Doyle After Death
October 22, 2013
Witness Impulse, an imprint of HarperCollins
Event organized by:
SynopsisFrom award-winning author John Shirley comes an inventive whodunit featuring the master of mysteries, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
When Nicholas Fogg, an unsuccessful private investigator, dies on the job, he learns that the afterlife is not what he expected. Disappointed—but not too surprised—to find himself in the very dead town of Garden Rest, he befriends the famous Arthur Conan Doyle to crack a case from beyond the grave and solve the ultimate riddle: Is it possible to be murdered if you are already dead?
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Before I ever met Doyle or Brummigen or the Lamplighter … I died.
I was lying on the grungy orange carpet of my room in Las Vegas. I lay on my left side, on a floor in a tired, sad hotel on a side street just off the Strip. I hadn’t quite made it onto the bed. I was lying on the floor beside it, in the blue light coming through the window from the casino sign. I’d gone to sleep there, curled up fully dressed. I awoke for a whole minute, before the end—choking, unable to get a breath, dizzy. I was drowning—drowning in the oiliness of entropy itself.
Everything seemed to get narrow. My vision, my feelings, were squeezed by the pressure in my chest, compressed to a narrow aperture, down to a little feebly glowing oval, which shrank to a piercing point of light … the light began to spin … churning the darkness around it. A roaring tunnel sucking me through it headfirst …
I had exactly one thought: So this is dying.
A silence. A feeling of infinite weight. Falling.
Then—a sudden, jolting stop.
A moment later there was a sound.
It was a rising susurration, a hissing … which I slowly recognized as the sound of waves on the beach …
I opened my eyes. I was once more lying on my left side, but this time it was on pale sand in the gray light of dawn. The feeling of heaviness was still there; it dissipated as I sat slowly up on the edge of a deep purple sea. The sun had just edged up into the starless, Bible-black sky edging the horizon with silvery gauze.
I got to my feet and took stock.
It was a little chilly but not cold. I had no idea where I was—but I was calm. The calmness seemed to settle on me, with the faint mist from the sea.
The sun … was that, in fact, a sun?
Yes, it seemed to be a sun—sort of. But the sun here looks as if you’re peering through a telescope at a distant star. It is a coruscating circle of blue-white light without glare. I could look right at it and it didn’t hurt my eyes. And yet I could feel its warmth.
I knew, somehow—with a dead-reckoned internal certainty—that I was facing west, gazing out to sea, with the north on my right, and the sun was rising over the sea. So—the sun was rising in the west. Which should be impossible.
As I write this, now, long after, I wonder that I thought anything should be impossible. I’d died and had come to life somewhere else. As Bertram would say, all bets were off.
I knew, even then, that it wasn’t a dream. I was too present, too self-aware to be in a dream. And … I knew I had died. Something made that quite clear, quite firmly, and without words. I felt no distinct external metaphysical presence—I saw no angels, no devils, no glowering, bearded God. No Jesus, no Prophet Muhammad, no Buddha waited in this afterlife for me—at least not here. There was just the sound of waves, the strangely pristine smell of the sea and the sand under my feet. I’d always thought of death as a time when all mysteries are unlocked, and ultimately truths immediately revealed. But I was simply alone on a beach.
“Hey!” I yelled. “Anyone around? Can we skip the suspense and get on with the judgment? Or … whatever you do here.” I waited.
No response except the faint, mocking echo of my own voice.
I cleared my throat, called to the sky, shouting louder. “Look, if I’m gonna reincarnate—let’s get ’er done! I could use a vacation in a warm uterus! What do you say?”
No answer. Unless you want to count the wind rising a little, and subsiding, leaving only the sea’s endless respiration.
In the distance the fog roiled, easing ponderously along. I heard the sigh of the sea and the squeak of my boots in the sand just as I would in life. The ocean itself made me think of that classical expression, “the wine-dark sea.” But this one almost looked like it really was a blue-red wine; almost the color of Concord grape juice with shades of burgundy and amethyst lights.
