The Angel Maker

The Angel Maker

by Stefan Brijs, Hester Velmans

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Overview

A literary page-turner about one man's macabre ambition to create life-and secure immortality

The village of Wolfheim is a quiet little place until the geneticist Dr. Victor Hoppe returns after an absence of nearly twenty years. The doctor brings with him his infant children-three identical boys all sharing a disturbing disfigurement. He keeps them hidden away until Charlotte, the woman who is hired to care for them, begins to suspect that the triplets-and the good doctor- aren't quite what they seem. As the villagers become increasingly suspicious, the story of Dr. Hoppe's past begins to unfold, and the shocking secrets that he has been keeping are revealed. A chilling story that explores the ethical limits of science and religion, The Angel Maker is a haunting tale in the tradition of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Frankenstein. Brought to life by internationally bestselling author Stefan Brijs, this eerie tale promises to get under readers' skin.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781440655586
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 12/30/2008
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 352
File size: 346 KB
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Stefan Brijs was born in Belgium in 1969. He is the author of four novels. The Angel Maker is his first book to be translated into English.

Read an Excerpt

Some of Wolfheim’s inhabitants maintain to this day that they heard the crying of the three babies in the back seat first, even before they heard the taxi’s engine as it drove into the village. When the taxi halted in front of the old doctor’s house at number 1 Napoleonstrasse, the women of the village promptly stopped sweeping their front porches, the men came out of the Café Terminus still clutching their beers, the girls halted their game of hopscotch, and in the town square Lanky Meekers fumbled and lost the ball to Gunther Weber, deaf from birth, who drove it home right past the baker’s boy Seppe, who was looking the other way. That was on 13 October 1984. A Saturday

afternoon. The clock in the bell tower struck three.

The passenger got out of the taxi and what everyone immediately noticed was the fiery hue of his hair and beard.

The deeply devout Bernadette Liebknecht hurriedly crossed herself, and a few houses down the street old Juliette Blérot clapped her hand to her mouth and muttered, ‘My God, the spitting image of his father.’

Three months earlier, the inhabitants of the Belgian hamlet that was adjacent to the place where three borders met, which for its entire history had lain pinned between the sturdy thighs of Vaals in the Netherlands on one side and the German town of Aachen on the other, had been advised of Victor Hoppe’s impending return. The skinny clerk from Notary Renard’s office in Eupen had come to remove the yellowing ‘FOR RENT’ sign from the front gate of the deserted house and had told Irma Nüssbaum, who lived across the street, that Herr Doktor was planning to return to Wolfheim. The clerk didn’t have any further details; he couldn’t even give her a date.

It was a mystery to the villagers why Victor Hoppe should be returning to Wolfheim after an absence of nearly twenty years. The last anyone had heard was that he had been practising medicine in Bonn, but that information dated from quite a few years back, so people came up with all sorts of hypotheses for his homecoming. This one thought he was out of work, that one blamed his return on heavy debts; Florent Keuning from Albertstrasse thought he was only coming back in order to do up his house and sell it, while Irma Nüssbaum suggested that the doctor might now have a family and want to escape the hustle and bustle of the city. It turned out that Irma was closest to the truth, even though she would have been the first to admit that it had come as just as much of a shock to her as to everyone else to find out that Dr Hoppe was now the father of a set of disfigured triplets who were just a few weeks old.

It was Lanky Meekers who made the disconcerting discovery that very afternoon. As the driver of the taxi stepped away from his car to help Victor Hoppe open the rusty gate, Lanky Meekers, drawn by the incessant screeching, crept over to peek in at the side window. What he saw on the back seat gave the skinny lad such a fright that he fainted clean away, thereby becoming the doctor’s first patient. The doctor brought him round with a few smart slaps to the cheek, upon which Lanky Meekers opened his eyes, blinked, glanced from the doctor to the car, scrambled to his feet and scurried back to his friends without a backward glance. Still a bit unsteady on his feet, he threw one arm over the burly shoulders of his classmate Robert Chevalier – they were both in the fourth form – and draped the other over the left shoulder of Julius Rosenboom, who was three years younger and two heads shorter.

