A Short Stay in Hell Reviewed By James Broderick of Bookpleasures.com
Reviewer James Broderick, Ph.D: James is an associate professor of English and journalism at New Jersey City University. A former newspaper reporter and editor, he is the author of six non-fiction books, and the novel Stalked. His latest book is Greatness Thrust Upon Them, a collection of interviews with Shakespearean actors across America. Follow Here To Listen To An Interview With James Broderick.
Author: Steven L. Peck
Publisher: Strange Violin Editions
Looking for a great book to read? Go to Hell.
Some of the greatest works of literature, from Dante’s Inferno to Milton’s Paradise Lost to James Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man present their readers with a harrowing tour of the fiery netherworld. Authors have been sending readers to Hell for three thousand years, stretching back to Homer’s Odyssey and stretching forward to our own time.
But along the way, those white-hot tongues of flame morphed into something less threatening, more familiar. Many artists in the last half century have portrayed Hell as a place more familiar, an experience derived from the whirligig of human experience. Jean Paul Sartre famously gave his audience a Hell that everyone who’s ever sat in a medical office or stood in line at a government office can identify with: the waiting room. My favorite modern Hell is the one from the movie Groundhog Day, where Bill Murray’s character is forced to relive, over and over again, Feb. 2 in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, until he learns the value of compassion.
But I might have to re-evaluate that now that I’ve read Steven L. Peck’s brief novel A Short Stay in Hell, for Peck has surely provided a vision of Hell that every book-lover can empathize with: an almost infinitely-sized library with billions of books – though most of them are filled with unintelligible gibberish.
Peck’s narrator was a decent and faithful Mormon during his earthly years, so you can imagine his shock at discovering that all those good works and piety were wasted, and he now must spend his days (lots and lots of days, stretching across tens of thousands of years and book shelves that extend for millions of light years) searching for a book that contains his life story. Until he finds it, he’s condemned to this bibliophilic hell. What’s worse, he’s still tortured by doubts about the validity of his earth-bound beliefs. Only a week into his Hellish residency, he breaks with his Mormon “Word of Wisdom” code and has a cup of coffee, an indulgence that causes deep spiritual turmoil:
“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 lifelong belief. What if this was just some sort of trial God had arranged to test my backbone? What if this Hell was really all a ruse concocted by God to see what I was made of?”
Peck’s vision of Hell is arresting and increasingly surreal. It’s a captivating re-imagining of this famed final end for the morally culpable. There don’t seem to be any profound lessons for living, nor significant moral precepts at work here – just a guided tour through a very strange world and the expected mental discombobulating one would logically experience in such tortuously genteel environs.
It might all mean something deeper, but what I got from the book was simply the unsettling thrill of a vicarious trip through an original and bizarre afterlife. Of course, should skeptical readers feel there must be more to the book than I’ve let on here, I can do little except encourage them to go to Hell as well.
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