By Zachary Collier
A Short Stay in Hell by Stephen L. Peck is a landmark existential horror novel that is a must read for every Latter-day Saint. In it, Peck crafts a foreign, almost nonsensical universe that helps to strip the reader bare of preconceived social biases and to examine morality at its most basic: what does it truly mean to be good? What does it truly mean to be evil?
While a novel could be written on the character of the God portrayed in this novel, or the concept of the Library of Babel, I will choose to forgo those topics and instead focus on the individuals found within Peck’s universe. But first, a brief synopsis.
The book follows Soren Johansson, a 45-year-old Mormon with brain cancer who finds himself dead and residing in hell: not a merciful spirit prison governed by Jesus Christ and a loving Heavenly Father, but a hell run by a corporate demon with a sense of humor and actors who pretend to drown in a sea of fire to scare the newcomers. This demon does nothing to explain why Soren is in hell along with other seemingly good people. He only explains that their religion is false: they did not believe in Zoroastrianism or the true god, Ahriman, and thus must be sent to hell to learn a lesson. What that lesson is, they can’t say. But they have to learn it. Because of this, Soren is sent to a hell based on the Library of Babel, where he is given the impossible task of locating a book detailing his mortal struggle in every particular in a packed library trillions of light years both wide and deep.
A Short Stay in Hell may be uncomfortable at first to LDS readers who must put themselves in Soren’s shoes. Each reader must ask himself, “What if my religion is wrong? What if God was not merciful? What if I found myself in this hell?” While a difficult and possibly frightening question, allowing yourself to ponder this question will allow you to find the beautiful morals in this tale.
In this hell, there is no permanent pain; only temporary pain (much like earth) that is always made whole again the next day (unlike earth). In this hell, you are always fed whatever you would like to eat and can request as much of it as you like. You are always clothed. You have a warm bed to sleep in. You are in the company of people with similar interests.
The thing that is most horrifying about this hell is the seeming impossibility of the task. Initially easy sounding, the odds of completing the task prove infinitesimally small as time goes on. The sad thing is that it is entirely possible. It just takes forever to accomplish.
That is where the beauty of A Short Stay in Hell stems from. By giving all characters in the novel an impossible task, they have nothing to do. By making the library infinitely large and bland, the characters have no reason to come, go, or stay. It is all the same. By giving them an infinite amount of time, there is no sense of urgency. By making all religions false except for an obscure, archaic Persian religion, superfluous things like clothing, diet (like the word of wisdom), customs (like being married in the temple), ritual, etc. are stripped away.
Soon, everything mortal is stripped away, and every character is left with nothing to do except to be. It is not what they say, it is not what they do, it is not who they associate with. It is who they are that matters. That is ultimately the question Peck asks in this novel.
The Mormon prophet David O. McKay expressed a similar sentiment. “Every person who lives in this world wields an influence, whether for good or for evil. It is not what he says alone, it is not alone what he does. It is what he is. Every man, every person, radiates what he or she is… You radiate. You can’t hide it. You may pretend something else, but that will not affect people.”
Given an almost infinite, incomprehensible amount of time, with no specific direction, and no consequences for your actions, what will you choose? Will you choose hope? Will you choose education and discovery? Will you choose to innovate despite limitations? Will you choose reach out to others? Will you choose to love?
Or will you choose the path of anger? Will you find joy in conquest and dominance? Will you delight in shedding the blood of others? Will you seek fleeting pleasures? Will you take from others the things they love? Will you destroy everything in your sight? Will you forget your inevitable goal, impossible as it may seem, and delay the journey longer?
Who are you in the worst circumstances?
That is the ultimate question that A Short Stay in Hell asks. And that is the question that we, as human beings, need to be asked.
It is a truth that we are just as in eternity now as we will ever be.
What will we do with the almost incomprehensible span of 100 years that each of us has been given to live? Will we despair in the face of all the things we do not know? Will we choose to drown in doubt?
Peck suggests that happiness can still be attained in the worst of circumstances. Peck, through Soren’s relationship with Rachel, demonstrates that true love can last eternity. True love can make a heaven out of hell. True love never gets boring. True love expands our knowledge, fills our lives with meaning, and is worth a meager donation of our time. It lends help to the helpless and hope to the hopeless. It is the antidote to despair.
Love takes time to build. Eons. But it can be taken in an instant at the hands of one filled with hatred.
But one filled with true love is willing to sacrifice their own happiness, and to spend eternity alone in an endless hell, to prevent the continued suffering of another and to silence destructive voices and to stay malignant hands.
Everything good creates, preserves, impels, inspires, drives, sustains, builds, uplifts, heals, comforts, collaborates, unifies, harmonizes. All of these actions take great effort and an even greater deal of time.
Everything evil destroys, corrupts, damages, disorganizes, divides, and lessens. All of this can be done in an instant.
In the novel, Soren finds a sign in hell that gives a list of helpful suggestions. One of them states: “Lastly, you are here to learn something. Don’t try to figure out what it is. This can be frustrating and unproductive.”
I posit that love is the thing we are to learn not just in fictitious, Zoroastrian hell but in real Mormon, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, or Zoroastrian life. All of us are given the impossible task to learn to love perfectly in an imperfect world. No amount of philosophizing or studying can teach us love. It must be learned by experience, no matter how long that takes. To quote Dean Koontz:
“Hope is the destination that we seek.
Love is the road that leads to hope.
Courage is the motor that drives us.
We travel out of darkness into faith.”
Love is the road that leads to the attainment of our hopes and dreams: whether that be a long, harmonious life with those we love; the development of a talent or skill we so covet; or the discovery of a book about our lives that ultimately frees us from hell. The chances of obtaining our hopes and dreams may be incredibly small, but if we have love, we will enjoy waiting for them to come to us.