04/11/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT
by Alice K. Turner
Asked some years ago if he thought hell was a real place, the Catholic columnist William Buckley replied, "Yes—just like Scarsdale."
While Buckley's simile for hell may be unique, the idea of it as a real netherworld peopled by monsters, Turner tells us, is at least as ancient as some 4,000-year-old Sumerian tablets bearing stories of the Land of the Dead. Starting with Gilgamesh—about 2000 B.C.—Turner, Playboy's fiction editor, takes us on a tour through the nightmarish landscapes conjured up by such icons of Western civilization as Homer, Virgil, St. Augustine, Dante and Milton, as the places where we cool (or toast) our heels while waiting for... well, in many cultures, forever.
Using as an example the Harrowing of Hell—Christ's release of souls there during the time between his death and resurrection—Turner demonstrates how similar infernal themes crop up in different cultures. She also shows how often self-appointed creators of abysses and pits populated them with their enemies. Dante was mathematical in placing some of his in the Inferno's sixth circle. The 18th-century theologian Swedenborg reserved the vilest region for Catholics, while the early Christian apologist Tertullian consigned heretics, actors and charioteers to eternal flames.
Turner, writing for the layman, can occasionally seem flippant when she tries to enliven an otherwise arid patch, and once in a while her conclusions miss the mark. Surely it is to misunderstand Shakespeare to say that he never wrote about hell because the subject was banned at the time. His genius lies in prefiguring some later and lesser writers in creating characters whose hells are of their own making.