Under the Whispering Door by TJ Klune
When I got to the scene in Under the Whispering Door (2021) featuring an opportunistic “medium” being messed with by two ghosts, I started laughing so hard I fell over sideways on the loveseat. My husband kept saying, “What? What?” and I could only gasp, “You’ll… have to read it yourself.”
You’ll have to read it yourselves, too.
2021’s Under the Whispering Door is TJ Klune’s second fantasy book marketed to adults. His first was The House in the Cerulean Sea. Under the Whispering Door is a more personal book for Klune; he says in his afterword that he wrote it as a way of coming to grips with grief and loss. Despite the seriousness of the topic, the book is warm-hearted, sweet and funny, and Klune’s choreographed absurdities reminded me of my favorite Terry Pratchett books.
Wallace Price is a joyless man with no compassion. He’s a highly successful lawyer. When he dies suddenly of a heart attack, he materializes at his own funeral. He expects hundreds of people, at least the clients he won huge settlements for, right? Instead, there are about six people. His partners reminisce about what a jerk he was, and his ex-wife uses the eulogy to eviscerate him. The other person is a young woman named Mei. He doesn’t know her, but she introduces herself as a Reaper. Confused and angry — he can’t be dead, and if he is dead somebody better reverse that situation right now — he accompanies her to a small town in a wood, into a tea-shop in an extraordinary house.
Wallace meets a variety of people, living and ghostly: Mei, a human who can see and communicate with ghosts, Nelson, a ghost and practical-joker, and Hugo, a “ferryman.” Hugo communicates with ghosts and his job is to help the newly dead prepare to go through the whispering door on the fourth floor. Hugo is compassionate, generous, and handsome. Frightened, frustrated and angry, Wallace storms out of the tea house and runs into a terrifying zombie-like creature, called a Husk. The Husk’s name is Cameron. Cameron is an example of what happens when spirits refuse to either go through the door or stay close to the tea-shop.
There’s also a delightful ghost dog named Apollo.
As Wallace reluctantly fits himself into the schedule of the shop, he begins to touch, and regain, some of his better qualities. The plot question, however, is, “Is it ever too late to find love?” as Wallace feels his heart warming toward the powerful but vulnerable Hugo.
The group must contend with problematic living humans. Most who frequent the tea shop are good people or at least neutral, but there are two adversaries: the medium, Desdemona Tripplethorn, and a health inspector engaging in quid pro quo sexual harassment of Hugo. A grieving mother is a regular to the shop. As the story continues, they get another ghost as a visitor, an angry murder victim who acts out. And Cameron still lurks outside.
Then there’s the Manager, a powerful being who seems to have charge of human death, and who directs the reapers and the ferry-people. The Manager is a scary proposition.
The tone in Under the Whispering Door is light (I won’t say light-hearted), but the story is quite serious. The love story between Hugo and Wallace takes center stage, but Wallace still needs to make some amends, even from beyond the grave. It’s Wallace who confronts the Manager about the fate of the Husks, and Wallace who figures out the way to reach the mother who is deeply grieving the death of her young daughter.
A final, writerly note. I have been paying attention to content warnings these days as a research project. Content warnings are the direct descendants of trigger warnings. This book deals with the power of love, and also many kinds of death, including suicide. Klune’s content warning, presented as an author note at the front of the book, is perfect.
This book was fun to read, and left me filled with hope. Klune accomplishes his mission.