It was Echols’ teenage taste for the occult, heavy metal and black clothing — a look inspired by Depp in “Edward Scissorhands," he says — that initially made him a target for the vindictive and prrovincial police in West Memphis, Ark.
“Life After Death" does not discuss the details of that triple murder case and the long, botched investigation and trial that followed. For one thing, that story is not over. Last summer Echols, now 37, and his two cohorts in what became known as the West Memphis Three — Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Jr. — were freed on an Alford plea.
But he is sick of that story anyway. So “Life After Death" is a dual memoir, partly about Echols’ boyhood and partly about his prison life. He says that he wants this to be a beautiful book and not a freak show, but there is freakishness at every turn. Yes, one of Echols’ childhood memories involves watching “Captain Kangaroo." But another, much more typical one describes how he was agonizingly attacked by fire ants while his grandfather sipped beer and chuckled.
“Nothing lifts my spirits like a scarecrow in the front yard," he writes, with as much nostalgia as he can summon for his tough and tumultuous upbringing. He likes horror films and horror novels because they remind him of home. And he describes the horrific living conditions, in a shack without water or electricity but with crop dusters spraying overhead, that his family took for granted. Even so, these memories constitute Echols’ idea of living in freedom.
And they make good stories, even if this book’s emphasis is often on filth, hellishness and disgust. They are so well told that “Life After Death" sometimes sounds like the work of a ghostwriter. But the book reprints enough handwritten pages of Echols’ prison writing to make it very clear that the literary talent is entirely his. He was still in the ninth grade at age 17, but he is an autodidact who read thousands of books while incarcerated.
Even in moments of deepest despair Echols found ways to toughen himself. And they are not the usual methods found in prison memoirs. “I was much more flexible in mind and body as a youth," he writes, about the difficulty of absorbing each new horror.
As he wrote in an earlier, self-published book, “Almost Home," which is partly incorporated here, he felt hopeless and ghostly for a long time. That’s the mood early in “Life After Death," but he gradually begins seeing glints of light. He learns that Axl Rose has been spotted in a West Memphis Three T-shirt. Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, prompted by “Paradise Lost," tries to get in touch with Echols’ lawyer. And Peter Jackson brings his “Lord of the Rings" clout to aiding the defense effort for Echols, helping to pay for the DNA testing that helped persuade the state of Arkansas to back off.
Now Echols is a free man with his own celebrity aura. He has written a haunting book, and the story it tells is hardly over. He is living out a sequel that is no less strange and magickal than what he has already been through.