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Heaven Beside You, Hell Within (Cantos X – XXXIV)


(This is part five of a five-part series on Hell and horror – you can read the other posts in this series here.)

Down and down we fell like lightning into depths unplumbed and dark, two falling flames amidst an endless void. I called to David Bowie, trusted guide and ghostly muse: “Are we to fall forever?”

“No,” said he, “our destination now is near.” And within moments we had touched down lightly on the dark and sunless core of Hell. The rocky ground was bare; the air cold, stale, and thick. Around us implements of torture stood unused, in cobwebs shrouded like forgotten wedding gowns. No sinner was in sight, no demon there to greet or caution us, no flames, no punishment.

“Is this,” I asked, “the secret, then, of Hell? That it is empty and unoccupied?”

“Not quite,” said Bowie, “look there, just ahead.”

And through the gloom I saw a gleam, a flash. I stepped with care through fog and shadows, treading slow until I saw it, cold as calculus, revealed.

The heart of Hell: a mirror. Nothing more nor less.

And then I woke.


I don’t believe in Hell, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think about Hell. In addition to writing about horror for Madness Heart Press, I write horror fiction. Primarily short fiction (although my first novel, A Baptism for the Dead, is available now!), much of which you can find links to here. In the course of creating imaginary worlds and populating them with horrors, I have had many opportunities to provide my own map of Hell. I have considered many metaphors; I think most of them still apply, and that it’s useful to keep more than one of them in mind at the same time.

I have thought about Hell as a garden; maybe even the Garden, the famous one that some naked folks got kicked out of. I have thought of Hell as the living reality we currently occupy, an inverted hierarchy of anarchistic free thinkers, even as the ruins of what once was heaven. Of all the metaphors I’ve considered, however, I think that the most apt is that Hell is a mirror.

Just as humanity made the various gods we’ve worshiped, we constructed the Hells that we’ve believed in and we’ve populated them with those we think deserve punishment. The real core of Hell, the root, the deepest heart is in the meaty material reality of the human brain – specifically, the ways in which evolution has shaped our concepts of “revenge” and “justice.” There are a number of books on this subject. I’ve read two: the absolutely excellent Behave by Robert Sapolsky and Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature, which I can’t in good conscience recommend although it has some interesting portions and a few good points. Despite Pinker’s many shortcomings, he and Sapolsky are in agreement about how the human brain is wired to experience the world and the ways in which our biology gives rise to our morality and to concepts like revenge.

The ways in which we’ve punished humans for their misbehavior, animal natures, sins, heresies, apostacies, and violations of the various moral codes we’ve invented are, in a word, horrific. Our species is endlessly inventive and fond of tools, so even a cursory rundown of some of the means of torture and punishment that we’ve employed is enough to make you physically ill (a phenomenon also explained by the structures of our brain!) and to give a person nightmares. Likewise, our visions of Hell have been studies in atrocity – even the concept of “eternal” punishment is almost inconceivable, if you stop to consider for even a moment how long eternity is.

Whether you view the decline of physical punishment as part of “the civilizing process” (Pinker) or a function of capitalism’s adoption of “disciplines” and the panopticon (Foucault), one can’t dispute that the trend in torture and physical punishment in most of the world is on a downward trajectory. And yet, despite that, our taste for hell and our taste for horror have remained consistent. Why is this, if we are on a so-called “escalator of progress” away from such base instincts? Why does our thirst for blood persist, if our actual, real-world blood guzzling has declined? It could b e that horror and Hell are ways that we sublimate our destructive impulses – “Purge and Purify,” if you will. It could be that while capitalism stands to profit from simulated bloodshed, it needs workers and consumers to keep their innards on the inside and not show up to their cubicles all roughed up like a common Tyler Durden.

However, I think the answer is that horror – and Hell – are mirrors of our internal life. While societies – human artifices built of social webs and complicated agreements – have evolved significantly in the last ten thousand years or so, the human brain has changed almost as little as the human body. When we look into the dark mirror of horror, when we conjure Hells to punish transgressors and satisfy our itch for revenge, we are hearkening back to the same instincts, the same emotional processes and chemical soup that human thought has always emerged from. Horror and Hell are phantom manifestations of our lizard brain. They are atavisms, and that explains why their appeal is difficult to articulate to people who do not share the weird array of mental misfires that creates a horror fan. It is, essentially, a pre-rational, sub-rational phenomenon.

Which means that, in the end, we carry Hell within us. Each of us is the Lucifer of our own inner landscape; liberated, if we so choose. Damned, if we choose that instead. Pick your own Dante, choose your own adventure, and take a tour of your own ideas of what horror is and means. Good luck, and remember; some things you can’t un-see, including those within yourself.

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