How Do You Write Hell?
"Chinese have a lotta hells.” – Eddie Lee, Big Trouble In Little China
Actually, according to what I’ve read, there are between ten and eighteen.
Thanks to BookWenches for giving me the space to palaver in this week. I’ll get my little bio out of the way here instead of putting it at the end so folks browsing won’t say ‘who the heck is this guy anyway?’
I’m Edward M. Erdelac, and I’ve got a couple of horror/fantasy/adventure books out you can find on Amazon. Merkabah Rider: Tales of a High Planes Drifter, is the first in a series of weird westerns about a Hasidic Jewish gunslinger in the 1880’s on the trail of the renegade teacher who betrayed his mystic enclave, an order of kabbalists who maintain the occult tradition of the merkabah riders (astral travelers who explore the seven heavens). In the course of his hunt, the Rider (who has given up his true name as a means of protection against evil forces) runs into all sorts of nasty impediments, from vicious, demonically possessed gunslingers and a lurching killer windmill to a brothel full of beguiling succubi.
It’s a dark, pulpy sort of story, part Robert E. Howard, part Cormac McCarthy, with a dash of H.P. Lovecraft and Sergio Leone, presented in the episodic manner of the old Weird Tales novellas, which I’m grateful to the fine folks at Damnation Books for giving me the opportunity to tell.
The second volume, The Mensch With No Name will be heading your way sometime in September. In this outing, the Rider uses his mystic talents to travel to hell itself to confront an old adversary, which finally brings me to the subject of this post – hell.
How do you write hell?
Or rather, how did I write hell? (It’s my blog entry after all)
Luckily there’s a wealth of sources on hell to draw from, and I read up a lot on the subject in the course of writing the book.
Some mystic traditions of Judaic hell, or Gehenna, split hell into seven precincts, where the souls of the dead are treated to torments ranging from being hung by their tongues to being pitched back and forth across the place by the slings of enormous angels. Fortunately those condemned to hell only have to spend at the maximum eleven earthly months there. It’s a prison sentence, not nearly as unforgiving as the eternal Christian hell, though in history there have been seven mortals deemed too wicked and unrepentant to ever leave the place. Hell is meant to be a sort of crucible where the iniquities of the soul are recognized and purged in preparation for its eventual ascent to the next world, thought to be Paradise.
This a concept shared with the Chinese and Hindu, who have Diyu and naraka respectively, both realms ordered and subdivided to dish out punishments befitting the degree of the individual’s sins, but with the understanding that once the soul is sufficiently corrected, it ascends to a higher existence.
Though I had always thought the nine circles of hell to be solely Dante’s invention in The Inferno, interestingly, Mayan mythology has the tradition of Xibalba, a deep well of nine levels of which (like in Dante) the lowest is the most terrible. Likewise, Islam has Zamharee, the lowest point of hell (again reserved for the worst offenders) which is said to be a place of unbearable cold.
So what’s the weather like in hell? Well, it seems to be as unpredictable as spring in Chicago. It’s alternately freezing and it’s hot enough to melt metal (hence the seemingly contradictory phrases ‘hotter’n hell’ and ‘colder’n hell’) – whichever you hate the most, I should think. Ancient Egyptian and Christian sources both describe a lake of fire, and some medieval illuminations depict demons shoving sinners though holes in an icy lake which burns beneath.
Who else is in hell besides sinners? Not just demons or devils, according to Judaic sources, which describe angels (and not just fallen angels either) pulling shifts in hell as gatekeepers and sometimes even tormentors. With all the souls constantly leaving and entering hell, there is a conveyance of heavenly load bearers who lift individuals at the end of their sentence free and clear of hell and take them to their heavenly abode. Lucifer’s there of course, along with all his cronies that got the boot after their failed rebellion. Looking at the art of Hieronymous Bosch or Swanenburg one sees a whole palette of unpleasant creatures, which in The Merkabah Rider series are proper demons – not corrupted angels but creatures of hell itself born of the nocturnal dream copulation of succubi and mortals – ghastly amalgamations of fish/insect/animal/bird/what-have-you. Mystical works like the Lemegeton and Waite’s comments on the Qliphoth describe all kinds of nasty beings – demons who appear ‘sometimes like a cat, sometimes like a toad, sometimes like a man, and sometimes in all these forms at once.’ One intriguing bit of info I came across in the Gedulat Moshe (a medieval book in which the angel Metatron gives Moses a tour of Gehenna) states that hell itself is a creature that has an eternal, insatiable hunger for the souls of man.
How about points of interest in hell? Well, the ‘judicial’ divisions previously mentioned and the lake of fire aside, we often read of hell as a great pit, an abyss with many levels, a kind of tapering cone. Judaism described rivers of fire, bile, and poison flowing down into it.
For my own depiction of hell, I drew a lot from John Milton, particularly after having seen the artist John Martin’s paintings for Paradise Lost. In Milton (and in Merkabah Rider) the chief fallen angels under Lucifer maintain a stately residence at the edge of the lake of fire, called Pandaemonium, which he controversially alludes to being somewhat like Solomon’s Temple in appearance (Milton’s personal commentary on the dangers of idolatry, even in architecture). Lucifer is said to build Pandaemonium upon landing in hell immediately after his failed rebellion.
So, there’s a good deal to sift through when plotting a visit to hell if you look around, and amazingly, much of it can be made to more or less coalesce with seemingly opposing sources. This may seem odd when writing about eternal damnation, but casting many nets and finding the same fish turning up in different seas warms my heart. If Ancient Egyptians and modern day Christians can have the same ideas about hell, might they also have the same notions about other, more pleasant things?
The great thing about writing is being able to pick the best (or in this case the worst) bits you find and mix them all into a gumbo of your own recipe.
Here’s a taste of what I came up with. Mind you don’t scorch yourself on the spoon.
The rain of blood sluiced down in torrents from the carved granite gutter spouts on the ledges of Abaddon high above, where the bodies of the unrepentant were systematically torn to pieces and constantly reassembled haphazardly by brutish, clawed hands. Limbs and organs fell too, cast haphazardly into the center like offal from a butcher’s block. Droning locusts the size of horses with women’s faces and flowing hair and red crowns caught the discarded matter in mid-air and gobbled it up with serrated teeth.
The Rider watched in morbid fascination as one of the locust things contended with a whole flock of squawking, flaming ravens, each bearing the angry red face of a bawling infant, over a rare prize; the twisting, howling figure of a naked, corpulent man. Then an enormous figure with the head of a mottled, fur-less cat and six-fingered hands waving excitedly like flippers from its shoulders reared up from the fog of ash and cinder and batted both warring parties aside. It gobbled the man up like a grub, then scuttled up the wall of the infernal cistern, its slick, millipede body disappearing into one of the side tunnels from which issued a brook of steaming bile….