Most men on death row, no matter how despicable their crimes, still wish to be pardoned, to be cured of the monster in them that compels them to commit their despicable crimes. York wishes to die, not because he deserves it, but because of some secret in his past that a death row investigator known only as The Lady must uncover before his sentence is carried out. Arden, another narrator, is unlike his other inmates in that he has found peace and beauty in a dungeon cell of darkness where no sunlight ever reaches. The books he is allowed to read and the wild imagination he’s always carried give him an almost childlike innocence at times, as he hears small men tinkering in the walls, and golden horses that stampede far underground. With a sense of wonder and appreciation for even the cruelest of treatments-that you may believe he deserves for his dark crimes – Arden is a conundrum. York is unveiled in shards of the past and present as this novel pieces together his history, and that of the Lady trying to save him, as well as the odd connections they share with each other and an old, fallen priest.
The Green Mile by Stephen King is the first book that comes to mind when thinking of an a death row inmate who actually wishes to die. John Coffey is another sensitive, eccentric man who longs for death, though his history is vastly different from Arden’s. But the little men in the walls and the other mystical elements of this story are reminiscent of another novel by the same author: Insomnia, which is about an elderly man whose lack of sleep one day enables him to see much more that is happening in our world than any of us could have guessed. With the help of a neighbor of his, Ralph Roberts must help the little men in doctor’s coats fight the Agent of Chaos and ultimately defeat the master plan of the Crimson King.
Adam by Ted Dekker is a suspense story that pieces together the background of a twisted serial killer of women, whose victims he calls Eve. It is told from the POV of the man trying to capture the elusive, twisted “Adam,” Special Agent Daniel Clark, who barely survives an interlude with the killer, and must piece together his broken memory to save the killer’s next victim, someone much more precious to Daniel than any other victim.
Rene Denfeld has a writing style very much like fantasy author Patricia McKillip, when she talks of the men in the walls, the golden horses, and the Lady’s admirations of the beauteous landscapes the author describes. Some books of McKillip’s with similar themes are Alphabet of Thorn, where orphaned students are confined to a prison-like castle, and the main character must unravel the frayed ends of her mystical past, and the short story “Out of the Woods” from the book Wonders of the Invisible World also has magic horses who can thunder walls and terrify average, working-class people with their powerful, dark magic.
Arden’s recommendations: In the book, Arden also mentioned several favorite books and authors, including Stephen King, Wuthering Heights, Louis L’Amour, Sidney Sheldon, Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, and of course, his favorite, The White Dawn by James Houston.
The Lady brings a can of sliced peaches to Arden’s Aunt Beth, who is as grateful as if she’d brought a five-course, five-star meal to her destitute kitchen. Later, she also brings donuts, to which the elderly lady replies, “Anyone who knows her donuts gets my love.” And also her entire version of Arden’s sordid childhood, as well as his mother’s, which was the entire initial purpose of The Lady’s visits. So to combine these two foods, I found the following recipe by the genius Domestic Rebel:
Author: Hayley Parker, The Domestic Rebel
Prep time: 15 mins Cook time: 10 mins Total time: 25 mins Serves: 24
2 & ½ cups all-purpose flour
½ cup Zulka Pure Cane Sugar
1 Tbsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
½ tsp nutmeg
½ tsp cinnamon
½ cup (1 stick) butter, melted
1 cup buttermilk
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 batch (or can) cream cheese icing
½ jar peach preserves
Cake Mix Topping:
1 cup yellow cake mix (just the mix)
3 Tbsp butter, melted
Preheat your oven to 400 degrees F. Liberally grease a 24-cavity mini muffin tin with cooking spray and set aside. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, nutmeg + cinnamon to blend. In a medium bowl, combine the melted butter with the buttermilk, egg and vanilla; whisk together with a fork.
Add the milk mixture to the flour mixture and stir until batter forms; batter will be lumpy. Drop heaping Tablespoonfuls of dough into each mini muffin cavity. Bake for approx. 10 minutes or until muffin tops are puffed and lightly golden, and until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean. Cool the donuts in the tin for about 10 minutes, then turn out onto wire racks.
Place the cream cheese icing into a piping bag attached with a round tip. Pipe little heaps of icing onto the tops of the cooled donut cupcakes. Immediately spoon peach preserves on top of the icing (you may want to heat the preserves in a small bowl for about 10 seconds to help loosen).
To make the cake mix topping, in a small bowl, combine the cake mix and the melted butter with a fork and stir until coarse crumbs have formed. Sprinkle the tops of the donut cupcakes with the cake mix topping. Serve!
In the first chapter, the Lady admits that “she got over her fears the way she got over everything- She pretends they don’t exist.” Does she share this quality with Arden? Is this truly a way of getting rid of fears? Why or why not? What would you suggest as alternatives for each of them?
