Hades Baedeker | Granta

Hades Baedeker

Ken Chen

Places of Interest

Any visitor to the afterlife will notice how hell’s landscape is excessively possible. Since death is fundamentally uncreative, the dead territories have been requisitioned from those of the living. The paper-windowed residences of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the villages of Indochina and the adjoining jungles wheezing from poison, bulldozed Palestinian homes reconstituted in Tartarus brick by brick, so many streets and buildings, trees and vegetation relocated here by those pinnacles of Western civilization, the bomb and development. Even the most casual tourist to hell will notice the curious spatiality of Hades, the dead geography being simply history.


Map of Living and Dying


History Planet The Death Star The Ghost World
Everything that exists Nova of Initiation Place of Erasure


The History Planet: When the freshly dead first arrive on the underworld side of the border, they often find themselves surprised to hear the land of the living referred to as the History Planet. The History Planet is where Saladin defeats the Crusaders at Hattin, half the world’s gold traveled from Africa, and a seven-foot-tall Muslim eunuch leads the Ming Dynasty tribute fleet towards Mecca.

Many curious things have transpired on the History Planet, which include but are not limited to the following: (1) The sailors docked near the western coast, where they stole the prisoners from the shore, sometimes even tasting them before loading them on their ships, this perverse traffic funding the rise of cities like Liverpool and Bordeaux and Boston and even the disinterested rationality of the industrial revolution, the accelerations of Mercantilism and machine revving the sad conquest of the world; (2) The subject matter of the ḥakawātī; (3) I once slipped on a banana peel, an accident so conspicuously cartoonish that I laughed even as I collapsed on my posterior; (4) The narrative that commenced when you ejected screaming and daubed amniotic from your mother into this cursed world and that eventually reached its culmination when you read this passage of text.

The sun is too brilliant to be seen directly, the events of the History Planet too overwhelming to be taken in all at once. You may need to gaze at death indirectly, through a mirror crafted into a shield. You can probe your way across the landscape assisted by virtual reality, a dream or a book. Those who have disembarked back from hell are encouraged to immediately transcribe their night hallucinations. ‘A dream resides on the feet of a flying bird, unless it is interpreted, there is neither firmness nor rest,’ writes Sheikh Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulsi (1641-1731).

We live on the History Planet all at once. The stars grow, numinous pixel infections. They are called souls. They broadcast light in every direction of time.


The Death Star: A visitation by the Death Star will initiate one into the entrance towards death. Not the underworld itself, the Death Star is a sign that prefigures the coming of the death nation. Seen from the living, its visitation will appear as, say, a heart attack or a car collision. Observed from its opposite angle, from the state of the newly nonexistent, the Death Star will manifest itself as a way station. A customs line that stretches from an enormous black egg, which drowns nearby skyscrapers in its shadows. You notice an arcane mansion on the moon and as you approach, observe a coterie of astronauts wearing the insignia of ICE.

You may encounter the Death Star in many avatars, a few of which include: (1) Heart, stoppage of. (2) Being chewed to pieces by rampaging QAnonist yoga instructors, packs of them galloping downward dog in pursuit through patriarchal streets. (3) Starvation in migrant detention cell. (4) Licking a poisonous frog in Amazonia. (5) The fly-limb of the typewriter key swatting you into ink.

Death Star budget analysts have noted new techniques of dying popularized in the early twenty-first century, whose many forms may include car collision by white nationalist, car collision by a driverless automobile piloted by Google ghosts, drone projectile delivered within 24 hours if you select Same Day Delivery, annihilation by friendly neighborhood police officer, the presenting of a gift certificate of five bullets sent by an Indian soldier in Kashmir, overdrinking the oceanic cup of the Mediterranean, slipping the high fences at Ceuta, collapsing in the Sonoran sands unthirsted besides water jugs sliced open by supremacists, Californian forests and Australian underbrush immolating themselves in weak protest, hex cast by facial recognition software, plague triggered by advanced forms of not possessing health insurance, theft and detonation of nuclear warhead previously secured by a ball of twine, two paperclips, half a bandaid, a MS DOS floppy disc, and a plastic combination lock purchased from Crunch Fitness, and the end of the entire world, simultaneously flaming out the hot carbon feverish and drowned under the inundations of sweltering ice. Have a nice day!

The first of the above options – the cessation of one’s heart – was experienced by the father of the early twenty-first century traveler Kenneth Sanway Chen, who provided the following account of entering the bureaucracy of death: ‘When I stumbled out of the Death Star, coming west to customs, I heard rain strike the ceiling like Morse code. When I emerged the other side into the Hall of Maat, the cobblestone street was dry and quiet and also efficient.’ The Death Star may also refer to the title of Chen’s account, which describes his journey from the History Planet through the Death Star and into the Ghost World. This is a very rare book and not many collectors here at the end of time still possess it. The ancients of the twenty-first century described it as a cursed book, one that would transpose anyone who held it to a harsh and dystopian apocalypse.

Nota bene re: ‘Death Star’: Not to be confused with the popular image from Star Trek.


The Ghost World: Imagine if someone ran a large mirror across the surface of history. The doubled image forms the terroir of the Ghost World. Throbbing underworld borders, their width and depth growing at the velocity of existence.


The Ghost World: The dead have run out of future. They relegate themselves reenacting their past, which is why they long to migrate back into the land of the living. Lately, the desperate ghosts flee from their rural plots in the catacomb towards the baroque cities of hell, collectively called the Necropolis.


Necropolis: A shadow is a darkness left by a blockage of light. A city is a shadow, the damp shading cast behind by the great city of the dead, the singular Necropolis. This is because the modern city could only have been constructed because of twin catastrophes, the burning of coal, the sizzling cremations of prehistoric flora dredged from infinite past, and that new spirit that enclosed the fields and haunted the poor into the tenements. The city is also the site of cosmopolitanism, the cathedral for the stranger, the artist, and the financier alike. Like the Necropolis, the city of the living is a wonderful terror.

The underworld is the kingdom of order, since when one has been ordered, one has been placed into the stasis of death. The Necropolis is often called the Archive City. This nickname insinuates one common way to enter the Necropolis, the utterance of magic spells dredged from within the necromantic archive. A ghost who leaves the Necropolis must venture into reason and return out of it. You must dive into the oceanic expanse of the information and emerge from the other shore unscathed.


Photograph © Werner Wittersheim
Osthaus Museum Hagen, George Minne, La fontaine aux agenouillés

Ken Chen

Ken Chen is an Assistant Professor and the Associate Director of Creative Writing at Barnard College of Columbia University. His next book, tentatively titled Death Star, follows his journey to the underworld to rescue his father and his encounters there with those destroyed by colonialism. His poetry collection Juvenilia was selected for the Yale Series of Younger Poets by Louise Glück.

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