Up the Hill: Stories
James Calvin Schaap
Ebook: New Rivers Press, 2014
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Reviewed by Crystal Hurd
When I was seven or eight, my parents attended several funerals with me in tow. I would stand among the foreign stones of strangers and watch as puffy-eyed mourners huddled around the polished coffin. It seemed to me that death made people vulnerable. I watched people cry that I had never seen cry before. Death stripped away the mask, disturbed the well-rehearsed dances and left us all exposed and traumatized. I began to slowly understand the experience of loss. Then, I began to contemplate on these events. I started sketching the gatherings; vertical stick figures wringing their stick hands around a horizontal figure in a tiny box. It was then that my mother decided to leave me with my grandmother when church folks would pass into glory. She thought that all the death was seeping into my subconscious like rainwater on thirsty soil. Such curiosity might be unhealthy.
Perhaps it is human nature to have some curiosity about the moment we “shake off our mortal coil.” Some may call this morbid fascination. However, there is often a sense that one must prepare mentally for the inevitable. Accept it, but don’t dwell on it. We know that metaphorical darkness will come, but what awaits beyond the night?
That is topic James Calvin Schapp wrestles in his fictional work Up the Hill. In it, one is ushered “up the hill” to the Highland Cemetery, where the spirits of those who have passed still inhabit the community. Our narrator, a “saint” who has already passed, is a storyteller unparalleled with anyone on this side of the eternal divide. He focuses his narrative, with brief informative interludes, around the undead, or at least the actions of the dead responding to actions of the undead.
It is an intriguing read from the first page. For Schapp, those who have passed see the same world with new eyes. Although it seems a bit voyeuristic, they spy on their friends and loved ones. When we first meet these spirits, one is lamenting his wife’s new lover. Loved ones feel their own losses deeply as they set upon the hill and watch others mourn. A spouse can eavesdrop, perhaps even disturb, a living spouse who has attempted to progress emotionally to a new relationship. I have always believed that such uncomfortable emotions (jealousy, avarice, etc.) were results of the Fall, and therefore, are restricted to our mortal bodies. Yet here is a portrait of quiet observers, who, in a sense still possess many of the faculties they had before they climbed the hill. Schapp does not shy away from the big questions: do bedside confessions count? Is redemption possible? Do the prayers of others usher us up the hill, despite our spiritual doubts?
And yet, struggle exists after life, as it does during. Unlike most narratives, our speakers are merely spectators. They are powerless to speak, to intervene. They display a new level of consciousness unbeknownst to them before they crossed the great threshold. Here, they can witness as people in the intimacy of their homes, in the privacy of their solitude. Even after death, they continue to learn the true complexities of humanity. Of course, the great irony is that they are no longer “human” and cannot share the perspectives gained. They also find themselves comfortably surrounded by others. Past death, we are all part of a great assembly, although as new yet religiously-unaffiliated saint Vivian states, “We all die alone.”
The narrators watch people in their quiet, most intimate moment and make fascinating discoveries. In “Music of the Spheres,” Min, a poor immigrant, discovers an expensive violin in a ditch full of refuse. In the sanctuary of his loneliness, he pulls out the instrument, runs his calloused fingers against the rosin strings, and plays a tune from his homeland. It is so beautiful, so arresting that the ethereal audience is both surprised and impressed. Yet, Min never reveals that he has the musicianship to command such an instrument. When the original owner, an affluent member of the community, calls to retrieve it, Min returns it, but never reveals his talent. The pleasure of Min’s music was reserved for him alone.
Schapp’s strength is in molding dimensional, believable characters. Even the “saint” who narrates the story seems to possess the same warmth of tone one would find in a familiar neighbor. The power of Schapp’s writing is capturing the honest (and surprising) simplicity of the afterlife. Schapp maintains a casual, conversational tone throughout the work. This is illustrated through frequent interjections by the narrator, who demonstrates that life after death provides perspective, but it does not make one “clairvoyant.” Would one dare visit his/ her own funeral? Saint Crystal does and hears the mumbled confessions of a former lover speaking to her corpse. Incidents like these, and many more besides, fill the pages of Up the Hill.
However, this inventory of characters can also be a confusing aspect. The narratives are all essentially independent of one another. Within each story, the narrator struggles to keep a linear plot. The injections often provide insight, but also make the narrative difficult to follow. He insists on revealing the backstory of many character in order for the reader to understand the full breadth of the exchange taking place. This consistent backward glance can become tiresome, and with a full cast of characters which are thrust upon the stage of the narrative, it can obscure the storyline. Establishing characters usually occurs after the fact. Schapp does a magnificent job creating characters, and lamentably we are only given a limited time to enjoy them before they are replaced with new ones.
Schapp’s work provides profound food for thought when contemplating the afterlife. Through this lens, death is not an ominous threat. In contrast, the passing is swift and anticlimactic. These former pilgrims loiter the grounds and peer upon the people left behind. We, like the speakers, are observing without the privilege of input. But through this lens, we gain an understanding that helps us, the aspiring saints, improve the quality of our lives before our own humble ascent.