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An ordinary family man, geologist, and Mormon, Soren Johansson has always believed he'll be reunited with his loved ones after death in an eternal hereafter. Then, he dies. Soren wakes to find himself cast by a God he has never heard of into a Hell whose dimensions he can barely grasp: a vast library he can only escape from by finding the book that contains the story of his life.
In this haunting existential novella, author, philosopher, and ecologist Steven L. Peck explores a subversive vision of eternity, taking the reader on a journey through the afterlife of a world where everything everyone believed in turns out to be wrong.
This short, smart existential novella is a gem. After the protagonist, Soren Johansson, a devout Mormon, dies of cancer, he finds himself in a room with four other people. There, an officious demon cheerfully informs everyone that they’ve all failed to follow the one true religion (which I won’t spoil, but suffice to say, it’s not one of the obvious candidates) and consigns them all to a variety of hells.
For the protagonist, hell is a bigger-than-the-known-universe library containing every possible book (including those whose contents are just random characters, i.e. the vast majority). And the only way out, according to a posted notice, is to find the book containing one’s own life story. Hell does operate according to a few rules, which can’t be broken. There are food dispensers, which give out any meal requested. Non-carried objects return to their place at the end of each day. People who die are returned to life.
At first, Soren does what most people would do: he explores, forms relationships, tests the rules, and discusses solutions to the shared predicament. But days, then months, then years pass. The denizens of the library form societies. Soren experiences wandering and loneliness. He falls in love. Then violent religious mania hits people, and hell really does become hell. So, he escapes to deeper levels, in search of both his lost lover and answers.
I won’t give away what happens from there, but Peck does eventually make it clear that there’s no easy way out. The author’s wry sense of humor makes the haunting philosophical questions go down easy, but that won’t stop them from swirling uncomfortably in your mind later. As I see it, this is a book about what faith really means. What happens if God utterly defies all our expectations? Would we still believe? Could we let go of our belief? And I don’t think Peck is letting non-believers off the hook, either -- if we contemplate the hell of a purposeless reality, might it be better to have some ray of hope in a greater meaning, however slender?
Beautifully unsettling questions. I’m glad I spotted this one in an audible sale.
29 of 29 people found this review helpful
While this book doesn’t really line up with my own spiritual beliefs, it does present a very interesting version of hell beyond the stereotyped Dante’s Inferno that much of the western Christian cultures have bought into. The first impression of a strange but not especially menacing existence (that is supposed to be only temporary anyway) initially inspires a sense of tentative relief. Then as the magnitude of the assigned task (finding a specific book among billions of books in a library of infinite dimensions) becomes increasingly evident, the reality of hell begins to assert itself. What temporary can mean in relation to eternity is suddenly daunting. Hopelessness, lack of a true faith to believe in, the absence of behavioral boundaries or consequences, and the lack of diversity among the residents may be a reflection of the type of lives many have lived on earth when our naïve thoughts of our own immortality fool us into careless lives. Do we create our own hells, underestimating the effect on our souls of living for the comfortable and the familiar instead of embracing more diverse possibilities of experience and acquaintance?
Beginning with a fairly light tone with humorous episodes, the mood subtly darkens as the story-teller relates his own increasing need to find an escape. Eventually he, and we with him, realize the full impact of his situation. Regardless of your belief or lack of belief in a hellish after-life, this book will challenge your viewpoints, and hopefully challenge your earthly behavior in the reflected image of what this literary hell looks like. Now I wonder what Peck's image of heaven looks like. I'll bet that's a mind bender too.
28 of 30 people found this review helpful
It doesn't take long to listen to the story (less than 3 hours) but the author packs a lot into it.
The premise is essentially: a nice guy, irregardless of how he lived on earth, ends up in hell, which actually does not seem so bad at the beginning. The demon in the first scene is more like an affable business manager than genuinely scary; people get idealized bodies once they're admitted to hell; and they can order whatever food they want from the food kiosks. Even though the task set to each person is tedious (find a single book in a mind-shatteringly huge library) there are optimistic/encouraging rules that give everybody in hell hope that they will eventually get out. Over time, the story slowly dismantles, piece by piece, this initial impression by undermining anything that might lead the main character to believe that hell is actually not that bad, while at the same time progressively building up, piece by piece, his growing realization of how horrific and tragic his circumstances actually are. It's a really impressive about-face. A great story, funny and tragic and hopeful and horrific all at once.
8 of 8 people found this review helpful
What did you love best about A Short Stay in Hell?
Steven L. Peck turns a very abstract concept into an emotionally understandable and terrifying reality. Imagine a library with more books than there are electrons in the known universe; now imagine that you had to find one book among them. It's very hard to imagine this, but Steven tells the story with great skill and brings you through the joy, despair, hope, and hopelessness of the situation. Spiritual, philosophical, but also very down-to-earth, A Short Stay in Hell made me feel so many things that I will never forget it (when I finished it I had to go into the house and hug my wife). If you like thinking about "big questions" like how large the universe is and what immortality might be like, this book may teach you a lot of things.
