“Time is fluid here,” said the demon.What will Hell be like? People have pondered the nature of everlasting torment for ages. When discussing the topic with his disciples, Jesus quoted the prophet Isaiah, who wrote of the damned that “their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched,” an aphorism that grows in horror the more you meditate on it. Stephen King re-imagined that awful passage in his story “That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is in French,” positing Hell as a place where you were forced to relive your final moments without comprehension of their importance. Neil Gaiman takes the same concept and flips it on its thematic head in “Other People.”
He knew it was a demon the moment he saw it. He knew it, just as he knew the place was Hell. There was nothing else that either of them could have been.
“What happens now?” he asked.The setup is so simple that explanation almost ruins it. Suffice it to say that a man is tormented for aeons by a demon who first inflicts physical agony on him with a bevy of torture implements. But only after his flesh is torn, only after his skin hangs about him in shreds, only after he is irrevocably maimed does the real agony start -- the recitation of his life’s wrongdoings.
“Now,” said the demon, in a voice that carried with it no sorrow, no relish, only a dread flat resignation, “you will be tortured.”
“For how long?”
But the demon shook its head and made no reply.
When, finally, the Lazarene’s Daughter, which he had grown to know intimately, had been cleaned and replaced on the wall in the two hundred and eleventh position, then, through wrecked lips, he gasped, “Now what?”Gaiman probably didn’t have a theological point in mind when he penned the story. But he strays perilously close to total depravity, the idea that every bit of our personhood is touched with evil and that we constantly bleed that evil out into the waiting world. Heady stuff for three-and-a-half pages of text, and made all the more effective by an ending that wraps itself around you and refuses to let go long after the book has been returned to the shelf.
“Now,” said the demon, “the true pain begins.”
You can read “Other People” in Fragile Things.