice guy. Yup. 

"Like Hell. Sure, I've done wrong, but what about the other column? The good I've done? Does that count for nothing?" 

Notice that instead of using swearwords based on bodily functions, as I would normally give to her, here Faith's using expressions like 'Hell' and 'Damn' to swear. This is to help set the scene. Anyway, she doesn't really have a body anymore...

He was back on familiar ground now. The same old whining. It never helped them... 

...and behind her, he saw a glorious sight at last. The Guardian of Heaven's Gate had heard the commotion and was walking over to investigate, bright wings shining and flaming sword in his hand. Rescue was on its way. He stared over his glasses at the impertinent girl.
 
This would be St Michael, although never mentioned by name. Originally I was going to have a section where he recognises the severed head of his estranged brother Lucifer, but it didn't really fit into the flow of the story. Also, puns about his socks and underpants would probably be meaningless to non-British readers. :) 

"You had your chance. You deliberately turned your back on grace when it was offered you, sinner." 

"But I changed. I thought you guys were all about forgiveness?" 

"What makes you think you deserve it?" 

"That ain't fair." 

It's not, really. See above. 

In her anger she was focussed entirely on him, oblivious to the winged nemesis coming up behind her. 

"There is no such thing as fairness. There is only justice." 

That's an oblique Terry Pratchett Death reference: "THERE IS NO JUSTICE. THERE IS ONLY ME." 

She seemed to crumple inwards a little. Behind her, the archangel was raising his sword. Just a moment more... keep her distracted... 

"You rejected the Light. Now you will have nothing. No kindness, no mercy, no hope. You have nothing." 

"You're wrong." The flaming sword swung, slicing through the air towards her neck, but suddenly, impossibly, her hand was raised, her weapon parrying the blow - and she hadn't even looked round. She grinned at him fiercely. "I still got faith." 

That would be a pun, and a deliberate reference to the similar scene in 'Becoming 2'. Here it's a real angel, not just Angel, threatening the Slayer with his sword. And whereas Buffy had "me", Faith, of course, has faith. 

And she turned, and stared unafraid into the eyes of the angel, her blade lifting... 

"Stabs the guy behind her without looking at him. And then goes apeshit on the fuckers." Deliberate reference. 

... 

Smoke curled across the shattered ruins of the office. The waiting souls of the blessed had fled in panic long since. Smashed kindling marked the ruins of the desk, and from beneath it the little clerk stirred feebly, astonished at his own survival. 

Like the door smashing open earlier on, this is another scene which I think is very visual... I was imagining all this playing out like a film, and then writing down what happened, rather than starting straight at the written word. Incidentally, the smoke is because St Michael's flaming sword has been setting fire to things. 

A hand grasped him by the neck, pulling him up and slamming him against the wall. Her voice was hoarse and smoky, but implacable. 

Eliza smokes too much. :) 

"Enough of this crap. You're so hot on justice around here, I'm gonna give you some. Starting at the top. So open the gates, old man." 

There's an implication here that she's off to kill God, but I left it fairly vague; she might be just going to have a heart-to-heart conversation and get things set right. 

"I - I can't..." 

"Sure you can. They taught me all about it, back when I was a good little Catholic schoolgirl. You've got the keys." 

Apart from the 'Rocky' reference, this is the other strong hint that the clerk is St Peter. 

"I'm... not allowed to..." 

Suddenly she was in his face, body pressed against his, taut and firm and wriggly and awakening thoughts he'd hoped had been dead and buried two thousand years since. He shuddered, as she whispered right in his ear, "I. Don't. Care. Give me the goddamn keys." 

Not entirely sure why Faith is being wriggly, but it's probably to deliberately freak him out. Seems to have worked, anyway. 

But he could only shake his head, rigid with - with fear. Sweat beaded on his brow... 

Bad innuendo alert! 

And suddenly she kissed him, right on the forehead, and spun away laughing. "Whatever, dude. You've still got a pair on you... gotta respect that in an old man. Don't worry, I'll find my own way in. Come too far to stop now." 

Call-backs here to Faith kissing Buffy in 'Enemies' and her description of Joyce in 'This Year's Girl'. Also, she respects the clerk's stubbornness in refusing to give her the keys even though she's threatening him. (Or turning him on. If there's a difference in her mind). 

