In Philip K. Dick's 1965 novel The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch the central character Palmer Eldritch is presented in a variety of ways. In some parts of the text he is an ethereal presence that appears when the characters are under the influence of the drug Chew-Z. There is some speculation in the text that he never returned from the prox system alive, and yet there are news reports about him being in the hospital. And to add more confusion Roni sees a future in which Bulero kills him - which is further elaborated on when Bulero 'sees' future beings who name him a hero for committing this very crime! So my question is, is Palmer Eldritch ever truly alive or dead in this novel?
An incredibly hard question to answer, as primarily the books themes are identity, drug culture and religion, and its hard as the book progresses to understand what is real and what is the result of exposure of the characters to the Chew-Z drug.
Its clear from early in the novel that Palmer Eldritch is rescued from his crashed ship as he returns from the Prox system. He's rescued by the UN and put in hospital - so its clear that he (or something that appears to be him) has returned. This all happens before any of the characters take the alien drug that he brings back.
However from the point that Barney then Leo take Chew-Z it becomes impossible to say what is true and make all the character's unreliable witnesses.
On face value, this is not Palmer Eldritch who has returned. The repeated appearance of Eldritch in drug-induced hallucinations, and the appearance of the 3-Stigmata on various characters (even when apparently not under the influence of the drug) lend the character supernatural powers. Barney and Anne theorize in the final couple of chapters that Eldritch has been replaced or possessed by a god-like creature. His ability to appear and communicate with people (in hallucinations) the appearance of the stigmata are Christ-like, despite his somewhat less that god-like motives and (relatively) limited powers.
Is Eldritch a god, god-like, or is it just the alien drug that a human Eldritch brings back. Philip K Dick seems to be deliberately equating or comparing the experience of religion and drugs. No definitive answer is given in the book as this would undermine this basic theme.