‘I See Dead People’ As I Write This Post

Literature lovers are among the people who need cheering up in these troubled times, so today’s blog post is about…death. Oops.

It can’t be denied that many great and not-so-great novels have a mortality element, and some of those books are nearly 100% depressing. But others are also inspiring, therapeutic, cathartic, etc.

Death entered my mind as I recently read Fannie Flagg’s The Whole Town’s Talking, much of which features residents of the fictional Missouri town of Elmwood Springs talking with each other after they die. Yet the novel is mostly sunny and comforting, though not so sentimental that some real-life social issues (such as sexism) are ignored.

On the other hand, many death-permeated novels — such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment — are mostly downbeat. Yet they can be totally worth reading for their powerful writing, psychological insights, perspectives on religion, and so on.

“Death-permeated” doesn’t necessarily mean a lot of characters pass away in a particular book. Just two deaths are most central to Crime and Punishment, and there’s only one major demise in Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop. In mass-audience fiction, among the mortality-infused novels with just one key death is Nicholas Sparks’ A Walk to Remember.

Yet “death-permeated” can mean many lives snuffed out — especially in fictional works set during wartime (such as Erich Maria Remarque’s concentration-camp novel Spark of Life), during an attack on civilians (Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch), during resistance to a brutal dictatorship (Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies), during slavery (Octavia Butler’s Kindred), during a plague (Mary Shelley’s The Last Man), etc.

Then there are the five people who die when a bridge collapses in Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Nothing more than awful fate and horrible luck, of course, but a monk who witnesses the disaster tries to find a reason why that particular quintet lost their lives.

Early in Old Mortality, Sir Walter Scott focuses on a man who travels to various cemeteries to re-engrave the tombs of 17th-century men who died in battle. Then Scott moves the action back to 1679, and we see the deaths occur.

In “The Dead,” hearing a particular song causes a married woman to remember the passing away of a young former boyfriend. The effect on her and her husband (along with James Joyce’s evocative writing) gives the long short story its emotional wallop.

Other fictional works prominently featuring the no-longer-living? Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold (obviously), Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (Catherine Earnshaw’s spectral presence), Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (brutal white guys massacring innocents in the 19th-century American West), and (Ms.) Lionel Shriver’s So Much for That (with its memorable conclusion that juggles life and death), to name just four.

What about Edgar Allan Poe? Agatha Christie? Sue Grafton? Walter Mosley? Louise Penny? Lee Child? Authors of certain genre fiction — horror stories, ghost tales, mysteries, detective novels, thrillers, etc. — of course often include in their books murdered or otherwise-deceased characters, but that’s for different blog posts to discuss. Several of which I already wrote, such as this one.ย  ๐Ÿ™‚

The death-permeated works of fiction you’ve found most memorable? (Feel free to also comment on mysteries and the other genres mentioned in the above paragraph!)

And, sort of on this topic, here’s a video of the Evanescence song “My Immortal.”

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece, a dystopian fantasy about greedy developers paving over and building in parks, is here.

‘Bring Out Your Dead!’

For a long time, I’ve wanted to write a blog post about some of literature’s most memorable deaths and death scenes. But there was a “spoiler” problem: I would be revealing very important plot developments, and those who hadn’t read the fictional works in question might avenge my indiscretion by creating a real-life death — mine. ๐Ÿ™‚

Yet I’m going to risk The Grim Reaper today and tackle this mortal topic. As one does with cremated remains, I’ll liberally scatter spoiler alerts throughout this post. Also, I’ll bury the names of the characters I discuss — as in mostly not giving those names. And I’ll camouflage things in other ways, as one might cover a coffin with dirt. Finally, I’ll consider hiring 24-hour security in case I angered anyone with this paragraph’s tasteless wordplay about death. (Of course, 24-hour security leaves a person unprotected during the other 144 hours in a week…)

First some general thoughts: Death is a tragic/dramatic subject almost like catnip to authors — a subject that can make plots highly interesting, both in terms of the deceased and the way survivors react to the character being gone. In short, a death is a way to potentially grab the attention of readers, who may also relate what they’re seeing fictionally to the real-life deaths of people they knew and to their own inevitable demise.

