Most stories come to a close with a death. But in TJ Klune’s most recent book, Under the Whispering Door, passing away is just one more stop on a longer journey.
Wallace Price, a recently departed lawyer, is the main character of the book. Wallace is taken to Charon’s Crossing, a teahouse maintained by Hugo Freeman, a “ferryman” who assists people in making the transition to the afterlife. Wallace gets to know Hugo, as well as Mei (the reaper who picked him up and carried him there), Nelson (Hugo’s ghostly grandfather), and Apollo (Hugo’s now-ghostly dog), as he gradually comes to grips with his own passing — and his new status as a “ghost” He starts changing for the better as a result of the procedure.
Wallace is my interpretation of Ebeneezer Scrooge, so Dickens’ A Christmas Carol served as the novel’s primary source of inspiration, according to Klune, who speaks to SYFY WIRE. “Don’t get me wrong; there’s a reason why Dickens is Dickens. When it comes to writing, he is one of the greatest human beings ever. But the fact that you never saw Scrooge put in the effort to change for the better has always bothered me a little. That is why I intended to use this in that way.”
Wallace makes gradual, staged progress toward becoming the best version of himself. Though it is always there, in the form of the eponymous “whispering door” on the top floor of the teashop that also serves as Hugo, Mei, and Nelson’s residence, none of this is driven by thoughts of the afterlife. Instead, Wallace draws inspiration for his journey from the people he meets right now as well as from his own memories of his past life and the kind of person he had been.
Wallace is not undertaking this journey to better himself on his own, just like in the case of his after-death. Hugo and Mei are each working to improve themselves in their own ways, even though they’re not always successful, as Klune makes sure to demonstrate.
“The central theme of the novel was these individuals joining together to look for ways to improve themselves. Undoubtedly not a “wonderful” or “perfect” person, “explains Klune. “I try to conduct my life according to the notion that I should always strive to improve just a little bit each day. And if I can accomplish that, perhaps I’m doing okay. I’ll never be great or flawless, so why try? If I can simply strive to be a little bit better than I was the day before, that’s fine. I don’t even know what it means to be a nice person. I may not always be successful. Actually, I don’t. But I must try, so I will continue to do so. That is the key idea.”
Given that Wallace is a ghost, the concept of “death” plays a significant role in the book, both in terms of Wallace’s need to process and deal with his own death as well as the idea that not everyone’s life ends in the same way. Klune claims he didn’t want to avoid discussing violent and terrible deaths, especially when it came to a person’s decision to commit suicide. (This is also the reason he decided to put a warning at the start of the book that readers should “read with care” because he is aware that certain people have very genuine sensitivities when it comes to the thought of suicide or even death.)
“Suicide as a method of death is taboo. We find it uncomfortable to discuss, and perhaps we don’t know how to respond to something like that, adds Klune. “Since that is how the world is, I had to demonstrate the various types of death with this. Not everyone has the opportunity to live a long life and die away painlessly from natural causes while being surrounded by loved ones. Death might come suddenly and violently, yet there are instances when it’s the only way to leave this life.
I don’t judge any of those reasons of death, and that’s what I intended to demonstrate in my work, he continues. That is not how we can judge people. The most we can do is make an effort to assist them, which is why Hugo, Mei, and Nelson in this book show a desire to assist anybody who enters their doors, regardless of how they got there.
Although the main themes of Under the Whispering Door are loss and death, Wallace and Hugo also have a romance as the Ferryman and the Dead Man start to fall in love. In addition to Wallace’s impending ascension into the afterlife, there is a further difficulty in that they are completely incapable of touching one another. Klune spent a lot of time considering how to represent the characters’ developing love for one another.
“There’s a physicality to it when we think about romance in books, movies, or any other sort of media,” he claims. “Even with platonic, familial, and platonic love, we shake hands, hug, kiss on the cheek, and have sex. All of this is done to demonstrate our love for one another. The absence of that physicality caused me to reconsider the concept of romance. You have to fall in love through talk rather than when you can touch someone’s hand or feel them touch you. The end of that. It’s simply a different aspect of romance where people still fall in love but do so without the benefits that can come from being among living people.
