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why hell stinks of sulfur

7 may 2015

Here was a book too unusual to pass up: a meditation on the materiality and mythology of Hell, by a Dutch geologist, translated into vivid English, handsomely illustrated, and bound in bright sulfur-colored buckram. It's a weird, autobiographical, expository, opinionated, magisterial journey to the center of the earth – and it's one of the best books I've read in a long time.

In Why Hell Stinks of Sulfur, Salomon Kroonenberg adopts the wide-eyed tone of a naïf determined to find the literal entryway to the Inferno. Taking classical and medieval depictions of Hell as literally as Schliemann took Homer's descriptions of Troy, Kroonenberg visits the traditional landmarks that lead to the nether world.

The first great journey downwards comes in Homer's Odyssey. But as Kroonenberg notes, Odysseus never really descends into Hell. He stops on the outskirts, does some magic, and the shades of the dead come out to tell him about his world and theirs. The whole setting is somewhat vague; the Odyssean portal could be anywhere from the Atlantic to the Black Sea.

Far more specific is Avernus, the spot it's so easy to get down to in Vergil's Aeneid. Avernos is a Latinized version of "a-ornos," Greek for "no birds": the fumes from the hell-mouth killed any birds coming by stone dead. Lago Averno is a real place near Naples, and though its present-day appearance is somewhat placid, it sits among enormous craters of ancient volcanoes. Passageways in the surrounding hills are known for their lethal concentrations of carbon dioxide – layers of gas that will suffocate a dog while its owner walks upright enjoying the oxygen above.

Kroonenberg finds conditions nicer still at the confluence of the Cocytus and the Acheron, not far from the Styx (which is actually a waterfall). These Greek placenames have among the most terrifying associations of any in Western literature, but they seem like tourist idyls today (as does their Judean equivalent, the valley of Gehenna).

Guided by repeated quotations from Dante, the overall direction of Why Hell Stinks of Sulfur is downwards, which takes Kroonenberg on travels to mud volcanoes, hand-drilled oil wells, coal mines built over subterranean fires, diamond pipes, underground rivers and caverns in karst landscapes, and eventually to Iceland, where so many inward journeys in literature have started, notably Jules Verne's. The problem is that the earth, for all the holes we've drilled into it, is not very porous. Even the heroes of Journey to the Center of the Earth had to give up after only a few miles' progress.

What we know about the inner workings of the Earth – its mantle and its cores – is built largely on seismic inference. Drilling even into the mantle is still unfeasible. And I couldn't help thinking, as I read Kroonenberg's accounts of some attempts to drill through the Earth's crust, of a film that made a great impression on me when I was a kid, Crack in the World with Dana Andrews. By "great impression" I mean scared the #### out of me; I was six when I saw it and I took its apocalyptic rhetoric (mess around with the "magma layer" by inserting the A-Bomb, and all hell really will break loose) for scientific reality. I would be just as happy if deep boreholes never reach the mantle, thank you. What in earth would they find there, anyway.

Kroonenberg, for all his fascination with the inner zones of the planet, is most fond of the soil. Taking the extremely deep geological view, we can't make much impact on the Earth. Orogeny and subduction will exchange the surface for the innards of the earth every few hundred million years, and inevitably metamorphose or melt everything we've built, even our own pollution and the remains of the species we've killed off. But closer to home, the delicately-featured, life-sustaining epidermis of the Earth is tragically riddled with our obsessive digging and churning. I didn't expect a reflection on Hell, with a focus on the bowels of the earth, to become such a gentle meditation on the value of undisturbed soil. But then, I didn't expect hardly anything about Why Hell Stinks of Sulfur.

Kroonenberg, Salomon. Why Hell Stinks of Sulfur. [Waarom de hel naar zwavel stinkt, 2011.] Translated by Andy Brown. London: Reaktion, 2013.