In his brilliantly insightful novella A Short Stay in Hell, Steven L. Peck presents readers with a mundane version of the underworld wherein the damned spend a quasi-eternity searching out their own life stories from among a nearly-infinite library that contains every book that could ever possibly be written (a la Borge’s “The Library of Babel”). Because books comprised entirely of typographical nonsense are among the possible, most of the volumes found in the library are filled with indecipherable gibberish. Anyone lucky enough to stumble upon even a few intelligible words strung together in a semi-coherent fashion is considered blessed, and the relevant text is heralded as a great discovery, perhaps even replete with meaning. Compared to many of his damned compatriots, Soren Johansson is something of a skeptic. A geologist and devout Mormon during his mortal existence, Soren is banished to the library-esque version of Hell after learning (posthumously, of course) that Zoroastrianism is the one true religion. The upshot is that the Zoroastrian Hell, whichever form of it one is consigned to, is only temporary. Of course, when you’re dealing with eternity, the temporary can last a very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very long time.
Pithy and poignant, A Short Stay in Hell is an existential tour de force. The beauty of the book, like the despair of the Hell it describes, lies in its relentless familiarity. It is as if Peck has cobbled together a personal parable for each and every one of us, a hauntingly intimate allegory for the everyman. And that is the genius of Peck’s work. The author manages to weave a fantastical tale of mythological proportions in a way that remains resonant and relevant to readers everywhere, a sort of memoir of the human condition. One would be hard pressed to come up with a major philosophical question that is not at play within the book’s narrative: Who am I? What is truth? What is meaning? What is time? Not that Peck sets out to answer these questions. At best, Peck implicitly concedes that humankind’s search for definitive answers to profound questions is both taxing and, more often than not, fruitless. He also implicitly acknowledges that the search is inevitable. One familiar idiom sums it up quite nicely: you’re damned if you do, you’re damned if you don’t.