“Nobody to talk to but myself,” I muttered. “That could be hell, right there.” I don’t care that much for my own company.
I tried once more, cupping my hands as I shouted, “You sure? No choirs, nothing? I know this is the afterlife, here, damn …” I started to say “damn it” and decided it wouldn’t be politic to refer to damning. “Anybody … anything … going to clue me in?”
I waited …
Nothing. That phone line was dead; that number was disconnected. I had been transported, it seemed to the very heart of mystery.
I shrugged and started walking along the beach, heading in the direction that felt like north. I don’t know why I picked that direction. The sky above me was mostly clear, except for a few parallel ribbons of cloud. I could see thunderheads edging along a few miles north, rumbling faintly, trailing a gray curtain of rain. I traipsed along the clean uncluttered white beach toward the rolling fog.
As I slogged along toward the wall of haze, I was thinking that maybe this was all the passing vision of a dying man before complete and final blackness. I felt no distress, no fear—so why not enjoy this hallucination?
To my right the beach rose gently to meet chalky bluffs. The strands of clouds reaching to the west took on a dawn rosiness. The distance was layered in pallid mist, shading down to pearly gray, then the filmy dun of the beach. It was almost like walking into an art deco amphitheater.
Some distance off to the north, a shape took form in the mist. Someone was walking along the beach toward me, and I wondered if I should be afraid.
It was a woman’s shape—the silhouette was quite definitely female—and I watched with fascination as she approached me. She was in no hurry, her gait showing no indecision. When she got closer I saw a pallid, shapely woman with long, straight black hair, and bangs. Her long hair spilled over her pale shoulders. She wore a wedding dress trimmed in white lace. The dress was spottily torn at the seams, discolored with age, and tattered about the ankles. Her pale, slender feet were bare. Her oval face was rueful and placid, her lips red and firm, but her dark green eyes seemed older than the rest of her face. A slight breeze fluttered the ends of her long hair.
She waved once, as she walked up, and smiled like an airline hostess. This close, I saw that her fingernails were raggedly broken, though some of their dark red nail polish remained.
I could see fine blue veins in her arms; in her throat and cleavage.
“And here you are,” she said, coming to a stop a long stride away.
“Yeah, well …” I shrugged. “I seem to be here, anyway,” I said. “I’m Nicholas Fogg …”
She put her left hand on her hip, toyed with the ends of her hair with the other slender hand as she looked me over.
A little uncomfortable under the frankness of her assessment, I said, “This is probably where you say, ‘I know who you are.’ ”
“Why would I say that? I had no idea what your name was. I’m no more telepathic than anyone else, you know.”
“Thought I was going to be alone on this beach forever. You hear me shouting?”
“I heard something, but I couldn’t hear what you were saying. Too far off.”
“Anyway—you’re the one with the answers?”
She arched her eyebrows in surprise. “Me? Not hardly! I have a few suggestions, and a fact or two, is all. I’m just a greeter. The town likes to have someone greet people.”
She nodded, and looked me up and down. “What’d you say your name was? Nicholas Fogg …?”
“Yeah. Or Nick.”
“Really!” She shook her head in amusement. “Such a theatrical name! We usually get fellas with names like Joe Kowalsky or Tyrone Johnson or Kyu Kim or Schlomo Cohen or Larry Barbarosa. Once we had a Hamish Chung. He went forgetter, though.” She looked out to sea. “Nobody else this morning? We’re really getting fewer and fewer souls, lately. Could be we’re almost at some local population limit. The newcomers at Garden Rest are down to a trickle.”
Maybe I should have been afraid of her. She was, after all, a mysterious figure in the afterlife. For all I knew, she might turn into a demon … if there were demons here. But she was pretty. And, more important, I felt no fear in her company. I instinctively trusted her.
(Not that there’s nothing to fear in the afterlife. There is. But I didn’t know what it was, at the time.)
