I have been working through some ideas of how to portray hell in my novel Hell has its Demons. If you read the synopsis of the story you’ll have noticed that it ends with a journey by some of the main characters into hell itself. As the story is set in the middle ages there is some quite rich imaginative material for how hell was seen. The most obvious example being Dante’s Inferno, which is a complex and masterfully imagined place. Other medieval portrayals often depict it as a pit of fire where sinners are eaten or tortured by demons, including Satan himself. Dante’s portrayal is more subtle – with complex punishments depending on the exact nature of the sin. Also he put Satan frozen in ice, doomed to remain there as he breathes out frozen air himself so ensuring he will never be able to break free. Peter Lombard, writing before Dante, said there were two opinions of Satan’s freedom. Either he was able to roam and tempt man on earth, or some others believed that he was bound in prison in hell until Antichrist should come, then he would be loosed to seduce men in the final days of apocalypse.
I have thought about approaching the portrayal from a different point of view. As I see it Satan is really doing a job for God – after all God wants sinners to be punished doesn’t he, and Satan sort of makes sure this process gets done. So in my version I think Satan will probably have his freedom, but set under strict limits by God. For instance he can’t go into the world and seduce people unless God wills it – for instance to test a candidate for sainthood maybe.
Punishing sinners is a fairly tedious and onerous job for most demons as well. They can’t appear in their own form, but rather as shadowy air – according to Peter Lombard – and there must have been a lot more work for them as the number of sinners constantly increases. I am thinking that there would need to be a strict shift pattern for demons and a hierarchy of supervisors to make sure things got done. I wondered what hell would be like if a modern dictator got his hands on it – well probably quite bureaucratic and efficient and that I think will influence my portrayal of hell in this story.
There will be traditional elements – demons will appear monstrous, but I wanted to add more complexity. Some of the demons will have been recruited from amongst men – just as angels could be created from saints – and perhaps some of these men might be a little less willing to do their hellish duty than others?