Germs from Hell

Covid infographic and William Blake’s illustration, ‘Buoso Donati Attacked by the Serpent’, Inferno XXV

Some of the images that have circulated over the course of the Covid 19 pandemic to illustrate the importance of face coverings are reminiscent of a scene in the 25th canto of Dante’s Hell, where a human sinner is transformed into a serpent (and vice versa) by a cloud of smoke it emits. Here is my rendition of the scene in Gehenna: a novel of Hell and Earth.

‘Before Alexander and the author could take it in, another little serpent darted furiously onto the scene. It hurled itself at one of the remaining two sinners, biting his belly button before falling to the ground, stretched backwards out in front of the thief like a right-angled mirror image. The thief stared dumbly at the serpent, and yawned as if nothing had happened. The serpent simply returned his gaze before emitting a cloud of smoke from its mouth, just as another cloud emerged from the sinner’s punctured navel, and the two merged into a single almighty fug.

Alexander had seen both versions of The Fly and read Kafka’s Metamorphosis. He was dimly aware of classical tales involving transmutation. But none of that had prepared him for what happened now. As the sinner and the serpent gazed at one another through the fog, the latter’s tail split into a fork while the former’s legs closed tight until you couldn’t see the join. The serpent’s scaly skin softened while the thief’s hardened. Then his arms receded into his armpits as the serpent’s four stumpy feet were transformed, the upper pair stretching out to become a man’s arms, and the lower pair twisting together to form his manhood. The author and Alexander winced as the sinner’s own member split down the middle to form two little legs. Amid the smoke they could just discern that his skin was turning serpent-green while the thing on the ground took on his previous complexion. He went bald, the thing sprouted hair; it stood up, he fell to the earth. Only their dead eyes remained constant, fixed on one another as they swapped forms. The flesh on the standing thing’s face tightened, the slack forming ears as the soft centre formed a nose and lips. The crawling thing’s nose lengthened like Pinocchio’s, but he was no longer any kind of boy. His ears retracted like a snail’s tentacles, and his lying tongue became forked just as the other’s forked tongue fused together, so as the smoke subsided he was able to curse the serpent that now slithered away.’

To read more, buy Gehenna from Amazon (UK).