The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch: Book Review

Palmer Eldritch

It’s become fashionable in recent years to hail Philip K. Dick as the world’s greatest writer of science fiction. But why stop there? Why not hail him as the greatest writer of the 20th century full stop? It’s not like there’s been that much in the way of noteworthy competition. The implication, of course, is that Dick was a writer of “genre” fiction, inherently deemed inferior to “serious” or “literary” fiction. Never mind that Dick was never less than deadly serious about the philosophical implications of the alternate realities he explored through his work. Or that some of the most interesting writing to come out of the 20th century belongs precisely to the category of genre fiction, with writing of a more “literary” bent becoming increasingly inert, straitjacketed by stylistic pretensions and an obsession with the mundane. The fact is, no other writer in the 20th century can touch Philip K. Dick for the sheer scope of his imagination. The guy just came up with one stunning, mind bender of an idea after another.

I was first introduced to the work of Philip K. Dick as a teenager. The short stories came first, in a collection culled from my local library. The novels came later. For a kid just coming out of adolescence and beginning to realise that there’s a wider, more dangerous world out there to be experimented with, reading Dick was a genuinely consciousness expanding experience. Dick’s principle preoccupation was nothing less than the nature of reality itself. He asked questions like: if a hallucination becomes indiscernible from reality, then who’s to call it a hallucination at all? Or if humanity can be so successfully mimicked that it’s indistinguishable from the real thing, then what does it really mean to be human? 

One particular short story, The Electric Ant, has always stood out in my mind as summing up everything that Dick was all about. A man wakes up from a flying-car accident and finds out that he is, in fact, an android. He realises that his perception of the outside world is created entirely from the information contained on a micro-punched tape running through his chest. So he begins to experiment on himself by punching new holes into the tape, each time adding new components to his external reality. He witnesses a flock of doves appearing before his eyes, for example. Eventually, his entire perception of the external world is irrevocably altered. Is it merely a hallucination, or is all reality a kind of hallucination? In Dick’s universe, nothing is quite as it appears. Reality is something that exists on multiple levels, eternally mutable in a shifting, queasily disturbing landscape of the mind. 

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is one of Dick’s very best novels, dealing not only with the nature of reality, but with another preoccupation of Dick’s later career: religion. More specifically, Gnosticism – the notion that while God (or something like him) exists – he is imperfect and corruptible. Not necessarily evil, but not benevolent in any conventional sense either. Rather a being implacable, mysterious, and alien to humanities’ narrow perspective of the world.

A great name for a novel that, by the way. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. One of the best things about Dick is the wonderfully hypnagogic titles he gave to his books. Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Now Wait for Last Year. You can almost perceive the cracks opening up in space behind those titles, allowing alternate realities to seep through into our universe with startling consequences.

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is set at some unspecified point in the 21st century. Man has colonised the solar system, but global warming is rendering life on Earth gradually uninhabitable. Nobody can walk around on the street without the aid of a personal air conditioner, and people go to Antarctica for their vacations. Life on the colonised planets is so arduous and soul crushing, however, that new colonists must be rounded up with the use of a draft system. The only entertainment the colonists have comes from the consumption of Can-D – a psychotropic substance that induces collective hallucinations. The consciousnesses of the users become disembodied and “translate” into Barbie-like “Perky Pat” dolls, allowing them to lead an imaginary, idealised version of the lives they left behind on Earth. 

Savour that premise for a moment. Consider how utterly bizarre an idea that actually is. No other writer of science fiction came up with concepts remotely like this. 

An Earth-based corporation, P.P. Layouts, markets the elaborate, miniaturised sets and accessories necessary for translation into Perky Pat’s world. “Precogs” – people with some level of psychic presentiment – are employed by the company to determine which accessories are likely to become fashionable in the future, and hence, generate the most profit. Secretly, P.P. Layouts also control the sale and distribution of Can-D, officially an illegal substance, but commonly available and treated with a degree of tolerance by the authorities. 

