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Valley of the Dead (The Truth Behind Dante's Inferno), page 1


Valley of the Dead (The Truth Behind Dante's Inferno)

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Valley of the Dead (The Truth Behind Dante's Inferno)

  Valley of the Dead

  Kim Paffenroth

  Published by Permuted Press at Smashwords.

  Copyright 2010 Kim Paffenroth

  Such torment and sadness

  That overwhelms like madness

  So fearful and intense

  It burns inside

  Judas Priest, “Revelations”

  Timeline of Dante’s Life

  1265 - Born in Florence, Italy

  1274 - Sees Beatrice Portinari for the first time

  1283 - Marries Gemma Donati; they have four children

  1289 - Fights in the Battle of Campaldino

  1290 - Beatrice dies

  1292 - Begins writing The New Life (La Vita Nuova)

  1295 - Joins the guild of apothecaries and becomes active in Florentine politics

  1302 - Banished from Florence; sentenced to being burned alive should he return

  1302-1319 - Exact whereabouts unknown

  1321 - Dies in Ravenna, Italy


  Once again, my primary beta reader has been Robert Kennedy, who never failed to give prompt and detailed comments on each chapter as I progressed. A new beta reader this time was Christine Morgan, a fine author in her own right, whose feel for action scenes and dialogue is keen and exacting; she offered many improvements.

  Certain fact checking, answering of technical questions, and general encouragement was generously provided by coteries of the knowledgeable and charming, within both the academic and horror communities – Jerrod Balzer, Mike Brendan, Brian Brown, Phil Cary, Teresa Delgado, John Goodrich, Karen Koehler, Michele Lee, Michelle McCrary, Bryon Morrigan, Mark Orr, Elena Procario-Foley, Paul Puglisi, Rich Ristow, Mark Samuels, John Urbancik, and Doug Warrick.

  It is one of my morbid habits I have followed with all my books, both nonfiction and fiction, that once I get a good chunk of the work done – enough that the project seems headed toward completion – I then ask someone if they would complete the work in the event I die before finishing it. For this volume, Gary Braunbeck graciously agreed to my morbid request, but it looks as though you’ll have to settle for my more meager talents throughout.

  Thanks to all my teachers and students over the years who have helped me better understand Dante’s poem. Until recently, this novel would not have been the outcome I expected from all that reading and studying, but I hope it is a worthy tribute to all their work, as well as to Dante himself.

  The quotations from Inferno at the beginning of each chapter are taken from the Longfellow translation, now public domain and available at such sites as

  Thanks again to the lads of Judas Priest for allowing their lyrics to grace the beginning of this book, as they have allowed their words to preface many of my nonfiction works. I don’t think they were the main inspiration for my obsession with darkness and evil, but over the years they definitely have been one of my favorite purveyors of such imagery.

  Kim Paffenroth

  Cornwall on Hudson, NY

  November 2009


  For the last nineteen years of his life, the Italian poet Dante Alighieri was exiled from his native city of Florence. In these years, he wrote his most famous poem, The Divine Comedy, which is still regarded as one of the greatest works of world literature and of Christian theological speculation. The poem is an enormous epic divided into three volumes, each of which describes one of the three realms of the Christian afterlife – Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory), and Paradiso (Paradise or Heaven). The Inferno is the most famous of the volumes, and is still read by many American undergraduates as part of a religion or literature course. Even those of purely secular tastes and background are fascinated and appalled by its graphic, ghastly, but hauntingly beautiful and unforgettable images. Also, I think, they pick up on the power the poem draws from being so intensely personal. Dante’s simultaneous anger and love for his hometown, his nation, and his church can easily be heard throughout his writing, while Boniface, Beatrice, and many other real people in Dante’s life – not to mention Dante himself – all appear as characters in the Comedy.

