Main / Books / Under the Whispering Door

Under the Whispering Door
(Review, Recap & Full Summary)

By T.J. Klune



Book review and synopsis for Under the Whispering Door by T.J. Klune, a heart-warming fantasy about a ghost who refuses to cross over and the ferryman he falls in love with.

Synopsis

Under the Whispering Door is about an unpleasant and selfish man, Wallace Price, who dies and becomes a ghost. He meets Hugo, the ferryman whose job is to help him move on to the afterlife. However, Wallace develops feelings for Hugo and struggles to cross over.

In this whimsical fantasy novel, Klune has written a heartwarming and funny tale about a man beginning to understand what to value in life now that he's dead.

(The Full Plot Summary is also available, below)

Full Plot Summary

Chapter-by-Chapter Summary
See the Chapter-by-Chapter Summary of Under the Whispering Door
Quick Plot Summary

The two-paragraph version: Wallace is an unpleasant and selfish man who dies. He is brought to a tea house where the ferryman, Hugo, is there to help Wallace process his life and enter the doorway to the afterlife when he’s ready. At the tea house, Wallace befriends the others there and learns to care for and sacrifice for others. He also develops romantic feelings for Hugo.

When Wallace overstays his time, the Manager (a god-like entity) gives Wallace a hard 7-day limit before he needs to move on. During that time, Wallace makes amends with his ex-wife (he’s bisexual) and helps a grieving mother find closure. He also helps to rescue Cameron, who was a “Husk” (a ghost who had lost his humanity), which were previously thought to be hopeless cases. When it’s time to leave, the Manager agrees to let Hugo continue to work on rescuing other Husks, and the Manager decides to bring Wallace back to life so he can work as a Reaper (herding ghosts to the tea house) alongside Hugo.


Wallace Price is an unpleasant, calculating and selfish lawyer who dies of a heart attack. At his (sparsely attended) funeral, he’s greeted by Mei, a Reaper, who is there to bring him to the ferryman, Hugo Freeman. This is Mei’s first outing as a Reaper working solo.

Hugo and Mei run a tea shop called Charon’s Crossing Tea and Treats while also helping ghosts like Wallace to move on. There’s a door on the fourth’s floor that leads to the afterlife whenever Wallace is ready.

Meanwhile, Wallace process his thoughts here at the tea shop, but he cannot leave or else he will begin to disintegrate. He’s also tethered to Hugo via a cable that attaches to each of them and keeps Wallace from floating away. The ghosts of Hugo’s grandfather, Nelson, and dog, Apollo, reside at the tea shop as well.

Wallace initially tries to run away, but he comes across a horrifying creature. Hugo explains that the creature is Cameron, who is a ghost that ran away and became a Husk, which is what happens if you disintegrate and lose your humanity. Later, Wallace comes across Cameron again and when Cameron grabs at him, Wallace sees Cameron’s memories. He learns that Cameron had an unhappy childhood, but fell in love with a man named Zach. When Zach died three years later, Cameron became depressed and killed himself.

Meanwhile, during the day, Hugo runs the shop while Mei cooks in the kitchen. There’s an unhappy woman named Nancy who visits the shop regularly. At night, they all talk to Wallace to try to help him process his life. Wallace regrets now he neglected his ex-wife Naomi and let their marriage fail. He also thinks about how he had no friends and was not a nice person.

As Wallace gets to know the others, he and Hugo start to develop feelings for one another. He also learns that an entity named The Manager hired Hugo for this job soon after Hugo’s parents died in a car accident. As for Mei, she is a medium, and The Manager taught her how to navigate going back and forth from her human and spiritual self when she took on the job as a Reaper. Finally, Nelson has been dead for a few years, but he has resisted moving on since he wants to ensure that Hugo is happy and in good hands before he does. And Apollo has also resisted moving on since Hugo’s still alive.

One day, a woman named Desdemona comes to the store with her two associates. Mei gets very upset since she dislikes Desdemona and considers her a con artist. Desdemona is someone who does fake séances and pretends to sense spirits (and collects money for her services). One of the people she conned was Nancy (the unhappy woman who frequently visits). Wallace and Nelson decide to scare Desdemona off, and Mei feels grateful to them for doing so.

