There is nothing subtle about the book, The History of Hell.[1] Whilst the ground covered is vast and potentially calls for a ‘lively account’, the writing is abrupt and in need of a good editor (which conversely the author was at one point). Large statements are frequently made, e.g. about angels and Shintoism, but there is never any expansion or persuasion.[2] Turner offers no subtlety in her argument or presentation of facts, preferring instead to interject often obtuse language or inconsistent and detracting references (e.g. to the film Rosemary’s Baby or even to actresses such as Mrs. Patrick Campbell). These interjections disturb the flow of the text and add very little if anything to the subject in hand; instead they seem evidence of what I presume is an exuberant personality. Sadly, personality does not make for a good writer and will not definitively produce a quality survey of a subject as complex, involved, and of global interest as ‘Hell’. This subject is worthy of more than the ‘flimflam’ Turner subjects it to and the historiography of Hell is not given a satisfactory authorial tone or treatment. Turner undermines her own authorial voice by jumping from subject to subject in each chapter, e.g. when discussing Dante she brings in Freud and the 12 step AA programme of recovery.[3]

One could not argue per se with the premise or structure of the book but one should be mindful of quoting from it. One is not made to feel one can rely upon the solidity of the knowledge or research underpinning this book; although the basic facts are all present and correct, it is the subtlety and writing which is not. For example, Turner should be mindful of her application of some terms: Turner applies the word ‘secular’ in such a generic haphazard way that she devalues it, and it is unclear whether she sometimes misunderstands the term’s meaning or its usefulness. It is also annoying when a book is published in Britain that it doesn’t use proper English, opting for American English instead (a poor substitute).

It is unfortunate that there is so little to be gained from reading what should have been a wonderful book. Turner does not really even declare her intention for the book until page 152 and she only states in the acknowledgements at the end of the book that she does not deem the work ‘scholarly’.[4] If one is determined to read this, then at least there are plenty of wonderful illustrations and enough information that one can turn elsewhere for more insightful commentaries. The book still has merit and offers a dip into a subject that is worthy of more attention. If you didn’t know the names of Giotto, Donne, Milton, Calvin etc. than at least you will after you have read this book.

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Limbourg Brothers, The Fall of the Rebel Angels from Très Riches Heures (c. 1411, Musée Condé)

[1] Alice K. Turner, The History of Hell (London: Robert Bale Company, 1995)

[2] Turner, The History of Hell, pg. 35

[3] Turner, pg. 144

[4] Turner, pg. 152 & also pg. 244