Book Hell!

"Perhaps at this moment, seven o'clock in the evening, a child is just going into Hell. To-morrow evening at seven o'clock, go and knock at the gates of Hell, and ask what the child is doing. The devils will go and look. Then they will come back again and say, the child is burning! Go in a week and ask what the child is doing; you will get the same answer—it is burning! Go in a year and ask; the same answer comes —it is burning! Go in a million of years and ask the same question; the answer is just the same —it is burning! So, if you go for ever and ever, you will always get the same answer —it is burning in the fire!"

"The Sight of Hell," Rev. John Furniss, C.S.S.R.

After reading Dantè's Divine Comedy through and through, a friend of mine—a non-Christian—told me that he'd rather spend eternity in Inferno than Paradiso.

"Why?" I asked him.

"Because nothing ever happens in Heaven," he said, echoing centuries of Divine Comedy readers.

A flip answer to the true believer, it reveals the genius of Hell. Hell has always seemed more real and vivid than heaven, and thus its threat carries more weight than a promise of perpetual bliss. No one can conceive of eternal satisfaction, but everyone can imagine stubbing their toe forever.

Roman Catholic Hell is the best of all Christian Hells. Fundamentalist Protestantism favors the Lake of Fire, an oceanic expanse of flame into which lost souls are given the heave-ho and left to burn in till the end of days and beyond. Catholic Hell, conversely, with no little help from Dantè, is an amazingly plastic cosmos with an entertaining assortment of ironical punishments performed with witty elan by a cast of demons and devils. From this, an amazing oral tradition has resulted, borne by storytellers in habits and cassocks. If you weren't raised Catholic, I pity you. You missed out on many a hair-raising yarn told by wizened Polish peasant women in penguin garb. At St. Damian's grade school, we didn't gather around campfires to hear ghost stories, we gathered around nuns to hear Hell Lore.

Disappointingly, like most folkways, Hell Lore stands in danger of dying out. Older Catholics can recall many hellish tales told them by addled Jesuits and Franciscans, while those in their 30s (of which the author is one) were lucky to have had at least one twisted sister holdover from the old days. As teaching grew more scientific, and society tried harder to prevent psychotics from teaching children, Hell Lore began dying out. Fortunately, many examples are preserved in book form.

The best literary example of Hell Lore appears in James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In one chapter, Steven Daedalus' priest spouts the following.

"They lie in exterior darkness. For, remember, the fire of Hell gives forth no light. As, at the command of God, the fire of the Babylonian furnace lost its heat but not its light, so, at the command of God, the fire of Hell, while retaining the intensity of its heat, burns eternally in darkness. It is a never ending storm of darkness, dark flames and dark smoke of burning brimstone, amid which the bodies are heaped one upon another without even a glimpse of air...

The horror of this strait and dark prison is increased by its awful stench... the bodies of the damned themselves exhale such a pestilential odour that, as Saint Bonaventure says, one of them alone would suffice to infect the whole world... Imagine some foul and putrid corpse that has lain rotting and decomposing in the grave, a jelly-like mass of liquid corruption. Imagine such a corpse a prey to flames, devoured by the fire of burning brimstone and giving off dense choking fumes of nauseous loathsome decomposition. And then imagine this sickening stench, multiplied a millionfold and a millionfold again from the millions upon millions of fetid carcasses massed together in the reeking darkness, a huge and rotting human fungus. Imagine all this, and you will have some idea of the horror of the stench of Hell.

But this stench is not, horrible though it is, the greatest physical torment to which the damned are subjected... the lake of fire in Hell is boundless, shoreless and bottomless. ...The blood seethes and boils in the veins, the brains are boiling in the skull, the heart in the breast glowing and bursting, the bowels a red-hot mass of burning pulp, the tender eyes flaming like molten balls..."

And so on. One imagines the older, earthier Joyce relishing his reenactment of a brimstone-spouting priest.

Brilliant as he was, in this instance Joyce was derivative if not lightly plagiaristic. While he undoubtedly heard a hellish folktale or two in Dublin, he likely came under the indirect influence of the very disturbing Rev. John Furniss.

