hell

PANORAMA OF HELL BY HIDESHI HINO

I could feel the needle enter my vein; painless, but cold and invasive, like running your tongue along chilled glass. It had taken me an hour to work myself up to it, to convince myself to go through with it, to allow this woman to take my blood. Yet I felt as though it wasn’t only mine she was taking, but every drop I had ever seen spilled. As she filled her little containers, my head was similarly filled with memories and moments. I saw myself as a child, dispassionately watching the red pool form in my brother’s cupped hands. I saw a trail, from the gates of my school, where some kid’s nose must have been broken, to the house where he apparently lived; following it in my mind like breadcrumbs. I saw a mother grab the hair of a boy her son was fighting, pushing his head down to allow her son to kick him in the face; the boy’s pink spittle dribbling onto the concrete. For almost half of my life I lived under a dull red sun which bathed the world in crimson light. So much violence and madness, I thought it would never stop.

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When I began to show a serious interest in manga I anticipated that I would turn up a lot of what I will inelegantly call ‘extremely weird shit.’ Yet it hasn’t really been the case, and hours of searching dedicated message boards and websites has been largely fruitless also. There is horror, plenty of it, and some is very impressive, such as Junji Ito’s Uzumaki, but that’s not really what I had been hoping for. The Ero Guro, or Erotic Grotesque, genre promised to satisfy my inclinations, but, aside from Shintaro Kago and Suehiro Maruo, I haven’t come across much of that either. Recently, however, I discovered Hideshi Hino’s Panarama of Hell. With my limited knowledge, I would place it somewhere between the Ero Guro and horror manga that I have read so far. Unlike Ito, I don’t believe that it was Hino’s intention, or not the primary one, to scare his audience, although there are supernatural elements to the events outlined within his work. On the other hand, it is grotesque, but without an emphasis on the erotic. Moreover, the style – which is actually my least favourite part about it – is not what I would want, nor expect, from Ero Guro either, being cute, almost charming, in a Tim Burton kind of way, which negatively impacts upon the intensity of the narrative.

The plot, what little of it there is, centres on a painter who may or may not live in hell. The man talks openly to the audience, explaining that he creates ‘hell paintings’ and that he is currently at work on his biggest and most important project, ‘The Panorama of Hell’, which will be a ‘breakthrough in technique’ and will depict ‘the end.’ He then spends the majority of the rest of the book exhibiting and detailing these hell paintings, including The Guillotine, The Bottomless River of Hell and so on. It is through the paintings that one gets a sense of his personality, situation, and past. I said recently, to the unfortunate few whose ears I have, that the book reminds me most of Maldoror. There is a similar theatricality to the central characters’ misdeeds and personas; they both revel in their evilness, in gore and pain. For example, the painter declares that ‘the sight of fresh corpses broiling is remarkable.’ This sort of thing clearly amuses and excites him, in the same way that Maldoror enjoys slicing up children. Indeed, he actually paints using blood, which he describes as the most beautiful thing in the world; and Hino’s most unpleasant images involve the man vomiting up blood and cutting and bleeding himself.

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Yet, the further you progress through the book, the more his statement that ‘the overpowering odour of blood always surrounds me’ takes on a more subtle, deeper, even moving significance. I stated previously that it is through his paintings that one comes to know the man, but it is when he tells the stories of his family – his grandfather, father and brother specifically – that most is revealed. All three of these men were brutal and violent, all damaged and destructive. Big drinkers, they beat their wives, their acquaintances and their children. In this way, Panorama of Hell is a portrait of how the sins of each generation can be passed on, about cycles of violence, and how your upbringing can harm and mould you. It’s particularly interesting how the other men are strong and overpowering but the painter is weak and, well, morbid. He is still disgusting, no doubt, but strangely sympathetic at times. He says at one stage that ‘I’ve seen images of hell since I was in my mother’s womb,’ and is born holding blood clots in each hand, and this resonated with me, affected me emotionally, perhaps more than it ought to have.