More general thoughts: Literature of course usually reflects the time in which it’s written. So in pre-20th-century fiction, many characters died of diseases that would become curable in our modern age. Then, from roughly World War I on, weaponry became VERY lethal — meaning more characters died on the battlefield or as civilian “collateral damage” (I hate that dehumanizing term). But one can’t totally generalize. After all, America’s Civil War was a carnage nightmare, and many people today still die of curable diseases in the poorer parts of the U.S. and world.

In Jane Eyre (skip this paragraph if you haven’t read Charlotte Bronte’s novel!), there are several deaths crucial to the story. Among them is the passing of an almost saintly student, whose masterfully depicted demise is not only heartbreaking but helps lead the Lowood institution to be run in a healthier way — and perhaps saves Jane from eventually dying there, too. Another death, of an adult woman near the end of the novel, is very dramatic (think fire and roof) and makes all the difference for Jane and her former fiance Rochester.

Louisa May Alcott’s also-19th-century Little Women (those who haven’t read it drop your laptop or mobile device NOW!) features the poignant passing of one of the four young March sisters. The event is especially wrenching because the dying sister is so darn nice — even knitting stuff in her sickroom to give to children passing by the window. And her death, not surprisingly, makes her surviving sisters more resolved to do good and appreciate life to the fullest.

In Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (your watching eyes need an immediate screen break if you haven’t read that novel!), Janie Crawford’s third husband is a mixed bag but much better than her first two spouses. Then, while heroically saving Janie from danger, something happens to this charismatic guy that soon kills him. Hard to see a silver lining in that, but Janie sort of personifies the struggles and resilience of African-American women.

The main character in Emile Zola’s Nana is not admirable, though her difficult childhood certainly helps explain that. (Zola was French, so non-Nana readers should now take a spoiler-avoiding trip to Paris!) Anyway, after the protagonist’s death in that novel, a queasy and striking scene ensues — a scene designed to say a lot about not only the deceased individual but about France as a whole.

Tragic, watery suicides depicted in riveting fashion? Your go-to novels include (get a snack this second if you haven’t read Kate Chopin or Jack London!) The Awakening and Martin Eden.

(If need be, stay in the kitchen for another snack instead of reading the next two paragraphs!)

Other fictional passings that will stay with you include the deaths of two siblings in George Eliot’s magnificent The Mill on the Floss; the deaths of a saintly slave and an angelic girl in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s gripping Uncle Tom’s Cabin; the lingering demise of the wilderness-loving loner in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Prairie (the fifth and final novel of that author’s compelling “Leatherstocking” series); and the killing of a girl in Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones. (There are of course countless fictional murders in general fiction and especially in genre fiction such as mysteries.)

Also, there are the killings of Mexican priests (including a particular one) in Graham Greene’s desolate/absorbing The Power and the Glory; various deaths in Alexandre Dumas’ stirring The Count of Monte Cristo (shedding their mortal coil are Edmond Dantes’ mentor/fellow prisoner and the evil guys who framed the innocent Dantes); and the death of a soldier in Erich Maria Remarque’s heartbreaking A Time to Love and a Time to Die. (Hmm…that last title certainly telegraphs a character’s fate, as do the titles of novels such as Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop and Colette’s The Last of Cheri.)

Obviously, I’ve barely scratched the surface in this post. Let’s take this six feet under with your examples of memorable deaths and death scenes in literature. It’s up to you how much of a spoiler alert you want to include with your comments. ๐Ÿ™‚

My headline of course references this famous Monty Python scene.

(The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area โ€” unless youโ€™re replying to someone else.)

I’m writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at dastor@earthlink.net to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.

Deceased Before Released: Novels Published Posthumously

With all the talk these days about the late-in-her-life publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, I got to thinking about well-known novels that came out after the authors died. There are more of them than one might think.

