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Hell: An Exploration

Volcano Core by BlueRogueVyse (detail)

The nature of the afterlife has fascinated and terrified humanity for tens of thousands of years. What, if anything, waits for us after death? Is there more than one place to go? And what happens if you end up in the wrong place?

Mythology tells us that there are many destinations for the wicked or unlucky soul. Diyu, Sheol, Hades, Hetgwauge. Some are places of punishment for your transgressions in life and some are just where the dead must go.

The lands of the dead are too vast for any single journey to encompass. So, we’re just going to explore Hell: Damnation, Perdition, Limbo, Purgatory, the Inferno, call it what you like. It is the place of punishment acknowledged by most Abrahamic religions. Join me on an odyssey through some of the most well-realised depictions of The Bad Place in literature and fantasy fiction.

Our first journey is a simple one, we need only pass beneath the earth. By going through these gates inscribed with the words, “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”

Don’t worry. I’m relatively certain that we’ll be able to find our way out again.

Dante’s Inferno

Farinata of the Uberti addresses Dante by Gustave DoréDante’s Inferno is the first in-depth exploration of Hell in Western literature and perhaps the most detailed description of the Christian afterlife ever written for fun. It established the idea of the Nine Circles of Hell, each with their own nature and unique series of punishments for those interred within.

While it may be the most influential literary model of Hell, we can’t really call this the definitive guide for our modern purposes. Dante was writing in Medieval Italy. His version of Hell is heavily influenced by classical mythology and literature, right down to the Roman Poet Vergil who acts as Dante’s guide.

You could almost imagine that Dante’s Hell has been built on the ruins of the classical underworld (or grown, cancer-like, from the diseased flesh of primordial Tartarus).

Let me throw out a few examples for you:

  • The border of Hell is the River Acheron and the hooded figure who ferries souls across it is Charon, the boatman. The Fifth Circle of Hell, where the wrathful are condemned to fight each other forever, is actually the River Styx.
  • In the depths of this corrupted underworld Minos, son of Zeus, continues to judge the souls of the dead, either not noticing the change of management or choosing not to comment.
  • Centaurs live happily in the Seventh Circle. They do their bit to fit in with the local devils by firing arrows into any damned souls who manage to escape the Circle’s boiling rivers of blood.
  • Greek heroes and villains alike languish in various parts of the Inferno, suffering for their pagan ways (and lack of good Renaissance Italian values).
  • The minotaur guards the Seventh Circle and Medusa and the Furies stand ready to strike down any who dare to approach the benighted walls of Dis, Hell’s Capital City.

The demons of Dante’s Hell are clearly not above sub-contracting their evil deeds out to other mythological beings. Even Dis itself, first named in Dante’s Inferno, takes its name from Dis Pater, the Roman title for Hades or Pluto—the Graeco-Roman god of the underworld.

Dis is a fascinating place; it manages to make Hell seem both more and less like Earth. On the one hand it has walls, gates, towers, houses and streets, just like any mortal city. On the other hand, it is impossibly large, containing three of the nine Circles of Hell, the last and lowest of which is a massive frozen pit where the immense and monstrous form of Satan himself lies trapped in the ice. Dis also emphasises the blasphemous, back-to-front nature of Hell. Mortals seek out hills and other fortified positions to build their cities on; Hell is an inverted mountain where power flows ever downwards, towards the greatest and deepest sins.

Lucifer, King of Hell by Gustave Doré

Unlike many of Hell’s more recent cartographers, Dante took the view that everyone who went to Hell deserved to go, though there were many different gradations of sin with highly specific punishments. Thieves, for example, are punished by being thrown into a pit of snakes whose venom causes the victim to shapeshift into a random animal or object, thus robbing them of their identities. (I get the impression that someone mugged Dante at some point or maybe burgled his house while he was on holiday.)

There is also a very clear sense in this Hell that the denizens of the Inferno are subservient to the Heavenly Host. As demonstrated when an angel nips down from Heaven to give some demons and assorted monsters a very stern talking-to for daring to get in Dante and Vergil’s way. And the hordes of Hell listen to him and let the two mortals through! Not many self-respecting modern fiends would be so accommodating, believe me. You wouldn’t catch a Tanar-ri or a Baatezu bowing to a celestial messenger.

