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Wheels within Wheels

The Patterns of Damnation

by David Carroll

First Appeared in Tabula Rasa#2, 1994

The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heav'n of hell, a hell of heav'n
     Paradise Lost
     John Milton
Let's talk about hell for a bit, shall we? It is a subject that always has a slight burr on the edge, for horror fans, because the infernal regions are a place of Righteous Punishment, a place where big-G God sends those who disappoint him. The whole fire and brimstone thing has gone a bit out of fashion lately as Christianity tries to catch up with a world where religion by guilt doesn't work so well any more. The concept of hell is a little confused in popular parlance, be it wild reference's to Dante's Inferno or to the realm of endless parties celebrated in the heavier side of modern music. Perhaps one linking element is that Satan, Lucifer, the Adversary, Randall Flagg, whatever, is one cool, one suave, dude. Perhaps not -- a few years ago I heard a description from a fundamentalist that said hell was a grey place, removed from God's love (I didn't ask her about limbo, or purgatory, or the place where you are from which you can see the light, so we'll skirt round that subject for now [1]). There's even a song (and I'm sure there's lots of them) I like, out a while ago now, that claims its protagonist to be in hell, simply because his girlfriend left him. One, two, three, awwhhh.

Let's leave modern perceptions and religion to their own strange devices then, and talk about the literature, which is what we're here for in the first place. I'm not going to be necessarily literal in my examples -- I'm not going to insist on dualism or eternity or punishment or even the supernatural -- and not even pain, strictly speaking, though it plays a large part in the selection criteria. But we'll be talking about places you're not going to be comfortable being in, nor even thinking such places might, do, must exist.

And the first is, of course, Dante's Inferno. If you haven't already, go and admire Daniel's handiwork and get a feel for what Dante had in mind. The Inferno is a physical pit, stretching between the surface and the centre of the Earth -- the entrance being found somewhere near Jerusalem (in a dark wood). Its actual placement wasn't of Dante's design -- popular geography at the time had it that when Satan fell he went through the Southern hemisphere, dislocating all the land (through simple repulsion at the Fallen's presence) up to Northern climes. The ocean rushed in to fill the gap, leaving a hemisphere of land and one of water. Further, the material at the centre of the earth was also displaced, forming a huge mountain at the South Pole -- Mount Purgatory no less. But while the poet borrowed from a lot of classical sources as raw material, he was responsible for the divisions of sinners and the layout as shown here. It is a realm of pouring rain and falling fire, boiling blood and eternal conflict, populated by the likes of Pluto and Charon from pre-Christian mythologies, and the Minotaur and centaurs, and the big guy himself (who isn't so much suave as simply there -- all several hairy kilometres of him -- apparently spending eternity eating Judas, Cassius and Brutus) and of course the damned, the untold millions, who aren't comfortable in the slightest.

It seems that many people attribute the modern scheme of the Pit to Dante, but a quick perusal of the centrefold will tell you that this simply isn't true. The modern hell is a realm of fire populated by little more than demons and the damned. This is Milton's image, written three hundred and forty years later, and he isn't one of the examples needed for this essay so you'll just have to come back next issue [2]. Indeed there are scarcely any details from the earlier poem that have caught on in a big way -- even Neil Gaiman's meticulous research hasn't gone beyond using the Grove of Suicides -- 'the wood of suicides has changed since my last visit to hell. I remember it as a tiny grove. Now it resembles a forest. Hell is changing' [122]. Even such details as the River Styx are unfamiliar to us -- in Dante the Styx is one of the four great rivers in Hell, and is in fact a marsh navigated by Phlegyus, whilst Charon works the graveyard shift across the Acheron.

And while we're being so negative, there's one more thing that the Inferno isn't, not for us at least. The actual poem may be about journey through hardship into the presence of God, but that is not the reason it has proved so fascinating. In comparison to Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso are little known even by name. Peter Greenaway and Tom Philips directed a version of the first third of the trilogy and not the last two -- and why? Because they're boring. Maybe not so much the text itself (which I can't comment on -- I haven't read them either) but the whole idea just doesn't have the same allure, the air of fascination. The idea of a moral journey is important in understanding the poet himself, and will be discussed there, but doesn't cut much when talking about his most famous work. Dorothy Sayers may say that studying no more than the Inferno is like reporting on a great city after a tour of the sewers (but she's dead so tough). This also very neatly sidesteps a lot of the theological uneasiness that may accompany the subject and allows us to concentrate on the structure at hand.

