The specter of death is a scary nuisance that hangs over us all, and we’ll never really know how much that specter shapes and influences who we are. It is the job of a novelist (or this novelist) to consider, if not the worst, then the weirdest case scenario.
In my novel Here Goes Nothing, a confirmed atheist wakes up dead, only to find to his surprise and embarrassment, that there is an afterlife after all, and rather than answering the ultimate question, it poses many more. In short, life goes on. And why should death be the end where our imaginations are concerned?
Literature is the place we can break through the limits of our knowledge; there’s no better way to examine human behavior than by seeing it extended beyond the grave, when oblivion is taken off the table. In this list, each writer takes death as a mere jumping off point, a place to begin a story.
Bobok, by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Ivan Ivonavich is a struggling writer (relatable) who, feeling desolate and a little bit mad, stumbles upon a funeral of a distant relative where he is ignored and treated badly. He lies down alongside the graves in the cemetery (as you do) and becomes absorbed by the conversations of the recently deceased. For the occupants of these graves, death is not the end; what remains is consciousness (fun fact: consciousness remains for two to six months after death). Ivan listens quietly to the dead holding onto all their gripes and petty concerns and banal preoccupations; he hears them bicker and share their most shameful depravities with each other to pass the time. Ivan is shocked by the dialogue of the dead and observes that when removed from society, they're free to reveal themselves in all their wickedness. At least Ivan finally has a story he can write down and sell.
Pedro Paramor, by Juan Rulfo
Here's a story of a man who wanders into a town in search of his father in order to "claim what's his." Juan is surprised to find that a dead woman is expecting him; in fact, most of the people he meets are long dead. Maybe. Frankly, reading the book I wasn't sure who was alive and who was dead, and Juan himself cannot tell the living from apparitions. It could be hallucinations, tormented spirits, dream fragments, memories, or a mythical hell. Here reality is porous, time moves backwards and forwards, and only one thing is for certain: In the town of Comala, the dead don't stay dead. Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jorge Louis Borges were obsessive fans of this novel, and it's easy to see why.
The Return, by Roberto Bolaño
In choosing stories about life after death, it's fitting to have at least one that was published posthumously. The Return has this tantalizing opening: “I have good news and bad news. The good news is that there is life (of a kind) after this life. The bad news is that Jean-Claude Veilleneuve is a necrophiliac.” After such an arresting beginning, our ghost narrator reveals how he died (of excess, on the dancefloor), and is bemused that the out of body experience of death is more or less exactly what Hollywood had led him to expect, specifically, not that dissimilar from the movie Ghost. He follows his corpse to the morgue. He accepts his new situation with grace and is only a little intrigued when his body is brought to the home of a famous fashion designer, the aforementioned Jean-Claude, who has extremely unsavory plans. Our dead friend is not overly bothered by what happens next, and chats amiably with his abuser until eventually, our hero ghost leaves his body behind "without nostalgia or sadness or melancholy." A lighthearted, surprisingly touching, and slightly grotesque story about an unexpected fate.
Poem Strip and an Explanation of the Afterlife, by Dino Buzzati
The novelist and short story writer Dino Buzzati was also a visual artist, and here he has created a surreal reimagining of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice in the form of a comic script or early precursor to the graphic novel. It tells the story of Milanese pop singer Orphi who chases after his girlfriend Eura as she disappears like a spirit through a door in a high wall that surrounds a mansion across the street. She's gone into the realm of the dead and Orphi must try and bring his lover back from hell. Guided by an empty jacket (a guardian demon) he searches for his lover, sings for the dead, and encounters increasingly weird denizens of this strange land. With its cryptic text, avant-garde poetry, erotic and surrealist illustrations, it has a very 1960s feel, and a fair amount of female nudity. Buzzati’s phantasmagorical underworld is a weird and windy place, and like its inspiration from Greek mythology, it doesn't end well.
William and Mary, by Roald Dahl
Roald Dahl's short stories for adults fascinated me as a child and this story was one of my favorites. Mary's fastidious and demanding husband William died a week before the story begins, and at the reading of his will, this long-suffering wife is handed a letter where she discovers that William had agreed to participate in a scientific experiment. I hate spoilers so I won’t leave any here, but as this is Roald Dahl, and the story is not only about death but about marriage, you can be sure it falls solidly into his very specific genre of women getting back at their husbands in ghoulish ways. Dahl delights in turning the tables and is an expert in punishment. Suffice to say, William’s afterlife isn’t what he bargained for.
God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian, by Kurt Vonnegut
Kurt Vonnegut interviews the famous dead, thanks to a device in the “lethal injection facility at Huntsville, Texas” that allows him controlled near death experiences. That’s the jumping off point for this slim book narrated by “WNYC’s emeritus reporter on the afterlife.” After heading down the blue tunnel to the pearly gates, he conducts a series of interviews with the dead. Clarence Darrow, William Shakespeare, Sir Isaac Newton, even Adolf Hitler (who feels remorseful, if you’re wondering) are among the 30 or so interviewees. In Vonnegut’s afterlife there is no hell, and there’s even James Earl Ray, confessed assassin of Martin Luther King, still racist as ever—St. Peter has to ask him repeatedly to refrain from using the n-word. Each interview is short, barely a page long, and thanks to Vonnegut’s direct and insightful style, it’s provocative and amusing to hear the dead’s thoughts on current events.
Bliss, by Peter Carey
“Harry Joy was to die three times, but it was his first death which was to have the greatest effect on him...” Peter Carey's debut novel has a brilliant conceit: After a near death experience, Harry Joy comes to believe that he is dead, and upon seeing the truth about his life, is convinced that he is in hell. He learns that his wife cheats on him, his son is a drug dealer and sexually involved with his daughter, and that his business partners have suppressed a cancer map because they’ve been secretly advertising carcinogenic products. The ultimate mid-life crisis, Harry is a man who glimpses the true nature of his friends and family and all the debauchery around him and sets out to “notate the true nature of the Underworld.” In this novel, Harry has mistaken his life for an eternal punishment. Who hasn’t felt like that from time to time?