The celestial message by Gustave Doré

Some of the sins of Dante’s Hell are woefully out of fashion now. Those who committed Simony (the sin of selling clerical jobs and roles), are punished by being planted head-first in the ground and having their feet set on fire. But most of my gentle readers should find it easy enough to avoid that crime in this day and age. Conversely, there is no specific punishment for racists, online-scammers, or people who pronounce ‘espresso’ as ‘ex-presso’.

One thing that Dante’s vision of Hell does possess that many later versions lack is a huge variety of different climates and themes. Yes, Dante shows us the land of fire and brimstone which we might expect, but there’s also a place of endless dreary rain, a meadow where the aforementioned centaurs gambol about doing their thing, a lake of ice, a dark land plagued by howling winds, and a harpy-haunted forest where all the trees bear poisoned thorns and are born from the souls of suicides. There’s even a comparatively pleasant area where the souls of righteous pagans get to sit around, wishing they’d been born late enough to jump onto the monotheism bandwagon.

Dante is accepted by the great Greek and Roman poets by Gustave Doré

It’s a worthy lesson from a seminal writer—when imagining the afterlife, think big and think weird.

(And don’t forget to show all your IRL enemies getting their come-uppance.)

Now then, let us leave the Divine Comedy and travel the trackless paths of Chaos and Night until we find our way into a gigantic stone chamber every bit as accursed as the place we just left.

John Milton’s Paradise Lost

Satan descends upon Earth by Gustave DoréMilton, writing several centuries later, was less concerned with the minutiae of Hell than Dante. To him it was just part of the grand cosmic setting for his tragic character play; with fiery gulfs, eternal woe and adamantine chains adding spice to the celestial drama.

But he did create a lasting and fascinating image of Hell. This divine dungeon full of torment and ‘regions of sorrow’ is constantly on fire but has no light, only a kind of visible darkness cast by the unending hellfire. (I imagine it as being a sort of greenish-black in colour.)

Or rather, one half of Milton’s Hell is on fire. The other half is a continent of ice wracked by constant blizzards and storms. I like to imagine that the Norse goddess of the dead, Hel, makes this place her home and that Lucifer’s host of demons had to defeat her army of the dishonoured dead to claim it as their own.

The damned souls of humans are routinely ferried from one half of Hell to the other across the river Lethe (whose waters could make them forget their torment if only they could reach it), so that they suffer all the more for the contrast. (Imagine hopping out of a hot bath and into a pile of snow, then back again, for all of time, but worse.) Lethe is another of the Greek underworld’s famous rivers, so you’ll note that Western literature still hadn’t gotten over its classical roots. (I’ll leave the question as to whether it’s managed that by now to more erudite people than myself.)

The Angels look over Hell by Gustave DoréMilton’s brief description of bands of fallen angels (fresh from being defeated and cast down by the army of Heaven), setting off to explore Hell to see if there are any nicer neighbourhoods than the burning lava-lake they landed in really caught my imagination. It would make for a great short story or roleplaying game adventure! Imagine if Hell were uncharted territory and you and your fellow demons were in search of any scrap of comfort in this hopeless land. What dark wonders would you uncover? Would you find a barren land just waiting to be built into a true monument to the nature of evil? Or would you uncover the bones of past civilisations of devils and demons, the detritus of worlds lost, destroyed or damned?

Milton also gave us the Citadel of Pandemonium. These days the word pandemonium has lost most of its sinister connotations. Parents might use it to describe a lively children’s party.

‘Well, naming no names Adam but someone brought fizzy drinks to the party. We ended up with twenty sugar-rushing five-year-olds running all over the place screaming their heads off. I tell you it was pandemonium!’

No, theoretical parent, no it wasn’t. Some parties might seem like Hell. But trust me, they can’t compare. Not even the ones where someone makes you play charades.

Satan takes his throne in Hell by Gustave DoréLooking at the root words of pandemonium we get pan—all—and demonium—which of course means demons. Pandemonium is a place where all the fallen angels and false gods of Lucifer’s failed rebellion can gather to discuss strategy. This is the parliament of devils, where they decide what the nature and purpose of evil will be for eternity. For all that, it’s a beautiful place—a gilded and incredibly ornate temple. Milton’s Hell is rich in gold (the focus of so much mortal sin), and its inhabitants were, until recently, angels with a taste for Heaven’s glory and an understanding of architecture that humans would take a long, long time to match.

