So what’s this death thing all about then? Death is such a prevailing theme throughout fiction and interestingly, from history books, to raunchy romances to the obvious horror and thriller genres, you are going to be bombarded with death. Lots and lots and lots of it, which is somewhat strange considering that it is a topic which most people won’t even stop and think about when it comes to their own mortality. It’s clearly easier to deal with someone else’s fictional death than it is sitting around and contemplating your own end.
So if there is so much fear about death (and I remember sitting in bed as a young child and crying in the middle of the night because I was so distraught but the thought of ‘the end’) why do authors enjoy writing about it so much? Personally I have lost a fair few relatives during my life and so I was exposed to funerals and death at a fairly innocent age, perhaps before any thoughts of the end should have ever crept into my beginning. Now as an adult, I’m not frightened by it, but maybe as the years roll by that will change the closer the end comes, instead it fascinates me.
I was looking back through my own catalogue of stories recently, those which have been published and those which are sat around in purgatory, and realised just how much death I have written about. It is there, front and center as the most common theme for my short stories, no matter if they are humorous or dark. So it is clearly on my mind a lot, even on a subconscious level, but why that and not write about everyone walking around skipping and smiling?
So for the first time ever I asked myself “Why, does one of the most negative, scary things facing us in our lives, get such high attention as an author?” I was curious enough to ask around on Twitter and get the thoughts of other writers on this popularly unpopular thing we call death.
Personally for me as a writer, there are just so many unknowns about the entire thing. Yes, we know that death means that the flesh and bones that this “soul” has rented for a span of time will go and decay in the ground or crumble away into ashes in fire. That’s pragmatism for you, it’s going to happen. But death is inherently intriguing to me because of the mystery which surrounds it, what we don’t know about it. Creatively it is such a wonderful vessel to carry my mind into the mysterious “what ifs”. Death throughout my writing hasn’t just been about a gruesome killing full of darkness and depression. It has taken on many different forms, worn different faces. A death could be a happy thing for someone who has been in devastating pain. It could be a relief for a victim who has been tortured by some evil character, whether it is the victim or the perpetrator which dies. It can be poignant, touching and even funny. So this death thing isn’t just black and white, it is living breathing mechanism of creativity, which challenges perspectives and delivers fantastic objective confusion.
M W Taylor – Author of The Many Lives of Adam Capello
Death I have seen death more than most. I was a crime scene photographer for the Met police in London (or Scotland yard if you like) for almost 24 years. It is a strange feeling to look down on a man lying on the pavement in the freezing cold, his shirt removed so the paramedics could try and save him. His eyes were still open, and I worried that he might be cold, then reminded myself that he was dead… he can’t feel anything… as far as we know. I apologise for the macabre intro, but it paints a picture of a very unfamiliar scene for most people. My Father is a Scientologist… a cult that I object to in many ways, but his tales of past lives entered my young head and were transformed into a myriad of different scenarios that said what if? What If death is not the end of our existence? What if we could remember our past lives and regain our past skills? What if we could point out our murderers, prosecute suicide bombers, leave our fortunes to ourselves in our future lives? It fair messes with your head doesn’t it? But, ultimately, it is as interesting, and large a question as: What is on the outside of our galaxies, universes etc? Or, what happened before time? And maybe that is as it should be. Maybe they are all linked to each other. These questions are why I wrote my first book, ‘The Many Lives of Adam Capello’. Death was my starting point, not the end. Many cultures treat death as a new beginning. The skulls of the Aztecs and Mayans are not meant to be frightening symbols of death, but a transformation. My latest book out soon ( ‘Killing Time’ ) is set in the same world as Capello, a world where past life regression is a reality, and this book is about Jack the Ripper. In it a victim of his is lying in the morgue, empty of organs, but her soul is looking on. It seems comforting to me that it was not the end of her existence. Death is the end and the beginning. It is the unknown, the undiscovered country and could be that in betwixt state between our living dimension and the ethereal plane. Death is beautiful and lets us forget our mistakes, but damn frightening at the same time. Wow, why would anyone not want to write about death? … but enjoy your life first, for it is truly a gift.
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There is something to be said for death being a redeeming factor, but of course that means that there has to be another chance of living. If a character dies and then has the opportunity to wipe the slate clean, then immediately you are obliterating any grey area over whether or not reincarnation happens. However, as a writer, a character coming back with a second chance to walk the earth and right wrongs or whatever, isn’t the only scenario in redemption. The afterlife itself, of which no-one knows anything about, can be written about too. Maybe there is more good work to be done on the other side than what there is in mortal form? Death from this perspective of redemption, even in a character wanting to set the record straight before their demise, can portray something positive. There’s not much else as sobering in life than being on your death bed and suddenly wondering, well, “what if Hell is real?” The other aspect to this is evolution. Death plays a big part (if you believe the Theory of Evolution) in evolution and continuity, so it offers the chance to put something into the greater good.
Why: Redemption offers a comfort that we can start again and do it better. It can cleanse a character and be a powerful, positive message.
Death is obviously no laughing matter, that’s why for me, actually laughing at it can soften the blow. Maybe it is a defense mechanism against the realities of it eventually happening, but adding humour to something, as in my stories ‘Kamikaze Trinitrotoluene’ and ‘A Cerberus Jaw’ which both boast a series of comical events that lead to death, can make the idea of it more acceptable. Humor brings death a little closer to us without it being quite so scary. Remember that you can see one candle flame in a pitch black room, and no amount of darkness can stop you from seeing it. Humour can be that candle flame. So one of the last things that you associate with death is laugher and humour, but there is some solace in bringing a lighter side to death just because it is not perhaps acceptable or expected.
