I read — mostly during Sacrament meeting — the novella “A Short Stay in Hell,” (Strange Violin Editions) by BYU professor Steven L. Peck. It’s perhaps the oddest book I have read, but it’s also so compelling that you can’t stop reading. That’s a reflection of the human urge to hope that a likable character achieves an impossible task.
But I’m ahead of myself. The plot: Soren, a recently deceased 45-year-old Mormon husband and father who lived in Utah County, finds himself in an office, with other dismayed dead persons, with a sardonic demon with an office window that shows demons throwing the “damned” in a lake of fire. It all turns out to be a practical joke. There is no lake of hell. The demon explains that the true religion is Zoroastrianism, a faith and philosophy from Iran.
Zoroastrianism, the demon says, will provide a type of hell, or purgatory, with a test for the “damned” souls, if they pass it, they eventually get into heaven.
In an clever plot twist, Soren, who loved books, is sent to a “hell” derived from the famous short story, “The Library of Babel.” The hell contains finite, yet infinite to the human mind, rows and floors filled with books. Every book that could ever be written is located there, all the same words and pages, etc. Soren’s task is to find the book that contains his life story, stick it in a slot, and enter “heaven.” Given that Soren, our narrator, is speaking after spending infinite billions of years there, the task is more or less impossible.
Soren’s religion, and the expectations he had on earth (spiritual body, perfect body, exaltation, becoming a God) all create interesting dilemmas. Although his body is perfect, it bleeds, and it needs food and drink (there is a kiosk that provides any food or drink and rows of beds on the floors, and showers). This brings consternation to Soren as he realizes that his new God allows coffee and alcoholic drinks. Each floor is populated with the same type of persons, all white, all from the United States, all having died within a certain span of years. As Peck writes, Soren wonders: “I began to think how strange it seemed that I never met a single person of color. Not an Asian, not a Hispanic, not anything but a sea of white American Caucasians. Was there no diversity in Hell? What did this endless repetition of sameness and of uniformity in people and surroundings mean?”
Over time, Soren, realizing he’s unlikely to encounter his earthly “eternal companion,” begins a series of sexual relationships with various women. Some relationships are more intense than others, but they all end. Soren joins “universities” with others confined there, and great excitement ensues whenever one of the books, which mostly contain illegible babble, contain a few words of English.
There is free agency within the confines of Soren’s library hell. One can die, but is always resurrected the next day. One can throw one’s self into the chasm and hope to get to the bottom of the library, but as Soren learns, the bottom is both finite and basically infinite to the human mind. Religious fundamentalism can spring up, and there is a disturbing interlude in Soren’s existence in which a fanatic, appropriately named “Dire Dan,” creates a religion that blends the Inquisition with today’s Islamic terrorism. The fanatics kill and torture others to death, and then resume the beatings when the victims awake healthy the next day. During this terror, Rachel, a companion Soren spent 1,000-plus years with, leaps into the chasm to escape.
Much of Peck’s novella, at this point, focuses on Soren’s own descent into the chasm, and his impossible search for Rachel, and later another woman, Wand. The searches in this hell are fruitless. The area is bigger than can be comprehended. At the end of novella, Soren is a shell of what he was. His search for a meaningful, permanent lover is impossible. It doesn’t fit in with the dimensions there. It’s telling that there are no children in Zoroastrianism hell. That would create chaos that might stay permanent.
At the end, he feels virtually nothing, and admits to having periods when he’s senseless. Living in a finite infinity, even sexual affairs lasting 1 billion years, mean nothing to him. Soren has succumbed to “this endless repetition of sameness and of uniformity in people and surroundings.”
Readers are advised not to look for any deeper meanings to the Zoroastrianism hell created by author Peck. It’s just there, it somehow all matches together, and it just happens, over and over and over. By the end, with every question drained out of him, Soren concedes his sole emotion, his sole motivation, is the search to find his life history book.
My favorite passage in the novella is near the end, in which Soren, spinning through space in the chasm, with his latest love, Wand, and still retaining a hopeful attitude for escape together, is intimate with his woman. Peck writes: “We made love twice, before making our attempt. We had both fallen so often and so long that we were like creatures of the air, and it seemed as natural as in a bed. For a day I glimpsed what heaven must be like.”
I like this novella, and I’ll likely read it every year or so, searching for meaning in a hell of the mundane. A hell that contains an eternity of the mundane, whether it’s books that make no sense, stairs and floors that never end, mundane mumbling and threats from the other side of the chasm, mundane evil, or relationships that last so long that they become mundane. That’s a pretty effective hell Peck has constructed.