I like to read and you can usually find me with a book in my hands if I don't have anything to do. Unfortunately I'm not one of those types who can read more than one thing at a time. That means I probably read fewer books than I would really like to. For about the last year now I've been working my way through the epic Song of Ice and Fire saga stopping and starting and not being able to read anything else in between since the books don't have a natural ending point. Finally, yesterday, I finished all the published books and met this point with a mixture of frustration (due to the fact it ended in the middle of everything and I now need to wait for the next book to come out before continuing) and complete and utter excitement about finally being able to dig in to my pile of other books that have amassed over the last year. One of the most recent ones that I had gotten excited about after reading a review on it was a short story, so I thought this would be the perfect bit of fluff to introduce me back to the world of other books!
A Short Stay in Hell is the book in question written by Stephen L Peck and first released in March 2012. Peck's an evolutionary ecologist (think Charles Darwin) and a professor of philosophy of biology. So basically he's a very clever man. He's also written a few other books that look very pretty to my book loving magpie eyes.
The story held within these pages is pretty much unimaginable. The basic concept is that almost everyone chose the wrong beliefs and so end up in Hell. Hell has a few familiar elements like big red hoofed demons calling the shots, but ultimately it's not instantly obvious that it's a terrible place to be. Everyone gets sent to their own personal Hell though quite a few people end up having the same idea of Hell as our protagonist. Soren Johansson quite liked books when he was alive and so the demon with a bit of a twisted sense of humour sends him to a library with a twist. This library contains books with the same amount of pages with the same amount of characters on each line. Its books contain every possible combination of letters, numbers and symbols possible. There are books full of the letter A. There are books full of the letter B. There are books full of utter chicken scratch in print form. The only way people sent to this Hell can leave is by finding the book with the story of their life without any spelling or grammar mistakes and popping it through a little slot. Even better though, you can order as much food and drink as you want and everything gets cleaned up magically overnight. If by chance you sustain injury or "die", you will be restored to full health the next day. Sounds not incredibly terrible. Yet. The inhabitants can even keep anything they want as long as they are touching it when the lights go out at night, though there's nothing but books and food leftovers in the Library.
The enormity of the task doesn't immediately hit home till Soren starts exploring the library with his fellow inhabitants. Firstly Soren notices that he has a perfect, second by second memory. He can now remember every minute of his life in detail. Some may call it a curse; others may call it a gift. Next he notices that everyone in this hell is white, American and all died within the same 100ish years. The most crushing thing about the Hell is that it is so uniform and unchanging. Boredom soon sets in and he decides to see how big the Library really is. To say that the book spans billions of years would be an understatement. Even billions of billions of Light years is an understatement. It does end, but the torment faced by those living there is mostly brought on by the sheer feeling of aloneness and how huge the task before them is. There is a calculation at the end of the book that tells you exactly how large the library is and the numbers are eye popping. It's not all about numbers though and thankfully the author includes more than a few plot devices to make you realise exactly what it all means.
===Good Guys vs. Bad Guys===
Surprisingly there's very little in the story about Soren carrying out his task. Instead it focuses on the relationships formed and lost within the Hell and the sheer vastness of the place. One of my favourite things about it was that Peck didn't allow the inhabitants to have the easy time of it they could have had. He introduces Dire Dan, a mad man convinced he's spoken to their new God (Ahura Mazda) and is bent on causing as much pain and suffering as he can. Human nature means he gets a tonne of followers all making it their daily routine to kill and maim and torture. As well as the evil, Peck also portrays love in a very beautiful way.
===What were you thinking?===
A few messages are quite clear from the book and others are hidden in a million layers. The first thing the book really made me ponder about was the nature of God. There are so many different versions it's almost impossible to hit on the right one. Soren himself was a Mormon and deals with having to adjust his views on the afterlife throughout the book. It doesn't go into details about Mormonism and is in no way a book about Mormons like I keep seeing online.
With the introduction of Dire Dan there are some subtle ideas coming through about the power of religion when mixed with human nature. Most of all, however, this tiny, incredibly short story made me think hard about how little time we have on this earth and how ultimately we are all doing what we think is right from our own perspective. The love story was gut wrenchingly sad for me as I couldn't imagine an eternity searching for Allan. The loneliness is pervasive near the end of the book and I really felt for Soren.
===What I didn't expect===
I was surprised that Peck chose a real religion to base his book on. Given, it's a relatively small religion called Zoroastrianism. Even more surprisingly, Peck doesn't bother at all to try and preach or teach much about. I was very thankful for this since I really can't stand people who are utterly convinced their way is the only right way to do things. In fact, those people were nicely encompassed in the very dangerous character Dire Dan. If anything the lack of information given on this religion has interested me enough to go and look it up a little. It is by no means trying to recruit or dissuade people to or from Zoroastrianism. I didn't quite expect it would be, but I thought maybe it might have been a bit preachier than it turned out to be and I was very glad to be proved wrong. I was also quite surprised to realise I'd heard a few of the names that go along with Zoroastrianism. The video games "The Prince of Persia" make reference to a few of the Deities. Even the well known car make Mazda takes its name from the main God Ahuru Mazda. Even more brilliantly a statue of Ahuru Mazda was used in a horror movie I love called "The Wishmaster".
I also didn't expect that this book would have me in tears. But it did. For such a short story, Peck portrays his ideas brilliantly. He doesn't go into reams of explanation, he gives you what you need and what he gives you is so effective at building the story that you almost don't realise how short it is. Love, loss, religion, belief, reality, time, death: all themes that are explored brilliantly without making your brain hurt with the effort. For some reason, Peck's writing occasionally reminded me of Douglas Adams, though he wasn't anywhere near as long winded.
===The Shelves of my Library===
Being that this is a short story I wouldn't say that the book looks very substantial on my shelf. It's less than a centimetre thick and at 108 pages it took me less than an hour to get through in total. By far the thinnest and quickest book I've gotten through. The book is quite a tall one and the print is quite big and well spaced on the page. I actually felt a little like I was reading a flimsy school text book and it almost looks like it too. The artwork on the cover isn't anything special but certainly matches in perfectly with the setting of the book. The price of the book is £7 new for paperback; you can get it a little cheaper if you go for the used options starting at around £3. The kindle edition is much cheaper at £1.97 if you have one. I paid the £7 since I'm a total book freak who dislikes kindles.
===You, Sir, are wrong===
I would say that this book is incredibly brave in shattering the ideas that the main religions are the right ones to follow. In fact I can probably see quite a few people getting incredibly upset with the idea that they are wrong. If you are particularly sensitive on religious matters, it may not be the book for you. If, however, you can accept the book for what it is (A great story full of "what if's") then you will probably enjoy this. It's not the most comforting book to read. Dealing with death head on and sending people to hell even though a lot of them were good is quite bleak. The timescales the book deal with only serves to make it that much bleaker.
It's definitely not the piece of fluff that I had expected it to be. It is a really powerful novella if you let yourself think about the issues it throws up. It's dark and twisted and at times funny and beautiful. I can't tell you how much I have fallen in love with this story and how surprised I am about the plethora of ideas contained within such a small space. It's incredibly easy to get through but it stays with you for a long time afterwards. Throughout the story feels incredibly light when in fact it's stupendously deep and dark. I can't recommend it enough and even if it isn't your cup of tea it's so cheap and so short that it will hardly dent your time or your wallet at all. A firm five stars from me.
As an aside: Is it creepy that this review took my total ratings received number to 6661?