Aeneid by Virgil
Aeneas travels to the Underworld, guided by the Sybil. The hellish bit is Tartarus. “From hence are heard the groans of ghosts, the pains / Of sounding lashes and of dragging chains.” The unrepenting are made to confess their crimes, and sent down into a pit, guarded by the Hydra, where the Titans wallow in impotent violence.
Piers Plowman by William Langland
The medieval dreamer finds himself before the gates of Hell, where personifications of Peace, Mercy and Truth are gathering, and where he meets a thoroughly anxious, defeatist Satan. Christ arrives and “all the bars of Belial burst asunder, and the gates flew open in the face of the guards”. Hell is harrowed.
Inferno by Dante
“Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate.” In Dante’s nine deepening circles, sinners get what they have deserved. The lustful are blown forever in tormenting storms; corrupt politicians simmer in bubbling tar; professional flatterers are bathed in excrement.
Paradise Lost by John Milton
Tumbled out of Heaven, the rebel angels find themselves in a bad place: “A dungeon horrible, on all sides round / As one great furnace flamed; yet from those flames / No light; but rather darkness visible / Served only to discover sights of woe . . .” Being devils, they decide this is where they want to stay.
“The Place of the Damned” by Jonathan Swift
“All folks who pretend to religion and grace, / Allow there’s a HELL, but dispute of the place.” Swift defines Hell by its likely inhabitants: “Damned poets, damned critics, damned blockheads, damned knaves, / Damned senators bribed, damned prostitute slaves”. Plenty of lawyers and judges, too.
Vathek by William Beckford
Beckford’s oriental despot and his companions discover an underworld palace, where “the pavement, strewed over with gold dust and saffron, exhaled so subtle an odour as almost overpowered them”. “A throng of Genii and other fantastic spirits of each sex danced in troops, at the sound of music which issued from beneath.” Nice, they think. But this is Hell, where they will be “prey to grief without end”.
Peter Bell the Third by Percy Bysshe Shelley
“Hell is a city much like London – / A populous and a smoky city; / There are all sorts of people undone, / And there is little or no fun done; / Small justice shown, and still less pity.” Shelley’s Hell bears a close similarity to Regency London. “All are damned – they breathe an air, / Thick, infected, joy-dispelling”.
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
Stephen Dedalus listens to the school preacher describing the “abode of the damned”: “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 then imagine this sickening stench, multiplied a millionfold and a millionfold again . . .” Etc.
Huis Clos/No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre
“L’enfer, c’est les autres.” A valet leads three characters to a windowless room, which is Hell. To what torment are they condemned? Each other’s company. In the course of the play, the characters probe each other’s sins and bring alive their guilty memories. “There’s no need for red-hot pokers.”
Eric by Terry Pratchett
Eric Thursley visits Hell, which Astfgl, the demon king, has revolutionised. The damned must suffer repeated viewings of other people’s holiday slides, elevator music, and the reading aloud of every clause of the 40,000 volumes of health and safety rules.