A moderately notable 19th Century Irish-English priest, Fr. John Furniss was born in 1809, died in 1865, and did quite well in-between as a parish priest and minister to parentless waifs. "Suffer the little children to come unto me," was Furniss' proffered scripture. He could have shaved off the last four words. Furniss indeed took care of his orphans, but he was no cuddly huggy-bear. The aptly named Furniss loved to preach damnation to the kidlings, always leaving them crying in the pews. Furniss went on to define religious education for a generation of Irish children under his tutelage, which goes far in explaining Daedulus and Joyce's own educations. "Nothing so disgusted children as monotony," quoth Fr. Furniss. He fought short attention spans with rhapsodized rosary readings, terse sermons, and napalm-spraying descriptions of what awaited bad little boys and girls.

The best of Furniss' diatribes are collected in an 1880 anthology titled Tracts for Spiritual Reading Designed for First Communions, Retreats, Missions, & etc. (P.J. Kenedy, Excelsior Catholic Publishing House). Most of the tracts provide accounts of worthy saints or simple fables about avoiding the dangers of drink, dance, carnal relations, and Irish wakes. Other tales are sugary glurge about hardhearted atheist parents who crack as easily as Waterford crystal upon spying their saintly son or daughter fondling a rosary on their behalf. Melancholia tinges other tales, usually involving young sinners ready to join the choir invisible but too foolish to say confession or take communion until it is far too late. For good measure, several flaming ghosts escape from Hell, scare the crap out of the living, whine about how awful it is to live in Hell and how stupid they were to sin, before leaving simmering hand and footprints on the furniture or the hauntee's body. For pure sick genius though, nothing beats Furniss' most unforgettable tract, "The Sight of Hell." Page after page, children are burned, boiled, bludgeoned, skewered, sauteed, pithed, and mutilated. Suffer the little children? Oh yes, indeed they suffer.

"XXIV. The Dungeons of Hell.

The First Dungeon—A Dress of Fire

Job xxxviii. Are not thy garments hot? Come into this room. You see it is very small. But see, in the midst of it there is a girl, perhaps about eighteen years old. What a terrible dress she has on — her dress is made of fire. On her head she wears a bonnet of fire. It is pressed down close all over her head; it burns her head; it burns into the skin; it scorches the bone of the skull and makes it smoke. The red hot fiery heat goes into the brain and melts it... You do not, perhaps, like a headache. Think what a headache that girl must have. But see more. She is wrapped up in flames, for her frock is fire. If she were on earth she would be burnt to a cinder in a moment. But she is in Hell, where fire burns everything, but burns nothing away. There she stands burning and scorched; there she will stand for ever burning and scorched! She counts with her fingers the moments as they pass away slowly, for each moment seems to her like a hundred years. As she counts the moments she remembers that she will have to count them for ever and ever."


XXVI. The Third Dungeon.

The Red Hot Floor

Look into this room. What a dreadful place it is! The roof is red hot; the floor is like a thick sheet of red hot iron. See, on the middle of that red hot floor stands a girl. She looks about sixteen years old. Her feet are bare, she has neither shoes nor stockings on her feet; her bare feet stand on the red hot burning floor. The door of this room has never been opened before since she first set her foot on the red hot floor. Now she sees that the door is opening. She rushes forward. She has gone down on her knees on the red hot floor. Listen, she speaks! She says; "I have been standing with my feet on this red hot floor for years. Day and night my only standing place has been this red hot floor. Sleep never came on me for a moment, that I might forget this horrible burning floor. Look," she says, "at my burnt and bleeding feet. Let me go off this burning floor for one moment, only for one single, short moment. Oh, that in the endless eternity of years, I might forget the pain only for one single,short moment." The devil answers her question: "Do you ask," he says, "for a moment, for one moment to forget your pain. No, not for one single moment during the never-ending eternity of years shall you ever leave this red hot floor!"