“So few people arriving,” she said, stretching, making her hands into tidy little fists. “Maybe I can take some time off.”
“What would you take time off from?” I asked.
Her mouth twisted wryly. “Being a greeter, silly. And related stuff. I’d much rather be at home weaving. I’m making a mural out of creeper threads, in my place down in the rain. When I have time.”
I was trying to place her accent. Maybe New England. “You know my name …”
“Oh, I’m Fiona. My husband and I drowned—in the 1940s. The cliff road collapsed on the way to the honeymoon. That’s the short version.” She seemed bored with the explanation. “I know you want to ask about the wedding dress.” She ran her hands over her hips, as if it were the first time she’d tried the dress on. “I could change the dress, if I wanted to. Most people eventually shift out of their death clothes, but—I just feel it gives me a really appropriate costume for the job. And it’s good to have a sense of personal style.”
“You and your husband drowned?” I looked down the beach, half expecting to see him strolling toward us. “He’s here?”
“No … well, yes.” She frowned at the ground, dug a toe in the sand and made a little circle with it. “He’s … around. But he went a bit native in the swamps. I think he’s in another afterland, by now. He always was nutty. You can’t bring much with you, into the afterlife … except your nuttiness. Your state of mind.” She cleared her throat. “And a few things in your pockets, maybe.”
I looked at the beach behind her, thinking I’d see no footprints, since she was a spirit. But her footprints were there.
She looked sharply up at me as if a thought suddenly struck her. “Oh—do you have a cigarette?”
“I … doubt it.” I made a show of patting my pockets. I had cut back on smoking for health reasons. I know—it’s ironic. “Sorry. People bring cigarettes … here? I thought you couldn’t ‘take it with you.’ Whatever … ‘it’ might be.”
“Told you, you can bring what’s in your pockets. Even money. But money from the Before is worthless here. Some things from there are useful.” She pointed at my shirt. “If you can bring your clothes, why not your cigarettes?” She was pouting a little, disappointed I hadn’t brought any smokes. “Some people are what they’re wearing. Anyway, people bring what’s in their pockets.” She glanced at my pockets, as if trying to see the bulge of a cigarette pack. “It’s not the actual object you had in pre-death, though, it’s a—what would you say—a reproduction out of afterlife stuff. But you can’t tell the difference. And you can fabricate things here, too—some things. Mr. Doyle calls that formulation. But”—she blew out a long breath, as if exhaling imaginary cigarette smoke—“no one’s managed making cigarettes here yet. Haven’t found any tobacco.” She looked toward the sea, adding wistfully, “I used to smoke Chesterfields. I smoked a cigarette, right here, almost on this spot, about seven years ago. A really nice jazz musician gave it to me when he got here. It was one of those funny ‘light’ cigarettes the people back on Earth have, now. Marlboro Light, I think it was called.”
“Seven years ago?” I was about to ask her if time really flowed the same way here as before we died, but she made a dismissive motion, anticipating a question that was too much trouble to answer. (I’ve since found that people do that a lot in the afterlife. They figure you’ll work it out for yourself.)
“Never mind, just come on,” she said. “I have some things I have to do. So—be welcome, and all that, and, you know, just … make yourself at home. I can’t answer any questions about God and afterlife and judgment, if there is any of that stuff, because I don’t have a fucking clue, excuse my French. And I’m supposed to tell you …” She ticked the things she had to tell me on her fingers. “…that this is the afterlife, or the afterworld as most of us call it. It’s the afterworld for people from the planet Earth, anyway. You chose this particular locale of the afterlife, in some way, just before you got here. Without knowing you chose it. And, it’ll be your home for a pretty long time. And if you wander a long ways out of it, then you have a greater risk of encountering predators. And yes you have died but that doesn’t mean you’ve passed beyond all danger. There is danger here. Especially from people. But—most people I’ve met here are friendly. You may or may not meet people you know. Oh and there’s no real disease here, no senility; people are restored to good function. But you will need rest from time to time. Less than on the … less than back on Earth. There, that’s my main job, saying welcome and telling you all that—and to point you toward the trail that goes to town.”