And the structure is what is important, the incredible detail gone into the planning of the eternal torture of wayward souls. After the vestibule and limbo (where those that never got the chance to acknowledge the Christian faith, but were nonetheless good little boys and girls, spend a lot of time sighing) Hell is divided into three areas, each represented by an animal Dante encounters at the start of his journey (the protagonist of the poem is the author himself). They are the sins of self-gratification (represented by the leopard), the sins of violence (the lion) and the sins of malice (the wolf). Each is then subdivided into further areas representing a single transgression -- for example, violence is divided into violence against neighbours, self and God -- with a particular punishment to fit the crime. Respectively for those examples: immersion in a river of boiling blood, becoming a withered, sterile tree in the grove of suicides or lying supine, facing God's wrath in the form of raining fire. Other notable examples include the flatterers being immersed in filth, the lustful forever being blown in the wind, and the thieves forever stealing each other's form (more explicitly, they take on the shape of reptiles and bite their co-inhabitants to regain human shape). Some punishments are seemingly more arbitrary; the crime of simony (the act of trafficking in holy objects or offices) is punished by being held upside down in a hole while fire is played over the feet. This has been described as a response to inverting the natural order of things, which seems a bit of a reach to me.

All in all there are twenty-two subdivisions of sin. The level you are sent to is decided by Minos, who will hit you with his tail the appropriate number of layers you have to fall (and though I don't think it's ever explicitly stated, I presume if you are guilty of more than one sin you will be sent to the lowest level you are eligible for). There is certainly room for individual punishments in this scheme of things -- we've already mention Brutus and co. being munched on by Satan in the centre of the innermost area -- reserved for traitors. Another good example is to be found in the bowge of hypocrites (each bowge, by the way, is simply a large circular trench, the ten of them making a Malbowge). There the damned are forced to wear heavy leaden cloaks with gilt lining. It is also the residence of Caiaphas, the high priest who condemned Jesus to death -- he has been crucified on the floor of the trench and endlessly trampled by those around him.

One of the most powerful images of the piece is, however, at the centre where the traitorous spend their days (those not used as everlasting gobstoppers, that is). This is the last of the great rivers of Hell, the Cocytus, and it is a frozen wasteland, unchanging. Towards the edge the damned are immersed to their necks, further inwards they are completely encased in ice. This is the heart of the Inferno, not hot rage, but cold, silent suffering.

There are a number of quibbles the modern audience may have with this complete scheme of things. The actual scheme of the place is still reasonably valid -- it would be nice to say that the 'criminals against nature', homosexuals, would no longer be considered as such, but I'm not sure the majority of Christians would agree. The main point of contention is the attitude of Dante himself -- he starts his journey grieving the damned souls he meets, but by the end he has come to realise the necessity, the moral righteousness of the suffering around him. Much debate could be, and has been, centred around this topic, which we don't have the space to go into -- certainly this so-called modern audience would be more interested in the damned's own thoughts on this matter, as provided, for example, by Dan Simmons (more about that in the Dante article). But it is interesting to examine a modern interpretation of the story, such an example being given by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle in their 1977 novel Inferno, about a science fiction writer's journey through the nether regions. The first thing to say about this book is that it is appallingly badly written and any interest therein must be found in spite of the prose -- but we'll press on regardless. Several minor changes have been made to the architecture of Hell, most notably the creation of a new section for fanatical industrial developers and environmental terrorists -- the two set against each other, one trying to build a bridge, the other tearing it down. Speaking of environmentalism, the grove has now become a wasteland; the cyclamate bit seems rather petty and a space observatory has been added to Limbo for no apparent reason. They have also changed the emphasis of the section for gays -- now seemingly an area for the more indiscriminate (more emotionally-sterile, perhaps) sexual acts of orgies and the like. And while the protagonist (SF writer Allen Carpentier) is continually losing his 'faith' in a scientific basis for the area in which he finds himself, he never loses his outrage at its existence -- the punishments may be apt, but only as the result of 'infinite power and infinite sadism'.

Which leads us very nicely indeed into the next of our three major example of hell -- this one being in no unearthly (or subearthly) sphere but contained within the château Silling, at the top of a mountain in Germany. And no need to worry about eternity here, either -- four months is all we need consider, or, more precisely, one hundred and twenty days. Of Sodom.