XXVII. The Fourth Dungeon.

The Boiling Kettle

...Look into this little prison. In the middle of it there is a boy, a young man. He is silent; despair is on him. He stands straight up. His eyes are burning like two burning coals. Two long flames come out of his ears. His breathing is difficult. Sometimes he opens his mouth and breath of blazing fire rolls out of it. But listen! There is a sound just like that of a kettle boiling. Is it really a kettle which is boiling? No; then what is it? Hear what it is. The blood is boiling in the scalded veins of that boy. The brain is boiling and bubbling in his head. The marrow is boiling in his bones! Ask him, put the question to him, why is he thus tormented? His answer is, that when he was alive, his blood boiled to do very wicked things, and he did them, and it was for that he went to dancing-houses, public-houses, and theatres. Ask him, does he think the punishment greater than he deserves? "No," he says, "my punishment is not greater than I deserve, it is just. I knew it not so well on earth, but I know now that it is just. There is a just and a terrible God. He is terrible to sinners in Hell—but He is just!""


"XXVIII. The Fifth Dungeon.

The Red Hot Oven

Ps. xx. Thou shalt make him as an oven of fire in the time of thy anger. You are going to see again the child about which you read in the Terrible Judgement, that it was condemned to Hell. See! It is a pitiful sight. The little child is in this red hot oven. Hear how it screams to come out. See how it turns and twists itself about in the fire. It beats its head against the roof of the oven. It stamps its little feet on the floor of the oven. You can see on the face of this little child what you see on the faces of all in Hell— despair, desperate and horrible!... This child committed very bad mortal sins, knowing well the harm of what it was doing, and knowing that Hell would be the punishment. God was very good to this child. Very likely God saw that this child would get worse and worse, and would never repent, and so it would have to be punished much more in Hell. So God, in His mercy, called it out of the world in its early childhood."

We might hesitate before applying today's mores and calling Fr. Furniss a child-hater. He was a man of his time, his concern for the tyke's immortal souls outweighing any worries about mental scarification. Hell was as real as England for Furniss, and he used every means at his diposal to warn his charges. Like many a bad idea, it made perfect sense at the time.

Upon consideration, however, the annoying practice of logic steps in. If Hell is so inescapable, why does Furniss know so much about what goes on there? Naming unnameable horrors and charting the unseen world for scoffers and unbelievers isn't easy. Furniss had no photographs, filmstrips, or videos of Hell to show his kids every Friday, nor could he conduct a Hell Career Day, inviting scorched witnesses, escaped from eternal conflagration by their teeth's skin, to "rap" with the kids. The Torah and Christian Bible make oblique references to afterlife fire, the parable of Dives and Lazarus (Luke 16:22-24) the only portrayal identifiable as Hell Lore, (evil rich man Dives and good leper Lazarus die; Question: Who ends up in Heaven and who writhes in the Devil's barbecue pit?). Furniss, and as we see below, Fr. F. X. Schouppe, do make reference to Good Book passages, particularly Dives/Lazarus and the less quoted Numbers 16:25-35 (Moses commands the ground to open up and consume rebellious Levites Korah, Dathan, and Abiram—from which the idea of Hell at the center of the earth sprang), but these don't approach the detailed field reports of Furniss and Schouppe. So, from whence does Catholic Hell lore emerge?

Furniss, Schouppe, and their fellow nuns and priest worked from a loose tradition of visionary saint histories. If St. Whoozit saw it during a a 30-day fast, it was so. Thus was Catholic belief in perdition fueled for centuries. This is like accepting the decisions of the prosecution's expert witnesses. They might be right, and they swear they are, but remember who's signing their checks.

Crazed saint visions suit the true-believers reading through Tan Books and Publishing's catalog. When Vatican II removed the Latin mass, allowed meat-full Fridays and handshakes of peace, and, by extension, permitted the abomination of the folk guitar mass, they downplayed the hellfire and brimstone to draw back lapsed Catholics. Many Catholics flocked to the new Jesus Wuvs You Church. Others left in a huff, preferring the cold masochistic pleasures of hardcore Romanism.

Tan Books, like the pittance of Latin Mass churches still around, strives to meet this meager demand. As Jack Chick is to Fundy Protestantism, so Tan is to Fundy Catholicism. Tan's catalog contains mostly reactive polemics, for or against predictable issues. Additionally, the Virgin Mary has a vanity press in Tan, the original Madonna receiving as much ink as her pop star namesake. Elsewhere, in other publications, vengeful zygotes haunt their mothers from beyond the grave, frightfully beseeching them, "Mommy, why did you kill meee!?!"