“I’m supposed to go to a town?”
“Yup. I mean, only if you want to. The town of Garden Rest”—she smiled wryly, and nodded toward the ocean—“on the scenic Purple Sea.”
“Suppose I want to be a beach bum—or take a long, long, long swim out to sea.”
She smiled. “You can do that! But it’s more comfortable in town. You may as well look it over. Come on …”
She started toward the bluff, headed to a narrow path threading between two stony prominences, and I followed.
I found myself watching the sway of her walk—and I felt desire. So that was part of the afterlife, too. How far did that go? Was there physical copulation? Did people get pregnant? Did they have babies? Biological birth seemed unlikely.
This was the afterlife … but it was also a real, physical place. I could even feel the awkwardness of trudging in cowboy boots on beach sand. We went at a good pace and I never got really out of breath, though I hadn’t been in good shape my last year of life.
Mostly I’d spent that year sitting in crappy used cars and watching splintery motel-room doors, or following people on disability to photograph them playing tennis. When I wasn’t trying to scratch out a living as a detective, I’d lie about in my studio apartment, watching old movies on TV and drinking. Thinking about how I’d failed at being a poet, a serious novelist, had a BA in literature but couldn’t get through the teaching degree part, couldn’t make a living even teaching English. That had been my plan: day job teaching, make my name writing.
I tried. For a while. Couldn’t write anything I wanted to even try to publish; couldn’t get the degree.
I liked to read Hammett and Chandler and James M. Cain and Richard Stark and John D. MacDonald and Robert B. Parker and, going back, Arthur Conan Doyle. So I thought, why not get a private investigator's license?
So I did, in Las Vegas. I almost made a living at it. Sometimes. But pretty much—my short career as a detective was just another failure.
And that last year I sat in the bars or in front of my flickering television, and contemplated my failure. Every so often I seemed to hear my old man’s voice: “You can’t make it on your own, there’s always the Marines. Worked for me. I needed help and they gave it to me.”
The Marines. Me? Right.
Come to think of it I did do something else, that last year: I listened to music. Okay, so it was in a bar. I sat on a bar stool at Jinky Jake’s, in southwest Vegas, and listened to their antiquated jukebox. Not one of those modern systems that take music off the internet—but a real old jukebox with old vinyl records in it. It played scratchy old 1940s music. I loved bebop and big band and New Orleans trad jazz and western swing. I’d sit on that bar stool, trying to decide if I would spend my last three dollars on juke music or on their cheapest beer.
It hadn’t been a good year.
And now I was dead, walking on a sandy path in the afterlife.
Fiona and I got to the top of the trail, slowly ascending into brighter daylight. We paused and I looked over the prospect inland. A notch in the bluff led to a shallow valley enfolded by a mix of darkly lush maples and oaks. A body of clear water lay mirrorlike to the south; to the north, curtains of rain rippled softly. In between, a small town was spread out below us. Most of the houses were old-fashioned colonial-style cottages, some of them oddly proportioned. It reminded me of woodcuts I’d seen of early villages in western Massachusetts, some little burg Ben Franklin and his cronies would visit.
“That’s Main Street, right there,” Fiona said. “Follow that to the downtown area. There’s a boardinghouse, a two-story brick place with ivy on it—you can’t miss it. You can stay in that for now, if you want. I’d stay out of the swamp to the south, if I was you—at least don’t go there alone. And if you go north”—she pointed north, where the hills rose steeply to a series of ridges cloaked in low cloud—“keep your eyes open. Some up there are good people, but some …” She shrugged with one shoulder. “We have some crazies here, too.”
I had a lot of questions and opened my mouth—but she shook her head and raised a hand. “Enough for now.”
I chuckled. “Okay, Fiona. I hope I’ll be seeing you around.”
“You will. I’m a sort of mascot here.”
