LETTERS FROM HELL, by Jan Cheripko

LETTERS FROM HELL by Valdemar Adolph Thisted. Preface by George MacDonald. Reviewed by Jan Cheripko


Reviewed by Jan Cheripko

Originally published in 1866, Letters from Hell was the creation of Danish author Valdemar Adolph Thisted. The 1897 edition that I have, which mysteriously does not list the author’s name on the copyright page, includes a Preface by the great Victorian fairytale weaver, George MacDonald. There is good reason to suspect that C.S. Lewis, who freely acknowledged his debt to MacDonald, borrowed heavily from the book for his classic, The Screwtape Letters. And there is much of Thisted present as well in Lewis’s insightful psychological look into the beyond, The Great Divorce. (The book is now in public domain and is a Scholar Select work, deemed “culturally important.” A hardcover version was reprinted March 4, 2019, by Wentworth Press in its original form.)

The book fell into my hands through a chance meeting with Glen Sadler, now a retired professor of children’s literature at the University of Pennsylvania in Bloomsburg. At the time, I was working for a children’s book publishing house, and we had invited Dr. Sadler to lunch. During the conversation, I learned that he was the same Glen Sadler who had recast works of George MacDonald for Eerdmans Publishing, including the classic, The Wise Woman and MacDonald’s collection of stories, The Gifts of the Child Christ.  Dr. Sadler, it turned out, had written his doctoral thesis on George MacDonald at the University of Edinburg, earning that fellowship through a personal letter of introduction that he had received from C.S. Lewis–sent to him weeks after Lewis had passed away.

Dr. Sadler invited me to his home, where he showed me an early manuscript of one of MacDonald’s tales, with handwritten notes by MacDonald. He also lent me his copy of Letters from Hell. Dr. Sadler pointed out that since the preface was by MacDonald, he was sure Lewis had read the book. He conjectured that The Screwtape Letters showed its influence. The story begins with the narrator telling us, “I felt the approach of death.” And without explanation how he arrived at this point, he brings us into a phantasmagorical world of lying half in and half out of life on the physical plane.

There had been a time of unconsciousness following upon the shiverings and wild fancies of fever. Once more I seemed to be waking; but what a waking! The power of life was gone: I lay weak and helpless, unable to move hand or foot; the eyelids which I had raised, closed again paralyzed; the tongue had grown too large for the parched mouth; the voice – my own voice – sounded strange in my ears. I heard those say that watched me – they thought I understood not – ‘He is past suffering.’ Was I? Ah me! I suffered more than human soul can imagine. I had a terrible conviction that I lay dying, death creeping nearer. I had always shrunk from the bare thought of it, but I never knew what it meant to be dying, never before that hour. Hour ? – nay, the hours drifted into days, and the days seemed one awful hour of horror and agony at the boundary line of life.

That’s the opening paragraph.

As MacDonald points out in his preface, Thisted’s  “mission is not to answer any questions of the intellect, to please the fancy, or content the artistic faculty, but to make righteous use of the element of horror; and in this, so far as I know, it is unparalleled.”  

Thisted makes it clear from the start that his narrator is faced with finality:

Where was faith? I had believed once, but that was long ago. Vainly I tried to call back some shred of belief; the poorest remnant of faith would have seemed a wealth of comfort in the deep anguish of soul that compassed me about. There was nothing I could cling to – nothing to uphold me. Like a drowning man I would have snatched at a straw even; but there was nothing – nothing! That is a terrible word; one word only in all human utterance being more terrible still – too late! too late!

Perhaps the Victorian writers of more than a century ago understood something about individual choices and consequences that we’ve forgotten. The view that there is a final reckoning isn’t limited to conservative Christianity. I’m reminded of a conversation that the philosopher and writer Jacob Needleman had while walking the streets of San Francisco with a friend who was a Buddhist monk. Needleman was unnerved by the Buddhist idea that it was so rare for a person to be incarnated as a human being. The image offered was that of a turtle swimming in a great ocean, surfacing every one hundred years, and somehow swimming directly into the yoke of an ox that happened to be floating by. Needleman pointed to all of the people on the street as his proof against the Buddhist belief. His friend looked around and said simply: “How many human beings do you see?”1

And that is the point of Thisted’s imaginative tale: our choices matter, not only in this life, but in whatever life that follows.