  It’s the intensely personal aspect of Dante’s writing – easily observable by any first-time student and endlessly analyzed and praised by lifelong scholars – that started me down the path of reconstructing the events of this story. Dante fills all three volumes of his greatest poem with facts and images from his personal experiences – Beatrice’s beautiful eyes, a baptismal font he had broken in a church, a bloody military battle in which he had fought, along with hundreds of other minute details – some beautiful, some horrible, some trivial. How else could he write so powerfully and convincingly? With that being verifiably the case, the conclusion seems almost unavoidable: during his years of exile and wandering, when details of his whereabouts are lost and legends abound, Dante must have actually seen the horrors on which he would later base Inferno. He must have witnessed the very depths of human depravity and violence – hate, betrayal, sadism, dismemberment, torture, disease, unbelievable monsters, unquenchable fire, unendurable ice. Lest people think him mad, and building on his deeply-held religious convictions that God must have shown him these things for a reason, he wove these horrors into a supposedly “fictional” account of a journey through the afterlife, significantly changing the details, populating this world with what his contemporaries would have deemed more believable and acceptable characters – demons, angels, and mythological beasts. I finally saw clearly there really could be no other explanation for his poem.

  As heady as my discovery was, I still didn’t know exactly where and under what circumstances Dante could have seen these seemingly impossible sights, until I saw how this solved a further mystery of interpretation. With a chill as immobilizing, but far more invigorating, than the ice Dante describes gripping the innermost circle of hell, I remembered how one denizen of Dante’s hell indulges in a particularly gruesome pastime: in the final circle of hell, there is a sinner vigorously engaged in cannibalism, even though he is not put there for that individual crime, and even though Dante does not assign a circle of hell to that sin. Here was the solution I had sought: Dante must have seen such a massive, horrifying outbreak of cannibalism that he couldn’t bring himself to confine it to one circle of hell, but instead made it the state and situation of every sinner, the landscape or lifestyle of hell itself. Dante, based on some horror he had personally witnessed, came to regard cannibalism as not just one sin among many, but rather the epitome and model of all sin – self-destructive, self-devouring, never-ending hunger. And I knew, as you probably do, there is only one situation that causes cannibalism on such a massive scale, and which would cause a devout man to imagine all of hell must be populated by such cannibalistic monsters, or that hell itself was breaking loose upon the earth. I also saw with chilling clarity why, on the one occasion Dante does describe a cannibal in hell, he focuses on a rather unexpected part of the ghoulish feast: he describes the sinner devouring someone else’s brains. Once again, there clearly was only one answer possible: Dante had witnessed what I had previously thought was a deadly plague only in our modern world – zombies, ghouls, the undead, the living dead.

  What I have now laid down, as best as I could reconstruct it from passages in the Inferno, is the tale of how Dante survived that plague, and the lessons he learned there, making his ideas more accessible to many who might be put off by his overtly Christian language, and revealing the real-life situation on which such theological discourse was based. This is far more than an interpretation or adaptation of Inferno: this is th
e real story, of which Inferno is the interpretation.

  Chapter 1

  “Midway upon the journey of our life

  I found myself within a forest dark,

  For the straightforward pathway had been lost.”

  Dante, Inferno, 1.1-3

  Dante was not lost in a dark forest. Far off to his left, league upon league of trees stretched out sullenly, until in the distance they crept up the sides of angular, defiant mountains. The road where Dante sat astride his grey horse was awash with sunlight on that spring afternoon, even though it was still fairly cold. The landscape around him might have seemed cheerful, were he given to such a mood that day – though like most of his days since being driven from Florence, he was not. But the rider’s dour mood was not the only thing tainting the panorama around him. The whole countryside seemed to lack something: light abundantly overflowed, but there were no sounds beyond the horse’s footfalls – and even these seemed small and muffled, though the horse was a big, plodding beast. No smells, and the air didn’t carry to Dante’s tongue any hint of budding life as it should at this time of year. He looked to the mountaintops and thought it right to withhold joy from a scene so unnatural, flat, and soulless.

