THE HISTORY OF HELL by Alice K. Turner

THE HISTORY OF HELL

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KIRKUS REVIEW

 Just in time for Halloween: a pop guide to the hells of the Western world. Turner, longtime fiction editor of Playboy, intends her study to be ``geographical rather than theological or psychological.'' That is, she focuses on the outer aspects of hell--landscape and inhabitants--rather then their raisons d'àtre. In slick, superficial vignettes, she scurries through an enormous number of underworlds, together comprising ``the largest shared construction project in imaginative history.'' Her chronological survey begins in Sumeria, with Inanna's descent to visit her sister Ereshkigal, then moves on to Egyptian, Zoroastrian, Greek, Roman, Gnostic, and Judeo-Christian images of the netherworld. In the Middle Ages, imaginative tours of hell become popular, and purgatory was tacked on as an expiatory antechamber. Dante changed everything by turning hell into allegory, leading to literary fancies by Goethe, Milton, Byron, and Rimbaud, among others. Science, too, dismantled hell- -after early attempts to situate it on the Sun or a comet, materialists relegated it to the imagination. These days, says Turner, ``hell has become something of an embarrassment.'' Her tour is fast and fun, but by eschewing psychology and theology, she trivializes her subject into a set of colorful comic books with almost no hint of the mythological and metaphysical dynamics involved (the few explanations she does offer are reductionist- -e.g., that hells exist to foster earthly political or social power). Disappointing, too, is her failure to explore contemporary belief in hell (shared by 60% of Americans, according to a poll she cites). Sleek but shallow--and doesn't hold a candle to its counterpart, Colleen McDannell and Bernhard Lang's Heaven: A History (1988). (Illustrations: 32 pages color, 30 b&w)

Pub Date: Oct. 28th, 1993
ISBN: 0-15-140934-X
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Harcourt
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1st, 1993