If you want an easy to read introduction to The Inferno check out Paul Thigpen’s excellent book (with an awful title) My Visit to Hell. It is a fantastic version of The Inferno written as a modern novel. The hero enters hell through a storm sewer in the slums of modern day Atlanta. Dante’s infernal architecture is kept as a form for the story, and all the important characters are present in an up to date form. Thigpen’s book is imaginative and well executed. He keeps the depth and emotion of the work, while keeping you turning the pages.
As an example of Thigpen’s updating: when we enter the circle of the Hoarders and Wasters we see the damned are mocked by demons wearing hideous cheap Santa Claus costumes. In a brilliantly satirical stroke Thigpen shows the Seducers and Panderers to be populated with souls from the Hollywood entertainment industry, while souls from the advertising industry have the circle of Flatterers reserved for them. In this circle they wallow in excrement while the demons mock them with their own advertising jingles, “Have it your way!” laughs a demon as he hurls a turd at the damned. “Good to the last drop, Melts in your mouth not in your hand. Breakfast of champions!”
The hero is an apostate theologian, and Thigpen takes the most creative and brilliant liberties in the sixth circle where intellectual sin is punished. He turns the whole circle into a horrific liberal theological seminary where the inmates have to eat their own words by having burning books forced down their throats. In another delightfully picaresque detail we see the liberal Protestant Biblical scholar Rudolph Bultmann being forced to eat a burning book with the demon chortling, “De-mythologize me if you can!”
Thigpen’s version of the inferno is a rollickingly good read. It captures all the gutsy gore of the original, but it also has plenty of theological reflection and Thigpen manages to capture our attention and sympathy for the hero. He understands that the journey into hell is essentially an inner journey of repentance for Thomas Travis. In his attempt to help us understand Travis’ inner journey, Thigpen might be criticized for weaving in a bit too much psychological analysis. Travis seems obsessed with his Father, and when he finds him in the circle of schismatics actually fights with him.
The theme of absent paternal love and its subsequent expression in homosexuality is worked skillfully as the hero meets Jordan Stone—a handsome Hollywood film star whom he idealized and idolized as a boy. Jordan Stone is in the circle reserved for those who are violent against God, and Travis eventually learns that he died of AIDS. Travis travels with Jordan and seems to be falling under the homosexual’s spell. But when the film star finds his final place deeper in hell in the circle of the hypocrites, Travis’ artificial relationship with him is broken and he goes on to resolve the inner mystery of his relationship with his father. The psychological analysis of the hero is thus resolved successfully through honesty and true repentance.
Thigpen has done an outstanding job in this update of an earlier edition of his work. The book ought to be given as a text book for high school and college students studying Dante. It provides an entertaining and inspiring way to gain access to the masterpiece.
More than that, the book is inspiring because it is sobering. Thigpen makes the seriousness of sin a reality, and he makes the due punishment for sin seem like grim common sense. As a result My Visit to Hell cannot help but take the reader on the same inner journey as the hero, Thomas Travis, and that journey is one of self examination and repentance. It worked its magic on me. There were very few circles of hell in which I did not see myself in one way or another, and the result was for me to make the simple cry, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God have mercy on me a sinner!”
(This is an excerpt of a review of Paul’s book I wrote for St Austin Review)