Us human beings have a kind of macabre fascination with death. We always have. Maybe this is because death is a part of life. There are always things dying for us and near us. Plants. Animals. People.
Exploring death is a ripe subject for a story. In today’s modern western society, it has been said that we don’t see personal death as much as in other cultures or societies, nor as much as in past centuries. We do see old age death, though. I had a grandfather recently die basically of old age. And although it was sad to see him go, he was 71 and that is generally considered a decent length of life.
An untimely death of someone much younger is often handled differently. You might think that a violent and untimely death of someone we know, whether pre-meditated or an accident of circumstance, is not something the average person will encounter much if at all in their lifetime. But that’s not the case, as many non-caucasian people in the US would testify. So such people can and do tell stories to help share to those who have not. And also to help themselves understand the own reactions.
Anne McCaffrey’s famous novel The Ship Who Sings does that. It is a series of short stories and in the first one, we meet Helva (the titular spaceehip) and watch her story unfold as she begins life as a human brain wrapped in a spaceship. And we also see her as she falls in love and then sees her love killed in an accident basically right before her electronic eyes. It is a strongly emotional scene. McCaffrey is on record as saying she wrote this story as catharsis for dealing with the death of a family member.
The TV series Broadchurch also does this. It looked at what a death of a young boy does to the residents of a small, somewhat isolated British town. We see death dramatised on our movie and TV screens so much more than our parents and grandparents, particularly a most deliberate kind of death: murder. This story was an unusual telling, though. It begins as a Police Procedural. This is a modern version of the classic Murder Mystery story that’s been with us for decades and still makes for blockbuster movies and long-running TV series. Broadchurch takes one or steps in that direction, then does the narrative equivalent of stopping and taking a long look around. It is at that point it then becomes an exploration of how a murder creates ripples and waves in the relationships of the people in the town. Some people have to deal with the deceased not being there anymore. Others have to work out how to talk with others dealing with this. There are secrets uncovered, motives questioned and relationships sundered. There are many and varied reactions.
But that is holding a mirror up to the real world.
In speculative fiction, particularly classic Fantasy, death is not always permanent. Sometimes it almost feels like it comes with the genre. Almost. In settings like The Forgotten Realms there are numerous ways to be resurrected or to live on beyond death. This is kind of expected as its world rules are Dungeons and Dragons and in this world and others with highly pervasive magic systems, it is often possible to resurrect a killed person. This is not always the case, though. In David Edding’s Belgariad, resurrection is a highly dangerous exercise. It only happens when the plot demands it.
J. K. Rowling takes this further. Again, this is a magic-rich world where a lot of medical problems have magical solutions, from broken bones to the common cold. But not death. It is a key story-point in one of the later novels that even in Rowling’s world, death is permanent and irreversible. And it is significant that Rowling puts her characters (and readers) through the wringer over several deaths that happen. In fact, defeating death is the goal of the villain of the whole series. And look at what it does to him!
Rowling’s handling of death is a touch point curiously close to the real world. It was remarkable when I read it and still is when I re-read it.
But do we need to explore death in stories? In a sense, yes: it is an important part of being human. There is a certain fascination with it’s permanence and trying to put it off as long as possible. Or even entirely. And this is why stories get written about it.