(This appeared in the Lifted Brow’s No. 6 issue, an Atlas of the World. Writers were invited to choose their own sites, real or imaginary, and describe them in words, sounds, or images. Too bad it’s sold out! It’s fabulous.)
There are at least as many Hells as there are Providences. Hell is an unincorporated collection of souls near Ann Arbor, Michigan. There was once a Hell in Southern California whose founder was the sole member of its Chamber of Commerce, but which has since been paved over by a succession of federal highways. Hell is a city in Poland, a village in Norway, and a family of limestone formations in the Grand Caymans. There’s a Hell in Holland and a Hell’s Gate in the Netherlands Antilles. Hellville is in Madagascar, Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan, and somewhere there must be a Hellburg. All of these Hells are real, but none is true. When we tell somebody to go to Hell, we’re not directing him toward Ann Arbor.
The Valley of Hinnom, a ravine southwest of Jerusalem now flourishing greenly, is all that remains of the Old Testament Hell of Gehenna. Once the home of Ahaz and other barbarous, child-sacrificing idolaters, it soon became an object lesson–the Sodom of Jeremiah’s day–and a rubbish and sewage dump whose fires burned continually. Gehenna, then, was a real Hell, but again not the true one, only a smelly, smoking symbol.
And this is the problem with Hell: from the very beginning its geographic reality has been undercut by poets and prophets, because, like the rainbow and the unicorn and the Leaning Phallus of Albitragh, it begs to be symbolically used. Hell is the ultimate mixed metaphor, a slippery slope paved with good intentions and navigated by hand basket as every scrap of hope is jettisoned by the bucketful. Hell is war and other people and eternal solitude, or commuting five-days-a-week on the I-15 between Escondido and San Diego. Everyone has an “idea” of hell. If you troll the internet, you’ll find that hell is a three-month school holiday, a blind date, your idea of heaven, being force-fed the works of Henry James, the legalisation of all-night drinking in the UK, one night at the Hotel California, and five minutes with Arlene Massover. This is ridiculous, because, again, when we consign enemies, lovers, strangers, and inanimate objects to Hell, we’re not talking about ideas. We are wishing them into a real and seriously unpleasant place.
A place with a sulfurous atmosphere the temperature of roiling lava which bottoms out in a lake frozen solid with blood and guilt, but no, it isn’t Chicago, because the freezing wind comes not from Ontario but from the flapping wings of Lucifer, and because the music in Hell is appalling–unbearable for every single human listener, which is quite a feat. Out-of-tune trombones are featured, ditto cat-scratch violas, but that’s only the half of it. Hell is outside of time, atemporal, which means arrhythmic, so you can’t dance, even in agony, and the percussion instruments are cheesy: cowbells, cymbals, and tambourines. Though also kettledrums, according to Randy Newman, who should know. Instead of songs, there are screams, shrieks, yowls, the calls of predatory birds, and incessant cretinous laughter, the latter once actually recorded in 1923 by Karl Valentin and Liesl Karlstadt.
The architecture of hell is intricate. In Buddhist and Taoist mythology Hell, or Diyu, involves ten courts and at least eighteen levels, where specific punishments (freezing in ice, dismemberment by chariot, being devoured by maggots) are assigned to sins. Dante’s Inferno is a funnel of nine descending, teeming circles, the deepest of which famously houses traitors (Judas and Brutus), and not child killers and Hitler. We know about the architecture through the dreams of poets and theologians and a California real-estate agent who once spent twenty-three minutes in a ten-by-fifteen-foot cell being lacerated by demons before getting airlifted back to his house.
Just as everyone claims to know where the anus of the world is located, usually because they grew up there, so everybody has at one time or another identified Hell On Earth. But Hell is not aboveground. Hell is not a battlefield, a prison, a classroom, or a bureaucratic process. Who goes to Hell, and why, and for how long, and what goes on there, these are all matters of conjecture, but Hell itself is a real place with a real location.
Hell is at a point latitude 41 degrees, 51 minutes, 42 seconds North, longitude 71 degrees, 27 minutes, 31 seconds West, twenty-four miles beneath the chlorinated waters of the Salvatore Mancini Natatorium in North Providence, Rhode Island.