Eventually, Wallace learns that there was a Reaper before Mei who was not very good. When Cameron ran off, it was that Reaper who instructed Hugo not to follow him, resulting in Cameron turning into a Husk. Also, there was an incident involving a young girl ghost named Lea, who missed her mother, Nancy. Mei thinks Nancy must have minor spiritual powers since Nancy managed to track Lea’s ghost down at the tea house. Upon seeing her mother, Lea started freaking out. Instead of letting them calm her down, the Reaper forced Lea into the next world before she was ready. Her mother Nancy sensed something and continues back hoping to feel her again.

On Wallace’s 22nd day there, an angry ghost named Alan is brought to the tea shop by Mei. Alan was murdered in an alley by a person he owed money to. Alan is resistant to moving on, despite all their best efforts to help him. When he learns about the story involving Nancy and Lea, he tries to cause a scene with Nancy.

When the health inspector (Harvey) drops by, Alan notices a resemblance between Harvey and the man who killed them, though he’s aware they’re not the same person. Alan goes on a rampage and starts messing with Harvey. Finally, the Manager shows up and freezes time. He forces Alan to move on and he tells Wallace that he’s had enough time to process his death and that he needs to resolve his affairs in the next seven days, or else he’ll be forced to move on then as well.

Knowing he must make peace with giving up his happy existence at the tea shop, Wallace quickly goes through the stages of grief, but comes to accept his fate. He has Hugo call his ex-wife to apologize on his behalf for his actions and to try to make some type of amends. He and Hugo also take a trip to a spot where Wallace’s father used to take him as a boy. They also enact a plan to use Wallace’s ghostly presence to let Nancy know that Lea is safe and has moved on, so Nancy can find some closure.

Finally, when Wallace comes across Cameron again, he realizes that Cameron wants his help. He senses that Cameron is lost. When he reaches out to touch Cameron, he sees his memories of how the previous Reaper had been cold and scared Cameron, which his why he ran away from the tea shop and disintegrated. Wallace decides to do something selfless and he removes his tether (which connects him to Hugo) and attaches it to Cameron instead, not knowing what it will mean for him.

When Wallace awakes, he learns that Cameron is fine now, and that Mei managed to wrangle him (Wallace) from floating away by using Apollo’s dog leash. When he talks with Hugo, they realize that perhaps it’s possible there are more Husks that could be saved and that the Manager misled Hugo by making him think that they were lost causes.

When the last day arrives, the Manager shows up to ensure Wallace moves on, and they use the opportunity to confront him about the Husks. He declines to explain to them why he did what he did or what his plan is (saying that it’s beyond their comprehension and that everything worked out), but he reluctantly agrees to let them attempt to rescue the other Husks in existence.

Finally, as Wallace lets go and is about to pass through the doorway to the unknown afterlife, the Manager makes the impulsive decision to bring Wallace back to life. He says that he’s curious to see how this will go, and that Wallace will be working as a second Reaper alongside Mei and Hugo, since they’ll have a lot of work on their hands with all the Husks and whatnot. Afterwards, Wallace and Hugo finally kiss.

In the Epilogue, Mei has been training Wallace as a Reaper, and the trio has continued to save Husks and to help other spirits as well. Nelson understands that Hugo is happy and is in good hands, and he decides it’s time to move on. Hugo encourages Apollo to go with him, and they both go through the doorway together. The book ends with Mei telling them about the next ghost they’ll be working with.

For more detail, see the full Chapter-by-Chapter Summary.

If this summary was useful to you, please consider supporting this site by leaving a tip ($2, $3, or $5) or joining the Patreon!

Book Review

Under the Whispering Door is the newest release by T.J. Klune. I read his previous novel House in the Cerulean Sea not too long ago and thought it was rather charming story, and so I was eager to revisit his writing.

In Under the Whispering Door, a not-very-nice man named Wallace dies and has to process his life before entering the afterlife, but he finds himself reluctant to move on. Helping him on his journey is the Ferryman, a young man named Hugo, who Wallace develops feelings for. Joining them is a merry cast consisting of Mei the Reaper, Hugo’s ghostly grandfather Nelson and Hugo’s cute, ghostly apparition of a dog, Apollo.

Under the Whispering Door is serious when it comes to trying to tackle things like grief and accepting your mortality, but it also contains plenty of hijinks, humor and romantic tension. In the afterward, Klune explains that he was inspired to write this book when trying to process the death of a friend who died of coronavirus.

