- Available in: eBook
- Published: August 23, 2000
An instant and controversial bestseller upon its release, here is Christopher Rice’s debut novel in a brand new edition featuring an original and deeply personal afterword by the author. Praised by critics for its unforgettable imagery and lush atmosphere, A Density of Souls garnered the young author legions of fans and continues to inspire a devoted following years after its initial publication.
In New Orleans, a city of incomparable beauty and complex history, four young friends enter one of the city’s finest high schools, only to find themselves torn apart by hidden passions and sudden tragedy. Five years later, when the friends are reunited against their will, what was thought to be a tragic accident is revealed to be a murder and the casual cruelties of high school develop into acts of terror which threaten an entire city.
At once a breakneck thriller and a haunting coming of age tale, A Density of Souls features a cast of unforgettable characters set against a backdrop of unbridled sexuality and spectacular violence. Christopher Rice’s new afterword includes a discussion of deleted characters and scenes and the shocking twist ending that almost didn’t make it to print. It also provides an intimate glimpse into a publishing process that forever changed the life of this much talked about young author.
“Unexpected twists and a cleverly planned mystery…Rice takes more risks than an older writer might. Images linger long after the book is over.”
–WASHINGTON POST BOOK WORLD
“Less Than Zero meets Donna Tartt spiced with Stephen King.”
–NEW YORK MAGAZINE
“Rich in atmosphere, written at a spanking pace, this book suggests the Rice family has produced a second master storyteller.”
–EVE MAGAZINE (UK)
“…Rice’s best-selling first novel has become something of a literary sensation in the States – and not just because he’s the son of a mega-best selling novelist Anne Rice. In fact, A Density of Souls is a well-crafted, astute tale of four New Orleans high school friends who find that life, loyalty and friendship get more complicated as you travel further into adolesence and experience the powerful emotions it brings.”
–MARIE CLAIRE (UK)
“This is a tautly written, quite moving novel with twist upon twist, culminating in a storm of human violence against the natural violence of a hurricane.”
–GLASGLOW EVENING TIMES
“All of his characters (likeable or otherwise) are brought to life with particular vividness, and this is the kind of book that is constantly betraying the reader’s expectations.”
–CRIME TIME (UK)
Beneath a sky thickening with summer thunderheads, they rode their bikes to Lafayette Cemetery, where the dead are buried above ground. The four of them flew down Chestnut Street, their wheels bouncing over flagstones wrenched by the gnarled roots of oak trees. They passed high wrought-iron fences beyond which Doric and Ionic columns held up the facades of Greek Revival mansions, their screened porches shrouded in tangles of vines.
The canopy of oak branches began at Jackson Avenue, by the bell tower of Bishop Polk Cathedral, which rose thirty feet into the air, its ceramic tiled portico crowned by a blinding gold-plated crucifix. The neighborhood, with its sprawl of raised Creole cottages and classical mansions, stretched for blocks. Their ride to the cemetery on Washington Avenue took them through sunlight dappled across the uneven asphalt of the floral-rimmed streets of the Garden District. The greatest fear of their thirteenth summer was the appearance of cars.
Meredith would never be able to forget the day the gate was locked and the rain fell.
During their ritual afternoon games of hide-and-seek, the century-old tomb of the fireman of the Chalmette Station was always “base” and Greg was always It. The four would deposit their bikes in the center of the cemetery where the three main thoroughfares converged. Greg would lean against the peristyled tomb, his hands covering his eyes and protecting his face from the hard marble. Each summer, Greg’s voice had deepened, and the echo of his counting off grew more ominous to his three friends, who scrambled through alleys of tombs in search of the best hiding places.
Brandon would always run the fastest and the furthest. Meredith would search for a spot somewhere near base; close enough to hear Greg’s voice, which grew louder with each one-Mississippi.
Stephen would usually abandon the game altogether and seek out the Conlin Mausoleum, where his own father’s oven-slot tomb was announced in a clean square of white marble amid the weathered gray. One of the last men to be buried in Lafayette Cemetery, Jeremy Conlin, “Beloved Husband, Beloved Father,” resided in a five-foot-high mausoleum with a Gothic arched door frame, blocked immediately by the marble slab engraved with the names of other Conlins who had died of diseases for which cures had been found by the time Jeremy brought a gun to his own head.
