The first panel of this issue sets up Hell not as a definitive place, but as “a place that wasn’t a place”. Hell is as much part of a story as part of a reality: “Once upon a time…” Yet there is something stable to it, because though it has had many names and though it is not a place and though it is part of a story, there is still an “it” for the narrator to refer to: “We’ll call it Hell.”
(I’m just going to pause for a moment to point to the poetry of that sentence: look at all the double-l’s! And it’s a sentence of four words, three of which have four letters!)
I am not a religious person, and have never given much thought to Heaven or Hell, since both places seem, in their popular conception, at least, rather tedious. Of course, Heaven is generally said to be the place of eternal bliss, the reward for having a good soul, a place without pain or suffering or unhappiness, yadda yadda yadda. Hell is the place of eternal suffering, punishment, damnation; your body always being ripped apart or burned up or generally savaged.
These views don’t really make much sense, because, even if we overcome the fact that an ethereal thing like a soul doesn’t possess a central nervous system, doesn’t eternal anything get dulled after a while by its eternality? I don’t doubt that — to choose a random example — having your intestines pulled out through your nose by a demon is painful; but is the 1,234,429,392nd time as painful as the first?
As for the nice place upstairs, I encountered the Talking Heads song “Heaven” at a young age, and its chorus seems to have had an effect on my perception of eternal bliss: “Heaven is the place where nothing ever happens.” (Is Hell, then, the place where everything happens?) When it comes to storytelling, too, Heaven is a big bore, but Hell can be quite interesting — lots more people read all the way through Dante’s Inferno than his Paradiso.
Believers say the real pleasure of Heaven is being close to God, and the real pain of Hell is* God’s absence: Hell is a place of eternal mourning. That makes more sense to me than the idea that Hell is a place of eternal physical pain. If God is everything beautiful, everything good, everything worth valuing and loving, then the absence of that is, indeed, something I can imagine being eternally painful — or it is, at least, something I can more easily imagine being eternally painful than just about any other thing. But even the utter lack of all goodness and beauty and love, while I can conceive of it being painful for days and weeks and even years … eternity? Wouldn’t your brain just shut down and enter a vegetative state? (I know I know I know: you’re dead, you don’t have a brain. No brain, no body. The suffering is of the soul, which, apparently, is different from a brain and therefore doesn’t have the ability to enter a vegetative state.)
This is why I should not think about religious questions. Far too much of a rationalist.
Lucifer tells Cain about the Gnostic sect that said he, Cain, was the wronged one, not Abel. They were hedonists, too. “And,” Lucifer says, “no greater percentage of them turned up here than of any other religion. Amusing, isn’t it?”
Eternal suffering, then, is, in the world of The Sandman, apparently a pretty random thing. Or, to look at it another way, if Hell is where the bad people go, then badness is not necessarily a matter of behavior or belief. You can believe the opposite of the canonical gospels, you can behave in utterly hedonistic ways … and still get to Heaven. Or, at least, not end up in Hell.
Hell is not necessarily eternal in this universe. Maybe it is for humans, but it is not so for demons or gods — Lucifer tells of the minor demons that fight meaninglessly amongst themselves: “they oust each other, and destroy each other,” he says. Perhaps, like Cain or South Park’s Kenny, they return after destruction. Dream seems to think total oblivion is among the perils he faces in traveling to Hell — he could end up trapped in there, or he could be destroyed, which is something different. Oblivion is indeed possible.
Despite all the religious imagery and the generally Christian representation of Hell, the presentation of this realm strikes me as impressively heretical. Not just because Hell is offered as a realm roughly equal to the realm of dreams, but because the mixing of mythologies throughout The Sandman suggests they are all equally valid, in the sense of having equal claims on being real or unreal. Within the Sandman universe, Bible stories are as real as stories from old comic books. Here, as in much of Gaiman’s writing, often what matters most is what is most fervently believed, even if that belief is unconscious, a knowledge that creates itself. Remember what Dream said to Desire at the end of The Doll’s House: “We of the endless are the servants of the living — we are NOT their masters. WE exist because they know, deep in their hearts, that we exist.”
It’s interesting, then, that we have seen no sign of Heaven so far in The Sandman. Apparently, we know deep in our hearts that Lucifer and Hell and eternal suffering exist. God and Heaven and eternal bliss, though? Of that, there’s some doubt…
Matthew Cheney has published fiction and nonfiction in a variety of venues, including One Story, Weird Tales, Locus, Rain Taxi, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and elsewhere. A collection, Blood: Stories will be published by Black Lawrence Press in January 2016. He is the former series editor for the Best American Fantasy anthologies and currently a co-editor of the occasional online magazine The Revelator. His blog, The Mumpsimus, was nominated for a World Fantasy Award in 2005. He is working toward a Ph.D. in Literature at the University of New Hampshire, where his research focuses on the work of Virginia Woolf, J.M. Coetzee, and Samuel R. Delany.