The Prison of Soon

In the Wizard's Harvest Table, one of the locations Modest visits is the furnace prison of Soon, where demons imprison those they cannot kill outright, such as those with supernatural powers, wizards wrapped in wards or witches under spells of protection. It is a place of physical and mental torture, a bole of rock riddled with cells like a rotted fruit eaten into by worms, suspended on a lava lake and gently turning over and over. While Modest travels first Groshial's domain, then Kashprav's domain, the Prison of Soon is the most gruesome place, because he sees others subjected to incarceration, who cannot help themselves or avoid punishment.

"Overseers and imps hounded the occupants as they repeated painful rituals that prevented them from resting, recovering, or resisting. Warriors still in armour melted together, heroes reduced to undying scalded statues.The faces blistering in the cages showed little reaction to the demon peering at them, though some flinched. Many seemed entirely occupied with holding their shaking fingers apart or finding brief succour for their dry lips as they panted and tried not to move while their suddenly very small world orbited gradually towards the fire. Passages ran throughout, a warren clotted with batches of rapidly expiring occupants. A few, impervious to flame thanks to whatever spell or ward or charm had prevented their earlier execution, were prostrated by other means, exposed weaknesses which the demons had managed to search out and exploit. Modest saw a slim bald man roaming free, a lunatic in a bubble of milky white energy that nothing could permeate. He paced dizzily, condemned to walk the passages without hope of escape. Modest wondered if he could be helped, but the storm of chaos in his eyes displayed an unrecoverable loss of sanity. His mouth had been blackened from lack of food, his wasted features jaundiced and burned. Yet he tottered and occasionally reacted in panic at the sight of one of the other prisoners languishing behind bars. When he finally noticed Modest, he deferentially bowed, and Modest remembered that he inhabited the greatest demon of the underworld, and everyone who was here resided at his behest.“Lord, there is no hierarchy of might here except the fire. I challenge you to take a turn. Confirm the principle of detailed balance, that your inner being should match your outward.” The man sang his challenge. “Bathe with me and emerge in flame! Or perish into invariant elements…”

I've never really believed that the afterlife, if there is one at all, is somehow devised or ordained in a way that filters certain people, or souls of people, into a uniformly nasty place for endless rounds of torment. Basically, what for? I can understand that people might use the story of such a condition to control others. I can't believe it when I come across people who really take it as writ. I think that meditation on the idea of hell can be so unsettling that life's actual displeasures are brought into clarity; nothing makes the daily grind more palatable than thinking of something worse, but it's a corrosive kind of salt. I think, for those whose lives are hellish, they deserve all our sympathy and help.

If there were damnation, when one arrived there, it couldn't but be different to anything you'd toyed with in your life-time's worth of imagination. You'd actually be dead for a start. I mean, what experience of disembodiment do we have recourse to except dreams (that mostly reflect daily life), and hallucinations (that more or less just disrupt our senses). What are the mechanics of tormenting mere spirits? Giving them bodies to wear again? I find there are no really convincing depictions of an afterworld or afterlife. Even the lavishly illustrated hellscapes by Hieronymous Bosch are limited to imagery based on his contemporary real-world content: animals, machinery, houses, ponds, trees, cloth, musical instruments, fruit, dice, books, knives, saws and of course fire. It'd be a disconcerting medieval painting indeed that showed men and women with mobile phones and self-driving cars falling into the open jaws of damnation.

As in the Culture stories by Ian Banks, in theory we could construct digital or literal hells for the living. It might even be inevitable since we have prisons, domination of the poor (for instance child border detention in USA) , and virtual reality, but we have no authority over death's border. On principle, as some espouse, those who die before you await you in the afterlife, let's say my three dogs die at the end of their natural life, and I die at the end of mine, and they happen to hang about and wait for me, who's to say that the pet/owner relationship might not be reversed? Surely those who are first through death's door become its masters? Encountering my dogs, I'd therefore rely on them for food, they'd collar me, I'd complain to them to open the door. But... What food? What collar? What door? I don't think death is like some dreamland; I doubt your personal world continues in any form, and more than likely it really is 'the end, my only friend'. Of course, most other people, alive and dead, think (or thought) otherwise.

