Clearly I’m not the only person who is fascinated by the hell found in literature. Editor Scott G. Bruce has put together a collection here of a wide variety of hellish representations, most of them unfamiliar to me, which made for a real fascinating read.
We start off with the classics of Greek literature, and while some of these should be familiar (selections from Homer’s Odyssey, Plato’s Phaedo, and Virgil’s Aeneid) it is especially nice to get these (as well as portions of Hesiod’s Theogony and Senecca’s The Madness of Heracles) together to get this over-view of hell from this time period.
Then it’s on to the Christian views of hell – those most familiar to me to many of us. Here we have sections of the Apocalypse of Paul, the Gospel of Luke, and the Gospel of Nicodemus.
The Early Middle Ages are represented by Dialogues of Gregory the Great, two selections from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, and The Voyage of Saint Brendan. It is interesting to see how the Christian view of hell changes from the biblical writings and onward.
There are three sections from the Vision of Tundale and then the High Middle Ages are specifically represented with “Lessons in Horror” from the Elucidarius of Honorius of Autun, “Preaching Pain” from a Medieval Priest’s Manual, Dialogue on Miracles by Caesarius, and Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica.
And of course you can’t have a book about Hell in literature without Dante’s Inferno being represented!
An interesting period, c. 1500-1700, is represented here with works that were quite unfamiliar to me: “The Sharp Pangs of a Wounded Conscience” (a sermon by William Dawes), “Into That Eternal Furnace” from Giovanni Pietro Pinamonti’s Hell Opened to Christians to Caution Them from Enter into It, and a portion of John Bunyan’s The Resurrection of the Dead and Eternall (sic) Judgement. Followed by two additions representing the 19th century: “Hell is for Children” by John Furniss and Austin Holyoake’s Heaven & Hell: Where Situated?
These last two piece’s give us a pretty classic impression of the “Fire and Brimstone” kind of sermon’s that are often remarked upon in film, television, and literature representing this era. The “Hell is for Children” piece by Furniss (what a perfect name!) seems really atrocious to the modern reader.
Up to this point everything is kind fascinating from a historical perspective. At this point, editor Bruce makes some really tough choices, giving us hell that isn’t so much a specific place that bad people go, but a hell that is much more of a here and now, suffered by the good as well as the bad.
The first of the modern pieces is “The Death Factories” from Vasily Grossman’s “The Hell of Treblinka.” A recollection of the atrocities of a German extermination camp, this was the only work that I had a difficult time reading. …Difficult because of the nature of what I was reading. I have a pretty strong constitution, but this really tore at me.
“Fire in the Sky” from the “Testimony of Yoshitaka Kawamoto” is a brief recounting from a child survivor of the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. Though horrific, this didn’t impact me as much as the previous work most because of the distanced nature of the telling.
“The Sum of Suffering” from William Blake’s “A Sentence Worse Than Death” was at first quite impressive. Blake was a manner of writing that easily paints a picture of his bleak life in prison solitary confinement … for the rest of his life. I was moved during my reading of this, but afterward, upon reflection, I noted that he never once, during this segment of a longer work, mention, acknowledge, or show remorse for the eternal suffering of the family of the man he murdered. This reminded me that we can easily get caught up in rhetoric (especially when it’s well done) without noticing how one-sided it might be.
The last little bit is simply a mention that the United States war on terror interrogators employ their own hell-on-earth tactics, specifically the use of mix-tapes. That’s right. By playing offensive songs to prisoners, at deafening volumes, repeatedly and without end, prisoners are subjugated to a torture, a hell, that is hard to imagine for many of us. What songs are on that mix-tape? Well, some pretty harsh songs, of course, like songs by Deicide, Drowning Pool, and Marilyn Manson. But also on that mix-tape…? Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and Barney and Friends’ “I Love You” song!
I am really glad I read this, and I highly recommend it for anyone interested in short works, and the fascinating, changing way we have viewed Hell through the centuries.
Looking for a good book? The Penguin Book of Hell, edited by Scott G. Bruce, is a remarkable collection of our images of hell, from the early days of Greek literature to our modern views of hell on earth.
I received a digital copy of this book from the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.
* * * * * *
The Penguin Book of Hell
editor: Scott G. Bruce
publisher: Penguin Classics
paperback, 304 pages