Consider these two descriptions of dark places beyond reality.
The first comes from Haruki Murakami’s Dance Dance Dance. An unnamed narrator feels drawn to a rundown hotel at which he had strange experience several years prior. But upon arrival, he discovers that the hotel has been totally revamped into a swanky, modern place and all traces of its past have been covered. As he pokes around, he learns that a current employee has also had a bizarre experience inside the hotel since its remodeling. The elevator she was using brought her to a strange hallway and then disappeared. As she describes it,
But the whole place was completely dark. All I could see were the elevator call buttons and the red digital display that says what floor it’s on. So the first thing I did was press the call buttons, but the elevator kept going down. I didn’t know what to do. Then, for some reason, I decided to take a look around. There was no sound at all. And the floor felt funny, not like the regular carpet. It was hard. Honest. And then the air, it felt different, too. It was…it was moldy. Not like the hotel air at all. Our hotel is supposed to be fully air-conditioned and management is very fussy about it because it’s not like ordinary air-conditioning, it’s supposed to be quality air, not the dehumidified stuff in other hotels that dries out your nose. I turned around and now even the elevator call buttons had gone out. I couldn’t see a thing. Everything was out, completely, which was really frightening. I mean, I was entirely alone in the darkness. To the right, she said, raising her right hand, I felt my way along the wall, very slowly, and after a bit the hallway turned right again. And then, up ahead, I could see a faint glow. Really faint, like candlelight leaking in from far away. I saw the light was coming from a room with the door slightly ajar. So I knocked on the door softly, very softly. It was hardly a knock at all, but it came out sounding really loud—maybe because the hallway was dead quiet. Anyway, no response. Then I heard this muffled noise. I don’t know, it was like a person in heavy clothing standing up, and then there were footsteps. That was when I started to freak out. Like maybe these footsteps weren’t human. The footsteps came closer to the door. All I can remember is that I ran. I panicked. Like what if the elevator’s dead? Thank god, when I finally got back there, the red floor-number lights and call buttons were lit up and everything. The elevator was on the ground floor. I started pounding the call buttons and then elevator started coming back up. But much slower than usual. I could still hear those footsteps, shuffle…shuffle…shuffle…, getting closer. They just didn’t stop. I was sweating all over, but I was cold. I had the chills. The elevator wasn’t anywhere near. Seventh…eighth…ninth, the footsteps kept coming. The next thing I knew, the elevator was there.
The second description is of a more literal hellscape. CliveBarker’s The Scarlet Gospels centers around a conflict between detective Harry D’Amour and Barker’s infamous villain Pinhead. Early on in the book, Pinhead coerces the assistance a human magician who follows him into Hell.
There was an elegant symmetry to Pyratha, with its eight hills (“one better than Rome,” its architect boasted.), which were crammed with buildings of countless styles and sizes. Felixson knew nothing of city’s rules, if it had any. The Hell Priest had referred to it in passing on one occasion and only spoke of it with the contempt of a creature who thought every occupant of Pyratha as a subspecies, their mindless hedonism matched only by their lavish stupidity. The city that Lucifer had built to outdo Rome had fallen, as Rome had fallen, into decadence and self-indulgence, its regime too concerned with its own internal struggles to cleanse the city of its filth and return it to the disciplined state it had been in before Lucifer’s disappearance.
Up close, the buildings they hurried past seemed even more impressive to Felixson than they had from the hill on which sat the monastery. Their facades were decorated with what looked like intricately rendered scenes of Lucifer’s personal mythology. The figures were designed to be contained within a rigorous square format, which brought to Felixson’s mind the decorations he’d once seen on the temples of the Inca and the Aztecs.
(They come to a tower which Pinhead proceeds to climb)
Their ascent was accomplished via a wide spiral staircase that sat within the reflective tube. Each of the metal steps were welded to its core. But even here in this elegant construct, the infernal touch hadn’t been neglected. Each of the steps was set not at ninety-degrees to the core, but at ninety-seven, or a hundred, or a hundred and five, each one different from the one before but all sending out the same message: nothing was certain here; nothing was safe. There was no railing to break the slide should someone lose their footing, only step after disquieting step designed to make the ascent as vertiginous as possible.
Even without a broad knowledge of either author’s works, it’s clear what kind of effect each is angling for. Murakami’s hallway depicts a more cerebral kind of fear. The use of frightening imagery is scant. And in the absence of monsters or gore or violence or anything of the like, the encounter is one with terror itself. Even if the hellscape is internal, it’s still tangible as that most everyone has some kind of experience in being somewhere where the unknown was the worst part of it. Dealing with a person OD’ing or going home to partner who likely knows you have evidence of infidelity (or vice versa) is a living parallel to Murakami’s hallway. Nothing is really new. The walls are still there. The floor, the ceiling. No law of reality is violated, but you understand that sense that something has gone terribly wrong in a way that transcends the grasp of the immediate moment.
Barker’s hellscape opts for grandeur. Everything is defined and visible. The terror lies in that which is certain; that this awful, infernal place absolutely does exist for the characters within the book. It is not metaphysical.
It’s easy to bust on these latter kinds of hellscape depictions because they can come off over the top, lacking the nuance expected of the fine arts, or coming off as a pitch for a movie deal rather than a piece of literature. Especially so after the ‘epic’ fad of a few years ago. But I believe they do have their place. Like Murakami’s elevator, they can be relatable in a personal way.
Medieval castles are one example, and the intricate defense mechanisms they employed. Beyond aesthetics or as a representation of a point in time we may have a fondness for, castles have never ceased to stun me when I consider their function as weapons. The diabolical nature is not personal. In fact, it is the impersonal nature of it that makes it so grotesque. Someone sat at a table and devised this idea of pouring boiling and sand (contrary to popular belief, oil was not frequently employed) as the most efficient way to get rid of trespassers. This asymmetry could be further applied to everything from drone warfare to the environmental issues related to resource extraction. For the person going through it, it is hell. But for the designer, it's just a way of getting things done.