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LA-BAS BY J.K. HUYSMANS

For years I’ve been having a dream, a recurring nightmare, which features me and whoever I am in a relationship with at the time. In this dream nothing out of the ordinary happens, except that I am convinced that my partner is evil, is, specifically, possessed by something evil. Indeed, on one occasion I actually pushed the girl with whom I was sharing my bed away from me while I slept, believing her to be demonic. It is not, of course, difficult to interpret this dream, but, outside of any subconscious negative feelings towards my girlfriends, it is, I believe, still significant, because it involves something that, for no logical reason, absolutely terrifies me [and I don’t mean being in a relationship].

Despite not being religious myself, and not having been raised by religious believers, or ever having been particularly exposed to them, the satanic, well, possesses me. I’m as drawn to it, as I am petrified of it. I used to watch a lot of horror films at one time and, regardless of how poor the film was, if anyone started croaking out a bit of Latin and pulling gymnastic body shapes I was wanting to run out of the room. You might argue that my fear is atavistic, is a kind of psychological remnant of a time when the majority of people truly believed in this stuff, when they felt as though the prospect of hell was a genuine one. Who knows? But satanism is certainly the reason I was simultaneously attracted to, and wary of, J.K. Husymans’ La-Bas.

“Really, when I think it over, literature has only one excuse for existing; it saves the person who makes it from the disgustingness of life.”

The novel centres around a disillusioned author, Durtal, who is writing a book about the ‘virtuoso of suffering and murder’, and dabbler in the occult, Gilles de Rais. On the basis of what we learn about him, de Rais was a real life Maldoror; in fact, he is credited with one particularly unpleasant act – making a child think that you have saved him, so as to enjoy his shock when he realises that you intend to butcher him – that also features in Lautréamont’s Chants. These murders, which according to Huysmans number into the hundreds, were, it seems, part satanic ritual and part an expression of de Rais’ ennui. As the novel progresses, Durtal himself gets mixed up in satanism, which he justifies as being part of his research.

While I did approach La Bas with caution, the truth is that I needn’t have been concerned at all. The book is mostly plotless, is relentlessly, often drily, investigative and philosophical [with an emphasis on the historical], such that a significant proportion of it reads like an academic textbook. Therefore, all the tension and atmosphere that the subjects of child killing, dismemberment, and satanic practices, might have created is lacking. I freely admit to being a coward, and yet there wasn’t one moment during my reading when I felt especially unnerved or uneasy, not even the black mass scene, which is frequently commented upon. This is not, however, necessarily a fatal flaw, for there are numerous interesting ideas and passages in the book – such as the opening discussion about Naturalism, which I agreed with completely – but one will certainly be disappointed if one comes to it looking for thrills and shocks.

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Indeed, that La-Bas opens with a chapter dedicated to the merits or otherwise of Naturalism is telling, for it is as much, if not more so, a book about art and literature as it is about satanism. Huysmans states that Naturalism rejects ‘every high-minded thought’, that it is concerned only with appetites. It may, as Durtal notes, have rid the world of romanticism, and rescued literature from ‘tedious idealism’, but it is, nevertheless, a dead-end, because it is not concerned with the soul. What Durtal advocates is a kind of supernatural realism, similar to that created by Dostoevsky, of which La Bas itself could be considered an example. The book is, then, partly about the author’s dissatisfaction with writing, both his own and other people’s, and was born out of his quest to create a new or better form of literature.

Moreover, one ought to bear in mind that all of the main characters are outsiders, are in a sense lost and/or disappointed with themselves and with the times; they are, to quote Husymans, ‘lives out of alignment.’ Take Durtal, a man whose soul ‘is clogged up with filth.’ He is an author who has given up writing novels, and who detests the literati and the present generation as a whole. He is, in writing a book about de Rais, shying away from the modern world, retreating back into the middle ages. His work on satanism and spirituality in medieval France is an act of avoidance, but it is also clearly an attempt to find himself. There are an abundance of references in the book to the superiority of the old ways, and the vacuous nature of modern attitudes and behaviour, which is best represented in the bell-ringer, Carhaix. This occupation, which was once so significant, the sound of bells being said to ‘echo the state of the town’s souls’, is now near-redundant [prophetically des Hermies predicts that real bells will soon be replaced with electronic chimes] and has been stripped of meaning or profundity.

