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Hell and Temporality in Neil Gaiman's "Other People"

It is no big revelation to say that the contemporary society is entirely reliant on the standardized division of time into seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, years. Each passing second brings about some form of change—temporality thus becomes a constant movement toward something new and unknowable. In his short story Other People, Neil Gaiman explores the idea of a space devoid of time or, better still, a space where passage of time is largely inconsequential. After a brief introduction to the story and the basics of the conception of time, a discussion will follow on why Gaiman’s construction of hell is uniquely frightening, even though it draws from common descriptions of hellscape.

Gaiman's short story revolves around two characters, a human and a demon. The latter is tasked with torturing the former and does so using various implements, but it also makes a concentrated effort to “torture” the emotional side of the unnamed human: “The demon took apart his life, moment by moment, instant to awful instant” (2006, Other People, para. 25). In a single sentence, a millennium passes. After a countless number of years, the man himself becomes the demon who now must torture a different man.

Figure 1. The Harrowing of Hell. Follower of H. Bosch. (n.d.). One of the many depictions of eternal torments of hell.

Two terms stand out as the most important ones for the analysis of Gaiman’s story: hell and temporality. The two are not entirely separate since hell is often described as an eternal space which necessarily means that passage of time does not significantly alter it. Hell is a term certainly colored by biblical influence; however, some version of hell exists in most religions and mythologies across the world. While it falls outside of the scope of this article to analyze each and every one, a common ground many of them share in their description of such spaces is the fact of their eternity. That is to say that such spaces are inescapable and that whatever punishment one is to receive, it is supposed to last forever. The true gravity of this eternity is revealed once it is juxtaposed to common societal perception of time. However, reaching a consensus definition of what time and temporality are could prove troublesome.

Conceptions of time and the significance of its three major aspects (past, present, future) are prone to being altered with each coming generation of people, as each generation has a different relationship with the past and a different expectation from the future (Scott, 2014, 160-161). To describe what temporality as such represents could prove to be a more laborious task than even enumerating and comparing all versions of hell and/or the underworld. The theoretical views on the passage of time and its significance to cultural development and heritage are ever-changing as the topic manages to maintain its allure for many theoreticians even today. For the purposes of this article, temporality will be understood as a force that shapes culture and that is (and was) itself shaped by cultural influences: “the cultural object is both produced in time and produces time” (Born, 2015, 368). This is to say, in simplified terms, that base understanding of time and its passage is necessarily colored by culture which encapsulates both human action and human production. For example, a piece of art may encapsulate relationships between people and their environment. As individuals and communities come into contact with that piece, "these relations are dispersed both spatially and temporaly" (Born, 2015, 368). One is witness to this each day: works of art carry within them experiences of the past which can become lessons for the present and equip one to deal with what is to come.

Figure 2. The Three Fates. Thumann, P. 19th century. The Moirai, Greek deifications of fate; they can be seen as weavers of past, present, and future.

In Other People, the passage of time likewise teaches lessons. However, temporality there becomes a means of torture. It is inconceivable to any living being what it would be like to be physically tortured for a millennium: after a while, one would surely grow numb to such action. In doing so, in becoming numb, one would lose essential sensory aspects of their physicality. If the physical body is numb enough as to not feel pain, then it probably ceases to be responsive to all other outside stimuli. Therefore, one would be left with the emotional aspect of their existence, with thoughts and feelings accumulated in their life which may in them carry ideas of hopeful future. Yet, the conception of hope is necessarily tied to time: when one is hopeful, one believes that passage of time will bring about a happier situation, whatever that might mean or represent.

Gaiman takes away this possibility in two ways. Firstly, the demon spends a number of centuries making sure that the man is driven to emotional numbness, thus leaving nothing more than a husk of his former self. The second aspect stems from the fact that the narrative is looped; it ends with the same sentence with which it started, insinuating that the cycles of torture will never end—the tortured simply becomes the torturer.

What is more, Gaiman’s hell removes the idea of agency or free will. A curious insight can be observed if one considers the way in which humans consume narratives:

For example, when reading Macbeth, a play acutely concerned with time’s passage, we control the time: while Macbeth tries to master time and fails, the reader can succeed in the effort, slowing down or speeding up and moving backward and forward in the text at will. In contrast, when viewing Macbeth in the theater, we are drawn forward relentlessly by the action, surrendering ourselves to the players’ time (Bushnell, 2014, 784).

