Hell: The People and Places

Image of Hell: The People and Places
Release Date: 
October 10, 2023
Princeton Architectural Press (Adult)
Reviewed by: 

“a snarky, slapstick, clever buddy comedy in printed form where each riffs off the other’s talents, making Hell a hell of a lot of fun.”

There are few people working in their craft who are as prolific as Steven Heller and Seymour Chwast—Heller, potentially the most published writer of all time on graphic design, and Chwast, co-founder of the storied Push Pin Studios and still producing work into his 90s. Suitably, they are also best friends. Hell: The People and Places brings them together for what feels like the hundredth time in a casually fun and tongue-in-cheek volume on the history of the netherworld.

Upon first glance, the spot varnish lettering surrounded by falling cartoon nudes could make one easily assume this nearly pocket-sized book is for children. While Chwast has produced his fair share of tomes for tots, this is probably not meant to be on your friend’s baby registry. Instead, it is an adult-oriented compendium on various cultures’ concepts of what happens to less-than-stellar people in the afterlife.  

Squat, slender, and longer than it is tall, where does this book live in one’s library? The topic seems most appropriate by the bedside—why not contemplate hell before drifting off to sleep? But the illustrations and short sections make it most appropriate—and this is said without any amount of disrespect—for the bathroom. Far more digestible than back issues of the New Yorker and yet more highbrow than a compendium of Judge Judy quotes, Hell is a delightful thing to peruse while releasing your own hell in the privacy of your home.

The book does not claim to be exhaustive—the introduction alone informs the reader to “Google it on your own” if you want to find out more about the etymology of hell or take a deeper dive into any of the various canonical studies on the topic. Instead, it is a collection of bite-sized summaries of various cultures’ and religions’ views on the matter written in Steven Heller’s beloved wry style and accompanied by Seymour Chwast’s equally beloved, expressive cartoons. Neither is the ur-representation of what they’re discussing, but rather fun snapshots of the matter at hand.

Divided into sections based on geographic region, this journey through hell à la Dante begins in the Middle East with Jerusalem’s Gehenna. A historic place on earth, this is where local residents used to burn both their trash and their dead, a solid parallel to what many in the West conceive of when they think of hell. While there is no hell, per se, in the Hebrew Bible, Gehenna is referenced enough to be a reasonable stand in. Chwast, interestingly, provides a basin of burning bodies surrounded by Christmas-colored lumps as the corresponding representation. We’re playing fast and loose with religious history at this point, but academic accuracy isn’t why anyone reading this book should be here.

A few pages later, Sunni Islam’s concept of Jahannam is explained—an idea so complex as to be mapped out in bullet points for readers who might otherwise feel lost. Moving back and forth between this checklist of “degrees of evil” and Chwast’s Shoots and Ladders-style illustration makes Jahannam feel almost like determining what blackout dates we have on our timeshare. Do we qualify for the “inferno interim” or the “bottomless pit”?

Each pithy entry is short enough to inspire the reader to turn to their phone and look up more about a given hell. What exactly are the traps outside of Xibalba, the Mayan “Palace of Fright”; why did the people of South Africa’s choose a leopard monster named Ga-Gorib as their ambassador to eternal suffering; and what was John Bunyan smoking when he wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress and invented Apollyon? So many hells, so little time.

What’s most clear is that Chwast and Heller are indeed best friends—we’re just here to watch them have a good time. And they clearly had a ton of fun creating this book together: a snarky, slapstick, clever buddy comedy in printed form where each riffs off the other’s talents, making Hell a hell of a lot of fun.