Incidentally, the way she 'spun away' here is a bit discordant with the way I have her 'limping slightly' in the next paragraph - but I can reconcile it by saying she's hurt in one leg, and she spins on the other one. :) 

She walked over to the fluffy white snowdrift of feathers heaped in the centre of the room, limping slightly. She rummaged beneath the broken wings and drew out the shattered stump of a sword, flames still curling gently around its blade. Without a backward glance she strode over to the vast, gleaming gates that towered high overhead, barring her way. 

The implication is that the archangel is dead, but he might just be seriously injured and unconscious - depending on whether you believe that angels can actually be killed or not. But the general assumption in the Buffyverse seems to be that all supernatural creatures - with the possible exception of The First - can be killed somehow. 

She thrust the broken sword between them, leaning her weight on it - and slowly, painfully, with a groan like a million tormented souls the gates bowed open. Just a crack... just big enough for a single young woman to squeeze through. 

While Faith the damned soul has a halo, the Gates of Heaven scream like tormented souls. There's something (deliberately) wrong with this picture... 

Faith squared her shoulders, tossed back her hair, took a firm grip on the Scythe and stepped through the gates of heaven. 

And choirs of angels fled before her face. 

Another Tolkein homage there, incidentally. 

I also switch to Faith's own perspective instead of the clerk's here at the end, and call her by her name at last. She's passed the trials and is now entering into her own, so to speak. While my own original interpretation of this scene is that Faith is a grim avenger come to set things right in heaven - which is why the angels are fleeing - you can also read it in a slightly fluffier way. She's found her way into eternal peace and happiness despite the opposition of the universe, and this is a triumph of the human spirit.

We may with more successful hope resolve
To wage by force or guile eternal war
Irreconcileable, to our grand foe,
Who now triumphs, and in th'excess of joy
Sole reigning holds the Tyranny of Heaven.

- John Milton

While my original main inspiration for the story, other than Foamy's own fic, was 'Preacher', I think those lines from 'Paradise Lost' help convey the mood I was trying to capture. Other influences included Moorcock's 'Champion Eternal' series, where the human(ish) anti-heroes eventually kill all the gods, the 'In Nomine' roleplaying game, and this: 

BUFFY: They used to bow down to gods. Things change.
.

Comments

Posted by: Mrs Darcy (elisi)
Posted at: 21st April 2007 16:55 (UTC)
Slayer by kathyh.

Y'know I think my main 'problem' with this fic might be St Peter - he was a big, rough fisherman, as far from a timid clerk as can be imagined!

(Apart from that, then the Buffyverse is clearly v. different (theologically) to our world and the whole justice thing and being able to fight your way into Heaven makes sense.)

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 21st April 2007 17:19 (UTC)

he was a big, rough fisherman, as far from a timid clerk as can be imagined

That's when he was younger... maybe he aged after he went to heaven? (Yes, I know, I know.) Although the timidity might be inferred from him denying his leader three times, much like Spike wanted to. Plus I think there was a subconscious Quentin Travers comparison going on too.

I don't know if you're familiar with the In Nomineverse, but it takes the interesting route of combining the more abstract, Deist concept of God as the Prime Mover/original Creator, and the literalist concept of actual, tangible saints and devils and an afterlife. Heaven and Hell are locked in an eternal war for the souls of humanity, and they have nothing but their own faith (and fallibility) to know whether they're actually doing God's Will or not (and some angels and devils are even agnostic). That was the sort of soil that this story-idea germinated in.

Posted by: Beer Good (beer_good_foamy)
Posted at: 21st April 2007 18:06 (UTC)

Peter died around 64 AD. That would put him in his mid-60s at least - a pretty old man with a hard life behind him. Theoretically, he could well be pretty frail by then (plus, he was crucified, which hardly builds muscle mass). Add 2000 years of comfy office work to that... ;-)

Posted by: Beer Good (beer_good_foamy)
Posted at: 21st April 2007 18:09 (UTC)

As for the three days gap: well, traditionally, that's how long the Harrowing of Hell normally takes before you can rise again.

Heee.

Great read. Though you're right; the thing about St Michael's socks makes no sense at all to me as a non-Brit...?

Now I have this idea of writing a sequel to THIS. We'll see...

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 21st April 2007 18:38 (UTC)

St Michael is the in-house brand name of Marks & Spencer, a British department store famous as being the place where at least half the population is supposed to buy its socks and underwear. (Although their sales have declined in recent years).

Interested to see what could happen next... and where all this will end.

(From somewhere I have a vision of Faith riding a horse, along with three other riders...)

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