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 answerit 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!"
Sight of Hell," Rev. John Furniss, C.S.S.R.
reading Dantè's Divine Comedy through and through,
a friend of minea non-Christiantold 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 DungeonA 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."
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.
...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 Hellbut He is just!""
"XXVIII. The Fifth Dungeon.
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 Abiramfrom 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
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.
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 (www.tanbooks.com),
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, 196750 years after Our Lady's
Miracle of the Sun at Fatima according to Tan propagandain
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 widowvery
rich, quite profligate, and recently compromised by a knight of
the realmwas 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
The reader may be shocked to learn the young lord...HAD
DIED ONLY HOURS BEFORE!
Purgatory is somewhat larger than Hellby 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: PurgatoryHeaven'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
"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
"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 poetpunishing 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
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 soulwhether 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 offall
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 backpreferably 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.
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