Our Relationship with Death

by Elizabeth Engstrom

By the time we’ve reached middle age, we are no strangers to death. We have all lost pets, loved ones, family members, sometimes parents, spouses, siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents, even close friends.

Death, as we have come to understand, is a part of life, and our own looms closer every day.

But it hasn’t always been so.

dying

Teenagers tend to fancy themselves not only invincible but somehow ageless. They can never see themselves as fifty or sixty years old. It is only after years pass and we get a few gray hairs that we start looking forward to the day when we will be making hard decisions about the death of very close loved ones, and of course, ourselves.

So while there are milestones in everyone’s life, how often do we consider our aging process and our relationship to death—not only others’ deaths, but our own?

And what does this have to do with writing?

This has everything to do with writing, because it speaks to motivation of the characters.

I have long touted the book Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs for help with designing fictional characters. This big, fat book (available at all used bookstores) talks about a Taurus woman’s relationship with a Pisces mother or a Virgo father or a Capricorn spouse. There is gold to be mined here when it comes to human-to-human relationships.

love signs

But how do your characters relate to death?

How does your main character see him/herself when it comes to their own demise? The death of a child, a spouse, a parent? These are not necessarily things you need to put into your story or book, but as that character’s creator, you must know.

Most of us (women, in particular) have what I call Plan B, at least a sketchy plan of what we would do if our spouse should drop dead today. These are the thoughts that we harbor privately in the sleepless wee hours, and we alter them as time goes on. Along with these thoughts, we also mull over quietly how we would like to have our own deaths proceed, were we given the power to control them.

We all know people who say, with a cavalier wave, that when their health goes south, they’ll pull the chain. Take the black capsule. Go for a long nap in a snowbank. My father was one of those, yet he clung to life at the end. There are those who claim to have a bedrock relationship with their religion, yet they go crazy with grief when someone dies unexpectedly. Others think it will never happen to them, and are astonished when their 95-year-old father dies.

Some people just plain can’t get past grief. Others cruise through it so effortlessly (it appears) that other people find it suspicious. Others fear death to the extent that it stunts their experience of life.

And, of course, this relationship that we have with death changes every year we grow older, lose more friends, have more pains, spend more time and money at the doctors’ offices.

What is your main character’s relationship with death? How does that influence his/her actions?

Is it different from your relationship with death? How does your relationship with death influence your actions?

These are questions worth answering, as death is an integral part of life.

My New Pal

By Cynthia Ray

Recently, my friend and long-time love was hospitalized with a serious illness. Saying that he had a “brush with death” doesn’t come close to the visceral and gut-kicking experience. This is what it was like: Death grabbed me by the shoulder, spun me around and slapped me, leaving a throbbing bruise on my cheek, then pulled my face close to his and said, “You think you can ignore me? You think you can live your life as if I didn’t exist? I’m tired of being the invisible guest in everyone’s life. Wake up, sister! I’m your salvation.”

That got my attention. I sat next to my love, held his warm, living hand, and looked into his  eyes. Everything that was not important melted away; and most things seemed trivial and insignificant in that moment. The love we have always had for each other lit up the room.

Later, I wondered why we can’t connect like that all the time, not just with each other, but with family and friends, with strangers, with the grocery clerk at Fred Meyers.  When all we have is each other, why do we separate ourselves?

The experience forced me to reconsider everything in my life. What doesn’t matter anymore? What makes me feel connected and whole? What puts me to sleep? It is easy to become complacent and distracted; busy making grocery lists, doing laundry and balancing checkbooks while life goes on around us unnoticed and unfelt.  The sense of urgency and immediacy that I felt sitting on that hospital bed can fade away if I let it.

I don’t want to fall back into sleepy forgetfulness. After experiencing true, deep connection, nothing else will satisfy. Death is my new pal. He hangs around with me all the time; he says he doesn’t have that many friends, and it’s refreshing to have someone invite him in on a regular basis. The more I hang out with him, the more alive I feel.

