Gothic tale of the murder of innocence
Life After Death: The Shocking True Story of an Innocent Man on Death Row
By Damien Echols Text Publishing, 432pp, $32.99
IN 1993 in West Memphis, Arkansas, three eight-year-old boys were found murdered and mutilated. Damien Echols, a black-clad teenage misfit, was arrested, with friends Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr, and all three were convicted of murdering the boys, supposedly as part of a satanic ritual.
Echols was sentenced to death and his two friends to life imprisonment. Last year, after 18 years in prison and endless campaigns and appeals, the three were released, but not pardoned or acquitted, a face-saving legal device allowing the accused to plead guilty but maintain their innocence.
Those are the barest facts of a case that sparked the Paradise Lost documentary trilogy, the sympathy and generosity of thousands of people (including actor Johnny Depp, musician Eddie Vedder, performer Henry Rollins and filmmaker Peter Jackson), and of course the usual welter of internet activity for and against the three.
Echols’s book, Life After Death, can’t help but be about the terrible crime and the equally terrible miscarriage of justice that followed it, but it is really about his life, how it descended into hell, and what he found out about himself there.
His life was neatly, callously bisected by his conviction, and the book, though it cuts back and forth, essentially follows the same trajectory. Echols is quite clear that he doesn’t intend to rehash the trial or offer a litany of jailhouse horrors. ‘‘ I grow dissatisfied when I think of people reading my words out of a morbid sense of curiosity,’’ he says at the outset, and it is this courtly dignity that is at the heart of the book.
His childhood is a mixture of grinding poverty, neglect, weird religion, friendship and sheer joie de vivre, touching all the deep south bases, from William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying to Johnny Cash’s album Five Feet High and Rising. Rather surprisingly, after describing family life in a shack marooned amid endless fields, isolated and ground down, Echols writes: ‘‘ Years later, I read a book by Nick Cave called And the Ass Saw the Angel. It struck me because of how close he comes to catching the feel of life in that lonely shack.’’
The two have a lot in common, as later on Echols says, while brutally dissecting his surroundings: ‘‘ Everyone puts on their Sunday best and pays tribute to religion’s slaughterhouse and then dines on a cannibal communion.’’
In this first part of the book, as young Damien’s life slides towards the abyss, two things stand out. The first is how, despite all the southern gothic and trailer trash neglect, everything is really so ordinary. Echols writes in a slightly stilted, gentlemanly style, with much of the daggy teenager about it, and life still offers normal pleasures and kindnesses among friends and family. After a while it starts to feel a bit dull, which is probably the point.
The second is the way he almost undercuts the squalor and meanness with his innate ability to find beauty, or what he calls ‘‘ magick’’, in almost any place or situation.
There is a slightly sickening, vertiginous feel to the first half of the book, as we know what’s coming and are constantly, if intermittently, reminded of it. The second half is more terrible, but somehow more stable. There is a new kind of everyday life to endure, a hellish one, and much more magick is required, as well as reserves of endurance and humanity.
There is endless horror, to be sure, and violence — most of it in the form of arbitrary and brutal punishment from the guards — but the most awful things are the most unexpected. The cells are open to outside pests, so in summer are blanketed in mosquitoes and deafening troops of crickets, and in winter there are rats. The prison authorities give the
Damien Echols, left, Jessie Misskelley Jr and Jason Baldwin following their release after pleading guilty to the killings last year