“Listen—can I ask … couldn’t all this—I mean what I’m experiencing—couldn’t it be one of those hallucinations from … like when the brain’s running out of oxygen? Next there’ll be a tunnel and then a light and then … light’s out.”
“No. Didn’t you already pass through a tunnel?” she asked.
“Now that you mention it—yeah.”
“Believe in this place, Nick. ’Cause it’s real and it’s solid. I mean, some of us call the Earth the ‘dirt world,’ but the afterworld has its own dirt.” She stomped once on the ground for emphasis. “Solid, too. You’ll see. I’ve been here about sixty-five years. And the light’s never gone out yet. I mean, it gets dark, but not like you would think.” She turned her gaze down the dark sea. “I’ve got so I like it here. Mostly.”
She smiled self-mockingly, toyed with her hair, and then turned back toward the beach. She started down the hill. I watched her descend into the mist, hoping she’d turn and wave to me. She didn’t.
When I lost sight of her, I turned and walked the other way, down into the valley.
I thought, The Valley of the Shadow of Death?
But there wasn’t much shadow of death in the valley. Mostly, I’ve found, Garden Rest is a nice place. Except for the occasional murder.
Second excerpt from “EIGHTH” – chapter 8
The elongated visage, eyeless and suffering, disintegrated under pressure from another, quite distinct face, the way a form in flowing paint is pushed out of shape when another color is poured into the mix. The rounder face with owlish eyes, replacing the first, was quickly pressed aside by several others: human shapes with streaming hair, men and women and mixed gender, some faces well defined and others only sketches. Some looked directly at us; others didn’t seem to see us, and shattered themselves against the windowpane.
They sang, with some occasional harmony but mostly discord—they were the dissonant choir. Some of them looked fairly happy, or at least pleasantly distracted; a good many others seemed to be grieving, endlessly grieving …
I began to make out words in their unrehearsed oratorio, just phrases here and there. “Why aren’t you here, when … when …” “I thought I’d shoot myself too but I was afraid, I couldn’t do it, I just sat by the bodies till the police came and I waved the gun, then the police did it, they shot me …” “I can smell my own dead body, I can’t get away from the smell …” “Mama mama mama no …” “Quoi de neuf? Pas grand chose … grand chose …” “Don’t hit me again, again. Don’t hit me again, again …” “Feci quod potui, faciant meliora potentes!” “Don’t … don’t …” “I won’t, I won’t …” “Peux-tu m’aider!” “Damn you to hell, sir, damn you to hell!”
I felt sick to my stomach, listening to them. The walls seemed to vibrate with the cries …
“Do you speak Latin or French or any other language?”
“Some Spanish, but …”
“But you find you know what the spirits you see are saying even when they sing in other languages!”
“Yeah. One of the French ones said, You, help me, in French … Some guy spoke in Latin, something about I did what I could, let’s see you do better …”
Doyle nodded briskly. “Here the tower of Babel does not stand—though the turret of Doyle does! But here in the afterlife the world itself is our translator.”
I winced as another face deformed itself against the window.
Doyle came over and patted me on the shoulder. “Don’t be afraid of them—this is a mere psychic storm!”
“A mere psychic storm? Come on, Doyle,” I moved my chair back from the window. “What is it?”
Doyle glanced at me. “Good Lord, but you look white as a ghost yourself. Don’t be afraid, dear fellow! There might be a bit of leakage from the storm in here—but we’ll be sheltered enough, on the whole. If at some time you are outdoors, and too close to the heart of it, why, you may find it rather overwhelming. Some people retreat to the basement and wait it out in psychic storm shelters because they’re afraid of psychological contamination—and some get a touch nauseated by the experience. But really it’s all a lot of fearmongering. A little ectoplasm, a slipping in a slick of spilled anxiety, nothing grievous …”
The ectoplasm in question was seeping in through tiny cracks along the edges of the window frame, coming through in a sheet of pearly vapor that then twined itself into the shapes of hands, fingers, reaching for us …
“Doyle,” I said harshly, pushing my chair back sharply with my feet, “what the hell is a psychic storm?”