This is more a blog about living than writing. However, there is a connection between writing and staying awake for me and I intend to continue to dig deeper into that in the coming months.

death

When Real Life Interferes

By Elizabeth Engstrom

Writing fiction takes up an enormous amount of cranial space. It requires quiet, solitude (or your version of those things), and quite a bit of time just staring into space. Or mindlessly playing solitaire. Whatever, you need your version of quiet time to let your mind freewheel.

Carving out that time to write in a dedicated, ongoing, consistent manner is more difficult than any non-writer can imagine. There is always the phone, the ding of email, the person coming into the office saying, “I’m not disturbing you, I’m only…” All of which are distractions so off-putting it’s truly a wonder we get any pages written at all. And when we do, we have a right to be satisfied, even if they suck.

But then there is the other interference, and that consists of life events that vaporize our concentration.

A good friend confided in me not long ago that he was “blocked” for the first time ever in his writing, and what few sentences he wrote were hard fought and turned out to be crap. He was truly mystified. With a little discussion, it turned out that he had not one, not two, but three major events happening in other areas of his life that were of maximum stress.

You know that list of stressors? Here they are:

  • Death of a family member
  • Terminal illness (one’s own or a family member)
  • Physical incapacitation, chronic pain, or chronic illness
  • Drug or alcohol abuse (self, family member, partner)
  • Divorce
  • Marriage
  • Loss of job or job change
  • Moving house
  • Primary relationship problems
  • Severe financial problems

There are more, of course, but these are the big dogs. Most, if not all of these happen to all of us at one time or another, because that is the stuff of life. That is the human experience. We should welcome these events, even when they stress us out, because that’s how we learn about ourselves—how we react in stressful situations. Need I mention that it is all grist for the mill? We need new experiences to feed our fiction machine.

However, when we work so hard to carve out the time to write (and we can’t give that up, no matter what), and one or more of these situations takes up all of our cranial space to the point where we’re either “blocked” or all we come up with is hard-fought crap, then it is time to reevaluate our priorities.

Sometimes we just need to sit down and deal with what is in front of us. Sometimes writing is not and should not be the number one priority. We have bigger issues to deal with. As writers, though, our fiction-writing minds are busy focusing on future scenarios and how what it is that we’re bothered by is likely to turn out. It almost never turns out the way we imagine, but we can’t help ourselves. Plotting is what we do.

We’d rather feel guilty about not writing.

We’d rather deny the stress, as if confessing to it makes us less of a person, less of a writer, when in fact it not only makes us more of a person, it makes us more of a writer.

And then there’s comparing ourselves with others. We all know that so-and-so pumped out four books last year despite a divorce, the death of a child, and moving to Europe. Well, maybe, and maybe not. Nothing is exactly as it appears. Besides, that person’s career is not your career and not your life. Certainly not a life you would trade yours for, not really.

So if you find yourself “blocked” (I put that word in quotation marks because I don’t believe in writer’s block—but that’s a blog post for another day), or all you can write is hard-won crap, take a look at your life and see if you have one or two or three of these major stressors. If you do, use your solitude and writing time to puzzle out not the plot of your new book, but the way to peace and serenity with the situation that life has handed to you.

The job of a writer is to articulate the human condition. To do that, you must experience it.

Embrace it, live it, journal about it, and when it passes, as it always does, you will write about it, and your life and your work will be all the richer.

Horror and the Quest for Identity or the Devil Always Gets the Best Music

by Stephen T. Vessels

At the heart of every horror story is the quest for identity. Whatever beliefs we hold, the unknown crowds around us from all sides. The biggest, scariest unknown is death. Who, or what, will I be when the line goes flat, the story ends, the lights fizzle out forever?

All stories have an element of horror in them. It’s in sacred texts, myth, Shakespeare, Dickens, Joyce and Hemingway. It’s in Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett and Sue Grafton. It’s in H. G. Wells and Ursula K. Le Guin. It’s even in romance – what will become of me if I am rejected, what, if I am accepted? Will I know myself or be consumed? What hell did Jane Eyre suffer to possess herself, what further hell to bond with Rochester? What is love anyway if not a bulwark against the darkness, a backwards finger at the dial of entropy?