‘What did you see, Lanky?’ asked Seppe the baker’s boy, who was standing across from his friends, the leather football tucked under his arm, his face turned towards deaf Gunther Weber so that the latter could follow what was being said.

‘They . . .’ Lanky Meekers began, but he paled once more and didn’t go on.

‘Oh, stop being such a wuss!’ Robert Chevalier prodded Meekers with his shoulder. ‘And what do you mean by they, anyhow? Is there more than one in there, then?’

‘Three. There’s three of them,’ Lanky Meekers answered, holding up the same number of spindly fingers.

‘Thwee giwls?’ asked Gunther, grinning broadly.

‘I couldn’t tell,’ said Lanky Meekers. ‘But what I did see . . .’ He crouched down, glanced over to where Dr Hoppe and the taxi driver were in the process of opening both sections of the gate, and motioned his four pals to come closer.

‘Their heads,’ he said slowly . . . ‘their heads are split apart.’ And extending his right hand, he made a swift slicing gesture down his forehead, over his nose and right down to the underside of his chin. ‘Whack!’ he said.

Startled, Gunther and Seppe took a step backward, whereas Robert and Julius couldn’t stop staring at Lanky Meekers’ disproportionately small head, as if that too was likely to be split asunder at any moment.

‘I swear. You could see all the way back, right to their throats. And that’s not all, honest to God – you could even see their brains.’

‘Their whaa?’ demanded Gunther.

‘Brai-hains!’ Lanky Meekers repeated, tapping his index finger against the deaf boy’s forehead.

‘Gross!’ Gunther exclaimed.

‘What did their brains look like?’ asked Robert.

‘Like a walnut. Only much bigger. Slimier.’

‘Jesus,’ said Julius, shuddering.

‘If the window had been open,’ bragged Lanky Meekers, ‘I could have just snatched them – like this.’

Open-mouthed, the other boys followed the movement of his hand, cupped like a claw. But then suddenly the hand shot forward again, pointing, thereby directing everyone’s eyes back to the taxi, some thirty metres from where they were standing. Victor Hoppe opened the rear door, ducked into the car and re-emerged a few seconds later with a large navy-blue carrycot, from which there arose a terrible wailing. Lifting the cot by its two handles, he carried it along the path into the house, with the taxi driver, who was lugging two large suitcases, following close behind. The village square was all abuzz; two or three minutes later the driver came out again, pulled the front door shut, hurried back to his car, and drove off with visible relief.

At the Café Terminus that afternoon, Jacques Meekers had the floor. He gave a detailed account of what his son had seen, not refraining from hyperbole when called for. The older villagers especially were all ears, and were able to tell the others that Victor Hoppe had been born with a facial disfigurement himself.

‘A harelip,’ Otto Lelieux explained.

‘Just like his father,’ Ernst Liebknecht remembered. ‘His spitting image, too.’

‘Spit from a rusty tap,’ laughed Wilfred Nüssbaum. ‘Did you see his hair? And that beard? As red as . . . as . . .’

‘As the hair of the devil!’ cried one-eyed Josef Zimmermann suddenly, whereupon the café suddenly fell silent. All eyes were on the slightly inebriated old man, who was pointing an admonitory finger in the air. ‘And he has brought with him his avenging angels! Keep your eyes peeled, because they will strike as soon as they get the chance.’

It was as if his words had opened the floodgates, because all of a sudden others also found themselves recalling stories that showed the doctor in rather a poor light. They all knew something or other about him or his parents, and the later the hour, the more yarns were exchanged. Most of the tales were only hearsay, but no one seemed to question their veracity.

‘He grew up in an asylum.’

‘He got that from his mother. She died of insanity.’

‘He was christened by Father Kaisergruber. The child screamed bloody murder.’

‘They say that his father . . . you know . . . from the tree next to his house.’

‘The son didn’t even come to the funeral.’

‘He was never seen again after that.’

‘The house was only rented once. The tenants left after just three weeks.’

‘Poltergeists. That’s what they said. There was this constant knocking.’

