“I hadn’t been to Woodlawn Cemetery since my father’s funeral. Knowing what I know about where we go once we die, I’d never seen the point in leaving flower bouquets next to the tombstones or talking to the ground. This was just where the bodies end up, and soon enough the bodies weren’t even that anymore. The soul – or whatever you want to call the part that can’t be buried – doesn’t stick around these places for long. Why would it? There’s nothing here for the dead but the dead.”
Danny Orchard is not your typical male. Over the course of his forty-some-odd years he has become a death expert that emerged from his near-death experience or “NDE” as people in the know refer to it as, when he was sixteen-years-old. He became aware of a world in which very few are privileged to experience or in some cases sentenced to fulfill. The other world differentiated the dead between two groups lived two very different lives with two opposing fates. The Underworlder’s are pessimistic as they know the fate that awaits them is an eternal hell filled with a life under constant threats whereby a person can die many times over in any conceivable manner of ways. The Afterlifers have an effervescent optimism as they know that their destiny includes the reliving of the best day of their lives and the knowing that what awaits them is encouragement to stay the course while they remain alive.
“When you’re dead, you know that’s what you are.
You always hear about the other ones, the souls who need help ‘crossing over,’ the confused loved ones in those paranormal reality TV shows who ghost around at the foot of the bed, needing to be told it’s time to go. But in my experience there’s no mistaking it with being alive, because where I went after the fire was something better than being alive. Heaven, you’d have to call it. A slightly altered replay of the happiest day of my life.”
Danny has had trouble adjusting to life after his “NDE”. It seemed at first that something inexplicable was holding him back from thoroughly enjoying his second chance at life. The hindrance followed him as he graduated high-school and made it all the way to Michigan State University. Unable to complete his studies, keep a job, establish friendships or a love life, he felt his life was destined for loneliness. He spent his 20’s and 30’s in complete solitude, the way he felt the otherworldly forces wanted it. At his lowest point he eventually found his calling as a writer, and a bestselling one at that. He embraced his gift rather than holding it in contempt and became a keynote speaker and a figurehead for the afterlifers. As he is finally gaining some semblance of stability something from his past rears its ugly head making it impossible for him to live his life with out them by his side.
Danny and his fraternal twin sister Ashleigh spent their childhood in Royal Oak, a suburb of Detroit with their homemaker mother and corporate official father. The twins were part of a complicated birth that lead to them dying for a brief moment after an umbilical cord issue in the womb. Experts say that a child’s first memory occurs at the age of three years of age and beyond, Danny didn’t remember being close to death, but Ashleigh remembered it vividly. The mother being the reluctant Catholic she was, prayed to god too take her and let the babies survive the ordeal. After the miracle of birth, mom quickly realized with woman’s intuition in play, a pronounced coldness in the eyes of the baby girl and immediately regretted bringing Ashleigh into the world. For the next sixteen years the Orchard family knew that a monster lived with them, terrorizing them to no end, and had know way to put a stop to it, they were just waiting for the day the chicken would come home to roost. After the sudden death of the family dog, the tragic death of their mother, and the unexpected death of their father, the wait was over, the time was now.
“Ash had no associations in life, only wants. As for love? She was incapable of feeling any herself, and there were only two people who she needed it from. She had mine, was born with it. But the other was denied her.”
As the children entered their formative years the differences in disposition became obvious. Ashleigh was smart, charming, beautiful, social butterfly, and clearly in dire need of attention. Ashleigh had the world at her fingertips, she could have been anything she ever wanted too be. Danny on the other hand was a slow-learner, gangly, social outcast, and was more of a wallflower. As great as Ashleigh made herself seem to be, anyone that ever really got to know her found out that she was a master manipulator, domineering, sadistic, and had an evil nature. She was “ugly-beautiful” and nothing but crazy things came with her. To the people that knew her best knew she perfected the persona of public charm vs. private cruelty. Essentially she was a psychopath in training, a wolf in a world filled with sheep and an insatiable appetite that had no bounds.
The plot of the story intrigued me and for the most part and followed through on its promise. In some cases it reminded me of the movie The Omen with respect to a child born with inherent evil, the Asian film A Tale of Two Sisters, and the great Jeff Bridges film called Fearless with all of the discussions about “NDEs” and there search for answers. Being a fraternal twin myself I always like reading about other people’s perceptions of multiple births and the element of evil that can be orchestrated. The author did a good job with the psychological intricacies of being a twin and taught me a few things about the differences in having a twin of the opposite sex. With respect to the other plot lines I often find myself to prefer more of a realistic point of view but I didn’t have a problem with the spectral nature of the story. However; I did take issue with the story when the reader was transported to the netherworld for an extended length of time. The book lends itself to more of a young reader audience while I preferred the psychological realism, but it’s a matter of tastes.
Aggressive in its pursuit, deliberate in its action, subtle enough not to leave an indelible mark. The author constructs a lead antagonist that leaves victims in their wake and few solutions to the puzzle. You travel to the dreaded underworld, the depths of despair, the reality of everlasting doom and learn what it means to go to hell and back. It starts to make you remember the old adage of how sometimes the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t. Take your pick, but remember that the bliss of the redeemed is heightened by the sufferings of the damned.
“I knew what she meant. I understood just as she hoped I’d understand, why she read The After three times, why she came to my talk hoping I’d be someone – maybe the only person she might ever find in the world – she could connect with. Hell is a place on the other side. But it can also be here. The experience of living without a reason to.
And with this woman, I knew that for all the risk I was about to invite into our worlds, I’d found mine.”