  Dante was also not midway through life’s journey. He had been wandering Europe for several years already, and he had started his exile at age thirty-seven. Even with the rather generous biblical estimate that our lifespan was set at three-score and ten, he knew he had more years behind than ahead of him. But a life of exile had its own, special indignities that could age a soulful, sensitive man like Dante even quicker, making him more weary and despondent than a happy and content man would be at a far more advanced age. Most days, Dante felt very old indeed.

  Dante had never been a handsome man. Though the arcs of his eyebrows were delicate and graceful, his brow overhung his eyes too much--eyes that were too small and set too deep. His chin was far too prominent, and his nose was too pointy, especially noticeable and unappealing since it bent slightly downward. But since leaving Italy, Dante sometimes wondered if his ugliness had been exacerbated and turned inward to fester and poison him in some more permanent, irreparable way. Often when he contemplated the afterlife – or even worse, the resurrection, with its more complete, perfected forms of retribution – this fear froze him, and all he could do was repeat the prayers of childhood, the mantras of innocence and hope corresponding so little to frightened, disappointed, cynical middle age.

  It turned out that crawling to some petty potentate’s frigid, ramshackle castle to beg for supper was the least embarrassing part of Dante’s new lifestyle. Far more demeaning and debilitating was the dance of dependency and sycophancy that would ensue, the doggerel he’d have to write for the ruler and his court, celebrating all their munificence, bravery, and nobility. Given how meager their various accomplishments were, Dante had to take poetic license and embellishment all the way to outright, culpable lies in order to compose the verses they wanted, and for which they would tolerate and support him. God help him if they fell in “love” and required poetry to aid their pathetic quests to copulate like the beasts they mostly were.

  There was humility, and then there was humiliation; worse, there was the humiliation one actively longed for, pursued, and embraced, like a dog returning to its own vomit. That was Dante’s life, and he loathed himself for it.

  If there had at least been the satisfaction of being able to produce something good, true, and beautiful, while whoring himself to these illiterate barbarians, it might almost have seemed worth it. Perhaps the value of his “real” art would outweigh and counterbalance all the sinful trash he was forced to produce in order to survive. Dante had thought like this at first, before the exact contours of his life in exile became clearer to him, but lately it seemed like a useless evasion. He doubted he could ever create something worthy of his beloved Beatrice, let alone anything acceptable to the God he had offended and betrayed. Better just to own up to the sinful wretch he had become and beg the Lord to forgive and heal him.

  On that nondescript road on that featureless day, Dante burned with shame at the compromises, lies, and pandering he had willfully perpetrated in the name of survival. He now knew through painful experience these were far worse and more culpable than any of his wrath against the monster Boniface, or even his blinding arrogance at his own talent – talent for which he was often not sufficiently grateful to God. He prayed to God for punishment for all such affronts against Him – not with the hope of childish prayers, but with the steady, sober resignation of middle age.

  Dante dragged the gaze of his hard eyes from the mountaintops to the road. Some distance ahead, he saw a small, four-legged form loping onto the roadway. It stayed there, as if waiting for him. As Dante approached, he could have sworn it was a lean, hopeless-looking wolf, though it hardly seemed possible. They usually traveled in packs, and one by itself would hardly lie in wait for a man on a horse – a victim too big for a lone animal to take down. Dante gripped the hilt of his sword, thinking perhaps the creature was sick or mad. Disease could make animals behave in unnatural ways. Whatever the animal was or whatever its condition, it remained there in the road, panting, its tongue hanging out, looking on as Dante drew closer. Each rib was visible on its taut, mangy side. And then, as though it really were just a phantom, it slinked noiselessly into the woods, leaving Dante blinking and shaking his head. Perhaps it had just been a large, starved dog.