- Death row inmates are not allowed to be touched as part of their punishment. What do you think this does to their minds, to their capacity for compassion or self-worth? Or would it have any effect at all? How did Arden feel when he was touched for the first time in decades while being led out of his cell to die?
- Arden thinks that fall rain tastes like rotting leaves, whereas winter rain is more like cold melted ice; and spring rain is like cut grass and new life. Is the reason he “tastes” all these flavors really more based on the things he smells at those times, or feels? Have you ever noticed any different “flavors” of rain?
- Why is it that people who live and breathe and get to see the beauty of outside use such ugly words? Is it, as Arden says, to tell life to shut up when it’s being ugly, or is it a projection of our own ugliness of spirit? Why is Arden offended by this, but not his own past? Does it have to do with the way he speaks of himself, the murderer, in third person, as a separate entity?
- Several times during the story, the Lady tells lies, and brushes them off with the fact that it doesn’t matter, because they were true in the moment. How could that be? Does she really believe this? Have you ever done that- if so, why? Do you agree with her about momentary truth to make a connection with people?
- Arden believes that the dead weigh more than the living because “souls give bodies lightness and air, and when the soul leaves, the body has nothing left, and is desperate to return to earth. That’s why it’s so heavy.” Does it only seem this way because a person can do nothing to assist in making their body less of a burden to carry when dead (or deeply asleep)? Some doctors (Dr. Duncan MacDougall in 1907) have claimed bodies lose ½ to ¾ of an ounce after death. What does this add to (or detract from) Arden’s theory? How do you feel about it? Does it depend on an individual’s religious or afterlife beliefs as well?
- How do you think the Lady makes the prisoners in their Dugdemona cages feel safe enough to tell her their secrets? Is it by being vulnerable, by making them feel stronger or wiser than she is? Or does she tell them momentary truths, as she does everyone, to create a connection, whether one really exists or not?
- As a child, did you also have a secret place, away from the world, where you would hide? What is it that children are afraid of and trying to hide from? What did the Lady have to hide from?
- The objects that people put out for viewing in their homes fascinate the Lady. What do the objects people choose say about their history, their character, or a lack of them – does it suggest a lack of sentimentality? Think about some of the objects on display in your home-why are they there? What objects might the Lady have, or the priest, or the warden?
- Do the homes, or cars, of sad or hateful people smell, or feel different? What makes it so?
- The Lake that the Lady favored doesn’t have a name. Is it true that some things don’t need names to be enjoyed? If so, then why do we prefer them? To share and connect with others? Or is it about personal power- such as when it’s naming something we fear?
- Arden compares himself to York and the other men, saying that since their bodies were violated, “the edges of their bodies have been blurred.” Could this also be said of their sense of morality, justice, and empathy, and all for the same reason? Has abuse “blurred” their minds so that they are “like the sightless fish that live in caves underground. Hauled above, they will perish”?
- Is the appeal of books their hopeful magic, as Arden says, or is it that “he found another world in it”? Are these two always the same in books, or only fiction, or certain categories of it?
- The horses run, according to Arden, and come from “the underworld, where red rivers burn and cliff ignite…their manes like tongues of fire.” What do we call this in the real world, that also causes earthquakes and rifts? Why has he created such a beautiful metaphor for a common, but possibly frightening natural phenomenon?
- Are ideas stronger than food and much harder to spit out for men like York and Arden, or is it the same difficulty for all of us? Or does it depend on the idea? Are there some that get “inside you, and the next thing you know, it won’t leave, until you do something about it.” Why are we so quickly repulsed by some ideas, but others won’t leave? How can we force them to? Could Arden or York have forced the bad ideas to leave, if maybe they’d told someone trustworthy and sympathetic about them? What made them, or makes us, choose not to?
- Is time actually measured in meaning- feelings, responsibilities, events we look forward to or dread? Are we all like the Lady- searching for ways to tether ourselves to someone who shows they care? Is one of the maddening things about being a prisoner in this jail that they have lost meaning and purpose, so time and life are meaningless as well?
- The Lady holds back on sharing everything with the priest, because, “she got wounded watching the disgust in their eyes.” Is this something we all share with her, as a reason we don’t reveal our own shameful secrets to others? Are we afraid of that complete disconnect from another we’re seeking to connect with?
- Would you say that Conroy is power-hungry, especially after wondering “if all men want to be a god, and what is wrong with that?” Is that what all men- or people- wish? Is there anything wrong with that? How do we project or act on our selfish “god-like” desires? Is that something we should curb? Where did Conroy cross the line?
- The white haired boy who wanders the halls uninhibited, and moves to the library for books- is he taking the place that Arden leaves behind? Is he Arden- a ghost from the past come forward into the present to exert justice- of a sort- over Conroy? Or has the book even bent time so that this boy is Arden in the past and present somehow?
- Do “even monsters need peace”…and “a person who truly wants to listen”? If they are given this, will it help stop men like Arden from happening? If not, what will it take?