Tan was founded by Mr. Thomas A. Nelson in 1967, who gave his initials to the company. "After studying politics and world events," according to the Tan site (, Mr. Nelson, determined that Catholicism was the only way to change the world. Turning to his Jesus cookie-eating roots, the 30-year-old Nelson started Tan on October 13, 1967—50 years after Our Lady's Miracle of the Sun at Fatima according to Tan propaganda—in his parents' basement. Nelson gradually restored the works of defunct Catholic publishers, which goes a long way toward explaining the hoariness of the books' prose. Tan also reissues works and items of inspiration by B-list saints like St. Louis De Montfort, St. Alphonsus Liguori, and others. Mr. Nelson puts the final seal of approval on all Tan books, most of which already possess the official Vatican imprimaturs of long-dead Catholic censors.

Tan's books are stripped-down, square-bound monstrosities/masterpieces. Some are direct scans from century-old books, grainy specks showing the foxing and moldering of the original pages. The cover art is amateurish, though a few achieve a beautifully frightening starkness. The designer of the cover of Purgatory Explained by the Lives and Legends of the Saints has a schoolgirl crush on Saul Bass. Hell: (and How to Avoid Hell), subtitled The Dogma of Hell, Illustrated by Facts Taken from Profane and Sacred History (Tan Books, 1989, originally published 1883) is a real gem. Bright satanic red with the word Hell in enormous Gothic script, this book guarantees you will be left alone on busses, trains, and long flights.

Unlike the Inferno it describes, Hell: (and How to Avoid Hell)... is misleadingly large. Only the first 100 pages are the original work of Fr. F.X. Schouppe, a French Jesuit about whom I could uncover little information, other than that he did missionary work in India. Publisher Thomas Nelson saw fit to append his own thoughts on the subject with the overlong "How to Avoid Hell." At the expense of my immortal soul, I blipped over this section. Mr. Nelson's instructions were predictable: (1) Be Catholic. (2) Repeat.

Fr. Schouppe had a knack for dramatic narrative. Most Hell Lore is leadenly expository, with anonymous sinners and descriptions of the horrors that await piled on ad absurdum. In his tales of Hell, Schouppe wisely maintains the "could it be true?" creepiness of urban legends. Through friend of a friend accounts and visionary saint reports, he "supports" the cry of many a suffering soul in these and other pages: "There is a Hell, and I am in it!"

"Vincent of Beauvais, in the twenty-fifth book of his history, narrates the following fact, which he says happened in the year 1090: Two young libertines, whether seriously or through mockery, had made a mutual promise: whichever of the two died first would come and tell the other in what state he was. So one died, and God permitted him to appear to his companion. He was in a horrible state and seemed to be the prey of cruel sufferings, which consumed him like a burning fever and covered him with sweat. He wiped his forehead with his hand and let a drop of his sweat fall onto his friend's arm, while saying to him: 'That is the sweat of hell; you shall carry the mark of it until death." That infernal sweat burned the arm of the living man, and penetrated his flesh with unheard-of pains. He profited by this awful information and retired to a monastery."

In another story, which Schouppe swears took place in the winter of 1847 to 1848, a 29-year-old British widow—very rich, quite profligate, and recently compromised by a knight of the realm—was scared straight.

"One evening, or rather one night, for it was close upon midnight, she was reading in her bed some novel, coaxing sleep. One o'clock struck by the clock; she blew out her taper. She was about to fall asleep when, to her great astonishment, she noticed that a strange, wan glimmer of light, which seemed to come from the door of the drawing room, spread by degrees into her chamber, and increased momentarily. Stupefied at first and not knowing what this meant, she began to get alarmed, when she saw the drawing-room door slowly open and the young lord, the partner of her disorders, enter the room. Before she had time to say a word, he seized her by the left wrist, and with a hissing voice, syllabled to her in English: "There is a Hell!" The pain she felt in her arm was so great that she lost her senses.