We aren’t actually told how big Pandemonium is, only that it would have taken humans an age to make but was built by the demons in an hour, and that still the many hosts of Lucifer’s army had to shrink from their usual giant size to fit into it.

Dante showed us a Hell that was long established. Milton takes us to a terrible wilderness and lets us see the beginnings of the infernal empire that Lucifer and his legions will carve out of it. From Milton we get the idea (however tainted by Lucifer’s pride and bravado), that Hell might be made glorious and grandiose and even comfortable, for fallen angels if not for fallen humans. And a poignant reminder that Satan, the most monstrous, depraved and foul of all the beings in the cosmos, was once Lucifer, the brightest and best of God’s angels.

Lucifer himself refers to this when he attempts to leave the gigantic prison cavern of Hell and finds two colossal and hideous creatures guarding its single gate, which is set at the very highest point in the stone ceiling.

These two charmers are:

  • And Death, who is a lot brattier than you might expect.
  • Lucifer challenges the two beings with the following lines.

“Retire; or taste thy folly, and learn by proof,

Hell-born, not to contend with Spirits of Heaven.”

Satan talks to Sin and Death by Gustave DoréLucifer is proven wrong in this (and many other things), during the course of Milton’s tale. Sin is his daughter, who emerged from his head fully grown when he first conceived of the idea of rebellion against God. (Incidentally, this is a blatant rip-off of the origin story of Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom and war.) Sin started out looking incredibly lovely and alluring (I see what you did there Milton), and promptly had an affair with her skull-Daddy. Death is their offspring and he and his mother have been cursed with horrific forms for her rebelliousness and his just being born respectively.

All very allegorical but it raises an intriguing point that has been picked up by one or two later writers. What if Hell was inhabited before a third of the Celestial Host fell from grace and was imprisoned there? What could be native to Hell?

Perhaps the answers to these questions will come in time. For now, let us follow Lucifer out of this cavern and flit away, leaving our own solar-system for the moment.

Quickly, quickly! We’ll never get there at this rate. Come on, we’ll skirt past that stricken spaceship and then I’ll show you how to surf on starlight. Oh look, there’s an eyeless man grinning at us through one of the spaceship’s viewing ports.

He’s waving at us and smiling; he knows where we’re going next.

Wave back and let’s be on our way.

We travel now through the trackless reaches of space to the edge of the known universe and beyond. To a disc-shaped world resting on the back of four elephants, themselves carried on the back of a gargantuan turtle.

Terry Pratchett’s Eric

We’ve jumped forward another couple of centuries, leaving classic literature behind and arriving at the Hell of a modern master of fantasy.

Eric (cover)Terry Pratchett always did his own thing and the Discworld version of Hell is rather more light-hearted than the others on offer here. Oh, on the face of things it’s pretty horrible, with the damned getting racked and burned and nailed to things and so on. But the central conceit of Pratchett’s Hell is that most of the damned souls trapped inside it have worked out that they’re ghosts who can’t feel pain if they don’t want to.

Most of the demons that inhabit this Hell are pretty much fine with that arrangement, they have a job to do and they get on with it. Some demons have been ‘torturing’ the same souls for hundreds of years and have developed a close and companionable relationship with them. If you thought about that in a more serious context it would be quite horrifying. Imagine if, throughout all history, the being that spent the most time with you and understood you best, better than your parents, your BFF, your partner and even your therapist, was an absolutely hateful monster dedicated to tearing you down in every way possible, forever.

The Discworld’s Hell is a kinder place than that.

Or at least it was.

Eric by SharksDenBecause in the novel Eric, Hell is menaced by modernity. The Demon King Astfgl has decided that boredom is the greatest punishment of all. (Presumably an insight into Pratchett’s own beliefs, depending on how far his tongue was in his cheek while writing this novel.) He has determined to use this knowledge to inflict more effective punishments on the damned. Such as making them listen to demons reading out gigantic tomes about health and safety, with hundreds of sub-clauses. We are left to conclude that restoring the status quo of Hell isn’t actually that bad, because human methods of torture are vastly superior to demonic ones.