Why: It makes death accessible and dark humour is something that is great at catching readers off-guard. Is it right to be laughing about death? I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it and laughing at other’s mortality and therefore alleviating stress about yours, is very cathartic.
The Dark Side
Of course in my writing, there have been horrible deaths. That’s part and parcel of the whole process of writing, at some point I have needed to go to a very dark idea to rattle off a death. We aren’t talking about death being viewed through rose-tinted spectacles, it comes in many forms. In its worst form it can be gut-wrenchingly overwhelming. The sadistic main character in my short story ‘S&M‘ has perpetrated something horrific for example, and going to a dark place of creativity is something that can bring a lot of joy for a writer. There is a lot of powerful emotions, a lot of tension, a lot chaos, stress and discomfort which can be called upon for that all important-dramatic license to give readers a thrill. I’m not sure that it is a fun place to go to in order to write, but in the darkness lies a lot of rawness that a writer can tap into.
Why: It leads to powerful, powerful stuff, powerful imagery. Death is the most raw thing and if as a writer you can make the reader feel a little uncomfortable, take to them to dark places that they may not want to have gone to, or just make them question different aspects of death, is a powerful creative tool to weild.
Lori Carlson – PromptlyWritten.Wordpress.com
As an author, I am fascinated about death. Why, you ask? Because it is not a finality. It is a beginning… the beginning of a story. Or the middle, as it sometimes wants to be. Only in a sequel does it become an ending. Still, all things interesting happen with a death – a mournful story of loss, an exciting mystery, a scary horror, an out-of-this-world sci-fi, or a chilling thriller. However, it is not just the story that perks me up with death. I’ve always been fascinated with the concept of death. Is it really the end? Is it a beginning? Do our souls move on to another plane of existence? Do we reincarnate? These questions have fueled curiosity in me since I was a child and I believe they help me to be a better writer, especially when dealing with death scenes. @ravyne
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The After (Unknown) Life
Then there is what follows? Does anything happen after you die? I had a past-life regression once and woke up in a coffin (true) in it. Do I believe in past-lives? Well, I believe that I had the experience of having a past-life play out in my mind, as to whether the actual past life was real or not, well no-one’s going to know. I have read stories of near-death experiences, but for me they are no proof because it could be merely down to physiological stuff going on in the brain. I’m not saying that these experiences aren’t real, but there is always skepticism on my behalf, which is a good thing as it keeps me questioning. This “other side” of death that has an abundance of creativity, because you can go anywhere with what may happen following death. Characters can be regenerated with fantastic new traits or abilities, they can travel to other dimensions, go through time, live in the afterworld with other spirits and have tea with Einstein or whatever. Then there is the paranormal side of things, malevolent ghost hauntings for example or some guardian angel would fall into this category.
Why: This perhaps is the most appealing thing about death as a writer, what could happen after, because no-one knows. Whether you believe that planes like purgatory or nirvana exists, or whether there will be judgment day, isn’t important. It doesn’t matter if you are waiting to see St Peter or to be enraptured by the Divine Light, death is coming to all and you don’t know what that entails. The abundance of creativity because of death is a fantastic ocean to dip your toes into as a writer.
Caroline Wood – Author of Grave Misgivings
Not sure what the draw is, but it’s been there a long time – my fascination with death and the inspiration it provides for my writing. Christopher Lee as Dracula; getting a fifth birthday present from my nanny after she died; playing with Ouija Boards as a teenager; being kept away from funerals, as a child – these are a few of the death-related moments that have stuck in my mind. Also, my sister, aged seven, when she first realised that death is final and happens to everyone. It troubled her for ages. What she found so hard was that everything would carry on but she wouldn’t be there, couldn’t take part. And I think that’s one of the reasons death is so fascinating, horrifying, strange. There are few things that we can’t imagine. But death is the great mystery, the elusive, unknown and unknowable experience. Once sampled, you must commit and stay dead. No going back, no changing your mind. It’s all or nothing with death. It’s all. And it’s nothing. We can’t know what nothing feels like. That stillness, that silence and finality – permanent and irreversible. Nothing else in our lives is like that – we can’t even ask the dead what it’s like. We can’t follow them, get reviews or feedback. We can’t get advice on it, we’re on our own, forever. And ever. Ended, stopped, ceased. And everything carrying on without us. It fills me with curiosity, questions, and inspiration. Not only death itself – it’s all the ceremonies and rituals that go with it. Churchyards – from a young age, they struck me as potent places. Our family would visit my grandmother’s grave on Sunday afternoons in a small, country churchyard. In the winter, the light would often be fading by the time we left, and the rooks cawing above us. My sister and I were afraid of a cracked tombstone and hated walking past it. There was a story about a hand coming out and grabbing you round the ankle as you walked by – isn’t there always such a story? The fear was edged with black, uneasy curiosity. Imagination could spiral out of control from those half-hour visits, but it was also somehow delicious. Death plays quite a big role in my writing, which wasn’t a conscious decision. But then it plays a big part in all our lives, too. We turn away from it, remove it from our everyday experiences, refuse to talk about it, deny it, and fear it. Yet death is as common, frequent, natural and inevitable as other biological functions. That might be the draw of it – the paradox of death. The way it is both mundane and also completely mysterious. The way we can only ever know it by doing it and then we are beyond reach. In the void. With no way back.