Eskimos, if the recent TV show The Terror is correct, believe you must be outside and facing the sky to find peace. I certainly think the way you go counts a lot during the experience, but afterwards, I wonder what difference it really makes. When I was young I thought everybody was buried and carted to their grave in a coffin by strong, strapping relatives. When I learned most people are burned to ashes (after dying) at first I felt very uncomfortable, imagining they might still feel it. There are things we can but don't often do with bodies, like dissolve them, preserve them in amber, crush them into mince for pies, slice them into slivers encased in glass, shoot them into the sun. All these things can be done, but burning and burying are more palatable. It's what you're used to that makes it so, I think. In Japan, at least historically, if the film Silence (Scorcese, 2016) is accurate, the dead were seated upright in a keg in a pose of meditation. All totally normal back then. But recent times have greatly changed funereal practices. There is a trend referred to as a ‘living funeral’, held while a person is still alive. You go through the steps of a normal funeral in a sort of comedic style. This ritual allows a living person to give thanks for others in their life while they have the chance. A pleasant thought, but probably spooky to undertake.

Growing up, I was also very disconcerted to learn that, of all the indignities we face in life, death is not very affordable. A simple headstone currently costs at least $995 (going by a shop sign I saw while out for a Saturday jaunt today). A plot in which to be buried is by no means free, nor a sermon, nor even insurance. I'm sure though that there are plenty of people who roll through life without taking any of that into consideration. When you clock out, who cares? The money in your bank and any useful goods you had will be gone (unless you have some kind of Egyptian or Viking burial, which I think is illegal now) and you'll be alone to face whatever lies beyond. If you didn't pay, those who had to pick up the bill will think you a bit mean.

How heart-warming for those who believe select friends and family will greet them (or at least benevolent spiritual beings who reportedly have your back) on the threshold of a new world. How apprehensive for those who do fear hell, and face not only death but a grim moment of truth, learning if they passed or failed the ultimate test. I guess theologians and philosophers have chewed over this much deeper than I ever will. I went to Philosophy 101 and learned about Pascal's Wager, and certainly watched my parents (different religions) act out certain norms based on the idea of judgement. I slipped through the fingers of my religious upbringing like a little fish and gulped the stark air of 'free thinking' with a determined flop onto the shore. Except 'free thinking' implies I've to come up with some kind of explanation or understanding. On the contrary, I've dispensed with a few customary illusions but still have many of the other ones. For instance I like to think my views are correct.

"If you die during a blackout, do you have to sleep it off?" - Doug Stanhope (just inserted that in there like an awkward moment).

Now, according to The Chemical Brothers and The Flaming Lips, death may involve a kind of trial that isn't a heaven and hell duality, but a test of mettle, a proving of who you are. I wouldn't bet it's true, but it's an interesting notion. Life, certainly, provides one form of self realisation. As you change over time, you have to reflect on what that entails. In the story, a demon rages against a sort of chaotic imperative, an over-abundance of energy that tends to exhibit as destruction, that a regular person briefly encounters as a vicious and fatal attack. Nevertheless, the demons live for thousands of life-times, and our lives are just a spark, a smear too menial to consider. The Dark Few, the demon lords, look forward to the end times, when Os the great monad will consume all things, and they will witness the last day. So perhaps the demons represent not a rage against the dying of the light, but an embrace of death, where the last light of the world is something to look forward to.

A lunatic in the prison challenges Kashprav, the demon Modest has possessed, to be concerned only with the absolute present, to prove oneself through pain. He's a sort of 'death does not matter if one has truly lived' type.

In Modest's adventures, besides enduring the infamous Prison of Soon, he also passes through the ghostly Tomb World, where the sleeping dead are interred. Here Modest meets Kelmak, the author of the Harvest Table. These are the dead who await some higher purpose, it's thought, but many are rudely revived as undead to serve as conscripts in the demon Kashprav's invasion. Not all of these dead remain sleeping, such as Kelmak and Yuzz and even Astrid. The purpose they serve is not elucidated in The Wizard's Harvest Table, but is a concern of the upcoming book.

Luckily, because of the very fact those characters are dead, there's a chance to see more of them!