Unpleasant afterlives: New fiction from Peck and Perkins


Two Mormon books this year seem to be getting absolute purity of praise. A Short Stay in Hell by Steven L. Peck and Dispirited by Luisa M. Perkins both seem to have been more widely discussed online in their first few months than most Mormon books get in their first couple years, and both books have been loved by those readers. Which is great, I think we’ll all agree, especially when both books are doing very curious things for “Mormon books.”

A Short Stay is published by Strange Violin and Dispirited by Zarahemla—both publishers with a Mormon bent—even though A Short Stay begins with the Mormon hero learning that Zoroastrianism was the true religion and Dispirited never uses the M-word at all. So the fact that these books were published by whom they were published by, and that we’re discussing these books as “Mormon books,” is a pretty fascinating pair of facts up front. Then add in that they are both filled with information about spirits and postmortal realms. Suddenly the fact that these “Mormon books” have no explicitly Mormon content is not only odd but genuinely remarkable. Aren’t these the very topics for which religion even exists? What’s going on here?

In short, I don’t know. But if we can’t get answers, isn’t it great that we got two terrific reads instead?

dis_shoA Short Stay in Hell both is that and isn’t that. By which I mean the book barely breaks a hundred pages, yet also covers thousands of billions of years in that short period. You read me right.

That Peck finds a way to make us feel the weight of eternity is perhaps the book’s most impressive feat. We talk glibly all the time about eternal marriage and forever families, but how big is eternity? Too big to contemplate, so we leave it at that and move on.

Peck pulls a trick like the verbally skilled scientist he is and finds a metaphor (like a cat in a box) to help us laypeople understand the vastness of eternity. And while at times the book’s brevity makes it feel slight and silly, by the end of the novel there is nothing slight about it. You’ll be utterly unable to ask for more rocks.

I could tell you what he does but knowing what he does wouldn’t be helpful. You must feel what he does, and that requires a read. Which you should do. And then you’ll want to press it on a large subset of your friends. If you can recover from your phobia of books enough to imagine anyone will ever want to read anything ever again.

I’m sorry. Every time I start trying to tell people to read this book I make it sound like something to stay away from. It’s not.

I heard from a friend of mine that his book group (incidentally, this is also Kent‘s book group, so maybe he should chime in here) discussed it. They are a motley collection of artists and scientists and suchlike and I’m rather jealous, to be honest. Anyway, his main takeaway is that A Short Stay makes hell mathematically terrifying. And if that won’t put you on the straight and narrow, I don’t know what will.

I do not know, however, where to find Zoroastrian missionaries.

Perkins’s book I also wanted to press on people once I’d finished it, specifically those who like the sorts of books like Dan Wells‘s—YA-friendly, thrilling, well composed, fast.

I do have a few complaints. For instance I felt the rules of interaction between our world and the other worlds were not clearly enough defined—a couple things happened that pulled me out of the story because I thought they couldn’t happen. And then when things that actually could not happen seemed to happen, the frisson that should have been created wasn’t because I was unsure whether the rules had been settled. That’s my big complaint.

The other is what Glen Nelson has called the “something about depicting evil that strikes fear into many LDS artists.” Unlike Glen, I’m not convinced Perkins completely succeeded here. Although recent reading enforces my long-held suspicions of pornography, I’m not convinced it’s sufficiently eeeeeeevil for her villain. The explanation why he’s sticking with porn is believable, but I did feel the author was protesting a bit too much.

But the porn thing is a minor quibble. The rules thing is bigger, but I suspect, reading other reviews, that I might be alone in this opinion. And either way I’m happy to have Dispirited on my shelf and you’re certainly welcome to borrow my copy and we can chat about it together. Borrow my Peck while you’re at it.

Or, even better, do Strange Violin and Zarahemla a favor and just buy your own.

And then let me know what they teach us about being a “Mormon book.”


Note: My copy of Peck’s novel was a gift from the author.

6 thoughts on “Unpleasant afterlives: New fiction from Peck and Perkins”

  1. I have not read “Dispirited” yet. I will get to it, though. I’m quite intrigued by its description (and reception).

    I would have liked for “A Short Stay in Hell” to have been more ambitious both in terms of the prose and how it tackled the religious themes. I would also have liked more humor in it. Perhaps I’ve read too much Borges and Kafka, but to me the metaphor was stretched for too many pages without giving me enough additional story and/or philosophy to chew on. But that’s just me. Clearly it has been a success with many other Mormon readers. And I do think it’s worth reading simply for the effect Th. mentions in his post.

  2. Since I started learning more about Mormon literature, I’ve read about Steven Peck a lot. Then I saw a snippet about him in the latest issue of the BYU Humanities magazine where it said he was a biology professor as well as a novelist, and then I was struck to remember that I took a class from him while I was a student at BYU. While I was a Linguistics major, I didn’t want to take the plain and simple Biology 100 to fulfill that general education requirement, so I took two biology courses instead, Microbiology and Environmental Biology. The latter I took from Dr. Peck, and it turned out to be one of the greatest classes I had. It was more spiritual than most of my religion classes, and I felt indebted to Dr. Peck for an amazing way of looking at the world. I am definitely going to be reading his work now.

  3. The biggest Zoroastrian group today is the Parsi community of India. Since you’re in California, I’d imagine you can find a Parsi community close by.

    I don’t know if they take converts or not. And they almost certainly don’t have missionaries. But it probably wouldn’t be too hard to find and talk to a Zoroastrian if you wanted to.

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