The Hell in Eric is a sort of amalgamation of Christian folklore and myths of Hades. Each person has an individualized punishment tailored to her, and all the old stand-bys are there: pushing large rocks up steep hills, boiling lakes of blood, livers being eaten and regenerated, etc.
As we hear from its denizens, Hell used to be all about craftsmanship and camaraderie—it didn’t matter if you were in front of the whip or behind; you worked together to make Hell as Hellish as possible.
Those times are past. Astfgl, King of Hell, has been making some changes that have upset demons and sinners alike: cubicles. Fake plants. Inspirational posters. Unlike the physical torments that characterize most portrayals of Hell, Astfgl has found a way to torment the soul.
It turns out there is a worse fate than being swung back and forth through a giant cheese grater—it is eternal boredom.
At first, boredom, when compared to an eternity of uncomfortably warm implements shoved into unaccommodating orifices, is a paradise without all of the spheres.
However, as Astfgl realized, bodily torture doesn’t have quite the same kick when there’s no actual body. Souls don’t have the kind of pain receptors that you typically find in living tissue, but there’s no limit to how much a soul can suffer.
It’s the moment when you’ve been waiting patiently for 2 hours and 39 minutes for an entire night class on a subject you don’t care about and you’re so tired and you have to drive home but it’s almost done and then that guy, ugh, THAT GUY, you know that guy, he asks the longest, most rambling and self-important question and it doesn’t even relate to what the class was about but the professor has to pretend to give it a thoughtful response and class is over now but you can’t leave, you CAN’T LEAVE because you don’t want to be a jerk and you’re so tired and you still have to drive home but That Guy is still talking and it’s almost a physical sensation how much you don’t care but you’re stuck and it’s taking so long that time no longer has meaning and you have always been and will always be listening to this smug pompous manchild ask his neverending question.
So yeah, I can see how boredom would be a pretty effective torture.
Then why are the demons just as upset about all of these changes?
One of the tortured souls reminisces about pushing his rock: “it gave you a purpose in the afterlife”; his demon tormenter agrees. As Urglefloggah, Spawn of the Pit, laments: “Personal service, that’s what it used to be. People used to feel that we were taking an interest, that they weren’t just numbers but, well, victims. We had a tradition of service.”
What the Hell of Discworld suggests is that Hell has to have a purpose. You are being punished for a reason—without the reason behind it, there’s no significant difference between the torments of Hell and the suffering we experience daily at the hands of a cold and capricious universe.
The more physical torments of traditional Hells may be less psychically painful than the boredom Pratchett depicts, but they tie the sinner to her punishment in a meaningful, and more importantly, tangible way.
Rincewind observes that “For boredom to be enjoyable there had to be something to compare it with. Whereas this was just boredom on top of more boredom, winding in on itself until it became a great crushing sledgehammer which paralyzed all thought and experience and pounded eternity into something like flannel.”
Physical pain ebbs and flows; it is sharper or duller, less intense or more, from moment to moment. Boredom is boredom is boredom. Astfgl has sucked the Hell right out of Hell.
No demon on Earth or below it can hold a candle to That Guy in the final minutes of a night class.