When the rain began, Meredith burrowed between the back walls of two mausoleums. Stone angels kept their back to her as she crouched, her sneakers wedged on the platforms of the opposite tombs, craning her neck to catch a glimpse of Stephen’s slender back and shock of blond hair as he stared down at his father’s name.
A sheet of raindrops hit the roofs of the tombs, and a thick mist gradually filled the alley. When the first roll of thunder crackled, Meredith saw Stephen suddenly lift his head. His blue eyes widened and he screamed.
He was lost to Meredith with a quick pump of his skinny, pale legs. Greg barreled through the mud in pursuit. Meredith pressed herself against one of the walls as she heard Stephen let out a defeated wail. Thunder and rain muffled the sound of what had to be two bodies slamming into the mud.
Meredith listened, then moved down the alleyway, stepping only on the raised platforms, careful not to let her rain-soaked sneakers mire her in the mud. She came to the edge of the final tomb and braced herself against it with one hand.
Fear had brought a sheen of sweat to her skin. For a panicked moment, she thought the others might have disappeared. She peered around the edge of the tomb.
Stephen’s bare leg jutted from beneath Greg’s waist. Mud plastered the hem of his khaki shorts to his pale thighs. Greg looked as if he had been struck in the back, his body collapsed onto Stephen’s. His soaked hair draped the right half of Stephen’s face. At first, it made no sense. Only when Greg lifted his head could Meredith detect that Greg was rocking slowly back and forth on top of Stephen.
The panic she had felt only seconds earlier turned from an icy knot inside her chest to a hot rush like the onset of nausea. Her first thought was that one of them had been hurt. But some instinct wouldn’t allow her to believe this, so she remained unable to call out to them. She watched Greg lower his face over Stephen and watched Stephen’s blue eyes widen as the tip of Greg’s nose grazed his.
Greg and Stephen locked eyes with an intensity that told Meredith they were part of a world she had been denied access to. It had to be a world known only to boys.
Then a guttural war cry startled her and sent her backward against the mausoleum wall. It forced Greg and Stephen apart as if a shotgun had been slid between their waists.
Brandon had made it to home base.
The first bolt of lightning struck several blocks away from the cemetery. It sounded like the snap of a giant guitar string and bathed the padlocked cast-iron gate in a brief flash of white light. Meredith screamed, one hand flying to her mouth. She backed into Stephen and then stepped away from him. They all stared at the gate.
“We can jump it!” Brandon barked.
“Not with our bikes. How would we get them over?” Greg asked.
“And what about the last person? If we stood on each other’s–”
Thunder ripped across the charcoal sky in deafening crackles.
“–then the last person wouldn’t have anyone to stand on!” Stephen was speaking through the thunder, his voice high-pitched with reasonableness.
Meredith pivoted away from the arguing boys. She looked up at the bifurcated edges of the clouds as they passed over the skyline of stone Virgin Marys and angels. Were the clouds really as close to the earth as they seemed?
Stephen heard her first sob.
Furious, Brandon hurled his bike into a nearby mausoleum. He sank to his knees next to it and then glared at the other three as if to challenge them to contradict his anger. But Stephen had already slid one arm around Meredith’s shoulder. She went rigid beneath it, ashamed.
“Omigod, Mer!” Brandon sneered.
Lightning struck again, this time, closer.
“Get away from the gate. It’s metal!” Greg barked.
“Fuck!” Brandon yelled before rising to his feet and charging the padlocked fence. He landed against it with both hands, grabbing the tines and shaking them.
“Come on.” Stephen’s voice was low with authority. Meredith raised her head. It took her a moment to realize he was walking her back into the cemetery to where the dripping branches of the oak tree over the firemen’s tomb were rocking in the wind, driven by torrents of rain whipping through the alleyways.
“Where are you going?” Greg yelled.
“Come on…” Stephen called back over his shoulder.