P.P. Layout’s interplanetary monopoly becomes threatened, however, when the eponymous Palmer Eldritch, long believed lost or dead, returns mysteriously from a decade long mission outside the solar system. Eldritch has brought back a new and exponentially more powerful drug – Chew-Z – and intends to use it as the basis of his own rival corporation. Chew-Z has a hell of a marketing slogan: “God promises eternal life. We can deliver it.” But the problem is, Eldritch has undergone certain alterations during his journey into space, and nobody can be sure precisely who, or what, he has become… or how sinister his intentions might turn out to be.

It rapidly becomes apparent that Chew-Z possesses nothing less than the property of suspending time and space itself. A trip that only lasts minutes in the “real” external world, can take hours, years or a virtual eternity to play out in the alternate universe that the drug unleashes in the mind. Users can run through episodes in their lives – from the past or from the future – over and over again, seeking to “correct” those things they will regret… or come to regret, in the quest to realise an ideal version of their own lives. 

But as Chew-Z’s users discover, Palmer Eldritch has the ability to perpetuate himself through the various alternate realities constructed by the ingestion of the drug, becoming a virtual God. In the world of Chew-Z’s users, the “three stigmata” of Palmer Eldritch – his robotic hand, steel teeth and artificial eyes – continually reappear, replicating themselves through time and space. The more the drug is consumed, the greater becomes Palmer Eldritch’s capacity to infiltrate reality, or even inhabit various individuals, dictating the fate of the universe and everything in it.

It’s a maddening, disorientating ride into the nature of faith and existence, at once disturbing and comic. Or if you prefer, it’s a book that can be read as a sly satire of the spiritual dead end of consumer culture. In such characteristically Dickian style, dozens of wildly inventive ideas are introduced over the course of the narrative, speculated over and then quickly abandoned again. The reader can never be certain of precisely what constitutes solid ground. For lesser science fiction minds, this kind of material would be dragged out over half a career’s worth of novels, but Dick burns through mind bending concept after concept, casually tossing them out and experimenting with them within the narrative framework, then discarding them as soon as another idea comes along.

It’s this furious, amphetamine fuelled rush to burn through all narrative cohesion and arrive at the end of a story that’s the source of much of the criticism from Dick’s detractors. The guy would basically consume shed loads of speed while churning out story after story, without really bothering to take much time to craft his work into something more “literary”. Dick’s prose is workmanlike rather than aesthetically pleasing, and rarely comes to life off the page. His characters are not drawn especially vividly. The device of placing ordinary people into extraordinary circumstances works well enough. But Dick’s characters are really just serving a functional role, moving the plot along so Dick can explore the kind of ideas he really finds interesting.

In one sense, it’s a necessary trade off. Dick was more of an ideas man than an artist. The headlong rush through mind boggling philosophical concepts, without pausing to shape them into a fully coherent vision, is entirely characteristic of his work. But Dick’s prose is not without its pleasures, nonetheless.  His language is fast paced, pulpy and digestible, with plenty of dialogue and sly humour. Take the characters of Barney Mayerson and Roni Fulgate. They are both precogs and therefore capable of foreseeing that their mutual attraction will eventually lead them to become lovers. So they just decide to forget about the usual preliminaries and get on with it. You could rid the world of a hell of a lot of unresolved longing if such a scenario was actually possible!

The thing is though, it doesn’t really matter if Dick is unremarkable as a prose stylist. If you have an imagination as fertile as he did, you can get away with it. The sheer mind altering power of the frenetic head trip Dick sends his readers into while under the influence of The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch transcends any kind of literary nicety. The dizzying, reality warping head space this novel leaves you in is enough to be convinced that you’ve ingested a dose of Chew-Z yourself. Like the protagonists of this book, you half expect the three stigmata of Palmer Eldritch to begin appearing all around you in your own reality.

13 Responses to The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch: Book Review

  1. Hello Robert, that is a fascinating review. I have left a reply on your comment here: http://atonalblue.wordpress.com/2009/09/06/the-invisible-author/

  2. S. Pope says:

    Two points of disagreement:

    1) I find Dick’s titles for the most part poorly wrought e.g. The Three Stigmata of PE conjures up, by itself, nothing in particular. It is merely mysterious and self-referential. Exactly how it ties the whole book together as a titular notion is not obvious. Other titles e.g. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and We Can Remember It for You Wholesale, seem like jokey throwaways that do not suggest too much in themselves. The exception is The Man in the High Castle, the title of what many feel is Dick’s single best effort. The title does create a sense of mythic mystery that also suggests, and anticipates, the central action of the book.

