Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman
The Christian Hell is named for the Norse goddess who ruled the Aesir’s underworld, Hel. The ancient Israelites did not have a hell in the sense that their underworld, Sheol, was a place of eternal punishment. Sheol was much more like the ancient Greeks’ Hades or, for that matter, the Norsemen’s Hel, a place of shadowy existence wherein ghostly “shades” went about the business of postmortem existence. Dante imagined his own hell, in The Inferno, and, for the atheistic French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, hell was “other people.” Perhaps the closest place to hell in the modern world is prison--or, possibly, Detroit, Michigan. (Michael Moore would have us think hell on earth is neighboring Flint.)
Hell is the garbage dump of eternity. It’s a cosmic prison. It’s the place of “wailing” and the “gnashing of teeth,” wherein the “fire is not quenched” and the “worm dieth not.” It’s the place that Mark Twain would go for “company,” preferring heaven for its “scenery.” For some, hell is a state of mind or a state of the soul, the opposite of the “kingdom of heaven,” which Jesus said “is within you.”
If anyone should be able to imagine hell, it is the writer of horror fiction. How to begin such a--well, hellish--task? Picture the condemned, which is to say, the types of individuals whose lifestyles or behaviors seem to warrant condemnation, banishment, and/or punishment, not just for a day, but for all eternity. Characterize them. What are the attributes of their personalities? What attitudes do they express? What do they believe? What do they imagine? What do they fear? What hopes, if any, do they have? What do they love, better than God or mankind--in other words, what idol do they worship? What is their besetting sin, and what lesser, but related, sins are associated with it, and why? What do they do all day?
Having imagined the denizens of your hell, picture the lay of the land, or “scenery,” that would be appropriate for such residents. Are there mountains and valleys, molten seas, volcanoes in endless eruption, frozen wastelands, deserts, underworlds within--or below--underworlds? Is your hell multileveled like Dante’s Inferno? Perhaps your hell is unlike anything familiar to mortal men and women, something like, but unlike, the mystical worlds of Marvel Comics’ Dr. Strange?
When you’ve finished peopling and landscaping your inferno, ask yourself what symbolic significance the landscape’s features have. In doing so, you might ask yourself what the images of the Christian hell represent figuratively. What is the symbolic significance of the “fire [that] is not quenched” and the “worm [that] dieth not”? Apply the same process of analysis and interpretation to the images of your own hell.
Remember this, too: now that you’ve gone to all the time and trouble of imagining a hell of your own, your stories may sometimes take place in this infernal abode, or its residents may occasionally escape and visit the world of humanity. Angels, by definition, are, after all, messengers of God, and, in the Bible, even “fallen angels,“ or demons, do sometimes visit--and afflict--ordinary men and women and, if The Exorcist is any guide to infernal behavior, children, too. Their chief, Satan, had the audacity to tempt even Christ! What “message” might one of your accursed bring to one or more of your story’s characters?
In another application of your hell, the residents may be seen as “inner,” rather than as outer demons--as psychological defects and disorders, or diseased elements of the soul, with lives of their own, so to speak, along the lines of BTK’s “Factor X” or Ted Bundy’s “entity.” Of course, they may also be both inner and outer demons, as any particular story’s plot dictates. By imagining a hell of your own, you will be more apt to put your own spin on the action you narrate, making an original contribution, perhaps, to the iconography of the damned and offer a few new insights into the hellish behavior of the demonic soul.
For those who are interested in more information about hell, “Hell in the Old Testament” offers quite a bit.