Thursday, January 28, 2010

A Short Stay in Hell

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."

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."
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.

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.


Mormon Heretic said...

I don't know if you've ever read the book 30 Minutes in Hell. I couldn't get past about 30 pages--to weird for me. I enjoyed your review, and it sounds better than my book.

I must say 90 minutes in Heaven was a pleasure to read.

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

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.

I guess I'm living in Mormon Hell.

SteveP said...

Cheryl, Thank you so much for this. Coming from you this means the world to me. When an excellent writer like you--and someone who writes such amazing and insightful posts--says they liked the book, that is high praise indeed. I feel amazed and blessed.

Cap said...

Having read this (my Dad's) book 7 or 8 times and editing it, I still want to read it again. Each time I find a deeper meaning and go out of my way to read it throughout the day, (between school and work I really have no time, I mainly listen to audio books while driving). Anyway! It's a great great book and I recommend it to all.

Soren said...

Oh great. My first name is so rare (at least in the U.S.) that the few times my name has been used in a book or movie, I have real problems disconnecting myself from the character; I still feel strong ties to minor characters in The Matrix Revolutions and the Underworld movies. So it's really difficult to read pretty much exactly what I think I would feel like after drinking my first cup of coffee. I feel as guilty just by reading about how guilty I would feel had I done it, as I think I would feel had I actually done it.

Bored in Vernal said...

aw, Soren. If it makes you feel better, a family that just moved in our ward has a little kid named Soren. In just a few years, you guys can share your angst.

Natasha said...

We know of some Bucherts who named their son Soren, and we considered it ourselves but had trouble with people knowing what we were saying when we said it. "Thorn"? Too bad. I still love the name.

I have more profound comments in regards to your post but I'm too tired to share them.

I have definitely considered what things would be like if we were all wrong, wrong, wrong.

Unknown said...

I have often thought, what if we were wrong, and some other religion were correct in how to achieve salvation?

I always come back to the fundamentals of Christianity and how most religions are a spin-off of the same with regards to how we interact as a society.

At the end of it all, if there were no Heaven, no Hell as sung by John Lennon, and if no religion were right and if there was nothing after death... in what way is my life worse off by living the standards of the church, and in my contributing of something of worth to those around me spinning out of control without a spiritual or social compass? (Not that I am in any way a magnetic north for people without direction!!!)

Religion aside, and what I know and believe to be true out of the equation, whilst I may be missing some things from my non LDS life,
if at the end of it all, there is nothing, what harm to myself is there in living a cleaner, more caring life?

We can only measure what we think 'Hell' might be like in terms of the level of suffering we have endured in this life, but as Khalil Gibran has written in The Prophet, it is only by our suffering that our capacity for love is deepened, (my words, his Idea).