“He did not believe, and yet he admitted the supernatural. Right here on earth how could any of us deny that we are hemmed in by mystery, in our homes, in the street,—everywhere when we came to think of it?”

What Huysmans seems to be suggesting is that people in the middle ages were more spiritually, emotionally alive, be that to one extreme or the other. This, for me, explains the real purpose of the focus on Gilles de Rais, who was both exceptionally good at one point in his life and exceptionally bad. Of course, one does not admire a child murderer and rapist, who has a sideline in Devil worship, but one cannot accuse the man of not wholly living, of not feeling and experiencing life to the full. And I believe that this is the point of interest for Huysmans, far beyond what it meant to be a satanist. Indeed, the title of the novel is sometimes translated as The Damned, but it is not the purveyors of black magic who are condemned, it is the spiritually lethargic, increasingly mindless modern man.

HOW IT IS BY SAMUEL BECKETT

How it is. Dear God. How it will be. A few years ago I was outside, walking along, and a large black and white bird – of a type I had never seen before – fell out of a tree and onto the pavement. Straight down. No flutter of wings. No noise, except the dull thud of its body hitting the concrete. It was unhurt, however. I raised my eyebrows, and carried on walking. Coming towards me was a young woman with a pushchair. The pushchair was empty as the child was by her side. As they passed me they noticed the bird. Poor thing. I turned around. They had stopped, and, fearing for the bird’s safety, were trying to usher it off the pavement, and onto some grass. Arms outstretched. Both mother and child. Chik. Tsk. Here. No. There. Unfortunately, the bird did not understand. It ran away from the outstretched arms, the welcoming, protective embrace. And into the road. And under the wheels of a slow-moving car. Crunch. I’d never heard anything like it. Drawn out…Cruuuuuunnnnnch. How it is. How it will be. Dear God.

Whenever I think of this incident, which I do quite frequently, I’m always put in mind of Samuel Beckett. I imagine he would have got a kick out of it, what with the bird being essentially herded towards death. It’s funny. And sad too. Too sad. Towards the end of his career Beckett wrote a series of short, experimental prose pieces, all of which are about the absurdity of the human predicament. Life, old age, death. How it was. How it is. How it will be. All of them are funny. And sad too. Too sad. Of those novels I feel a strong affection for the beautiful Ill Seen Ill Said and Worstward Ho. But I’m not reviewing those. His trilogy – which includes Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable – is the most acclaimed, the most read, it seems. Which is perhaps a lie. For I have been given the impression that The Unnamable is endured more than read. I have, in fact, seen it called The Unreadable. As a joke. Being a contrary arse, I’ve read the unreadable twice. It is my favourite of the trilogy.

How it is, which was published in English in 1964, is often regarded as a kind of companion piece to The Unnamable. Yet I would wager that this has more to do with difficulty than anything else, with how many people struggle to understand or complete both books. You can tell how baffling a book is when you can find nary a single in-depth review of it anywhere on the internet, and that is the case with How It Is. I searched for almost an hour last night and managed to turn up little of any note. Am I going to be the first to give this book a thorough going over? Well, I am not one to shy away from a challenge. I will go on. I must go on. The narrator is lying in the mud, murmuring to the mud: his life: before Pim, with Pim and after Pim. He appears to be almost completely physically incapacitated, being able to move only by crawling, by pulling himself along, in the mud. His possessions are a sack, a tin opener, and some tins of food. It is a typically bizarre Beckettian situation.

“find someone at last someone find you at last live together glued together love each other a little without being loved be loved a little without loving answer that leave it vague leave it dark”

This mud-man scenario could be interpreted as a comment on the nature of human destiny, in that we, in a sense, crawled out of the primeval mud, and will one day return to it. Literally, for in death we eventually become of the earth, of the soil; we become, in the end, as formless as the mud itself. Furthermore, the struggle through the mud is, you might say, comparable to man’s struggle, i.e. that life involves dragging oneself through the dirt, looking for other people, finding them, losing them, eating, shitting, vomiting. How it is. How life is. And there is another kind of struggle, the struggle to give form, or meaning, to one’s existence, in among all that dirt, and the shitting and the vomiting. Who are you? What are you doing? What have you done? What will you do? Before. Now. After. An attempt to give structure to something – life – that is inherently without structure. We all do this. We divide our time on earth arbitrarily – days, weeks, months, years, hours, etc. – and we define our lives and ourselves by arbitrary events, like meeting Pim. There is certainly something in all this.

