Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

The place to which the Souls of the damned are consigned after death or the Last Judgement. Proto-Hells, like the Greek Hades and the Hebrew Sheol, tend to be dark and dismal but not particularly nasty; the Norse Niflheim (also known as Hel) is similarly bleak. The idea that all Souls would share the same dreary fate was first put about by Zoroastrians and later by Jewish apocalyptic writers (> Jewish Religious Literature), Christians and followers of Islam. The Zoroastrian arena of posthumous punishment was cold, but the Jewish Gehenna was fiery, and the idea of hellfire was adopted with enthusiasm by Christians. Hell then became the place to which Satan and his rebel Angels were consigned after the war in Heaven, some becoming Demons charged with subjecting the damned to endless torture.

As the ultimate weapon of Christian spiritual terrorism Hell is much more fascinating to the literary imagination than Heaven; the Inferno is by far the best-known part of Dante's Divine Comedy (written circa 1320) and Book I of John Milton's Paradise Lost (1667), in which the expelled Satan raises the palace of Pandemonium, is very striking. Hellfire lurks in the wings of most Renaissance fantasy – notably Christopher Marlowe's Dr Faustus (1604) – and much Gothic Fantasy, but is rarely described in any detail; William Beckford's account of the Islamic Hell in Vathek (1786) is an exception. Much fuller descriptions are featured in works which treat the idea less seriously, especially many comedies and Satires; examples include A Houseboat on the Styx (1895) and its sequels by John Kendrick Bangs, Satan's Realm (1899) by Edgar C Blum, Efficiency in Hades (1923) by Robert B Vale, Ladies in Hades (1928) and its sequel by Frederick Arnold Kummer, several of the stories in The Devil and All (coll 1934) by John Collier, Hell's Bells (1936) by Marmaduke Dixey, Cold War in Hell (1955) by Harry Blamires and Chariot of Fire (1977) by E E Y Hales (1908-1986). The later and more heavily ironic novels follow the example of many other writers of Posthumous Fantasy in taking it for granted that the world in which we live has much about it that is quite Hellish enough – a line of thought extrapolated in Morwyn (1937) by John Cowper Powys, in "None but Lucifer" (1939) by H L Gold and L Sprague de Camp, in All Hallows' Eve (1945) by Charles Williams, in C S Lewis's The Great Divorce (1945), in To Hell, with Crabb Robinson (1962) by R H Mottram (1883-1971) and in Stanley Elkin's The Living End (1979).

The Hells of Spiritualist fantasy (> Spiritualism) are often rather anaemic, sometimes recalling the gloomy pre-Christian lands of the dead; examples include Letters from Hell (1887) by "L.W.J.S." (V. Thisted) and "On the Dark Mountains" (1888) by Mrs Oliphant. Elements of the classic Dantean image are preserved in such earnestly moralistic works as After (1930) by Lady Saltoun (1863-1940) and melodramas like C L Moore's "Black God's Kiss" (1934). Dante's Hell is recapitulated in all its horrific glory in Inferno (1976) by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle (1933-2017) and Only Begotten Daughter (1990) by James Morrow.

In the long series of Shared-World adventures begun with Heroes in Hell * (anth 1986; > Janet Morris), Hell becomes an arena in which all the interesting people in history can come together to continue the relentless pursuit of their various ends. Various versions of Hell are used as settings for Heroic Fantasy in Lloyd Arthur Eshbach's series begun with The Land Beyond the Gate (1984).

A notable nonfiction work tracking the evolution of the idea is The History of Hell (1993) by Alice K Turner. [BS]

see also: Afterlife; Inferno; Posthumous Fantasy.

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.