By Kimberly Warner-Cohen
Without Dante Alighieri, there would be no John Milton, Stephen King, Troma Studios or our Christian concept of the hereafter. Written over 700 years ago, his masterpiece, “The Divine Comedy” _ made up of three individual books: “Inferno,” “Pergatorio” and “Paradiso” _ changed an entire society’s outlook on the afterlife and still endures in its originality of gross punishments. If you’ve ever wondered where it all began, it’s here.
Dante, the man, wasn’t wrapped too tightly, crossing dangerously into stalker territory, when he fell into a lifelong obsession with the lovely Beatrice _ after supposedly seeing her once when he was nine and then, again, nine years later. It doesn’t seem likely that they only passed each other twice in a city as small as Florence, but it makes for a good legend. The sightings inspired him, though, and she became his lifelong muse _ despite both of them being married to others. Like much of his work, reaching her is the goal of Dante’s journey through the “Comedy.”
Inferno starts off with Dante (as himself) wandering through a dark wood until the ghost of the poet Virgil finds and leads him through the nine circles _ this architecture is Dante’s invention. It is just before they reach the gates of Hell that the famous line, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter,” is written in stone.
Dante crams the punishment in: before they even get to Hell proper, he reserves the vestibule for angels and humans that didn’t take a side in the wars between good and evil. Dante makes every punishment fit the crime, so these sinners are covered in tar _ chased by wasps and hornets representing the stinging of their guilty conscience. Since their souls are tarnished over not taking a stand, they must run in circles through worms and maggots.
The gluttons are caught in a circle where “huge hailstones, dirty water, and black snow/pour from the dismal air to putrefy/the putrid slush that waits further below.” The sinners are stuck in the shit-filled slush, while Cerberus stands over them to make sure no one escapes.
Some punishments are obvious like the wrathful, who are naked and covered in disgusting slime, attacking each other forever. Others are more creative; the heretics lie in open iron tombs that are engulfed by fire until Judgment Day. When that time comes, the caskets’ lids will close _ and they’ll be trapped in burning solitude. Dante’s God is a vengeful god.
Suicides are much further down, which was surprising. Their souls are trapped in trees whose leaves are eaten by the Harpies. Only when the Harpies rip apart leaf and limb _ and the sap (or blood) flows _ are they able to speak. Dante’s reasoning is that since they were self-destructive, their punishment is to only speak while being destroyed.
Those who participated in simony (bribery in holy office) are placed headfirst in baptismal fonts filled with fire. Their situation is only temporary because when new souls arrive, the old souls fall into fiery depths. Being deeply religious, Dante viewed corruption in the Church to be among the worst of the sins and doesn’t even afford the same permanence in Hell as the others.
The grafters are guarded by demons who, as Dante recounts, “across shoulder he had them/one haunch of a sinner, whom he held in place/with a great talon round each ankle bone” and sunk into boiling tar like scullery boys dip meat in a boiler/holding it with the hooks from floating free.” If the sinners go above the surface, the demons tear them apart with grappling hooks. A little further down, the Sowers of Discord are cut in half _ only to walk in a pit until they mend and return to the demon to do it all over again.
The last circle is guarded by giants and lorded over by Satan, who is stuck in the same ice as his surrounding sinners _ his wings flapping as if trying to escape but really just intensifying the already-icy wind. He has three faces _ each set of teeth ripping apart Judas, Brutus and Cassius. The other sinners will attack anyone else trapped nearby. Dante watches as one “raised his mouth from his grim repast/and wiped it on the hair of the bloody head/ whose nape he had all but eaten away.”
People’s conception of Hell changed immediately after Inferno, and this was the first work that can be called horror. Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” “Se7en” and “Hellraiser” are the easiest examples of works that have been directly influenced by Dante _ as well as Lucio Fulci’s films, the book “Needful Things” and most supernatural slashers. In fact, few horror titles are without reference to this version of the Afterlife.
Dante’s influence, on society as a whole, cannot be understated. Aside from The Bible, no other book has pervaded our culture the same way. Not only did he transform the way the Western world perceives Hell, but “Inferno” was also the first book to be written in conversational Italian (as opposed to Latin, which few could read), opening up literature to the common man.
When choosing a version, it’s important to avoid a bad or boring translation. John Ciardi’s version _ which was written in the ’50s, so his language may read a bit stuffy _ stays true to the original rhyme. However, and while others do not necessarily stay true to form, there are more modern translations that make it easier to enjoy Dante’s verse.
Inferno is a must-read for horror fans! An initial read will beckon a race to the bottom of the final circle. Dante’s twisted scenes make it impossible to not to keep turning the pages! It’s a fun and ferocious romp, and it’s easy to see why it has survived over half a millennium.