Can you imagine a worse hell for a Mormon than to wake up on the Other Side and to realize we were wrong about EVERYTHING? No three degrees of glory, no families are forever, no anthropomorphic God--not even an outer darkness as we picture it. That's what happens in Steven L. Peck's provocative, self-published novella, A Short Stay in Hell.
This book is so well written that Peck is my new favorite Mormon author. His prose is almost poetic at times, understandable yet elevated. The author assumes a degree of sophistication among his readers--it will enhance their appreciation if they have heard of Zoroastrianism or know some of the basics of existentialism. But the uninitiated will enjoy it as well, since Peck doesn't put on a haughty air. Here's a small sample of Peck's style:
"This is Hell! This really is Hell."As the protagonist slowly discovers the dimensions of the Hell to which he has been assigned, and the near-impossibility of his task, the reader enters with him into an interesting emotional state. There is just enough hope of possible redemption for the condemned to keep searching for the key that will release him. But the task is so daunting that all of the existential obstacles of despair, angst, absurdity, alienation, and boredom are experienced. Though this book is very short--only 84 pages--it concisely addresses the question of individual meaning against this backdrop.
One woman was laughing hysterically and just tossing books over the side. She wasn't even looking at them.
I have to admit that I found a certain strange pleasure in heaving books over the side. It was a feeling akin to popping bubble-wrap. Taking a book of nonsense, tossing it over the rail, and watching it until it disappeared flapping wildly into the oblivion below gave me a strange satisfaction, a small sense of purpose. Only Biscuit was not helping the general effort to clean the shelves. He just sat there smiling shaking his head.
"I see," he said to no one in particular. "We are in the Library of Babel."
I confess that I've never deeply contemplated what hell must be like. I suppose that's because, as a Latter-day Saint, it's pretty difficult to be consigned to Outer Darkness. We believe the vast majority of us will inherit a kingdom of glory. But here is a treatise which has smacked me between the eyes, forced me to feel and ponder an example of an eternity without purpose or meaning. Not only that, but Peck's imagery extends to a commentary on the faith journey in this earthly sphere as well.
Giving the protagonist a Mormon identity added a most intriguing aspect to his experience. Soren, a good Latter-day Saint during his life, was forced in the eternal realm to face what it meant to have all of the externals of his faith stripped away. A poignant scene pictured Soren drinking coffee for the first time.
I finished the cup, but I felt like I had betrayed something deep within me. Only a little over a week in Hell and I had abandoned a life-long belief. What if this were just some sort of test that God had arranged to test my backbone?It's interesting to follow the thoughts of someone who has always judged his worthiness on his adherence to the outer legalistic proscriptions of Mormonism and is now having to reexamine his conception of what is meaningful. Peck has crafted this experience movingly, including some of the guilt and the second-guessing which happens so often in the similar faith journeys of post-Mormons. Soren's journey through the Library of Babel is remarkably sympathetic to such a one, including the imagery of free-falling.
I see that some of the cool kids have already been introduced to this book by Ronan over at BCC. I hope you will follow this link to his review and read the comments, many of which are very insightful. I encourage each of you to read A Short Stay in Hell, and let me know how you responded to this portrayal of the afterlife.