If one accepts any of what I have been discussing, the style – which I imagine plays a major part in frustrating readers – is appropriate. The novel is presented as a series of very short paragraphs. There is no capitalisation, and no punctuation. Therefore, the book could be said to crawl into being, rather than confidently announce itself. Or perhaps one might argue that it has no real beginning, creating the impression that the man has always been there, in the mud. And what is a beginning? It is an arbitrary moment; it is a product of our desire to impose structure, or form, and meaning upon things. Ah! Despite the man’s efforts, How it Is has no structure or form; it is plotless. Moreover, his thoughts are often [or almost entirely] incoherent, they are muddled, they too are formless, like the mud.

I’m not, of course, positioning myself as an authority on the novel, for there were certainly aspects of it that passed me by [not least Beckett’s own explanation, which I will include as a footnote to this review, and which makes precious little sense to me]; for example, I can’t satisfactorily explain, and feel no real desire to attempt to satisfactorily explain, what is going on with the man and the voice, i.e. what he means when he says ‘I say it as I hear it’ as though there is a kind of distance or disconnect between the two I’s, the mental and physical. Furthermore, this is the one Beckett novel that, as far as I can remember, includes so many references or allusions to religion, and I’m on shaky ground there too. But I’ll go on, I must go on, in any case.

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[Virgil, Dante, and Belacqua]

I may be reaching somewhat but I can’t help but think the key to some of that is to be found in the sole reference to Belacqua. Beckett was, by all accounts, a big fan of Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy, a poem in three parts [three parts! Before Pim…etc]: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. He was, moreover, especially interested in the [minor] character Belacqua, frequently featuring him in his work, including the More Pricks Less Kicks collection. Dante and Virgil come upon him in Purgatorio, sitting in a fetal position; he is said to be the epitome of indolence or laziness. While you wouldn’t call it indolence, the man in How It Is is not, as noted, the most active. There is that. But the real point of interest, for me, is in which volume this character appears. Purgatory. The intermediate state, or place, between heaven and hell. Perhaps this is is where the mud man finds himself? Having said that, you could equally [or even more persuasively] make a case for him being in the Inferno, in a Dantesque circle of Hell, forced to live in mud as a punishment for past wrongs. Indeed, in the third circle of Hell [Canto IV], a slush falls from the sky and collects on the ground, creating a kind of muddy swamp, in which naked shades howl and roll around. What maybe gives this theory a little extra weight is that the man does speak [or murmur into the mud] about the possibility of going “up there,” a phrase that would suggest to most people [and Beckett must have been aware of this] Heaven. [In truth, I don’t believe any of this].

As I come to the end of this review I realise that I haven’t said anything about how much [or how little] I enjoyed the book. I don’t, I must confess, rate it as highly as, for example, the respected American author William Gass, who chose it as one of his 50 Literary Pillars. I could name at least five Beckett novels I prefer [although being the sixth best Beckett novel is not exactly shameful]. I did occasionally find it moving, and I would hold up the final two or three pages as being as exhilarating as anything I have read, but How It Is did not always hold my attention; there were, as with many genuinely experimental works, moments of tedium, when I was essentially coasting, which means that I was turning pages but not really taking anything in. And there were also times when I had to gee myself up, to pick up and plough on. But I think that was kind of the point, that the author wanted you to struggle, as his mud man struggles.

In a letter (April 6, 1960) to Donald McWhinnie at BBC Radio Drama, Beckett explained his strange text as the product of a ” ‘man’ lying panting in the mud and dark murmuring his ‘life’ as he hears it obscurely uttered by a voice inside him… The noise of his panting fills his ears and it is only when this abates that he can catch and murmur forth a fragment of what is being stated within… It is in the third part that occurs the so-called voice ‘quaqua’, its interiorisation and murmuring forth when the panting stops. That is to say the ‘I’ is from the outset in the third part and the first and second, though stated as heard in the present, already over.”