Dante saw Hell as punishment for misdirected passion. Those who loved a behavior more than they loved God got an ironic end.
Dante knew if you are need some unique take on damnation, the obvious isn’t most interesting Hell.
I’ve had Inferno on my reading list for a long time, but I have a hard time getting into it. Dante didn’t mean it as a literal map of damnation, I know. Yet through the circles freezing, fiery, and fecal, teeming with billions of wicked souls, to find Satan gnawing at Brutus as one of the Three Most Evil Men Ever is quite a letdown.
The language is beautiful, though.
Considering this question about creating a Hell for some fiction, I learned a bit about where our passion has gone in the last century.
Our ideas of Hell have been tsunamis of desire. Hell is what happens when you get everything you want beyond any concept of health.
Clive Barker designed a Hell for Materialists. Dominated by an infinite maze, ruled by inscrutable sentient pyramid Lord Leviathan, his Hell is populated by the Cenobites who exist only to either create the art of pain, or wage eternal war on flesh (depending on the story). In “The Hellbound Heart” and in the several dozen “Hellraiser” movies, there is no Heaven, only safety by avoiding the louche and grotesque. There is no Eucharist, only milquetoast (SWIDT? “Bartlett’s” here I come!).
Very similar is Lovecraft’s original vision of the universe, where salvation means remaining comfortable in your New England cottage ignoring your desire for knowledge. Hell for Lovecraft meant being dragged helpless into fathomless depths, whether it’s as a brain canister to the planet Yuggoth, an unknown fate in the undersea of the Deep Ones, or a slave in the underground land of dream. He created a Hell for Skeptics, in that not only is all human science wrong, humans don’t even have the brainpower to understand.
(I ignore any addition to the Cthulhu Mythos beyond Lovecraft. Robert Howard wanted to create epics and C.A. Smith wanted passion plays.)
The 1970s presented Hell as gauche. A dinner party with your extended family gone stale but with Latin Rites on the stereo. It’s eternity with the Castavets of “Rosemary’s Baby”, or in stuck in the jerkwater burg of Malas in “The Devil’s Rain”, or locked in the brownstone of “The Sentinel.” The only crimes ever mentioned as damning a character were murder, suicide, and flat-out Satan Worship. The good believer was sucked into the abyss by being possessed or sacrificed after dabbling with Ouija boards or having the wrong bloodline. This was Hell if you Took Your Thing Too Far, Man.
This is where our culture has left us. Hell is now for jerks who can’t get along. Want your family to stop growing apart? Go to “Krampus” Hell where its Christmas morning for eternity. Can’t stomach self-sacrifice? Stay in Revelation era L.A. like “This Is The End”.
But what about the Hell your story needs?
What could Hell for Positivists be like? Frenzied, eternal stimulation and exhaustion? Unsurpassed bliss, but alone, always alone? Would there be Circles, like the First being for those who post mindless platitudes on Facebook, and the punishment being listening to that friend whose nice but really down for all eternity?
For Pessimists, Hell would be uncertainty in cause and effect. Being in the wrong place or time and seeing opportunities flit just out of reach. Lost in a roiling sea of millions of other souls, none of whom believe what you’ve seen. Hmm, Hell for Pessimists is Life.
Hell for Stoics could be like Samuel Beckett’s “Play” (Have a look. It’s brief and stars Alan Rickman). All ruminate privately over their gravest sins over and over, without expression, until emotions are ground to dust. It’s a Hell that every stage actor has faced, and is also quite British in its way.
In the comic series “Swamp Thing”, the evil magician Arcane is sent to Hell, where he is told Hell wouldn’t exist if people didn’t believe in it. For writer Alan Moore, Hell must be like this.
(Watch all the way through. More poignant than funny.)
One human’s Heaven is another’s Hell. Example: The Mormons allegedly believe that once a worshiper dies, that worshiper gets a planet to rule as a god. Meanwhile, countless souls would have to live on a planet designed by Donny Osmond.
How many sandwiches are being made by damned Feminists for blessed MRAs?
Anyway. Hell has to be that ironic sting.
Hell for Ferenghi may include toil and the gloating of those with better lobes, but watching their descendants lose. For Time Lords, Hell may be like a conscious one-dimensional fixed point in time and space, watching everything pass by.
I wrote up a race of intelligent gas bubbles. That race lived chemical reactions in a DNA laden gas within a membrane. Once popped, a bubble’s gas needed to be absorbed by another bubble to “live on.” Their passion would be toward creating the safest, most stimulating life for themselves and their progeny-foam with NO-SHARP OBJECTS. Hell would be some primordial soup with a gooey, lethal surface tension, filled with lost souls.
Sometime, maybe I’ll discuss why a theology is the second step toward creating an alien race.
We deserve better Hell than some spiteful gnawing. Create a better one for your world.