Friday, December 16, 2011

Book Review: Where the Dead Go

It doesn’t matter what you believe, or who you believe in. It doesn’t matter how much you don’t think about it, or pretend like you’re some invincible superhuman. Sooner or later everyone and everything will die. It’s just a fact of life.
It’s what happens to us after we die where it starts to get a little hazy.

Where the Dead Go by E.J. Harrigan is an interesting take on this age old question.

[This review contains some spoilers. Read at your own risk!]


Dave McMurty is a stressed out, suit and tie type. He owns his own company with his friend and colleague, Jonathan. Their business was doing well until the economy tanked and he's had to start making some budget cuts. He's even considering laying off workers to keep afloat.

Jonathan and his wife have a troubled marriage. They barely say two words to each other let alone actually have any kind of loving relationship. Jonathan seeks this from other women, expensive vacations, designer clothes and fancy cars.

Jonathan is rushing to a diner to meet Dave to discuss the future of their business. He narrowly escapes death when a distracted driver careens into his car and detours off into a ditch. Jonathan is shaken but he is also terrified that the woman in the other car might be dead. He drives off leaving the dying woman behind and resumes his trek to the diner.

Fourteen-year-old Foxy lives at home with her drunk, abusive father. Her mother died when she was just a child. She feels trapped and finally decides to do run away when the beatings prove to be too much. Foxy finds herself lost in an alley with the wrong crowd. Thinking she is a boy, they initially try to help her but when the finally discover she is a girl, the tables turn and Foxy feels threatened. She runs away and right into Barney.

Food is Barney's vice. He can't get enough of it and he's overweight because of it; but Barney also has a big heart. When he sees Foxy in the alley he is concerned for the teen and offers to buy her breakfast at a local diner then pay for her cab home.

What they don't know is that there is a waiter at the diner who is tired of his job. He's had it with the rude clientele, the long hours, the poor pay and disrespect from  his supervisors. When he takes his break he goes in the back and crushes a light bulb into a fine dust, adding the dust to the salt shakers.
Meanwhile Xander, a man who once loved his family before he was possessed by the Enemy (who is pure evil), has just killed his fourth victim. This one fought back and he is mortally wounded. Xander goes into the diner's restroom to clean his wounds.

When Dave, Jonathan, Foxy and Barney all use the tainted salt on their food, they have minutes before they are dead. The waiter, content with his revenge, goes into the bathroom to grab his bag. He plans on leaving town, but he doesn't get far. Xander is waiting for him and the end result isn't pretty.

But this is just the beginning of the story. When Dave opens his eyes in the afterlife what awaits him aren't pearly white gates protecting streets paved of gold, or the voices of hundreds of archangels. Instead, Dave ends up in a cell in a place that slightly resembles a factory, complete with a coffee drinking Big Bird as his "spirit guide" to the afterlife.

The big yellow bird tells Dave that he works for one of the many corporations under contract by the Old Man (or the Entity) to collect the essences from the deceased. The essence is the best part of each human-- their personality, traits, etc. etc. The Enity wants to study humans and one day create the perfect human; one that is without flaws or error- morally perfect through and through.

Dave soon discovers that he's not alone. Jonathan, Xander, Foxy, Barney, another character named Terrence, and even the disgruntled waiter have made it to the Hive.

But something is loose in the Hive and looking for victims. Dave and the others quickly find themselves in the fight of their lives, and just because they're dead doesn't mean they can't die again.


The only way I can describe this book is if Quentin Tarantino decided to write and direct an episode of the Twilight Zone. This is noir as noir can get. It's dark, gritty, disturbing and violent, with some unconventional themes of incest and sexual references. There are some moments that make you realize getting up to go to that 9-5'er that you suffer through just to pay the bills might be a walk in the park compared to some of the events going on in these characters' lives.

Harrigan's writing style and vivid descriptions really help to draw you into the dark and chilling world that he's created for his characters. It's essentially a good vs. pure evil story, and the evil is as evil as they come.

There are a number of characters to keep up with and Harrigan accomplishes a monumental task in making sure that the reader gets to know each character's personality, traits, and enough about them to see just what makes them tick. The female characters are often weak-willed or manipulators. The men are often abusive, liars, or just plain naive. Even the Entity and the other beings that operate the Hive are questionable since they are essentially exploiting the dead for their own purposes.

But the characterizations add an interesting dynamic on the story; and despite not having a favorite character, I ended up really liking the story as a whole.

The characters are intrinsically flawed and imperfect and it seems like there is absolutely nothing that can be done to change this. Harrigan even implies the idea of nature vs. nurture to evil. Despite the Waiter's father's attempts to change his son, the Waiter still succumbed to his mother's evil streak and ends up manipulating his father just as his mother did.

There were a few things that I wasn't fond of, mainly Foxy and Nancy. Foxy doesn't act 14. She acts 24. Yes, she probably had to do some growing up pretty early on given her past. I get that she's probably not the average 14-year-old but one minute she's running from anything that looks at her funny and suddenly in the afterlife she grows a pair and decides that she's the leader of all these grown adult men and they accept it. Just like that. It was almost a complete 360 from her former self.

Nancy easily forgives Jonathan for contributing to her car accident and leaving her to die in a ditch, and Jonathan even decides that he's in love with her as she tends to one of the wounds he received while in the afterlife. Maybe that's a testament to her character, but if I saw the guy who killed me in a car accident and got away essentially "scot-free" I'd either haunt him for the rest of his life or he'd better hope he didn't run into me in the afterlife. It wouldn't end well.

The fact that she brushed it off so easily struck me as a bit odd, especially given some of the more violent moments of the book, but I guess there has to a happy ending at some point.
By the end of the book this unlikely group becomes a real team; some of them utilizing emotions that they had long burried and forgotten. It is in death that they finally learn the true meaning of friendship.

This book isn't something I would normally pick up, but it was an interesting read; and I particularly enjoyed the fresh take on the classic themes of good vs. evil. I'm looking forward to reading more of Harrigan's writing in the future.

Rating: 4/5


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