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Review of "The Imprisoned Splendor" by Stafford Betty

by Monica G. Ayuso


The Imprisoned Splendor is a riveting, action-filled, visionary account of the afterlife, written by an expert in afterlife studies and religious studies professor, Stafford Betty. But the novel is far from fantasy. Rather, its plot is based on the scholarly study of paranormal phenomena that portrays life after death—a fact the author discloses at the start with a note to the reader. From that material, he constructs a vivid story that opens explosively with the death of Kiran Kulkarni, an atheistic philosopher of great promise, who perishes at the prime of his life in a plane crash. In this character, Betty distills the rich background of Kiran’s Indian birth, his early conversion to Catholicism, and the American-university philosophical training that ruthlessly wiped out the religious convictions of his Hindu upbringing.

It is precisely the complexity of its main character that sets this novel apart from the popular classic in its genre, Richard Matheson’s What Dreams May Come (1978). Both works feature love as a redeeming force and suicide as a violation of the premise that humans are created to live, not to perish. Both endorse a moral lesson: that what we say, what we think, and what we do in this life have profound effects in the afterlife. But whereas Matheson’s relatively unambiguous character nobly pursues the single-minded aim of saving his beloved wife—a suicide—from her own self-hatred and self-condemnation, Betty’s character, while a gifted philosopher with praiseworthy scholarly habits, is a morally shabby narcissist. He needs as much help as Shalini, the woman who killed herself when he rejected her many years ago when they were graduate students. And the means of his remaking? He must rescue Shalini from her self-made hell. His paternal grandparents are his guides and will help him. But so will an intriguing English ex-detective named Nigel and a more famous suicide, Sylvia Plath. But in helping Shalini, Kiran must struggle against the ingrained habits of a profoundly selfish life, habits that no amount of help can fully erase. Further complicating his struggle is the fact that it takes place in a world he long dismissed with jeering contempt.

Many novels have been written about characters who remember previous lives and try to come to terms with them. Anya Seton’s Green Darkness (1972) is perhaps the best of these. The Imprisoned Splendor does take reincarnation seriously but is not concerned with past lives. Rather, reincarnation stands as a possible choice for the future. Unlike many a novel whose characters we watch die at the conclusion, in this one we are asked to consider what might happen if they choose to be reborn; for reincarnation is a popular, if frightening, option for the morally or intellectually undeveloped being. Both Kiran and Shalini must weigh this option carefully before moving ahead into a higher, less densely physical, more evolved sphere. Are they ready for such a move? Or must they “repeat the grade”? What will be their relation to each other, whichever way they go? Will they stay together? And under what circumstances? A notable accomplishment of the novel is the plot’s unpredictability and surprise ending.

Betty has worked hard creating the various settings, or layers, of the novel. It can be challenging for the reader to distinguish among them because the characters transition psychologically between their present astral environment and vivid earth dreams—fragments of memory—that seduce them into forgetting where they are and losing themselves in earth-like pleasures. When they awake, they find themselves back in the astral world, though in sectors as different as light from dark. These transitions are clearly marked, but if skimmed over can create confusion.

Betty’s astral world—the world he researched extensively and thinks we will all enter when we die—is a much more intense and vivid version of earth, roughly similar to Plato’s world of forms. It will gratify most readers to know that it coincides with neither of the stereotypes—the fire-and-brimstone or pearly-gated views of the afterlife. It is neither implausibly harsh like Dante’s inferno nor innocuously boring like your next-door neighbor’s heaven. A special pleasure for the reader is that in Betty’s world, literary figures and philosophers interact with the characters and teach them relevant lessons. So imbued in literary reference is this novel that its title comes from Robert Browning’s long poem Paracelsus.

This novel has a tremendous potential for adaptation to film. A Hollywood movie producer would have a field-day with Betty’s elaborately developed afterlife world. Special effects technology could render the visually arresting landscapes into a spellbinding show!

Mónica G. Ayuso, California State University, Bakersfield.

mayuso@csub.edu

(661) 654-3051

Stafford Betty has authored seven books, including three novels. Careful research into paranormal phenomena has convinced him that spirit worlds and beings are real, and that just such a world awaits us all at death. That conviction is the starting premise of this novel. He is a senior professor of religious studies at California State University, Bakersfield. He is married and has four sons and a daughter. He bikes to work, swims for exercise, and meditates daily. (WC 77)

Stafford Betty. Guilford, UK. White Crow Press, 2011. 156 pages. $15.99.


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