The Marquis de Sade and the events surrounding the lost manuscript of Les 120 Journées de Sodome, ou l'Ecole du libertinage will be covered in issue four, but the work itself fits here well enough. It is a novel of rape, blasphemy and torture, and more than that it is an unrelenting depiction of the limits of domination one person can exert over another. It presents an intolerable society, but a self-consistent one that extends a portion of our own.

The plot, what there is of it, concerns four 'friends', as they are called, Président du Curval, the Duc de Blangis, Durcet, and the 'Bishop of X***'. These four gentlemen were related insofar that each had married one of the other's daughters, and one year they all decided on a holiday up at château Silling, taking along the daughters, four storytellers (experienced whores, averaging over sixty years of age), eight young girls, eight young boys, eight fuckers (twenty to thirty year-old men) and a couple of cooks. The party, environs and rules of conduct are described in great detail in the introduction, the body of the text being taken up by one chapter for each of the days. And each day would follow the same general pattern -- the assemblage would meet in the one room and one of the whores would describe five depravities she had heard of, or had been a party to. The four friends could then enact their pleasures on their daughters and young harems, with the assistance of the fuckers.

This would simply happen over and over, until the end of the 120 days (though another twenty days was actually taken to dispose of the majority of survivors, whereon sixteen of the original forty-six returned to Paris). It didn't quite work out that way -- the novel was never finished; the introduction and first of the four months are complete [3], the remainder is described only in point-form. Once again the reasons for all this will be given later on, suffice to say it was written on a single scroll in the Bastille, and was lost when the prison was stormed.

The appeal of The 120 Days of Sodom isn't easy to define. It's not well-written, it's often repetitive and its cruelties are hard to stomach. Simone de Beauvoir says in her essay Must we Burn Sade? (found in [93]) that 'even his admirers will readily admit that his work is, for the most part, unreadable; philosophically, it escapes banality only to founder in incoherence'. One attraction has to be that simple ownership of this book is against the law in certain parts of the world, notably Britain. It's also not a bad candidate for a sort of literary game of chicken -- how far can you go without flinching, or even how far can you go, if such things are of interest. Unfortunately, the fact that three quarters of the book is in point-form adds to the impression that it is simply a litany of atrocities. This is obviously not the format the author had in mind. In fact, while the book is clearly a fantasy in the sense that the protagonist's pleasures are too easily and flawlessly come by (there is no rebellion here, just acceptance and pain), and their preparations too thorough (Silling is at the top of a high and difficult mountain in the Black Forest, across a narrow bridge to an otherwise unassailable peak -- when the party arrived the bridge was cut, and the gates barricaded so 'there was no longer any trace left of where the exits had been'), there is more than a few moments of credibility, where a character or situation or event jumps out and says this could happen. This often manifests itself in small details, or in the carefully detailed background where characters interact and reappear. I have said it is not well written, but it's not badly written either, and the arguments given are often persuasive [4].

What is most fascinating, and of greatest value, about the work is not that he comes up with six hundred debaucheries, but that they are organised in a rigidly defined framework -- a system of perversion. Like Dante before him, he is categorising sin.

The time in Silling is divided into four months, each containing one hundred and fifty perversions (the months in question are November through to February, and the differing number of days in each means that the scheme of five per day isn't strictly adhered to). Each storyteller provides her services for one month, and the subject matter of each is, respectively, simple passions, complex passions, criminal passions and murderous passions. The first is basically one-on-one sexual endeavours, including rape, lashings, coprophilia (the eating of shit), psychological torment and the like. The second lot generally involve more people, more complicated torments and also a couple of days devoted to sacrilegious acts (you know, 74: chops [the Host] up with a knife and rams it up his arsehole). The third are a variety of non-fatal tortures, both psychological and, more often, physical (73: He writes letters and words upon her breasts, working with a needle which has a poisoned tip; her breasts become infected, and she suffers accordingly). The fourth is self-explanatory (118: clothed in a mare's skin, his arsehole smeared with mare's fuck, a small boy is surrendered to an excited horse. The libertine observes their struggles and the boy's death). Each of the events of a day are related, and over the course of each month there is a steady progression.

Chateau Silling, by Kyla Ward

Chateau Silling, by Kyla Ward

Two quick points are to be made, then we can go back to the original subject, and find out what all this has to do with hell. Firstly: remember Mad Max, the bit at the end where Max forces the punk to try and saw through his wrist to escape? Alan Moore later used the same idea in Watchmen -- and Sade had it in 120 Days, two hundred years ago. Remember the furore over American Psycho, the rat scene in particular? Sade's got that as well. There's nothing new under the sun, as they say.