    2) Dick’s prose is, to my mind, both elegant and vigorous. His diction is always precise (apart from some of the jokey puns), and while his style is generally spare, he conveys wildly complex and comic conceits very concisely. This is remarkable if we grant that he wrote in a hurry (for money), that he used amphetamines to accelerate the process of composition, and that he rarely revised.

    I agree that this book, like many of the author’s others, is a grab bag of bizarre and powerful speculative ideas, which don’t necessarily mesh together. It’s as if, with each new novel, Dick throws onto the floor, almost at random, a set of intricate puzzle pieces, each intriguing and beautiful in its own right, and leaves the reader to fit them together, if he can, or just admire them in isolation. This helter-skelter method of composition makes the books very demanding and difficult, and almost compels rereading. That is, if you’re not frustrated or bored by the sloppy complexity of it all. On the other hand, you can just quickly read the books and take them as wild rides through a series of bizarre and astonishing notions.

    However, many of the individual conceits, taken on their own, are exceptionally rich and wildly original. The hallucinagin-cum-doll house concept that appears at the start of Palmer Eldriitch is a brilliant three- of four-dimensional allegory that ties together consumer culture, religion and the formation of adult consciousness. You can think about this one bit of business for hours. It is brilliantly subversive and very rich. It alone is worth the price of admission. And it’s just a small part of the novel’s set up.

    With the “P.P. layouts” Dick asks us to imagine a world where adults purchase accessories for customized doll houses, which, with the help of a hallucinogenic drug, the purchasers can imaginatively inhabit as an alternative reality, albeit for very short periods of time.

    Most obviously, this is a send-up of televised consumer culture, where consumers are asked to buy products in the hope that they may lead the charmed lives of the beautiful people they see on TV using these products. (This is the essential mechanism of “image advertising”–we buy things not because we need them but because we hope to be like the cool people who seem to enjoy them so much on TV.)

    But that’s just the beginning of this very rich conceit. On the next level, Dick is comparing this process to little children playing with dolls. He is suggesting that adults are infantilized by the manufactured entertainments of TV advertising. But it’s worse than infantilization. Whereas children actually create the worlds they imagine when they try to mimic the lives adults must live, adults merely consume artificial props. They are drones who must consume the illusions of advertising to return to the joy and wonder of childhood. Their imaginations have been used up AND they’ve been sold a bill of goods.

    A third level of allegory emerges when we consider that, in the novel, the P.P. layouts are the only consolation offered to the planetary colonists, who inhabit lives both miserable and dull, and who only dream of returning to earth by means of the layouts. So we have the Christian myth of the Fall from grace, etc.

    And I’m just getting started here.

  3. robertod says:

    Interesting comments.

    Yes, I think the satire of consumer culture is something that comes through very strongly in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. It also comes through in one of my favourite PKD short stories, Sales Pitch, in which a man is driven mad by the all pervasive nature of advertising, including pushy sales robots that harass people on the streets.

    Now that story was written back in 1954, when advertising was far less intrusive than it is today, and it has proven to be remarkably prophetic.

    That PKD drew inspiration from ordinary, seemingly banal material such as advertising and consumer products, is one of the most remarkable things about him as a writer. That he actually got ideas from stuff like Barbie Dolls strikes me as being pretty amazing in itself. No other sci-fi writer really drew on this kind of material. And I think that’s one of the reasons why PKD’s readership is still growing today. He wasn’t writing about far flung galactic frontiers in the distant future. He was really writing about the modern world. He took our mundane surroundings and turned them into a vision of paranoia, angst and dread. He probed them for hidden depths.

    As far as the quality of Dick’s prose goes, I just got done reading Time Out of Joint the other day, and I thought – “well, Dick is actually a pretty good writer.”

    His prose is clear. It’s punchy. He pulls you through the plot with an impressive pace. While you rarely strike upon a truly memorable line – and let’s face it – Dick’s characterisations are usually pretty weak – he does get the job done. I’m not sure if I’d describe Dick’s prose as “elegant”, but it is concise. It’s efficient.