Doyle cleared his throat. “No need for a chap to raise his voice—”
“Right. Most of the forgetters … souls who don’t know who they are … the simple way to say it is, they are too insubstantial to incarnate in places like Garden Rest.” He looked ponderingly out the window. “Eventually, after muddling about over land, in places like the swamp, they find their way to larger clouds of such soul sparks, far away, over the sea. Usually the sea cloud is too distant to see from Garden Rest. To mariners they might appear to be lightning storms.”
Mariners? I didn’t want to interrupt him to ask about it. But I imagined sailing on the Purple Sea …
Doyle seemed worried about wasting time. He clearly had some sort of plan. He went on, his tone taut with impatience. “When a cloud of sparks reaches a state of maximum concentration, a wind builds up, on one side, a wind that is quite indistinguishable from psychic will. It is wind and will at once. It is as if the afterworld itself has taken a breath and exhaled. This exhalation blows the forgetting sparks into a swirling ball, driving it in over the land, where it becomes a psychic storm. As the storm wears on, something like the whirling inward pull of a galaxy takes place amongst souls instead of stars, and in the spiral’s center the sparks suddenly come into contact, and in reaction are blasted outward, diffused into the ghostly form, as you see here …”
The ectoplasmic fingers were reaching into the room from around the window frame … but when they reached a certain distance into the room, just short of me, they became wispy, and dissipated—and vanished. But outside, faces still battered against the window like leaves blown by a hurricane.
Doyle opened a drawer, took out a bottle and two small glasses, and poured afterworld whiskey for us, as he went on, “After the storm reaches its peak, most of the souls … the forgetters … are absorbed into the afterworld background. Some seem to become the nascent core, very thin indeed, of Earthly reincarnations.”
“They end up in someone back on Earth?”
“Generally. Others are absorbed into the background mind of the afterworld itself, to be radiated downward and consumed by matter on lower planes. It’s all quite painless to the forgetters. Of course, some few forgetters struggle to become something more substantial. They may even accumulate enough ‘selfness’ to join us here, on this level. I have met people who were once forgetters. But that will wait for a later conversation. A tot of whiskey? You might find a dram reassuring.”
I accepted, and the reassurance of the whiskey came not a moment too soon—the window directly across from me cracked. The crack was almost horizontal, slanting from one side to the other. “Doyle, I thought you said …”
“Oh bother,” Doyle grumbled. “It’s the wind, not the souls, doing that. I’ve been meaning to re-do these windows, I do think Brummigen did his part of the turret formulating sloppily. He was in a foul mood that day because we gave his lot a terrible bluing at cricket, the evening before …”
I got to my feet. A face was squeezing through the crack in the window. It came through like a sheet of translucent paper that writhed into the outline of a head—and then it darted at my face.
“Son of a—!” It’s all I managed to say before I fell back into the chair, spilling the rest of my brandy on my wrist, and hearing a sorrowful roaring in my ears. My eyes went blind, at first, just nothing but blackness, then, against the backdrop of aching darkness, pinwheels of fire flared out before me, perhaps some vision of the “galaxy” of forgetters. The pinwheels crashed together with a grand gonging sound and I found myself … somewhere else.
About the Author
John Shirley is the author of numerous books and many, many short stories. His novels include Bleak History, Crawlers, Demons, In Darkness Waiting, and seminal cyberpunk works City Come A-Walkin', and the A Song Called Youth trilogy of Eclipse, Eclipse Penumbra, and Eclipse Corona. His collections include the Bram Stoker and International Horror Guild award-winning Black Butterflies, Living Shadows: Stories: New & Pre-owned, and In Extremis: The Most Extreme Short Stories of John Shirley. He also writes for screen (The Crow) and television. As a musicianShirley has fronted his own bands and written lyrics for Blue Öyster Cult and others.
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