Over the next few weeks Dr Hoppe would make forays into the village as regular as clockwork. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning, at half past ten on the dot, he would follow the exact same trajectory, from the bank on Galmeistrasse, on to the post office on Aachenerstrasse and then Martha Bollen’s grocery shop across from the village square. He rushed from one stop to the next at a brisk pace, head bowed, as if he knew he was being observed and was intent on getting home again as quickly as possible. However, his hurry only served to draw even more attention to him. The villagers would cross the street and watch him from the opposite pavement until he disappeared from view.

Martha Bollen, as well as Louis Denis the bank teller and Arthur Boulanger the postmaster, all reported that Dr Hoppe was a man of few words. It seemed that he was rather bashful, yet amicable in his own way. He always had a ‘Guten Tag’, ‘Danke schön’ and ‘Auf Wiedersehen’ for them – pleasantries that betrayed his speech impediment.

‘He tends to swallow some of the sounds,’ said Louis Denis.

‘His voice is very nasal,’ said Martha, ‘always droning on in the same tone of voice. And he never looks at me when he’s speaking.’

To the frequent question as to what the doctor had purchased, she always gave the same answer: ‘Oh, the usual. Nappies, formula, milk, cereal, detergent, toothpaste – stuff like that.’

But then she would lean over the counter, shield her mouth with the back of her hand and continue in a whisper, ‘He also buys two packs of Polaroid film every time he comes in. Why would anyone want to take that many pictures of children who look the way they do?’

Her customers would profess surprise, encouraging Martha to beckon them even closer. In a tone implying some criminal wrongdoing, she’d end with, ‘. . . And he always pays with thousand-mark notes!’

Louis Denis was able to explain the derivation of those banknotes: he reported that the doctor sometimes came in to exchange German marks for Belgian currency. He had not yet opened an account, however, so he must be keeping all that cash somewhere in the house.

Since Dr Hoppe was not making any effort to attract patients and had not hung a sign on his gate listing surgery hours, some burghers decided that he must be living off past earnings of some sort or another. Still, it did look as though he was intending to practise his calling in the village eventually, because in those first few weeks a lorry from Germany had stopped in front of his house at least three times to deliver medical equipment. From behind the curtain of her kitchen window, Irma Nüssbaum would jot down the registration number and time of delivery, and what the delivery consisted of. Some of the goods she had been able to recognise straight away, such as the examination table, a large set of scales and some IV-drip stands, but most of the wooden crates kept their contents hidden, so she had to use her imagination to flesh out the rest – monitors, microscopes, mirrors, flasks, flagons, test tubes. After each delivery she would give the other women of the village a full report, and when, one bitterly cold morning some time at the beginning of January, she saw her neighbour emptying his postbox in a white lab coat with a stethoscope around his neck, she announced to all and sundry that Dr Hoppe’s surgery was officially open for business.

A few brave villagers had admitted they were planning to have themselves looked at by the doctor – if only because they wanted to catch a glimpse of the children, for the latter had been kept out of sight all these weeks, so that little by little their existence had grown into a mystery greater than the Holy Trinity itself. But at the next Sunday Mass a sermon given by Father Kaisergruber, who had been ministering to the parish for almost forty years, had alarmed even the most confirmed sceptics.

‘Believers, beware!’ he had cried from the pulpit, his index finger in the air. ‘Beware, for the great dragon is at hand, the old serpent, whose name is Devil and Satan, and who leadeth the whole world astray! I tell you, he is cast down here upon the earth, and his angels are cast down with him!’

After that the village shepherd had paused briefly, letting his eyes roam over his two hundred or so parishioners. Then, pointing his finger at the front row, where the village boys sat side by side in their Sunday best, their hair neatly slicked down, he had warned in a thundering voice: ‘Take care, and be vigilant! The devil, thine enemy, prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking those he means to devour!’

And all the parishioners had seen how, as he spoke those last words, his trembling finger had pointed straight at Lanky Meekers, who had turned white as a sheet and did not dare show his face in the village square for the next few days.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"An exciting novel about the dangerous and tempting possibilities of creating life."
-de Volkskrant (Netherlands)

"An intelligently composed page-turner."
-Stijl (Belgium)

Reading Group Guide

INTRODUCTION

“It is up to us to correct the mistakes which He in his haste has wrought” (p. 260).