    You don’t like Dick’s titles though? I would argue that a title such as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? does actually convey quite a lot about the book it adorns. In fact, I think it’s actually quite a brilliant summation of what the book is all about, as well as being a good example of Dick’s wry sense of humour.

    I’d agree that some of Dick’s titles are a bit abstruse, but I don’t necessarily count that as a negative. I enjoy the sense of mystery it brings to his books.

  4. S. Pope says:

    Yeah, “precise, punchy and well-paced” covers it.

    I also agree that Dick is not a good aphorist or “sentence writer.” As you say, there are no memorable lines.

    But you could say the same thing about Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. That book’s characters are clinically logorhetic–they talk in gushing streams of caffeinated verbiage, constantly repeating themselves, throwing out references and then dropping them, going on for pages at a time, swirling back to the same point, while never spouting a single “good line.”

    But taken as whole, these rants describe very powerful states of mind, and the author somehow sustains a furious pace of anguished suspense.

    In the case of PK Dick, what’s remarkable about his relatively spare style is that it somehow allows him to sustain narratives that move quickly while sketching ideas of kaleidoscopic complexity and befuddling power.

    Take the series of narrative hallucinations offered in the late chapters of Palmer Eldritch, when several characters take trips sparked by their ingestion of the narcotic Chew Z.

    “Narrative hallucination” is nearly a contradiction in terms: These accounts are dream stories that use the familiar grammar of dreaming to subvert the conventions of character and sequential narrative. Which is to say that an individual character in one paragraph will, in the next paragraph, morph into a different character (which happens in dreams), and that past events are transposed, or recombined, into future events, and vice versa.

    Dick’s next move is to suggest that these dream stories are collaborative, in the sense that they may not be the creations of the dreamer but of a character in the dream who may be controlling, or somehow “bending,” the story.

    Then Dick doubles down again by suggesting that characters characters don’t just jump between identities, or between past and future, but also between dreams and real life.

    Here he is pushing complexity to the point of near hysteria. Stop with the drugs already!

    And yet the pages keep turning.

    As I was reading these chapters, I had several very strong reactions: 1) Gee, I’m glad I don’t do psychodelic drugs. I guess I should be grateful for my tenuous grip on reality. 2) I have no idea what the hell is going on here, 3) I may have to reread this, because I really want to make sense of it. 4) If I do, I may realize that the point is that I’m not really intended to get it. 5) Maybe this book ought to reread ME. 6) When it does, it may conclude that I’m too complex and protein to really understand.

    At the simplest level, all this may may be enjoyed as a prose-fugue endlessly elaborating the old Chuang Chou riff: “Am I a man dreaming of being a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming of being a man?” (I’m betting that it’s really the man doing all the work.)

    To change the subject, I want to hazard a few remarks about Philip K Dick and the movies.

    I think most people (including myself) first hear his name when they find out that he wrote the source book for the movie Blade Runner. The success of that film led in the nineties to a rash of Dick screen adaptations, such that options on unadapted Dick properties now command princely sums. (A half a million bucks, I read.)

    This seems ironic, because Dick, to my mind, is a most anti-cinematic novelist. For this reason: the kaleidoscopic complexity of his books is completely at odds with film, a medium that demands verbal compression (you need “good lines”) very tight narrative structure, and visual–as opposed to abstract– representation.

    Blade Runner is the exception that proves the rule. I confess that I was prompted to read Dick to see what that movie’s source book might look like. But when I got around to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, I found that there was little relation between book and film, or far less than I might have imagined. Moreover, I thought that the movie script (that is, the movie minus its very powerful elements of visual design) was a vastly superior entertainment.

    The script (which went through endless versions and took a decade to finalize) takes from the book the basic plot premise and leaves out most of the rest, including a number of Dick’s philosophical gizmos (the “empathic” worship of animals, the televised religious cult, the retarded human “specials,” etc.).

    That’s no surprise: No movie could sustain the profusion and complexity of bizarre ideas contained in a good Dick novel. Also, the screen play reduces the number of characters: there are four rogue androids, not six; and Decker has no wife, etc. Standard reduction again.

