I read Paul Thigpen’s My Visit To Hell for a couple of reasons. One is a secret - and yeah, I’m gonna keep it a secret for a while; I can do that. The other reason is that I’ve been fascinated with Dante’s Inferno since my early Dungeons & Dragons days - and Thigpen’s novel promised to be a somewhat faithful retelling and/or update of the epic classic. Which it, thankfully, was.
I bought the trade paperback without knowing much about Thigpen. I didn’t know that he was a converted Catholic with an evangelical background (and I think he was still a Protestant evangelical when he first wrote My Visit To Hell). I also didn’t know that Hell was actually touted as a “Christian” novel.
I won’t say that I WOULDN’T have read the book had I known. I consider myself a Christian - a dismally bad one, but one nonetheless. Plus, I’m the kind of reader who believes that to become a better reader, thinker, and ultimately, writer, one needs to read expansively and inclusively. I mean, I TRIED to read Ulysses. On the other end of the scale, I TRIED to read R.A. Salvatore’s shitty-ass Drizzt Do’Urden fantasy novels.
I’ve certainly read “Christian” literature before - and not just C.S. Lewis’s brilliant work. Hell, I read Paul McHenry’s terrible, terrible, terrible Code Name: Antidote. You can ask some of my closest friends about that time in my life - you’ll love some of the answers.
Paul Thigpen’s novel is much more readable, interesting, and imaginative than CN:A, but it still got on my nerves to read a book like that. And by “like that”, I mean a book filled with less than savory characters who are in tense, less than pleasant situations, who still never, ever, never, ever say ONE swear word. Not one.
Not one “shit”. Not one “fuck”. Not one “asshole”. Not even a “bitch” or “cocksucker” or a “damn”. Unless you count “damned” as referring to the cursed individuals in Hell. And, of course, there’s the word Hell itself.
Other than that though, in Thigpen’s world, not even the nasty rapists and murderers who inhabit Hell are willing to say anything remotely blue. While I understand Thigpen’s audience and publisher, and their need to keep it “clean,” I found it ridiculous and incessantly annoying that - while people were running around naked, getting graphically blasted by fire and radiation, getting hacked to pieces by horrific demons and torturers, NOT ONE OF THEM EVER SAID A SWEAR WORD.
I think the nastiest thing anyone was called was “bucko.” Even the demons kept it clean.
Were that the worst thing I could say about the novel, though, I think I could give it a glowing recommendation. After all, no swearing is a pretty minor nitpick, no matter how annoying it was.
And I WILL give it this limited praise: Even though the not-swearing thing was annoying, even though it distressed me to no end that Thigpen reveled in saying CUSS instead of CURSE or SWEAR (he’s a Southern writer, too, folks), and even though some passages were sophomoric and trite, the book entertained me. Occasionally, the scenery was inspired. For instance, the level of Hell for suicides was creepy and sad in perfect proportions.
This brings us, though, to the title of this post and my greatest criticism of Thigpen’s novel: in a book that could have been sooo interesting, and for Christian readers so inspirational, and for non-Christians so informational, Thigpen decided to dwell overly long on certain evangelical “hot topics” that would likely have stopped many people - those who don’t already believe as he does - from reading further.
Can you name two topics which evangelical or “devout” Christians tend to dwell on that turn people off - so much so that people who might otherwise be receptive to the POSSIBILITY of a divine “God” and an encompassing plan for the universe say, “Fuck that - you guys are a bunch of hateful-ass judgmental bitches,” and either dismiss or reject altogether the entire premise of Christianity or religion in general?
If you said ABORTION or HOMOSEXUALITY, then take the pie - it’s yours.
What the fuck is it with “Christians” who set aside the most crucial of all God’s commands - that YOU LOVE GOD, AND THEN TREAT OTHER PEOPLE AS YOU WOULD LIKE TO BE TREATED - in favor of bile and vitriol, and the condemnation of circumstances and lifestyles that they do not understand, or even care to try to understand? No wonder so many people reject religion - it’s hard to believe in a God who cares more about what you do with your own body than He does what you do to other people.
I finished Thigpen’s novel for three reasons: 1) because I’m a believer, I’m straight, and I’ve never been involved in making an abortion decision, so I was able to swallow my disgust at how much he dwelled on those topics 2) because I was curious, and 3) because I’m a completionist. Had I lacked any of those characteristics, I probably would have set My Visit To Hell aside and started on the stack of Hulk comics I have on my bedside table.
Lemme give you a bit of context. In Dante’s Inferno, and in Thigpen’s interpretation of it, Hell consists of ever-deepening circular levels, and the deeper you go, the more heinous the sin, until you reach the bottom where Satan himself is half-buried in ice, his upper half still able to reach and grab and chew. This lowest Hell, the Ninth Circle, is called Cocytus, and therein dwell the worst sinners imaginable - the traitors. In Inferno, we see Satan gnawing perpetually on the three worst traitors in Dante’s world: Brutus, Cassius, and of course, Judas Iscariot.
So, here you go: Circle Seven is the place for the violent - those who were violent to others (murderers and tyrants), those who were violent to themselves (suicides), and those who were violent against nature and God. Now, both Dante and Thigpen relegate gay people to this Circle - in fact, they’re placed in a deeper ring than both the murders and the suicides.
Let me ask you something. When you think of violence, do you think about gay people? Does Neil Patrick Harris make you shudder with terror at how he’s going to gut you with his codpiece? Do you think that the average gay guy deserves a place in Hell that’s DEEPER than Saddam Hussein’s? Than Ted Bundy’s?
Dante put what he called sodomites in that level of Hell because he lived in a medieval age and had a medieval mindset. Thigpen… well….
What Dante NEVER mentioned was abortion. But guess where Thigpen placed the parents of aborted fetuses? In Cocytus, just a little ways away from Satan himself. Even saying that abortion was murder, and putting the parents of aborted fetuses on the Seventh Circle wasn’t enough for Thigpen. Nope. Ninth Circle: traitors to family.
And it wasn’t that Thigpen offhandedly mentioned, “Yeah, that’s where the abortion parents are. Yeah, that’s where the gays are.” He DWELLED on it. Not exhaustively, but enough that you knew he was trying to make a point.
And by making that point, he distracted me from the other points he might have been trying to make. In doing so, he lost an opportunity. He could have given me a story that scared me so badly I had bad dreams - I mean, what’s more potentially frightening than a place of eternal torment and freaky shit? He COULD have given me - and think this was his intent - a story of redemption and salvation, one that pulled at my heart strings and made me exult at the main character’s rebirth and reawakening. But alas, Thigpen’s writing simply wasn’t powerful enough to overcome the things he threw in there that distracted me from his point, and he would have lost me had I not been determined to finish.
In the end, though I can’t say My Visit to Hell was in fact, a visit to Hell, it certainly wasn’t a cakewalk either.