When, half an hour later, she came to again, she rang for her chambermaid. The latter, on entering, noticed a keen smell of burning. Approaching her mistress, who could hardly speak, she noticed on her wrist so deep a burn that the bone was laid bare and the flesh almost consumed; this burn was the size of a man's hand."

The reader may be shocked to learn the young lord...HAD DIED ONLY HOURS BEFORE!

Purgatory is somewhat larger than Hell—by 327 pages to be precise in Purgatory Explained... (Tan Books, 1994, originally published in 1893). A later work by Fr. Schouppe, it covers the Church's other most brilliant innovation: Purgatory—Heaven's Greyhound Station. Purgatory is Heck to Hell's Hell, a place where those who sinned lightly in life can work off lingering sins. No one REALLY wants to go to Purgatory. It's literally as uncomfortable as Hell, filled with spiritual flame and ice to burn and freeze off all residual sin before one can enter Heaven. As unpleasant as it is, and as long as you have to endure it (mere weeks to thousands of years), it doesn't seem so bad, considering that (1) Heaven is the inevitable result, and (2) it's not Hell.

With paradise in sight, the souls of Purgatory are a passive if whiny bunch. Despite suffering all the torments of Hell, the semi-damned end their tortured kvetchings with an offhand "All things considered, I can't complain." Rev. Schouppe elucidates with the example of Sister Theresa, a pious Italian nun, dead in 1859 of apoplexy, who was evidently not pious enough to avoid Purgatory:

"Twelve days later, on November, a sister named Anna Felicia, who succeeded [Theresa] in office, went to the sacristy and was about to enter, when she heard moans which appeared to come from the interior of the room. Somewhat afraid, she hastened to open the door; there was no one. Again she heard moans, and so distinctly that, notwithstanding her ordinary courage, she felt herself overpowered by fear. 'Jesus! Mary!' she cried, "what can that be?" She had not finished when she heard a plaintive voice, accompanied with a painful sigh, "Oh! My God, how I suffer! Oh! Dio, che peno tanto!" The sister, stupefied, immediately recognized the voice of poor Sister Theresa. Then the room was filled with a thick smoke, and the spirit of Sister Theresa appeared, moving towards the door and gliding along by the wall. Having reached the door, she cried aloud, "Behold a proof of the mercy of God." Saying these words, she struck the upper panel of the door, and there left the print of her right hand, burnt in the wood as with a red-hot iron. She then disappeared."

Sister Anna points out this flaming palm print to her fellow nuns, and the Catholic Indulgence machine was switched on. All present nuns took Holy Communion and prayed so that her stay in Purgatory might be brief (FYI Noncatholics: Prayers, masses, and similar temporal activities act as a "Get Out of Jail Free" card for souls waiting out Purgatory. This particularly pissed off Martin Luther). In due time...

"On the third day... a globe of brilliant light appared before [Sister Anna Felicia], illuminating her cell with the brightness of daylight... [Sister Theresa's voice said] 'I died on a Friday, the day of the Passion, and behold, on a Friday, I enter into eternal glory! Be strong to bear the cross, be courageous to suffer, love poverty.' Then adding, affectionately, 'Adieu, adieu, adieu!' she became transfigued, and like a light, white, and dazzling cloud, rose toward Heaven and disappeared."

Interestingly, Schouppe's Purgatory Explained... turns up a large number of clergymen and women in its unfriendly confines.

"Venerable Sister Frances of Pampeluna, whom we have before mentioned, one day saw in Purgatory a poor priest whose fingers were eaten away by frightful ulcers. He was thus punished for having at the altar made the sign of the cross with too much levity, and without the necessary gravity... [Another] had to undergo forty years of suffering for having by his neglect allowed a person to die without the Sacraments; another remained there for forty-five years for having performed the sublime functions of his ministry with a certain levity... A Bishop, whose liberality had caused him to be named almoner, was detained there for five years for having sought that dignity..."

Observations and Conclusions

All folktales have consistencies specific to the people who create them. By way of example, the Grimms' fairy tales are riddled with reoccurrences of the number three, the importance of doing good deeds for scurvy vagrants, and Horatio Alger social climbing. In kind, we note consistencies in Roman Catholic Hell Lore: (1) Eternal punishment, (2) Mocking demons, (3) Three "R" of behavior on the part of the damned: remorse, revenge, and resignation.