Wallace is actually pretty self-assured about his sexuality and attraction to men; in fact, he even admits to Hugo that he is bisexual, which is an interesting aspect of his journey to becoming a better person and finding love. The fact that bisexuality is plainly mentioned on the page, something other kinds of media still struggle with, makes it notable in addition to the fact that bisexual representation may be so scarce.
“I make an effort to be as inclusive as I can. Therefore, if I’m going to have a bisexual character, I’m going to be damn sure that it’s on the page,” adds Klune. It will be spoken out loud because that kind of representation is still insufficient. And it just seems like a lot of the time when you read queer romance books, the characters are straight and then they become gay rather than being on-page bisexual. Existence of the bisexual. Why then are there no bisexual characters on the page?
Naturally, the thrill of representation is accompanied with the worry that the character (or romance) may end abruptly. However, Klune still finds a way to provide readers with a happily ever after, despite the fact that Under the Whispering Door begins with Wallace already on a path to the afterlife and the clock ticking down. No matter what, there will always be a happy ending for me if I’m creating a queer romance, he asserts. “It’s acceptable for some readers to feel let down by the conclusion. I was aware of that before starting.
Klune chooses to concentrate on the reality that there is a lot we don’t know about what happens after death rather than settling on any one type of cultural or religious touchstone as his inspiration for what it might look like.
“No one can say with certainty what happens next. Nobody can definitively declare whether there is a heaven or a hell, whether there is limbo, or whether there is nothing at all. Hugo’s teashop is designed to be a haven of rest and healing and serves as a way station to whatever comes next, therefore Klune wanted to focus on the transitional periods where there is still time to reflect on the kind of person you were. “While I tease what happens next in the novel. I never intended to provide a definitive response since, no matter what I tried to say, it would probably be inaccurate. And since people’s religious beliefs are highly personal, especially when it comes to what occurs after, I wanted to make an effort to avoid bringing up the subject of religion. What they believe is deeply ingrained in them. I didn’t want to try to deny them that, therefore.
It’s similar to grief, which is unique to each person, he explains. We can all experience pain, yet no two individuals will ever experience sadness in the same way, therefore there is something universal about it. Similar to the notion that perhaps no two people have the identical expectation of what will happen next. So many people have ideas about what paradise is like and what awaits us, yet those ideas may vary from person to person.
Hugo’s teashop is the result of several diverse influences. For example, it is called after the Greek Styx ferryman (Charon), and it has four stories since the number four is quite similar to the Chinese character for “death” or “die.” Klune also mentions other media, including the cult classic movie Beetlejuice, NBC’s Emmy-nominated sitcom The Good Place, and a video game called Spiritfarer, which has a young girl helping dead spirits find their way. However, it seems that popular culture had the biggest impact on how this aspect of the afterlife functions.
Klune made the observation that despite the subject matter being quite severe, there were nevertheless lighthearted and amusing moments, particularly in the game. “We dread the unknown, which is why death is frightening. But if you can experience these moments of joy or happiness, perhaps that dread will lessen a little.
The House in the Cerulean Sea, Klune’s best-selling novel, which has received acclaim for being a heartwarming read, especially given that it was published at the start of the global pandemic, comes out one year after the release of Under the Whispering Door. Since they were both written before the epidemic, Klune views them as bookends for one another. (He also considered having characters from Cerulean Sea and other books appear at the teashop, but ultimately decided against it since he wanted some separation between the two worlds.) Although he does mention that the two works might take place in the same universe and that there are some Easter eggs for keen readers.)
The House in the Cerulean Sea was the hug that people were in need of at the time, according to Klune. “And I believe that Under the Whispering Door offers you a shoulder to lean on if you need it rather than a hug. It holds your hand and reassures you that it’s okay to not be fine.
He continues, “This book can be tough at times, and it might not be for everyone right now.” “It’s okay if you don’t feel like you can handle talking about death and sadness right now. When and if you’re prepared to do that, the book will be there.
Both Under the Whispering Door and The House in the Cerulean Sea are currently published and may be bought here and here, respectively.