The Scarlet Gospels (cover)Jokey as it is, this version of Hell presents a chilling possibility, that the Inferno and its denizens could change, evolve and even steal ideas from humanity, becoming even worse than originally intended. Many other writers have experimented with this idea. Some have created Hells that even I have yet to explore, such as the one described in Clive Barker’s The Scarlet Gospel that begins with a Hell Priest (you might now him as Pinhead), stealing power and knowledge from mortal magicians in order to better conquer his infernal homeland. Or the more gung-ho after-life of Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim novels with its board meetings and demonic hitmen.

Pratchett left us with many questions. Could the hells we create on earth be more depraved than the one designed for us by devils? Is evil for evil’s sake inherently unoriginal and thus less dangerous than evil created through incompetence or indifference? Has the person who invented sub-clauses been given their own Circle of Hell?

Ah. A devil has spotted us and is hurrying over to make our acquaintance. I don’t like the look of that pitchfork he’s carrying.

Let’s get out of here. A bit of dimension-hopping is in order, I think. We’ll take a shortcut through an Apocalypse I know, where the war between Good and Evil is currently being resolved by a football match.

Sports, now that’s my idea of Hell.

There, we’ve arrived. Gaze in awe at one of the most magnificent Hells in this or any other cosmos.

Neil Gaiman’s Sandman Series

Sandman (cover)This is Hell as presented by a great friend of Pratchett’s and a grandmaster of fantasy in his own right. It’s a comic-book Hell, but it’s no laughing matter.

The Hell we see in Sandman is one dimension or realm amongst many. It and its ruler are rightly feared by even the greatest beings of Gaiman’s cosmology but it’s still a political entity, a land which can receive state visits, be invaded and even overthrown.

In appearance, the Hell of the Sandman setting is vast and weird and phantasmagorical. Its front gate is a sprawling tangle of densely packed organic and architectural features, like Castle Grayskull as envisaged by H. R. Giger. Endless plains stretch to the horizon, dotted here and there with mountains and less natural structures—impossibly twisted stone buildings, belching smokestacks and grisly torture-dungeons. There’s a sea of blood and a surprisingly pretty light-pink sky too.

Sandman by rogercruzWhen Morpheus (aka Dream of the Endless) visits this Hell he notes that, unlike the stone caverns of Milton and Barlowe, it is mutable. Those with enough power can change this realm to suit their own wishes. This raises the fascinating idea that the place we call Hell doesn’t actually have to be hellish. It is also so large that even Lucifer cannot comprehend its size. For this place is the dark reflection of Heaven and who could quantify Heaven? No surprise then that Hell is considered a prime piece of inter-dimensional real estate, to be fought over by demons, gods, angels, faeries and manifest principles of the universe.

The demons or Demonkind that inhabit this land mostly eschew the classic wings-and-horns look for more exotic combinations of features and body parts:

  • A giant baby with a still-attached umbilical cord in the form of a living snake.
  • A wolf-mantis-skeleton-thing.
  • A deadly warrior-woman whose right side is beautiful and whose left side is a rotten ruin. (An allusion, I suspect, to the Norse Goddess Hel, who keeps popping up on this journey even though she wasn’t invited.)

There are also beings with extra mouths, clouds of sentient gas, creatures with furry bodies and exposed brains and more besides. In some ways Gaiman’s Hell feels closer to Star Wars than it does to Dante, though there are hints of the demented paintings of Hieronymus Bosch too. None of the Demonkind are natives of Hell and only a few are fallen angels like Lucifer. Most found their way from ‘elsewhere’ as Lucifer puts it, hinting at other underworlds and hells, worlds undreamt of by humanity or even some distant and terrible void beyond the cosmos. In comics there’s always room for another dimension!

Gaiman shares some ideas with Pratchett in that his Hell has more to do with humans than with demons. Many of the human inmates of this Hell want to be punished—their guilt, their egos, their need to be noticed, it all manifests in a desire to have their sins acknowledged as important enough to warrant censure. Only those who believe they deserve Hell, or wish to be there, end up in Hell. (There are exceptions, one of which is detailed in the main plotline of Sandman.) Gaiman has as allegorical an interpretation of Hell as Milton’s, but with a focus on modern ideas about psychology rather than older ideas on the nature of sin. Hell is a delusion, a toxic state of mind, something that we inflict upon ourselves and that we need not suffer if only we refused to accept it.