Rumors of all sorts precede Dr. Victor Hoppe’s return to his childhood home in the Belgian hamlet of Wolfheim. But nothing could have prepared the villagers for the three identical infant sons who accompany him. Those who’ve managed to steal a look at the brothers have seen that the boys all boast their father’s carroty red hair—and his disfiguring cleft palate. The doctor does little to ingratiate himself with the townspeople until the chance rescue of a choking toddler and his ability to cure the local priest’s stomach ailment move the villagers to accept him as an upstanding member of the community. It isn’t until Victor hires Charlotte Maenhout, a retired schoolteacher, to care for the motherless boys that the truth about them—and the good doctor—slowly begins to emerge.

The triplets are named after the archangels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael, though their appearance is far from heavenly. In fact, Charlotte is initially put off by her wizened charges with their deathly pale skin and overly large heads and eyes, but she soon comes to love them. The boys are intellectually precocious and rapidly learn languages, reading, mathematics, and geography, all well before their third birthday.

As the weeks pass, Charlotte notices peculiarities in the Hoppe household: the boys are not allowed to leave the family home; the doctor often subjects them to painful medical “tests”; the boys have been marked with discreet tattoos on the back of their necks—clearly for identification purposes—they look so much alike that not even their father can tell them apart. Attempting to bring some warmth into their otherwise sterile lives, Charlotte throws the trio a birthday party—and when it goes awry she begins to suspect that their father’s cold demeanor masks something much more insidious.

When Victor leaves to attend a conference, Charlotte rifles through his office and discovers that he was trained as a geneticist and once held a prestigious research position at the University of Aachen. There, he made pioneering advances in cloning mice until scandal drove him out. What she does not learn, however, is that his own childhood was as bizarre as the one he has created for his sons.

Declared an imbecile, Victor was sent at birth to a mental institution run by a local convent and only saved from lifelong incarceration by Sister Marthe, a kind novice who senses something unusual about the mute boy, allowing his natural intelligence to blossom under her tutelage. His father brings him back to Wolfheim, but is unable to feel or express love for the boy. As an adult, Victor chooses to study cloning, so that it will be he and not God that “might make the ultimate decision about life” (p. 168). Thus his studies in the pursuit of science are shaped primarily by his antipathy towards God.

The Angel Maker is a gripping page-turner and the first novel to be published in the United States by the international bestselling author Stefan Brijs. A horror story on par with Frankenstein and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, this heartrending and terrifying tale of one man’s mania and scientific hubris will linger in the imagination long after the book is finished.

ABOUT STEFAN BRIJS

Stefan Brijs is the author of four novels. He lives in Antwerp, Belgium.

A CONVERSATION WITH STEFAN BRIJS

Q. The Angel Maker offers quite a convincing case against cloning. What is your personal opinion?

I once talked to a scientist who specialized in the ethics of cloning and she told me that we don’t have to ask the question, Will be human clones in the future? One day, there will be. The only thing people (scientists/politicians) will have to decide on is whom we may clone. May we clone a dead child? Mentally or physically disabled people? Gay people? In my novel, I already used some elements of this discussion, not to give any or my opinion, but only to show the possibilities of human cloning (and the dangers). My personal opinion is of no matter in this discussion. I’m only a writer with a lot of imagination.

Q. Frankenstein and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are your novel’s obvious forerunners but what are your other influences? And what kind of research did you do?

It may sound strange but neither novel was an influence. In 1997, after the birth of the sheep Dolly, the first mammal clone, I started thinking about a novel that had human cloning as a theme. I asked myself some questions. Suppose you could clone yourself, what then? Would you in the first place not even copy yourself, but would you make a better specimen of yourself, physically? Suppose you have—like Victor Hoppe—a harelip or you are deaf like Gunther, one of the boys in my novel. Would you change those things? Would you manipulate the genes of your clone so that he wouldn’t have a harelip or wouldn’t be deaf? The second question I thought about was, When you clone yourself, does your clone have to become smarter than you, or more famous than you; does he have to do the things you failed? On the other side, if you want a clone that becomes exactly like you, will you give your clone the same trauma you had in your childhood? For example, if you were molested when you were ten years old, will you molest your own clone when it is at the same age? That was what I was thinking in the beginning and after that I started reading about cloning (the technical parts, the history, things that can go wrong, because, of course, I was looking for some drama). After I read all that I started writing for more than three years without a plan. I followed my imagination and in the end it turned out to be a completely different novel than what I had in mind. Cloning was not the main theme anymore; it became a novel about good and evil, science versus religion, madness against genius, etc.

