Philippe Boulle, editor, Haunting the Dead (White Wolf, 2003)
If the ghosts of the dead haunt the living, who or what haunts the dead? While this question is never explicitly asked in the dark fantasy/horror anthology Haunting the Dead, you will probably have more than a few answers after finishing the book, along with a sense of unease at the prospect of death not necessarily representing finality and peace. Ultimately, it's a very rewarding experience; however, given the quality and strength of the writing contained within the book's pages.
As with other books from White Wolf Publishing, Haunting the Dead is based on a role-playing game, this time the company's latest title, Orpheus (White Wolf is also responsible for such games as Vampire: The Masquerade and Mage: The Ascension). Familiarity with the game is not required, or even expected, as each story is self-contained and all information necessary to its understanding is either presented in that story or already known from a previous one.
The four novellas that make up the anthology by Stefan Petrucha, Seth Lindberg, Allen Rausch and Rick Chillot, respectively centre around the Orpheus Group, an organization that employs both the living and the dead to communicate with and settle disputes in the spirit world. Think of them as a kind of paranormal police force or detective agency for the afterlife.
Though the stories are separate, the focus on the Orpheus Group is not the only aspect that links them; there is a definite progression from one to the next. Not only does the reader learn more about Orpheus in each subsequent tale, there is also a subtle, building sense of dread, a hidden menace threatening the story's protagonists that culminates at the end of the final story. This is handled and executed very effectively and makes each story that much more compelling by placing it in a larger context and showing that there is more at stake than is initially apparent.
Petrucha's opening story, "The Grass Is Always Greener," is also the strongest of the bunch. Set in a college dorm, the story begins with a strangely humourous description of cold and dead pizza that has more to do with the story than you might think. It also features the wonderful fourth chapter title, "If this is the reveal, does that mean there was a veal?" The story is witty, inventive and wholly creepy it sucks you in to the world of the dead and keeps you there.
In Lindberg's story "Eurydice," the author plays with the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, which also gives the Orpheus Group its name. This theme is touched on again in the collection, but Lindberg is the only one to approach it so blatantly. As a result, his story features some of the only clumsy passages in the book, as he tries to make the pieces fit, to imbue the story with literary reference. This is not to say that Lindberg's story is weak, just that it is more compelling when he sticks to his own plot.
"Dia de los Muertos," by Rausch, is set in Guadalajara, Mexico, on the eve of the annual Day of the Dead celebrations, as the title suggests. Rausch translates what at first seems like a corporate dispute into a tale of ancient evil, made all the more menacing as it potentially hides behind the mask of any or all of the celebration's revelers. It should be said that none of the anthology's stories presents a neat, happy ending, but "Dia de los Muertos" is perhaps the most bleak, the most universally threatening.
That said, "Corridors" is pretty bleak in its own right. All we have learned as readers comes together, new threats and new characters are introduced, and it is hard to know just who to trust. It is a story of captivity, of perception and realization, of the past haunting the present, and, ultimately, of a kind of redemption. Its pace is methodical and deliberate, its execution quite near perfect. It is a fitting end to a highly-enjoyable book.
So what is it that haunts the dead? For some it's reliving the moment of death again and again. For others it's the "unfriendlies" that emerge from the shadows to drag them to a private hell. For others still it's simple uncertainty. And for all it's the realization and knowledge that there is just as much if not more to fear in death as there was in life; all the same things that will leave you, the reader, feeling haunted long after you have turned the final page.