What about Sergei Burbank’s performance did you like?
Sergei Burbank read the book in a simple, honest tone, which suited the narrator very well. It felt like I was sitting with the main character, listening to him tell me his story.
If you were to make a film of this book, what would be the tag line be?
One day, this will all be a distant memory.
7 of 7 people found this review helpful
So, you die and wind up in hell, greeted by a demon who says "Yeah, that religion you chose? Sorry, wrong one!"
This was a very odd little short novel, about a Mormon who dies and finds out that in fact, there is one true religion, and it isn't Mormonism. But don't worry - this is neither an anti-Mormon nor an evangelical work. The fact that the main character is a Mormon is just coincidence - he is joined in hell by many other people who are equally surprised at having checked the wrong box.
(What is the "one true religion," according to this book? It probably won't be your first or second or third guess... you'll just have to read it.)
The hell he is sent to (it's implied that there are multiple hells) is an infinite library, in which the residents are told all they have to do is find the one book on its shelves that tells their entire life story, complete and without a single typo or error. The catch is that every possible book of a given length, given the 95 standard characters on a Latin-character typewriter, exists in this library.
This is, in fact, literally Jorge Luis Borges' Library of Babel.
So, technically it's not infinite. But someone calculates the actual number of books that must exist in the library. If you know anything about exponentiation, you already have an inkling of how big the number is. For all practical purposes, the library is infinite and the residents of hell are stuck there for eternity.
The main character spends some time (a lot of time) exploring, meeting other people, figuring out the metaphysical rules that govern this place, and searching for that one book in umpty-gazillion-googleplex-to-the-numptifinity-power that will get him out.
This wasn't as philosophical as you might expect - there are not really any theological explorations on the part of the author or the characters. It's more of a modern tribute to Jorge Luis Borges, with some parts that reminded me a bit of Piers Anthony or Jack Chalker - not their penchant for skeeviness, but the way they create odd alternate worlds with different metaphysical rules and then toss an ordinary person into them to figure their way around.
5 of 5 people found this review helpful
Peck had accomplished what I didn't think likely, capturing my own greatest fear (falling) in a book about an afterlife. As with all good fiction this novel's strength lies in its protagonist, a Mormon who must come to grips with a very weird version of hell. I found the character compelling and sympathetic. I also found his plight to be depressing as, well, hell.
This novel is going to become a favorite of mine; in fact, I may buy the ebook as well. The narrator was also quite good, capturing the feel of the character.
4 of 4 people found this review helpful
It's that old idea; Hell will be specific to each sinner. And you are sent there because you have fervently worshipped the 'wrong' God. But when you arrive-Thank God!-Satan's minion tells you that it's not forever, don't be silly. You must only perform one task, and then you can leave. How long will it take you to realize the immensity of your task? How long before you lose all hope? before you give up completely on God, if you haven't already? How long can you hold on to a sense of purpose, or assign meaning to your actions? What does it feel like when you can't?
This is such a funny, unique, fascinating, thought-provoking and enlightening story (I had never heard of the Library of Babel before), I absolutely LOVED, LOVED it!! Hell as a nearly-infinite library, with comfortable living quarters and food kiosks dispensing your
every wish, and all you have to do to be excused is find your own bio on the shelves.
4 of 4 people found this review helpful
For me, the narrator neither added to nor subtracted from the content of this story. When Soren Johansson, a Mormon, dies of brain cancer in his early 40's, he is stunned to find himself in hell. This is no hell that he or anyone else has ever fathomed. The reason he and the other people were cast in this particular hell is because they did not believe in Zoroastrianism. Who would have thought that's why you would end up in hell? But don't worry, this hell is not forever. Your ticket to getting out is to simply go through the vast library that awaits you and find the book about your life without any errors in it. So begins Soren's new "life" in hell. It may take you awhile to really understand the dimensions in this hell and when you do, you will not only wonder at its possibility but you will also find more value in time and life in general. This story made my head spin a bit but mostly it left me with a strange, unsettling kind of uncertainty about what could be.
9 of 10 people found this review helpful
Would you consider the audio edition of A Short Stay in Hell to be better than the print version?
I have not read the print version (yet).
What other book might you compare A Short Stay in Hell to and why?
There is really no other book to compare it to; that said, this novella is an excellent examination of human morality, character, religious belief systems, etc. Excellent!
What about Sergei Burbank’s performance did you like?
Very well done!
If you could take any character from A Short Stay in Hell out to dinner, who would it be and why?
The demon at the beginning of the story.
Any additional comments?
Read or listen to this story, it will stay with you for a long time.
3 of 3 people found this review helpful
Someone said that when reading a book, the journey is more important than the destination. This journey was exceedingly intriguing-but far too short. this book has stuck in my head more than most because of the enormity of the task involved and the irony that "hell is not eternal". Absolutely great short listen.
5 of 6 people found this review helpful