Best-selling author Erik Larson is known for his deeply researched historical nonfiction books. The Devil in the White City details how H. H. Holmes, a serial killer, used the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago as his hunting ground, and Dead Wake covers the sinking of the Lusitania ocean liner.
But with No One Goes Alone (September 2021), he dabbles in fiction, weaving real-life pioneering psychologist William James into a ghost story that takes listeners to a remote isle in search of answers after a family inexplicably vanishes. And because Larson says ghost stories are best told aloud, his was released as a stand-alone audiobook.
Listen to the first chapter, or read the transcript below.
Excerpt from audiobook edition, read by Julian Rhind-Tutt. Courtesy Penguin Random House Audio.
We chose our rooms first thing, all of them bright sunny bedrooms, and then gathered again in the dining room. At one end of the table lay a large roll of architectural drawings, four plumb lines, four hammers, four spooled measuring tapes, two mechanical compasses for measuring angles, and two magnifying lenses, one with an ivory handle engraved with a procession of elephants.
“For the remainder of the day, simply acquaint yourselves with the house and the grounds,” our chief said. “Rest. Tomorrow we begin in earnest. Our first task will be to examine the house in minute detail. We’re expecting foul weather for the next week or so, and therefore we presumably will not have to worry about unexpected interlopers. But we must be thorough and never rule out the possibility that advance intelligence of our journey could have been acquired by someone seeking to embarrass us or the Society, or simply to frustrate our quest.”
“And what are these for?” laughed Madeline Nash, one of our party. She held up a measuring tape in one hand and a large hammer in the other. “Are we going to go about shattering skulls and measuring coffins?”
William James, our chief in this expedition, smiled. “We’ve been forbidden from doing damage to the house in the course of our investigation — though I should modify the phrase to say ‘obvious damage.’ One of our first tasks will be to find out if there are any hollow walls or other spaces that could conceal apparatus or — though the idea is far-fetched — unwelcome actors seeking to preserve the cottage’s reputation.” He said cottage, but during our approach to the Isle of Dorn, while still well offshore, we saw that it was a cottage only in the sense that a member of the House of Lords might use the term. “Therefore, we must first measure every wall, height and length, and, by likewise measuring exterior length, we must determine each wall’s depth.” With a look of mischief, he glanced quickly at the seven of us gathered around him at the table’s end. “We will save the planchettes and table-rappings for after our evening meals, when it’ll be too dark to measure effectively.”
“Every wall, William?” Madeline asked.
“Yes,” he replied, “I’m afraid so.”
Groans all around, most mock, one meant — that from Adam Winter.
James laughed. It improved his pallor, which was worryingly gray. “I did warn you,” he said, “that a good part of what occurs during these investigations is tedious. Occasionally crushingly so. But we must apply scientific method and do all in our means to eliminate in advance any obfuscatory element — much the way a physician will first examine the healthy ear of a patient, before examining the ear that causes pain.To help” — he placed a hand on the long roll of drawings — “I’ve secured through a bit of luck the architect’s elevations done for the builders of the house in 1802. I don’t expect these specifications to be wholly accurate, but they will serve as a guide and as a useful visual ledger, if you will, upon which to record our measurements.”
James untied the two red silk ribbons that secured each end of the roll and with a flourish unscrolled the drawings. With a countervailing flourish the drawings just as quickly respooled, like a recalcitrant window shade, and rocked briefly on the table as if with satisfaction.
“Ah,” James laughed. “Our first visitation — Mrs. Holbrook, would you mind bringing those two candleholders from the sideboard and, Mr. Home, likewise the two from those shelves.”
Mrs. Holbrook, our Katherine, moved with her usual grace, like tall grass in a breeze. Home — Nathaniel Home, son of the famous medium Daniel Dunglas Home, who had died in 1886 and to the surprise of many had remained dead — turned and stepped toward the wall of shelves.
Winter said, “Surely, Home, you can simply levitate them.”
Home continued to the shelves and returned to the table without an instant’s glance at Winter. None of the rest of us paid attention, either. In our short time together, we had grown accustomed to Adam Winter’s skepticism. Not accustomed, exactly. Inured, rather; the way one deals with a recurring summer allergy.
James weighted the corners of the drawings. Sun still flooded the room and made the paper gleam against the nearly black surface of the table like a seagull forelit before a thunderstorm. A curious whiff of old fire reached our nostrils.
Madeline whispered, “Lovely. Just lovely.” She had turned to face a bank of windows that looked out on the sea. “While we’re at it, we should wash those,” she said.
“Pointless,” said Home. “Within a day the spume and brine would fog them again.”
“Ah,” said Winter, “is that what your friends on the other side tell you.” He smiled, albeit with only one side of his mouth.
Home replied, his voice bland, “I own a home in Cornwall.” He leaned over the table as if to look more closely at the drawings. He frowned, glanced at James, then returned his gaze to the table.
James said, “We’ll divide the house by page, though we’ll make sure that whoever gets the attic will not also get the cellar. We’ll hold the subcellar for last, for all of us, as our prize for all our hard work.”
“Subcellar?” Madeline asked.
But James seemed not to hear. A thin fringe of what appeared to be ash — unmistakably ash — settled upon the glossy surface of the table.
AARP Presents a Conversation With Erik Larson
Journalist Derek McGinty talked with Erik Larson about No One Goes Alone during a recent virtual event hosted on AARP's Virtual Community Center. AARP members can watch a recording of the conversation here.
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