    But the film’s narrative power, to my mind, comes from an element ADDED by the screenwriters that is nowhere to be found in the book. I refer to the “Frankenstein” subplot: the series of scenes whereby the android leader “meets his maker” and kills him, in revenge for having made him mortal. This stuff just ain’t in the book. (All the book says is that the androids can only live for four years.) It’s more in the spirit of Mary Shelley and Greek mythology.

    The androids in the movie are portrayed as noble savages cum superheroes, idealized and condensed forms of humanity who embody the emotional conflicts imposed by mortality. Their “flame lasts half as long, because it burns twice as bright.” There is philosophy here, but it doesn’t come from the book.

    Electric Androids the text is a much woolier affair, simply because of the philosophical clutter and confusion that are the hallmarks of the Dick oeuvre.
    You could say that the screenwriters riffed on a subset of the book, but that they added critical mass all their own.

    As a rule, very good books make poor movies. (How many adaptations have we had of The Great Gatsby? Were any even close to the book?) And middling books can sometimes make, or inspire, very good movies. The two mediums are simply not transposable.

    The story of the making of Blade Runner is instructive, because it shows how the collaborative interaction of writers, producers, directors and designers can transform a source text.

    Blade Runner pushed this process to the point of parody. The director, Ridley Scott, never bothered to get through the book, so he had no commitment to the original text. Presumably, he read a few pages and liked the set-up. Or maybe someone just told him about it.

    Everybody agreed that Dick’s title was terrible. (Among other problems, it was just too long, and verbose, for the movies.) So someone had the bright idea of buying a William Bouroughs screenplay by the name of “Blade Runner” for the sole purpose of using its title. Scott liked the sound of “Blade Runner.” It had no connection to Electric Androids; it just sounded good.

    This kind of collaboration often results in an adaptation that completely forfeits the integrity of the original text, while generating no integral value of its own. This is because, after the “high concept” has been bought, people start quarreling over the details, and everybody can only agree on familiar movie elements that have already been done, and might succeed again. You know, gun play, tits ‘n’ ass, happy ending. And let’s throw in some film noir detective stuff. (BR has all four.)

    In the case of Blade Runner, an absurdly elongated collaboration had a surprising result–it produced a masterpiece.

    P.S. These remarks do not apply to Dick’s short stories (which I haven’t read), I’m guessing these are much simpler than his novels and may consist primarily of imaginative premises and surprising turn-arounds.

    P.P.S. I read that Palmer Eldritch was adapted as a stage play in Poland during the nineties. I wonder what that was like.

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  6. A D Jameson says:

    Thank you, S. Pope and robertod, for this analysis and discussion. It’s so gratifying to see PKD’s complex fictions receive this kind of thoughtful interpretation. Cheers, Adam

  7. Joe says:

    I quite agree with the comments I’ve seen here so far, but find it difficult to accept an in-dept discussion on The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch without addressing the altered state of reality the author attempts to convey in the novel.

    While going through S.Pope’s comment, I found the next few lines gravely accurate: “As I was reading these chapters, I had several very strong reactions: 1) Gee, I’m glad I don’t do psychodelic drugs. I guess I should be grateful for my tenuous grip on reality. 2) I have no idea what the hell is going on here”.

    On one hand, having experimented with psychedelic drugs, Pope’s words made me chuckle and feel slightly embarrassed, yet, on a deeper level, they made me realize how differently this PKD novel can be perceived.

    The Three Stigmata materialized a fear I long held since starting to use drugs: what seems to be, the very real possibility of never getting one’s mind back to “homeostasis”, so to speak, and having to suffer being ‘tainted’ for the rest of our lives. In that sense, the story presents a most precise detailing into detox and the idea of trying to “get to back reality” after having found something just as real, if not better. What’s more, the author even dwells into ‘time-perception while under the influence’, probably the most elusive and sought-after effect from psychedelic drugs; going, at length, to describe our feeble attempts to breach through the fabric of time. What’s worse, Dick even let’s us toy with the idea of a drug that nullifies time completely.

    Through Leo Bulero, Dick personifies overly-ambitous drug-dealers and big pharmaceutical companies, justifying their place in everyday human life with self-fulfilling lies, stopping at nothing when said place is challenged. Sure, drug-use does save Barney Mayerson from the martian jackal, though I’m certain Dick added that whole sequence for the reasons: 1) to strengthen the idea of Palmer Eldritch’s influence over Chew-Z takers and 2) to carry the irony in sparing a human life due to it’s high toxicity level.