It can be said that the latter experience is somewhat closer to real life, where people and society at large function as players in an individual’s life whose movement in time that individual cannot control. However, any play is endlessly watchable and every story is endlessly readable. In fact, the only thing that limits that is the fact that human lives must come to an end—the limiting factor thus becomes biological.

Figure 3. Dream and Hob meet again. Netflix. 2022. Dream of the Endless offers Hob, an ordinary human, a chance to become immortal; every one hundred years the two meet and Hob must decide if he wants to live on. Despite the wild twists of fate in his life, he never decides to end his gifted immortality.

Few, if any, would argue the claim that humans are deeply connected with passage of time as a fact of existence. Many a tale has been written on the idea of despair one would feel if one were to be truly immortal: the perishability and fragility of life is what makes it so valuable. Gaiman did, however, explore the idea of a human being granted eternal life. In an experiment performed by one of the Endless in his The Sandman (both the comics and the Netflix series), a man is “excused” from dying; essentially, he was unable to die unless he himself asked Death to take him away. Each one hundred years he is revisited and again asked if he wants to die.

In an interesting turn of events, the man is entirely pleased with his immortality. Even though he goes through long periods of extreme poverty, he always desires to keep his boon of eternal life. However, the eternity as presented in Other People and in The Sandman are quite different. Firstly, the immortal man can, at any point, decide to die. Secondly, and more importantly, his “eternity” is full of change; each decade brings something new. Thus, it seems that at the core of human perception of temporality is change. For time doubtless “moves” forward in both stories; it is temporality without alteration that brings about torture.

Figure 4. The torture of Roman Catholics by monsters in hell, with Charon ferrying more departed souls over the river Styx. Anonymous. (n.d.).

In Other People, hell’s temporality is parodied and twisted. Gaiman’s prose often carries ironic undertones, where the narrator is rarely surprised or awed by ongoing fantastical events; this can also spill over onto pivotal characters within his stories (Klapcsik, 2008, 317-320). The demon that tortures is entirely unmoved by the knowledge that he is to spend twenty centuries breaking a man.

The short story demonstrates eternal torment where the tortured becomes the torturer, thus creating a time loop. “Time is fluid here” (2006, Other People, para. 1) is both the opening and closing statement of the story which elevates the loop to the level of the text, indicating that there is no true end to the story—the “final” sentence is merely a beginning of another cycle of torture.

What is more, such a looped narrative perfectly mirrors the idea expressed by the story itself—regardless of what the action is, performing it for an eternity would doubtless become bothersome to say the least. Mankind is dependent on the fact that everything passes and is driven by that to act and make the best out of the time that it has been given. A temporal loop removes that agency. That is why, despite all the utensils and tools of torture that are described in the story, the true terror of Gaiman’s hell stems from the ever-circling temporality that crushes any and every sense of hope.

In a 1999 article, Neil Gaiman wrote about his practice of writing with myth and with fairy tales, using them as tools or as “compost” to create a new narrative experience suited for the new age (77-82). Time itself has become a mythical figure, both directly personified/deified in various mythologies and religions, but also indirectly through sheer human interaction with it. Much like in his other stories, Gaiman used the myth to sow the seeds of a new story. Other People is not a revolutionary piece of writing, but is a great lesson—hell eternal is a figuratively eternal collocation in its own right, yet it still served as “compost” for the blossoming of a poignant, meaningful story that deepens the meaning of the original sentiment.

Bibliographical References

Born, G. (2015). Making time: Temporality, history, and the cultural object. New Literary History, 46(3), 361–386.

Bushnell, R. (2014). Tragedy and temporality. PMLA, 129(4), 783–789.

Gaiman, N. (1999). Reflections on myth. Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, 31, 75–84.

Gaiman, N. (2006). Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders. Harper Collins e-books.

Klapcsik, S. (2008). Neil Gaiman’s Irony, Liminal Fantasies, and Fairy Tale Adaptations. Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies (HJEAS), 14(2), 317–334.

Scott, D. (2014). The Temporality of Generations: Dialogue, Tradition, Criticism. New Literary History, 45(2), 157–181.

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Dino Mušić

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