  Then, on that day without savor or sound, while sights deceived and confounded him, Dante finally smelled something. He smelled smoke. Not the pressing, earthy smoke of burning wood, and not the heady, rich smoke of roasting meat. Those kinds of smoke would be black, and their odors would be alive. Up ahead to the right, the smoke was white, thin, and sickly, and its smell was dense but piercing, something raspy and malignant. Then suddenly the silent day filled with similarly harsh, disordered sounds – an explosion, shouts, and the high, long shriek of a woman. Though these were the punctuations in the din now assailing Dante, stranger and more chilling was the steady moan underlying all of the sounds around him. It was an animal drone both more and less alive than the other, frenzied sounds, for it was unbroken, unwavering, like the rush of wind or water. For all his harsh judgment of his own virtues, Dante was no coward. He automatically nudged his horse with his heels, urging it ahead faster.

  The stench increased and the tumult rose as he rode forward, though the intensity and clarity of the sun’s light did not change in any way at all.

  Chapter 2

  “All hope abandon, ye who enter in!”

  Dante, Inferno, 3.9

  Coming around a slight bend in the road, Dante could now see the cottages of a small village off to his right. They were the homes of simple people – farmers, woodsmen, and shepherds. Several of the buildings were in flames, and people were running around in panic, not attempting to extinguish the fire, but just trying to escape. Some were fighting savagely with one another among the buildings, using their bare hands or farm implements – axes, shovels, pitchforks.

  Many years before, Dante had seen similarly-armed peasants fighting at the Battle of Campaldino. They had made up ninety-percent of the armies, in fact, while Dante had been part of the tiny but decisive cavalry force. This was far more ugly, graceless, and lethal. Men grappled and hacked at each other with a fury one would never see on a normal battlefield, where even ill-armed and poorly-trained soldiers could retreat or surrender. No, you only saw the limits of brutality on days like this, where men were forced to fight like beasts, in front of their homes, with their womenfolk and children screaming and running all around them in terror.

  Dante switched the reins to his left hand and pulled back on them. He drew his weapon – a simple arming sword he could wield with one hand, useful on foot or mounted, and befitting his station and skill at arms. He had no idea how to intervene in the melee, who was fighting, or over what, but he hung back by the edge of the madness, unable to tear himself away.
  Dante saw that even by the standards of bestial savagery, something was wrong with these people. When one man swinging a club was knocked down by three unarmed men, they fell upon him and tore his clothes off with their bare hands. From the screams and animal growls that followed, it seemed they were tearing into his flesh with their hands and teeth, dismembering him. Others who were knocked down were treated in an almost equally excessive, unbelievable manner. Men with axes or shovels would continue to hit their opponents in the head even after they’d fallen, as though they wanted not just to kill or incapacitate them, but to destroy their heads completely until their brains were spread out all over the blood-soaked ground.

  A crackling sound tore through the air above them, and for an instant Dante glimpsed some smoking, orange object in the sky, before another house exploded in flames. Sparks and burning bits of wood and thatch flew out of the wrecked building, pelting people indiscriminately, some of whom caught on fire as well. The villagers were not just fighting hand-to-hand, but they were being bombarded by some other, unseen force, further off. That group must have been a real army, with real equipment, if they possessed incendiary projectiles like this. Another burning wall exploded as a man crashed through it, entirely engulfed in flames himself. He kept on walking for much longer than Dante would have thought possible for a person burning so intensely. But then, survival and pain frequently drove people beyond their expected or natural limits.

  From out of the confusion, a young woman approached Dante. She pulled her long skirts up so she could run faster without tripping on them, and as she got closer, Dante could see she was flushed, bloody, and sooty. Her white blouse was torn in several places. She’d probably been hit in the face, as blood trickled from the corner of her mouth. She was a tiny wisp of a woman, thin and lithe everywhere except her huge, obviously pregnant belly. In her right hand she held a large cudgel – not really a formal weapon; it just looked like a piece of firewood that had been handy. Dante could see it was stained red.

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