House of Whispers (detail)

With that in mind, all you need to do to find a route to our next destination is to will one into existence.

Go on, you’ve made it this far. I thought for sure that you’d have been eaten by something by now.

That’s it, well done. Now, follow me down that corridor you’ve just created. We’re leaving the many-layered dimensions of comics. Please nod respectfully to Hellboy, Spawn, Constantine, Ghost Rider and Etrigan on your way out.

Oh dear. We’re passing some of the cast of Preacher. For Heaven and Hell’s sake don’t look at what they’re doing to each other.

* * *

I told you not to look.

I suppose this next Hell will seem like a bit of a relief for you now. At least there’s beauty there. And perhaps we’ll find some water that you can use to wash the vomit off your clothes.

Wayne Barlowe’s God’s Demon

We’ve seen how poets, fantasy novelists and comic-writers-who-are-also-novelists describe Hell. Now let’s see an artist’s conception of The Bad Place.

God's Demon (cover)Barlowe’s afterlife is, to me, the archetypal fantasy fiction depiction of Hell. It is the successor to the Hells of Dante and Milton and the standard against which all modern depictions of Hell are measured. (The Hell of Sandman isn’t from a fantasy novel per se, so is disqualified on a demonically devious technicality.)

Barlowe’s Hell is a monolithic and alien realm, comprising of dark and rocky wastelands lit by the eerie glow of demonic glyphs and menaced by the towering citadels of the lords of the fallen. What I find particularly interesting about this world is that it had its own native flora and fauna before the arrival of demons. Including the savage but sentient Salamandrine men, who still prowl the hinterlands of Hell, dreaming of the day when they might reclaim their homeland from its infernal conquerors. What Milton teased us with, Barlowe delivers.

The Streets of Dis by Wayne Barlowe

Unlike Dante’s Inferno, where you at least get a punishment tailor-made to your own wickedness, this version of Hell treats human souls as a renewable resource, a theme that we’ll encounter more than once on this journey. Souls in their natural state look vaguely human but can be manipulated into stone-like slabs, cavalry-mounts and even giant elephant-like war-beasts. Many souls toil away for hundreds of years, building grand structures out of other damned mortals for their dark overlords until they themselves are made into bricks, doomed to spend the rest of eternity as masonry.

While there are demons dedicated to drawing mortals onto the path of sin, these are only a subset of demonic society, a bit like farmers or miners in our world. Demon lords (called Demons Major) act like feudal warlords, mainly concerned with increasing their territory at the expense of their neighbours and enjoying what luxuries the Abyss has to offer. Lesser demons (or Demons Minor) act as warriors, courtiers, soul-crafters and slave-masters. Killing another demon and absorbing their glyph grants one power, making this an excellent setting for a tabletop or computer RPG.

What Remains by Wayne Barlowe

Being an artist, Barlowe has of course painted some of the scenes from his Hell. From this we can see that Demons Major have an exquisitely inhuman appearance. Borne aloft by great wings woven out of their own flesh, skins shining with tattoo-like glyphs and seething with infernal magic, the weird landscape of the Inferno stretching out beneath them. Hell itself, as imagined by Barlowe, is beautiful—a land of sweeping crimsons and moody blues, of intricately detailed obelisks looming over eldritch cities and elaborately unnatural creatures standing on the shores of rivers of molten lava.

Unusually for an Earth-adjacent Hell, the ruler of this abyss isn’t Lucifer/Satan (an idea that Clive Barker also makes use of in The Hellbound Heart). After his failed rebellion, the Morning-Star is reputed to have fallen so far and so fast that he hit the ground of Barlowe’s Hell like a comet and was smashed into a fine paste. Instead, the far less charismatic Beelzebub, Lord of the Flies, rules as the Regent of Hell. A sentient swarm of flies capable of assuming any shape, Beelzebub keeps Lilith, first and fallen wife of Adam, as his concubine. Which is just so horrible in oh so many ways.

(I really wish that Barlowe hadn’t felt the need to explore the…intimacies of that particular relationship in his prose.)