    Yet, what I loved the most about this story, is the same thing I verily enjoyed from The Man In the High Castle: selfish human beings. People who wake up every morning and have real no intention of contributing to the state of things, messed up though they may be. I won’t say that PKD resented mankind, rather he chose to convey us, our intentions and ambitions, exactly as they are right now and will likely continue to be.

    Even in an alternative reality with Nazi-Japan in control, even well into the 21st century, we would always find humans attempting to get ahead, get closer to some sort of perfection and fail miserably in our goals and aspirations.This goes well in hand, in my opinion, with our need to search for alternative ways of existence. PDK demonstrates the latter masterfully with the sci-fi novels inside The Man In the High Castle and the ritual consultation of the I-ching, and the collective experiences found in Can-D transitions from The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. In any case it begs the question of how we, individually, cope with our own selfishness, without breaking down to our most primitive selves.

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  10. Matthew says:

    This little excerpt from Three Stigmata’s really struck me.

    You can share my ambitions. I’ve got plenty of them, big ones–they make Leo’s look like dirt.” — I’ll acquaint you with one. A minor one. Maybe it’ll fire you up.”
    “I doubt it,” Barney said.
    “I’m going to become a planet.”
    Barney laughed.
    “You think that’s funny?” He felt furious.
    “I think you’re nuts. Whether you’re a man or a thing from intersystem space; you’re still out of your mind.”
    “I haven’t explained,” he said with dignity, “precisely what I meant when I said that. What I mean is, I’m going to be everyone on the planet. You know what planet I’m talking about.”
    “Terra.”
    “Hell no. Mars.”
    “Why Mars?”
    “It’s–” He groped for the words. “New. Undeveloped. Full of potential. I’m going to be all the colonists as they arrive and begin to live there. I’ll guide their civilization; I’ll be their civilization!”
    No answer.
    “Come on. Say something.”
    Barney said, “How come, if you can be so much, including a whole planet, I can’t be even that plaque on the wall of my office at P. P. Layouts?”
    “Um,” he said, disconcerted. “Okay, okay. You can be that plaque; what the hell do I care? Be anything you want–you took the drug; you’re entitled to be translated into whatever pleases you. It’s not real, of course. That’s the truth. I’m letting you in on the innermost secret; it’s an hallucination. What makes it seem real is that certain prophetic aspects get into the experience, exactly as with dreams. I’ve walked into and out of a million of them, these so-called ‘translation’ worlds; I’ve seen them all. And you know what they are? They’re nothing. Like a captive white rat feeding electric impulses again and again to specific areas of his brain–its disgusting.”

    Maybe that’s the way it really is … with God and all that and this is just a translation world.

    — here’s an excerpt from Dick’s Exegesis (Has anyone read it? How has it informed your view of Dick’s works?”

    We are in a “Palmer Eldritch no-real-elapsed-time-passage” spurious world, which is why for us the Kingdom hasn’t come. In the final analysis, salvation will require the destruction of this fake world qua world, to free us en masse. The Gnostics are right. But the world we see isn’t real (v. Stigmata). All that will really be destroyed is a delusion over us, a malign power over us. We are in thrall to this spurious world, as book after book, story after story of mine put forth. I have done my job, and it is in essence the Gnosis of Gnosticism.

    Maybe what makes Dick’s writing so great is that in some ways they inform upon the nature of our reality. I know for me that (having done a few psychedelics) some of the concepts in Dick’s books are incredibly eerie.

  11. HappySlice says:

    The page before the first chapter continues from the last page of the book. The book to me, signifies a loop or unending realities. This coincides with the possible futures the characters predict and experience in the book.

    My belief is that Leo and Eldritch want the same thing, and they really are the same essence. Leo was Eldritch all along. As Anne said there is a bit of God in all of us, and as Barney relates god to Eldritch. Barney atones for leaving his wife, and not saving Leo. He is then the first to bear the stigma. Once Eldritch leads him up to death, Barney’s atonement is completed, and Eldritch leaves part of himself in Barney.

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