Stephen propped Meredith against the oak’s trunk. Greg approached them tentatively, shooting glances over his shoulder at Brandon, who lagged further behind, his fists shoved into his pockets. The rain had soaked through Brandon’s T-shirt, revealing hints of muscles developing across his shoulders. Meredith saw how Greg’s arms looked broader beneath the soaked sleeves of his polo shirt.
When Meredith looked at Stephen, she realized how pale his skin was, how delicately his limbs connected to his frame.
“My Dad taught me this thing . . .” Stephen trailed off.
Meredith, Greg and Brandon had pieced together the story of Stephen’s father from snippets of overheard conversation and cryptic remarks from their own parents. The three of them sometimes talked about it when Stephen was out of earshot, but whenever he mentioned Jeremy Conlin they all fell into an awkward, frightened silence.
“It’s a poem. Well, he called it a poem, but my Mom says it’s more of a rhyme,” Stephen said, staring down at the mud.
“Rhymes suck,” Brandon muttered. Greg glanced nervously at him.
“It’s about being afraid,” Stephen went on, his voice rising now over the cacophony of rain. Meredith thought Jeremy Conlin must have known a lot about not being afraid. It took a lot of guts to shoot yourself.
Stephen clasped Meredith’s hand in his own thin fingers. Brandon and Greg were both studying Stephen. Brandon eyes had turned to slits, full of suspicious fascination. Greg cocked his head to one side, waiting for Stephen and afraid of what he might say.
Meredith felt a tightening in her chest. Her hand suddenly returned Stephen’s grip. She tried not to think of the tangle of limbs that had been Greg and Stephen, refusing to rise from the mud as their hips slid together. She shut her eyes.
When she opened them again, Greg was standing closer to Stephen. Brandon held his ground several yards away, his back turned to them.
“Brandon!” Meredith was surprised to hear her own voice.
He turned, giving them one last stomp of his foot in disgust before moving to fill the space between Greg and Meredith. Meredith saw Stephen smile, a little triumphantly, before he shut his eyes.
“Fear cannot touch me . . .”
Before she closed her eyes, Meredith saw Greg look nervously from Stephen to Brandon.
“It can only taunt me, it cannot take me, just tell me where to go . . .”
She opened her eyes slightly. Greg had taken Brandon’s hand. She shut her eyes by the time Brandon gripped hers.
“I can either follow, or stay in my bed . . .”
Meredith knew the circle was complete. While she didn’t quite know what it meant for them to hold hands like this, she knew that Stephen’s voice seemed louder than the growls of the angry storm overhead.
“I can hold on to the things that I know . . .”
Another roll of thunder passed. Meredith felt it in her chest. Stephen paused to let it fade before he continued.
“The dead stay dead, they cannot walk. The shadows are darkness. And darkness can’t talk.”
No one spoke.
For a long moment, it seemed to the other three that the sounds of the storm had been drained of their anger, made impotent by Stephen’s soft incantatory voice. The rhythm of Jeremy Conlin’s rhyme blotted out the thunder, the lightning and rain.
Meredith would always remember how rain sounded without the accompaniment of human voices. She would think of a circle whose completeness she could sense without opening her eyes.
“It’s not that hard,” Stephen finally said. “Say it with me this time.”
Their voices followed Stephen’s–Meredith’s and then Greg’s and finally Brandon’s, mumbling lower than the rest of them. By the time they had finished the rain had ebbed. A female voice was calling to them from the cemetery gate. When Meredith opened her eyes, she saw Greg’s mother arguing with the cemetery caretaker. Slowly, she let go of Stephen’s hand. Breaking the circle.
She walked toward the cast iron gate. The caretaker opened the gate on its hinges with a metallic whine, stirring the three boys from beneath the still-dripping oak. She felt foolish for having been afraid of the rain in the first place. But she could not decide whether she should say goodbye to her friends.
She knew that Stephen would pay for his whispers, his ability to draw from the sacred strength of his dead father’s poetry.
The rain had stopped altogether by the time the four of them left the cemetery.
Copyright Christopher Rice