Beelzebub’s Keep by Wayne Barlowe

Barlowe references other figures of Abrahamic mythology too. The most epic of which is Shemyaza, a titanic fallen angel who was banished to Hell before Lucifer’s rebellion for the crime of daring to couple with mortal women. Shemyaza and his fellow angels of the Order of the Watchers sired the accursed race of giants known as Nephilim. Some claim that the depredations of this race were responsible for inciting God to unleash the Great Flood. Shemyaza lies chained beneath Barlowe’s version of Dis and its enraged screams periodically shake the city to its very foundations. (That’s so metal! Imagine if one of the exploring parties from Milton’s epic found the creature, what would they make of it?)

Like Dante, Barlowe uses Hell as a repository for the historical figures that interest him. While the souls we first encounter are beaten down to the point where even their identities are lost, during the course of the story we get to see some of them regain their individuality and write a new destiny.

*Spoilers*

Hannibal, one of the greatest generals of antiquity, gets to fight a new campaign against an enemy far stranger and more terrible than Imperial Rome.

*Spoilers End*

We’ve spent enough time here; I have no desire to wind up as part of an ornamental rockery. If I take this puzzle box and twist it into the Lament Configuration. Like, so. Then I just need to give it another twist and half turn before certain beings that we really don’t want to meet turn up.

There! I call this the Sanguine Configuration.

See that wound opening up in the walls of reality? Follow me through it and we shall seek the shores of a new kind of Hell.

Alan Campbell’s Deepgate Codex

Alan Campbell is one of the grimdark-iest grimdark writers who ever darked a grim. He’s also extremely inventive with a taste for bombastic satire.

Scar Night (cover)Like Pratchett’s Hell, Campbell’s Bad Place is unattached to Earth. It’s also quite distinctive. Where many visions of Hell draw on visions of fire and brimstone—this one runs on blood. A bit like the way that the Hell of the Sandman cosmology is shaped by its inhabitants, the Hell of Deepgate responds to the minds of those caught within it. But the effect is more visceral.

In this Hell each soul wakes up in a body much like they had in life. The body is trapped inside a room that reflects the damned soul’s memory and psyche. If the soul is afraid then the room becomes more defensive and potentially more dangerous. If the soul starts to worry about particular forms of torture, then they will appear in the room. This Hell preys on your anxieties, making your own mind the rod for your back. The real fun starts when you realise that the room is also you. Any harm that comes to it is as painful to you as an assault on your ‘body’ would be. To be outside your room-self is to be as vulnerable and half-formed as a foetus outside the womb.

Iron Angel (cover)Soul-rooms tend to conglomerate into single entities called Middens—a sort of sentient tower-block formed of flesh-and-blood infused architecture. Each Midden slowly slides across the gore-streaked landscape of Hell according to the whims of the majority of its inhabitants. There doesn’t seem to be anything as formal as Dante’s circles of Hell in this place but souls with similar sins wind up together.

All this would be a pretty appalling way to spend eternity, unless you were extremely selfsufficient and strong-willed. But it gets worse. This Hell is a military-industrial complex. It is ruled by King Menoa and patrolled by an army of Mesmerists. Menoa is determined to conquer the realm of the living and destroy its decadent gods. His Mesmerists enslave souls and reshape them to suit the purposes of the King of Hell, such as creating gigantic war-machines to bring destruction to the world above.

God of Clocks (cover)Menoa himself delights in forcing new forms onto even his closest servants. But crueller still are the great mincing machines which mine, shred and harvest thousands of soul-rooms to feed Hell’s ever-growing thirst for blood. Blood is the raw fuel of Hell and bathing in it allows the damned to survive in the world of the living, for a time. So Menoa requires an endless supply of it in order to conquer the world above.

The Demons of Barlowe’s Hell might not care about you, but at least there’s a chance that you’ll be freed one day, even if you spend millennia as part of a bridge before that happy day occurs. In Campbell’s Hell the odds are that you’re little better than spare parts, grist for the mill, not even worth the trouble of torturing. It is the Hell of industrialisation, rampant capitalism and the ultimate form of depersonalisation.