In terms of pacing, the book is mostly a quick and easy read. I found the first half a tiny bit slow and occasionally aimless, but I think the book picks up a lot in the second half and has a much clearer sense of direction, especially heading into the end. It helps a lot that the book is often genuinely funny, which helped me get through the relatively slower parts of the book. I’m very specifically using the word relatively here, since this is a fairly quick read overall.

I also enjoyed the vibrant cast of characters, and the general vibe of it is that it’s a cute and whimsical story. I appreciate that it’s heart-warming and entertaining. It’s a little more morose at times than House in the Cerulean Sea (since it’s dealing with grief and whatnot), but the overall tone of it is upbeat, warm and positive.

While the messages this novel tries to impart are probably all things that you’ve heard before, it’s always nice to have a reminder of these type of well-meaning thoughts, especially when they are delivered in an entertaining package such as this.

Some Criticisms

My main caveat for potential readers is that Under the Whispering Door is somewhat less fantastical than the premise suggests. I had assumed a story about a ghost and an otherworldly ferryman would involve some type of otherworldly journey and a heavier fantasy element in general.

Instead, the book is almost entirely set in an eccentric but mostly normal house that doubles as a tea shop. During the day, they serve tea and at night, they all hang out and have conversations about moving on and acceptance of the end of your life. There’s definitely some fantasy elements, but a good chuck of the book consists of characters sitting around by the fireplace and whatnot talking about life.

Also, if you’re someone who cares about world-building in novels, there is a lot of hand-waving when it comes to the mechanics and rules of this world. Overall, there was a general inelegance to the world-building in it. It all basically works, but it didn’t seem entirely thought-out and in general I felt like it left a lot to be desired.

For example, most of the book takes place in a tea house that is a mish-mosh of architectural styles that appears to be structurally unsound, and there’s not really a practical explanation for why it’s like that, apart to add to the “zany” atmosphere of the book. Similarly, Mei the Reaper is somehow able to transport Wallace in time and place with a snap of her fingers in the beginning of the book, but it’s not clear what the rules are about this or why she doesn’t or can’t use this ability in other contexts where it would’ve been useful.

(Also, everything about how the tethers work was very hand-wavy and a lot was left unexplained. Like, do the cables get in the way? Do Nelson or Apollo have tethers? When there’s multiple cases, does Hugo just have a ton of tethers attached to him? And so on.)

As for other aspects of the story, I’d say that especially in the first half, there’s a bit of repetitiveness in stuff that the characters are saying to each other. There’s also a lot of scenes that are probably more drawn out than they need to be, etc. But, as mentioned above, this is overall a fairly quick novel.

Read it or Skip it?

Under the Whispering Door is a bit more uneven than Klune’s previous novel, but I think it did a good job with capturing that delicate balance in tone between a funny book and one that’s trying to philosophize about a lot of Big Questions, which is naturally a more difficult task. Even if the answers it reaches are probably all things you’ve heard before, it’s still makes for a heart-warming journey with plenty of cute hijinks along the way.

I wish he would’ve done more with the fantasy elements in the story, and I think the world-building could have been thought out a little more thoroughly, but I don’t think either of these aspects of it will be deal-breakers for most people.

If you’ve never read anything by T.J. Klune and want to, I would still recommend reading his previous novel, House on the Cerulean Sea, before this book. Cerulean Sea is lighthearted, fun and snappy, and I think it probably has more general appeal.

That said, if you’ve already read Cerulean Sea and liked it, the yes, I’d recommend giving this one a shot. Under the Whispering Door delivers on many aspects that made his previous novel appealing — the quick and snappy pacing, the same sense of humor and plenty of queer romance.

Is this something you’re reading or want to read? Share your thoughts below!

See Under the Whispering Door on Amazon.

Under the Whispering Door Audiobook Review

Narrated by: Kirt Graves
Length: 14 hours 54 minutes

I thought the audiobook was very well narrated. He did a good job of making the various voicings sound convincing and distinct. Definitely a good audiobook to consider if you think you’d be interested in this story.

Hear a sample of the Under the Whispering Door audiobook on Libro.fm.

Book Excerpt

Read the first pages of Under the Whispering Door



Related Content

The House in the Cerulean Sea

Share this post

  

Bookshelf -- A literary set collection game