Some posthumous books are released unfinished, while in some cases other writers are hired to complete the works. Then there are 100%-done novels that hadn’t yet reached the market when death came knocking for the authors.

Do posthumous books have anything in common? Not necessarily. Some are early-career efforts, with later author renown finally spurring the novels’ after-death publication. Other books are the last works of aging writers, and thus perhaps not the peak efforts of their careers. But most posthumous novels evoke a certain reader fascination, whether it involves lamenting that the authors aren’t around to enjoy the fruits of their labors or wondering if the books would have been better off staying in a desk drawer or computer file.

I’ll start with two authors who had summer births or deaths. The Aug. 1, 1819-born Herman Melville worked for years as an obscure customs inspector after his writing career foundered on meager sales of the critically blasted Moby-Dick and Pierre. The older Melville did write some (so-so) poetry in his spare time, and also penned much of a novella. That was Billy Budd — undiscovered and unpublished until the 1920s, more than three decades after Melville’s 1891 passing. The success of Billy Budd, along with a belated realization of Moby-Dick‘s masterpiece quality, retrospectively helped Melville join Mark Twain and Nathaniel Hawthorne in the top pantheon of 19th-century American authors.

Then there was England’s Jane Austen, who died on July 18, 1817. But it wasn’t until a number of months later that publication came for two of her six novels: Persuasion (my favorite Austen work) and Northanger Abbey (actually the novel Austen wrote first, from 1798 to 1803). Interestingly, a “Biographical Notice” written by Jane’s brother Henry for those two books was the first time the previously anonymous Austen’s name appeared with her novels.

In the 20th century, the most famous example of a posthumously released novel might be A Confederacy of Dunces. Its author, John Kennedy Toole, committed suicide in 1969 — at least partly out of despair over not being able to get his raucous, hilarious book published. Over the next few years, John’s mother Thelma resolutely tried to remedy that. Finally, with the help of author Walker Percy, A Confederacy of Dunces made it into print in 1980 — and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Even more recently, the page-turning Millennium Trilogy (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, etc.) was published after author Stieg Larsson’s death — and became a mega-seller. A fourth Millennium novel written by a different person is slated to come out later this summer, and the existence of that book just doesn’t seem right. Some Go Set a Watchman-like publisher greed? Yes, when very popular authors die, money grabs can ensue.

Among the most famous unfinished novels published after the authors’ deaths are Charles Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Love of the Last Tycoon (aka The Last Tycoon), Robert Louis Stevenson’s Weir of Hermiston, and Ralph Ellison’s Juneteenth. The first two were good/not great Dickens and Fitzgerald works, while Weir of Hermiston was Stevenson’s deepest, most mature book. The book by Ellison — who saw only one novel, the classic Invisible Man, released during his lifetime — was a condensed version of a very long, unpublished manuscript.

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa wrote only one novel, but the posthumously released The Leopard is exquisitely written. The book was finished when di Lampedusa died in 1957, before a publisher was found.

Sometimes, novels are published long after an author’s death. One example is Alexandre Dumas’ unfinished The Last Cavalier, which was discovered in serial form in a periodical more than 125 years after Dumas’ 1870 death. Parts of it are among The Count of Monte Cristo author’s best writing.

Also many years after the author’s death, Jack London’s The Assassination Bureau was completed by another author. London’s section of the book is of course better, but still doesn’t come close to matching his top efforts (The Call of the Wild, etc.) released when he was alive.

Then there’s Maurice, which wasn’t published until after E.M. Forster’s 1970 death because of that novel’s then-controversial focus on same-sex love.

Outside the novel realm, the most famous example of posthumous publication could very well be the stellar poems of Emily Dickinson.

What are your favorite works (ones I’ve mentioned or not mentioned) published after their writers’ deaths? Also, you’re welcome to discuss the pros and cons of posthumous publication.

(The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area โ€” unless youโ€™re replying to someone else.)

I’m writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at dastor@earthlink.net to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.