And that which I would not call back stood up before my failing perception with an unsought clearness and completeness of vision – the life which lay behind me, and now was ebbing away. But little good had I done in that life, and much evil. I saw it: it stood out as a fearful fact from the background of consciousness. I had lived a life of selfishness, of ever pleasing my own desire.

These are gut-wrenching utterances of a soul honestly facing a life not well lived.

In one incredible insight into the human ability to rationalize even a life of selfishness, the narrator says to himself: “One thought of comfort seemed left – I snatched at it: it won’t go worse with you than with most people! Is there anything that could have shown the depth of my wretchedness more clearly than the fact that I could comfort myself with such assurance? Was it not the very cause of all my misery that I had come by the broad way chosen by the many?”

Throughout his story, the narrator relates how he came to be condemned. He traces his downfall to his relationships, in particular with his mother and with a young girl, named Lily.

“Let me speak to you of Lily. But I fear memory will scarcely separate the child Lily from the woman into which she blossomed. . . . I neither saw nor knew her aright, there being nothing so blind as the carnal gaze.

“She was a Creole. Delicate and lovely were her features. . . But those eyes of hers were her greatest charm. Who does not know the soft enchantment of Creole eyes? Lily’s even now have a power that penetrates my soul.”

As for his mother, the protagonist seemed to be a dutiful son, following her counsel regarding Lily: “‘You anticipate future happiness, and thereby will lose it. You must separate. You had better travel for a couple of years. I will watch over Lily meanwhile, and do what I can towards bringing her up for your delight.’

I could not but own that my mother was right, and declared myself ready to make the effort in the interest of future happiness or, more correctly, of promised enjoyment.

The narrator’s confessions of moral selfishness throughout bring us to an understanding of how he came to be convicted. But it is his discerning narration of the activities in hell that shed light on the meaningless of human endeavors.

It may surprise you to hear me speak of books in hell, but you will soon perceive the fitness of things, it being neither more nor less than this: whatever is bad must come to hell, so of printed matter whatever is morally evil or arrogantly stupid tends hitherwards, the books arrive first, the authors following, and their publishers along with them.

Unlike Dante, Thisted’s narrator says, “I might mention names, but I refrain.”

. . . there is no lack here even of theological writings – . . . To speak plainly, how many a book of fine sermons or of religious comfort arrives here, preceding the hireling shepherds!

On the work of politicians, Thisted’s insight is poignant and perceptive. Each day (“. . . meaning the space between one hell night and another. I call it a day; it may be months, years. – I know not.”) the politicians gather to build a huge edifice, constructing it from the stones which are created from their own dead consciences.

Among them are to be found the greatest wrongdoers the world ever produced. No one has a more unlimited scope for evil than statesmen, . . . For a man might be born heir to some crown, and could not help it; but no man can be a statesman without his own free will . . .

Thus in the heart of hell, using their own calcified, stone-dead consciences as building blocks, the damned politicians construct a monstrosity honoring their egos.

The welfare of millions was in their hand – the power of blessing or cursing; and how did they use it? Look at history – nay, examine the present time. They seem to believe, these men, that in the interest of politics as they call it, any amount of evil doing will pass. Justice ? – it is a empty sound. The welfare of nations? – the power of the state is more than that. They believe themselves exempt from all laws, moral or divine, imagining God, if He judges them at all, will judge them according to some special standard of right and wrong.

Written in 1866!

Both The Screwtape Letters and the The Great Divorce reveal Lewis’s biting wit and insightful sarcasm. But as piercing as both are, there is a distance between the main characters and the reader. An aloofness keeps us safe from too much self-reflection. The introspective, first-person narration of Letters from Hell, however, brings us face-to-face with who we are and how we have lived our lives. We enter into the life of the protagonist and watch in agony as his conscience erodes with each careless choice in his physical world. And we suffer with each consequential revelation in hell.

Somehow, though, the narrator’s integrity or sense of self remains intact. That is, until the end. And more than any other part of the Thisted’s tale, the ending is why you should not read Letters from Hell alone in the deep of the dark when souls roam the night. ♦

1. Jacob Needleman, What Is God? Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2009. Pp 130-137

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By Jan Cheripko

Jan Cheripko is the author of seven books for children and young adults, including the award-winning YA novel Imitate the Tiger.