Q. Despite their appearance, it’s impossible to view the triplets as monsters. Why did you make them so sympathetic?

In this novel everything is black or white, good or evil, because that’s the way Victor Hoppe sees life. So you can easily pick out the bad and the good characters in the book. For almost every bad person there’s a good person. The bad ones are, for example, Father Kaisergruber, Sister Milgitha, and Rex Cremer. The good ones are Frau Maenhout, Sister Marthe, and Brother Rombout. But as you know when you’ve read the book, good and bad are interchangeable—it’s just the point of view from which you look at it. The triplets are not especially bad or good. They are just harmless children and that’s why they are so sympathetic. They are victims and we always have sympathy for them. But perhaps if they had the chance to grow up they might have become as evil as Victor.

As a child he was also kind of sympathetic.

Q. You set The Angel Maker in the very recent past, yet the village of Wolfheim seems mired in the Middle Ages and its inhabitants are ruled by superstition. Is this representative of rural communities in Europe even now?

People who grew up in small villages everywhere around the world and not in a city like Amsterdam or New York know that Wolfheim isn’t medieval. Small towns are still closed communities where prejudices and gossip rules. I think that’s why the translation rights have been sold from the United States to Russia and from Israel to Turkey. For many people this strange village is very recognizable.

Q. Do you think genius and madness are close companions?

No, but I used this idea to create a drama. There are thousands of examples to the contrary but one mad genius is enough to think that all the other geniuses are similar. That’s the way “normal” people think.

Q. Besides Victor—or perhaps including Victor—who do you see as the novel’s primary villain?

Victor is not the primary villain at all. In my opinion he’s more a victim than a criminal. In his (sick) mind—ill-formed by his disease and by his childhood—he only wants to do good for mankind. He doesn’t know better. In that way there are worse criminals in my book. I think especially about Father Kaisergruber and Rex Cremer. Both of them are driven by an extreme ambition and when things go wrong they pretend they have nothing to do with it.

Q. Is there one aspect of the novel you’d like to explicate for an American audience?

I think that isn’t necessary. My book is so full of themes, characters, storylines, details, and emotions that every reader can find something in it. Nationality has nothing to do with it, only personality.

Q. What are you working on now?

A novel called Post for Mrs. Bromley, a moving tale about maternal and brotherly love during World War I (but also about loss, longing, and consolation).

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • In a novel filled with egregious horrors, which incident affected you most and why?
     
  • What are your opinions on cloning? Is it tampering with God’s will or does it have a legitimate scientific purpose? Under what circumstances might it be acceptable?
     
  • If you lost a loved one, would you be comforted if science could provide you with a clone of that person?
     
  • Discuss the significance of the novel’s setting at the three-border junction.
     
  • Why did Victor name the triplets after the archangels?
     
  • “It is now thought that both Leonardo da Vinci and Albert Einstein suffered from Asperger’s syndrome” (p. 131). If you were given the choice, would you accept the burdens of Asperger’s in exchange for the gift of genius?
     
  • Did Victor ever feel love for anyone? Egon Weiss? Sister Marthe? Brother Rombout?
     
  • “Until about the age of four, children generally see people as either exclusively good or exclusively bad . . . [and] gradually learn to detect shades of grey in the black or the white” (p. 196). Have you ever observed this dawning in a child?
     
  • Brijs does a marvelous job of creating sympathy for young Victor. At what point did your feelings for him turn? To what extent does Victor’s childhood experiences and Asperger’s syndrome exonerate his actions?
     
  • Is it possible to have any real understanding of Jesus without knowledge of God?
     
  • Could Rex Creamer have done anything to either stop Victor or curb the scientist’s worst tendencies?
     
  • Why are the people of Wolfheim so eager to condemn Rebecca Fischer for Victor’s crimes?
     