And secondly: Sade's system isn't perfect, and he manages to get in an extra sin during the second and third month, and then runs two short on the fourth, mainly because of mistakes in his numbering. I have heard it claimed that betrays a fatal flaw, the methodology of evil can never be perfect, etc, etc. Once again I point out that the only version completed is an early draft and notes, and we perhaps shouldn't be too picky.

The suffering of the damned in the Inferno and the daughters and harems in Silling is not caused by any random violence, but carefully thought out and exquisitely applied torture. These two examples show the importance of patterns -- the difference between the amoral and the immoral, between insanity and evil. Milton also makes this point -- in the gulf that Satan must travel between Hell and the Earth Chaos reigns -- literally. Chaos agrees to let Satan pass because he promises his mission is to spread some little-c chaos around. Once Adam and Eve are suitably tempted, however, a bridge is forged between the Earth and Hell -- something Chaos couldn't have been too thrilled about.

And while I'm not on firm theological ground here, I believe one of the implications of the inscription on the gates of the Inferno (see the end of Dante) is that Hell was the last eternal structure created by God -- after this came the Earth, wherein things broke down and died. In Silling there were strict laws, careful rituals, a pattern of events. It was hell. And Hell itself is all this, and the culmination of God's plans for the universe beyond our small and struggling globe.

Such is the classical model. What approach does modern literature take to the same problem? Firstly, it must be understood that the trends are against it. Horror these days is the domain not of structure but of emotions. I have already mentioned Niven and Pournelle's Inferno is badly-written -- perhaps this is more a reaction to the fact that it is a novel concerned with ideas (it is, after all, presented as Science Fiction, a genre I have lost much of my original interest in) than their impact. H. P. Lovecraft was successful because of his pantheon of beings with their own logic, and much was made of the search for patterns beyond the comprehension of mere mortals. But Lovecraft is the last great non-modern horror writer, so we'll try a little closer to home.

The obvious example must be Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1976 adaption of 120 Days, Salo. It has slightly different concerns with its source text, being an examination of fascism, and introduces some of the realities Sade ignored -- notably rebellion. The moment where one of the young men is found breaking the rules and gives a power salute in defiance is immensely powerful, and forces his tormentors to break their own rules by simply shooting him where he stands, thus foregoing further torments. This however, is the most relief rebellion could provide, and the maid who jumped from a top-storey window (they weren't up the top of a mountain in this version) seemed to have the right idea. Further, whilst there was no way the incredibly rigid structure of the novel could be transferred to celluloid, the idea of it remained. Once again we had four friends who would listen to a group of prostitutes detailing perversions, and enacting them on a harem of innocents -- after a methodical selection process. But this time the narrative was divided into three chapters -- the introduction, in which the participants were selected, the circle of tyrants, the circle of shit and the circle of blood. Once again we see divisions of sin, and a steadily increasing level of abuse (not to mention a steadily decreasing audience [5]).

Two examples of novels that combine structure with emotional impact are Frank Herbert's Dune and George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four. I mention the latter simply because it is a richly detailed look not only at domination, but the structure and means and reasons of domination. Dune, however, provides an interesting point. It is a novel about religion and the politics of power, and an analogue between Arrakis, known commonly as Dune, and hell is reasonably simple to make. And on the surface of Arrakis, patterns are deadly -- only a carefully maintained non-rhythmic gait will avoid luring the sandworms.

But the best example is newer than all of these, and certainly more properly horror than the previously mentioned novels. This is the work of Clive Barker, and specifically, Hellraiser.

A quick mention first of 'Down Satan!', one of Clive's short stories in The Books of Blood. It tells of the tycoon Gregorius and his attempts to find God -- or rather, evoke God's sympathies by placing himself in extremis -- putting himself at the mercy of the suave one himself. To do so he constructs New Hell, 'the size of half a dozen cathedrals, and boasted every faculty the Angel of the Pit could desire'. It's actually a very short story, so I won't describe much more of it, but it provides one of the few examples of an explicitly Catholic idea of damnation -- such things, like evil cults and Black Masses are out of favour with the horror genre these days. The story itself is lacking in details as to the structure behind the design, speaking briefly of Sade and Dante, and striations of ice and fire. It would have been interesting to see the idea further developed, to see what Clive would have made of it, but really, the story is complete -- it has a different agenda.

