I first read A Short Stay in Hell by Steven L. Peck a couple of years ago, and included it in a post about horror books by local Utah authors. Since then, I’ve gotten to know Dr. Peck, running into him at various fan and writing conventions here in Utah. (Alas, I never knew him while I was an actual BYU student studying geology and biology). I had the opportunity to listen to the audiobook version of his story more recently, and wanted to expand my thoughts on this fantastic gem.
A Short Stay in Hell is about a faithful Mormon man who ends up in Zoroastrian Hell when he dies. Having followed the “wrong religion” all of his life, he is condemned to a giant library (based on the Library of Babel) where he and his fellow deceased must each find the book containing their life story in order to escape.
I like to describe this story as philosophical horror. There is some violence. No monsters really, except for an unsettlingly cheerful demon who greets the protagonist, Soren, at the start. The heart and soul of the horror in this story draws its depth from the irony in the title. Unfathomable eons of time pass, and they pass painfully. The novella itself is a little over 100 pages, compounding the irony of the concept: A Short Stay in Hell.
What makes this passage of time so horrifying is a profound sense that anything meaningful is an illusion which unravels into a truly meaningless existence over time. All relationships and commitments from Earth life have been dissolved, and there is no way to find out what is happening to the people you once loved and left behind. From the maddening tedium of finding one coherent phrase, let alone one real word, in a string of nonsensical letters and punctuation marks among the seemingly endless rows of books. To the homogeneity of the Library’s population in their ethnic makeup, language, “perfect body” age, and overall cultural background. Existence is monotonous, and nothing changes with time. Everything resets the next morning–anyone who has died comes back to life. And the most intimate of relationships are ever-temporary, futile, and literally fruitless. So, there are no consequences. There is no progression. There is seemingly no point to anything at all in existence, no matter how hard anyone tries to create meaning out of of that pointlessness.
There is still pain. There is still hunger. Loneliness and stagnation are the ultimate, entropic principles of humanity in this state. There is no guarantee the Zoroastrian god, Ahura-Mazda, or his demons even care or pay attention to the people suffering in their various Hells. No one knows what will happen if and when they do manage to leave the library.
In a short space, Dr. Peck has created a disturbing and thought-provoking world that tests the meaning of existence–the meaning of meaning. The ultimate Hell in his story, it would seem, is the dissolution of meaning, or a reality in which there never was any meaning to begin with.
A Short Stay in Hell is available…
And just about anywhere else books, both electronic and physical, can be found.