Eternal punishment is the most obvious feature of Hell Lore. Borne of the church responsible for the refinements of the Inquisition, Catholic Hell lacks for no ideas on eliciting human suffering. Perhaps it all rests with Dantè. Mere pitchforkery wasn't enough for the Florentine poet—punishing his political enemies required sadistic wit. Suicides were turned into dead trees, unable to slay themselves or do much else, while corrupt church officials were sealed into cast-iron vestments, burning with hellish fire. Classically trained priests undoubtedly picked up on this, and so the clever tortures of a Hell filled with notable and anonymous sinners developed. The visions of the saints, you'll notice, are generally straightforward and unironic, except perhaps in obvious ways.

Mocking demons are another feature. Devils and demons are always fallen angels, hideously ugly, and never at a loss to tempt in life and then torture in death. This is one place where the priests and nuns diverge from the poetical Dantè. Dantè's demons are mordantly witty rogues. In Catholic Hell Lore they become mere clockpunchers, satisfied to replay the sinners' violations like a tape loop. Hell is cruelly ironic but never funny in Catholic Hell Lore. It might be that the priests thought their culturally illiterate flock might miss the nuances of Dantè's Inferno. Certainly Canto XXI, verse 136-139, where the captain devil salutes his men with his "bugle of an asshole" would be unacceptable, not to mention hilariously ineffective, in Sunday school.

Finally, like Elisabeth Kübler-Ross' stages of terminal illness, the sinners in Catholic Hell Lore spend their time tumbling through three stages of damnation. Beyond torture, it seems there is little else to do in Hell then to experience remorse, revenge, and resignation.

To begin with, no matter who you are, no matter what a hardass you were, no matter how black your soul—whether you're Hitler, John Wayne Gacy, Judas Iscariot, or Martin Luther (oh yes, there's a special place in Catholic Hell for him)—in Hell you will be the sorriest S.O.B. on the planet, weeping bloody tears for every life you took, every moment you spent spreading evil.

Revenge is another pasttime, usually spent inflicting pain upon your fellows, and particularly your companions in life. If Bucky gave you a copy of Penthouse Letters, you will spend several millennia chasing him down, beating his head in, and chewing his brains. Of course, he'll get back at you for mixing him that Manhattan or enticing him to order the French Dip on a Lenten Friday.

Resignation is the final stage, and probably the most difficult to comprehend or accept. The dead are not simply sorry for their trespasses, no matter how slight we might consider their sin they realize that, in God's mysterious plan, it makes perfect sense to be persecuted for all eternity for their crimes. Incest, rape, murder, heresy, usury, idolatry, theft, lying, jerking off—all deserve banishment to the earth's nether regions, followed by indescribable eternal agony. In Hell Lore, after shrieking for hundreds of years, every soul sits back—preferably on an area neither too hot nor too pointy— and sighs, oh well, I had it coming.

Starting to see why Roman Catholics are so seriously hung-up? It's not just the rhythm method and the edicts against masturbation; it's the demand for Orwellian doublethink. Get ready for the biggest Hell Lore bombshell: As a Catholic, you must fear Hell. However, you must not avoid sin simply because you fear Hell, but rather because you fear offending an all-forgiving God, who must ship you to the Hell he created because he is so absolutely good, he can't allow the merest inkspot of sin stain on those surrounding him. Not sinning because you fear the Hell so adequately described to you by the Church's indoctrinators is a sin itself.

Got that?

As frightening and as bleak a concept as Hell is, the Church doctors fail to mention its single cold comfort: the inexpressible remorse of never seeing God's face notwithstanding, it's not oblivion. If the afterlife really is pure nothingness, Church law collapses. If eternal fire is at the end of the road, however, we the living can feel we aren't just a biological accident. Our actions have meaning, and our existence is not arbitrarily blotted out upon death. We have value, even if our value only rests in being the devil's pincushions.

®2003 Dan Kelly
This article originally appeared in Book Happy.