  • How do you think Victor’s final clone, Isaac, will fare with two loving parents to raise him?
     
  • Discuss the irony of Victor’s hatred of God in light of his own aspirations.
  • Customer Reviews

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    Angel Maker 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
    TheTwoDs on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Part science fiction, part morality tale and part examination of developmental disorders, this Dutch novel carefully and expertly increases suspense until you are begging the author "not to go there". Inevitably, yes, the author "goes there."Victor Hoppe was born with a cleft palate and rejected by his mother. He is placed in an institution run by a Catholic convent where, due to his lack of speech and emotions, he is assumed to be mentally retarded. Through the care and tutelage of a young apprentice nun, who harbors her own doubts about her chosen path, Victor is revealed to be something of a child prodigy, though probably afflicted with Asperger's Syndrome, a high functioning form of autism.Combine his penchant for the Bible stories he learned at the institution with an "Aspie's" tendency to take things all too literally and his burgeoning scientific genius and you soon have a doctor attempting to "beat God at his own game."The novel touches on several hot-button topics, from religious maltreatment of institutionalized persons, to human cloning, and would be a great read for book clubs interested in stimulating discussion.Though The Angel Maker is the only Brijs book available in English at this time, I look forward to reading future translations of his works.
    JGoto on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    The subject of Stefan Brijs¿ spellbinding thriller, The Angel Maker, is human cloning and its ethical implications. The reader is given glimpses of Dr. Victor Hoppe at various stages of his life. Given his tragic background, an insane mother, a suicidal father, and years spent in an institution for the mentally-feeble, we develop empathy for him and his strange ways. Gradually, however, the reader comes to understand that notwithstanding his past, Dr. Hoppe is more than a little strange. Although undiagnosed, he has Asperger¿s Syndrome. He is emotionally detached; he sees the world as black and white, good and evil. When he does scientific research and clones triplets of himself, these boys inherit his mild autism, as well as the deforming cleft palette of their father. Dr. Hoppe¿s obsession with research and his total ignorance of the emotional scars he is inflicting upon others is a stark contrast to the characters of Dr. Cremer, his colleague, Charlotte Maenhout, the triplets¿ caregiver, Rebekka Fischer, the unsuspecting surrogate mother of the boys, and the cast of villagers. Set in a religious Catholic community in Belgium, The Angel Maker explores the boundary between God and Man and the gray areas in-between. This is the first book I have read by Belgian author, Stefan Brijs, and I look forward to reading others.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    An Amazing Read! Enjoyed it from beginning to end, and even the middle part which opened up into the mind and history of the main character. Would totally recommend it!!
    MR-_-NOBODY More than 1 year ago
    This book is so amazing! The middle section where it digs deeper into the characters mind and history is easily the best part of the book. The ending is tragig and sad. It's a must read for anyone who can read. :D
    Zuanie More than 1 year ago
    I had mix feelings about this book. The story had definitely drawn me in from the beginning, and as it slowly unraveled, the truth and the past of Dr. Hoppe came to light. While I found the whole science cloning explanation was confusing and foreign, Dr. Hoppe's background provoked quite a lot of emotions from me. I sympathized with him and understood why he became what he was later. His life was a struggle to do the right things, to get acknowledged but was always failed by confusion and misinterpretation. His experiment and his way of thinking often led to a brush with ethical and religious controversies. I was disturbed by the time I closed the book, but I think the authors have provided us with a thriller with conclusive and satisfactory ending.
    Monster_Hunter More than 1 year ago
    This was a good story that was told well, albeit at a snail's pace. The characters were well-developed, particularly the main character - Dr. Victor Hoppe - and the plot was well-designed, but the story moved steadily at best and haltingly at worst. Despite the somewhat geriatric pace, the philosophical undertones combined with the scientific and religious overtones made for good prose in the tradition of Mary Shelley and Robert Louis Stevenson, to be sure. The outstanding contribution offered by this book is a uniquely developed mad scientist with self-imposed challenges, the likes of which have not been successfully explored since Mary Shelley's classic novel was published. Dr. Victor Hoppe is a genius of the most chilling variety, and although you'll never actually hear his eerily described voice, it will undoubtedly resonate in your mind long after you've finished turning the last page.