The hell that is implied in Hellraiser, and made explicit in Hellraiser II: Hellbound is by no means a Catholic, or Christian, one. It exists for those who search for it, filled with power-games and betrayal by those who revel in such things. And here too there is little that is random.

In the first movie there is no explicit reference to this, but there are lots of clues. Firstly and most significant there is the Lemarchand's Configuration, a puzzle that, once solved, opens the doorway. This aspect is later emphasised so that, in the second movie, we have the girl Tiffany whose knack for puzzle solving is used as a key. The stories presented in Epic comic's Clive Barker's Hellraiser also advance the theme. Wordsworth, by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean in issue 20, for example, shows a man's descent into Hell as he completes an intimate and indelicate crossword puzzle, whereas in the same issue Del Stone Jr and Mark Hempel's Girl in the Peephole has a puzzle in the form of a combination lock twisting to form the word 'love'.

Then there are the Cenobites, princes of the realm (the word refers to a type of monk). These are the creations that brought to the fore the recent trend in scarification, but there is something more in their mutilations than simple pain or the trophies of it. The nails in Pinhead's skull have been hammered in precise lines, dividing the head into neat squares and rectangles. Similarly the elaborate apparatus nurturing the wounds in the Female Cenobite's neck (this character was the leader of the four in the original novella, though her wounds were elsewhere) speak of careful deliberation -- something also implied by the very name of the fifth of the group -- the Engineer (and if the Undead Dragon means anything, I have yet to work it out). In the third movie, Hell on Earth, the mutilations went further, examples of what I have heard referred to as Dantean Irony -- the CDs embedded in the skull of the DJ, and so forth. Frankly, this, along with the one-liners sprouted by various parties including Pinhead (and the bad special effects, and...), was what made the whole thing immensely shallow and hardly worth the effort, despite some well-written and realised characters.

And lastly there is Hell itself. Hellbound, while not living up to the original, isn't that bad a movie once it gets itself sorted out. It's also looks rather cheap, perhaps because it is trying for so much more than its predecessor. Still, Hell as a maze of dusty corridors ruled over by Leviathan, a huge eight-faced solid figure, is yet another example of patterns shaping the infernal domains.

One of the powers of hell over the imagination has been the immediacy with which it has been rendered. Naturally there are the ideas of tailoring hell to various situations -- for example, Dante provided us with a hell whose heart is frozen, and certain churches in Brittany also advanced the idea Hell is cold, not for any reasons of theology or structure, but because a warm hell may sound too inviting to the churchgoers during their particularly bitter winters. But hell is more than that -- hell is placed in a specific location, whereas Heaven is somewhere out beyond space, or something. Hell is detailed when heaven is vague.

It is a area of fascination, because hell is, simply, the worst case scenario. We may not be able to prepare for it, but we can speculate in wonder.


[1] All sort of rude jokes about Melbourne surface at this point, but better judgement prevails. I will mention however (though I'm not sure I even like it, simply because of last few seconds which make more logical than emotional sense to me), that Jacob's Ladder is a superbly made and really scary movie about the space between dying and not. Fearless comes to mind as well, but we'll leave Mr Weir to talk about that one.

[2] There's lots of confusion about this, as I said, but people like Lord Dunsany aren't helping -- in his short story 'The Two Bottles of Relish' the narrator says 'I mean you don't have to quote the whole of the Inferno to show that you've read Milton; half a line may do it' [123]. Then again, it's likely a jab at just this sort of thing...

[3] Though they come with annotations and reminders Sade has made as to changes he should make in the second draft. My favourite two are 'also a few more touches to the descriptions of the children's Faces' and 'I must be particularly careful to have a notebook beside me at all times... otherwise I'll get horribly confused because of the multitude of characters' [93].

[4] His skills as a writer cannot be totally disregarded by any means. There is a short story by Sade called 'Florville and Courval' which, despite some obvious problems of credibility, is both thought-provoking and very funny. He also penned insightful non-fiction on, among other things, literary history (and speaking of very funny, you should read some of his replies to criticism of his work, but I digress).

[5] Steve Carter of SCAR points out that those leaving do so for the gesture, to make a point of their moral superiority over the film and the remaining audience. It sounds credible enough, but I don't think it's necessarily so -- it's a great movie, but an unpleasant experience.


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