Monday, December 08, 2008

"Hell's Bells"

In this post I’ll transcribe some excerpts from a short story on hell. The short story was later adapted for TV. It’s the 29th episode in season 2 of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, which is now available on DVD.

In the TV adaptation, a hippie dies and goes to hell. The lead role is played by the wonderfully zany John Astin (of Addams Family fame).

He is expecting hell to resemble the Gustave Doré illustrations of Dante’s Inferno. Indeed, he’s looking forward to the new adventure. But after he arrives, he finds out that hell is a serious letdown.

The TV adaptation is kitschy and campy and dated, although that contributes to the satirical effect. Indeed, we’d expect hell to be a second-rate joint, like a fleabag motel or greasy spoon on Route 66.

It’s not Miltonian, but it wasn’t meant to be.

The original short story is very British, with lots of dated in-jokes.

Harry Turner

Actually being dead wasn’t as painful as Septimus Throgmorton-Duff had imagined it would be.
Dying itself, of course, was pretty nasty. Nobody with any respect for truth could pretend that getting thumped against a brick wall by an E-type was a “Fun” thing to happen.
It was thoroughly unfunny in fact. Painful too.
At the moment of his dead he knew that Hell was his final destination. No other place could possibly take him after his life on earth—of that he was quite certain.
Septimus Throgmorton-Duff had been a thoroughly bad lot. Blasphemer, fornicator, thief (this in a mild sort of way, his victims usually being British Rail, W. H. Smith and Tesco Supermarkets Ltd) and idolater.
So the prospect of Hell came as no surprise to him, indeed it filled him with a morbid curiosity.
Seconds after the E-type had severed him from his mortal coil he found himself in limbo—a sort of disembodied waiting-room, situated nowhere in particular.
Thin, wispy clouds scudded about his feet and dirge-like singing echoed tantalizingly in the background.
He sat uncomfortably on a tubular steel chair, surveying with cool disinterest a pile of last year’s Punch magazines.
In all, it was not unlike a visit to the dentist’s.
After a couple of hours a door, which Septimus had not previously noticed, sprang open and through it emerged a fussy little man in a white nightshirt carrying a clipboard and pencil.
“Mr Septimus Throgmorton-Duff?” he intoned.
“Yes,” said Septimus. “I am he.”
“You’ll have to wait another hour. Hell is very busy at the moment. The Governor seems to be sending everybody there these days—and it’s driving me frantic I can tell you.”
“Oh,” said Septimus, in what he hoped was a sympathetic tone.
“Yes,” said the little man, “frantic, now sit still and behave yourself—when they’re ready for you they’ll ring a bell and flash a red light above that door.” He pointed with his pencil, dramatically. “That’s when your worries really start.
“Cheerio now, must dash, got to catch up on my clerking.”
And then he was gone in a puff of cloud.
Hell, thought Septimus. At last. I wonder what it’s actually like.
Pits of acid perhaps, with tortured souls writhing in pain. Long tongues of flame scorching and searing the flesh of the damned.
Moaning and weeping, the crack of the Devil’s whip, the stench of brimstone and sulphur.
Ghastly implements of torture, thumbscrews, racks, all the nasty hardware of the Middle Ages sharpened and oiled to inflict agony for evermore nonstop.
Big hooks perhaps, dangling on endless chains from which the victims hang by their skewered bellies like the chap in Madame Tussauds.
There might even be red-hot coals, against which our naked buttocks sizzled like barbecued sausages at a beach jamboree.
Poisonous snakes, puncturing your throat every five minutes and making you swell up like a balloon.
Hairy spiders as big as footballs crawling over your face twenty-four hours a day.
Constipation. Pimples. Earache. Nosebleed. Double-vision and chilblains.
Pretty ghastly on the whole, more or less to be expected though.
He glanced at his watch. Time was not dragging as he feared it might. Only ten minutes to go.
He straightened his tie and combed his hair.
Not long now before the searing pain and relentless screaming began. Just a few more minutes in the little waiting room and then—POW.
The red light flashed and a bell pealed solemnly.
Septimus stood up and braced himself. Slowly the door opened—beyond it was dark and silent. He walked steadily towards it, his footsteps ringing on the stone.
Seconds more, he though, and I’ll see it.
A short staircase covered in tufted carpet led down into Hell.
There was no fire, no smoke, and no anguished howling.
Hell, as far as he could judge, consisted of a small square room with book-lined walls, a record-player, and a couple of comfortable sofas. Over the tiled fireplace hung a print of a Chinese woman with a green face.
Curious, Septimus moved quickly to the bookshelves and took down one of the volumes.
It was a bound edition of the Reader’s Digest. He replaced it and took another. This too was a bound edition of the Reader's Digest, and the next, and the next—
Septimus took a pace back and groaned. Nothing to read for the whole of eternity except the Reader’s Digest—what absolute H—. He checked himself and grinned.
Music, he suddenly decided, might be the answer. The music of Hell—something Wagnerian and heroic.
He switched on the record-player and watched the unlabelled disc fall on the turntable.
“And now,” said an American voice on the record, “sixteen hours of nonstop entertainment from The Sound of Music.”
Septimus switched off the record-player and flung himself onto a sofa.
A hand fell on his shoulder and he turned to meet the gaze of an imposing gentleman with a pointed beard, horns, a tail, and a three-pronged trident.
“Aren’t you going to roast me in sulphur or flay me with red-hot chains?”
“Gracious me no,” said the Devil, polishing the prongs of his trident with a little silk hankie.
“Well I think it’s an absolute fraud,” grumbled Septimus. “And it’s so small. Just this tiny room.”
“This little room is Hell for you, dearie.”
[With that] the Devil turned swiftly and minced towards the fireplace.
“Bye now,” he said, over his shoulder, “have fun.” Then he vanished up the chimney.
Septimus sat humbly for a few minutes and then went across to the bookshelf. He took down a volume of the Reader’s Digest stories and returned to the sofa.
As he turned the first page—“How a Vladivostok Crane Driver Overcome Pimples.”
A celestial choir sprang up in the background, belting out the first verse of I could have danced all night.

Herbert van Thal, ed. The Eleventh Pan Book of Horror Stories (Pan 1972), 82-86.


  1. Good stuff.

    Hell for me would be a room covered in garish pastels and children's toys, peeling floral wallpaper, pictures of clowns and very bright overhead fluorescent lights while "It's a Small World" is played on an endless loop on a very old phonograph.

  2. For the intrigued:

  3. Serling covered the same ground in the twilight zone episode where the small time crook goes to what he thinks is heaven and is greeted by a jolly and charming Sebastian Cabot. The reveal comes at the end when he discovers that the place he thought had everything a mug could want(beautiful dames, casinos where he always wins, fancy threads etc..) is really hell! Endlessly predictable and ultimately boring. I'm sure everyone remembers that episode!