With that charming thought in mind, our journey is almost over but we have one last place to visit. We have sailed over lakes of fire and rivers of blood, traversed the void between stars and crossed countless dimensions. Now we come to the very borders of Hell and must pass beyond it, to older and stranger regions of the dead.

I’d contracted a friendly wanderer to lead us through the gaps in the worlds until we reached the right spot. You’d know him if you saw him. A three-horned hat on his head, an anchor on his back and most likely a jug of strong liquor in one hand. But he seems to have gotten lost on the way. He’s probably passed out drunk in a ditch somewhere.

Never mind. We’ll join this caravan of yaoguai, I think I have enough paper money with me to convince them to let us tag along for a little while.

Brom’s Lost Gods

Lost Gods (cover)You remember that Dante’s Inferno seemed to have supplanted the Greek underworld? Well, in the cosmology created by the artist currently known as Brom, that process is still ongoing. Much like Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, Lost Gods takes the view that all gods are real but that many have faded into irrelevance or been destroyed. In this case the gods represented by the modern world religions have banded together under the banner of ‘The One God’ to drive out and kill the pagan and independent gods.

This process is all but complete on Earth itself. But many of the slain gods still hold court in the underworld, ruling over ghosts old and new in the land of Purgatory. Their territories are threatened by the imperialism of Hell and its demons, the dark flip-side of The One God alliance. This Hell is an expanding empire in the near-infinite realm of the dead, not a world unto itself.

Lost Gods (characters 1)Not that the rest of Brom’s underworld is all sweetness and light. In fact, this afterlife has quite a bit in common with Barlowe’s and Campbell’s Hells (partly because Brom is as much a horror writer as a fantasy writer. He seems to take pleasure in inflicting horrendous fates on his cast of characters, with only the slightest bit of hope to leaven the crushing despair and unfairness of it all.) Human souls are both an underclass and a commodity here, taxed, enslaved, modified to their masters’ whims and even torn apart so that their substance can feed, heal or strengthen other entities. (Players of Wraith: The Oblivion will feel right at home here.) We don’t see much of Hell in this story, but we know that it is a place of dark invention and savage warriors.

Alongside more obscure figures, such as the Slavic god Veles, Brom makes use of a lot of Greek and Egyptian mythology to create his Purgatory. (In some ways we have come full circle, back to Dante’s Inferno.) As well as the familiar line-up of underworld rivers we have creatures like sphinxes and satyrs. We also get to see an intriguing Ancient Egyptian inspired idea of the nature of souls. In this world a soul has two parts, one of which is the consciousness and one of which is effectively a new body to house the consciousness. Without this soul-body one is doomed to become a ghost even in the land of the dead. But the soul-stuff these ‘bodies’ are made up of is extremely useful, making souls the natural prey of both gods and other souls and the fuel for many industries and commodities.

Lost Gods (characters 2)The denizens of Hell fear the titular lost gods of Purgatory even as they venture out into their territories to steal or barter for souls. The demons fight a proxy war by supplying rebellious souls with a modern invention given a demonic twist—guns and cannons powered by hellfire which can damage or destroy even the most powerful of gods. Far from being an ancient, stultified realm, this Hell is a place of innovation and expansion and the merciless and unstoppable march of technological progress.

Brom’s vision of the afterlife mixes the baroque grandeur of Barlowe with the dispassionate cruelty of Campbell. I listened to an audiobook version of this book myself, but I’d recommend checking out a physical copy if you can because Brom’s artwork is gorgeous. Or just go and have a look at his online gallery if you don’t have the cash to spare.

Anyway. I have an appointment to see a piano performance in Los Angeles that I’m told is out of this world. So, I’ll leave you here.

I’m sure that you can find your own way back to the surface.

If that’s what you really want.

Title image by BlueRogueVyse.

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5 Comments

  1. Avatar Janus says:

    This was a great article! Through it I discovered new novels to add to my backlog of novels to read, and I am very pleased by how much more informed I feel about the tropes and changes in motifs used in depicting Hell in Fantasy. Thank you!

  2. Loved reading about the many depictions of hell in fiction! After reading your article I feel I need to read Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’ and Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ to really dive into the depths of hell. Well done!

  3. Avatar Richard Marpole says:

    Thankyou both! I had a great time with this one.

  4. Avatar Coen says:

    Another great version of hell is “The Devil’s Detective”

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