It’s even in humor. Hermann Hesse wrote in Steppenwolf, “All humor is gallows humor.” Our worldly concerns become absurd in the face of death. The Dalai Llama pointed out that we don’t have to look any farther than the graveyard for commonality, and suggested we might do well to reflect more on that commonality, one and all.

Horror, as a genre, merits respect, because it addresses the unknown head-on, bluntly, without apologizing for its methods. Reality is harsh and brutal, and it takes more than a feather duster to examine it. Horror stories employ extreme and fantastic measures to render the crisis of identity in bold relief, not unlike the way Van Gogh exaggerated colors so that they could be felt. Nowhere is the inseparable bond between character and story clearer than in horror.

If the bond is compromised, it can be instructive. I finished watching Season One of American Horror Story a few nights ago and felt vaguely ill. I realized it was not because the ending was particularly “horrifying,” but because I felt jerked around, like I’d been taken for a lurching ride through a ramshackle Halloween house of horrors. The gratuitous shocks and flimsy plot twists left me empty to the point of nausea.

The Murder House season of American Horror Story is more akin to performance art than storytelling. The plot is really a vehicle for loading on historical, literary and film allusions, and the characters are props. The actors did their best to lift the material, and ornamented a disjointed narrative with sparkling moments. But a buffet of spooky shots and Hitchcock references does not a story make. I can’t care about characters if I don’t know who they are, and I only know who they are by being told a coherent story about them.

Who am I? What am I, moment to moment, particularly after I die? What if I am eaten by a monster and remain conscious while being digested? One might say that we are being eaten alive by time, every second of every day. What becomes of my identity if every comfortable association and circumstance is taken from me, peeled away like flesh, one agonizing strip at a time?

I used to own a mask carved by the Tsimshian Canadian sculptor Joe David. The mask is entitled “Lost in the Woods.” The visage it presents is entirely human, without any suggestion of an animal aspect such as most northwest coast native masks have. The wood, though masterfully hewn, is unpainted. Small, ragged bits of hide have been tacked to the wood, like peeling flesh, with the nail heads showing. The teeth, made of bone, are bared in a skeletal grimace. Horse hair, affixed to the upper perimeter of the mask, hangs down in a bedraggled state to frame the face. The eyes are circular voids. The depiction is of a person who has wandered so long in wilderness that everything has been stripped from them but the organic will to continue. There is no memory in those eyes, no identity, no belief, no thought or regret. Stimulus and response, that’s all that’s left. And yet, I am called to remember that I am looking at a mask.

"Lost in the Woods", Joe David. Photo: Wayne McCall

“Lost in the Woods”, Joe David. Photo: Wayne McCall

Behind that mask lies a story.

Fiction is the conscience of belief. Cosmological enquiry lurks behind every dark tale, from Godzilla to The Devil’s Rejects. And at the heart of cosmological enquiry lies the question of identity. No author addressed this more directly than H.P. Lovecraft when, in “Through the Gates of the Silver Key,” Randolph Carter discovers that his identity is but a particle in the mind of the idiot god Yog Sothoth.

Horror, as a literary form, can seem subversive, particularly if you’re worried what your children are thinking. It can seem disrespectful of everything that defines decency and respect and the foundations of polite society. In fact, it’s usually written by very nice, polite people, and I doubt well-written horror is any more likely to have an ill effect on a reader than the evening news.  It’s important to make a distinction between veneer concerns and what really bothers us, the deep inchoate fears that make us reach for pillows and partners in our beds at night. Who am I, in the grand scheme of things? Where do I come from and where am I going? This persona I hold together, from day to day, as my cells replace themselves and my body degenerates, what is its real shelf life? Does my consciousness linger beyond the grave, and if not do I exist at all? Am I – the I I perceive myself to be – simply the product of complex chemical interactions?

It is a terribly intimate question.

I feel the crisis of identity in a story only if the character is real. And the character cannot be real without a story. By the diverse subtle gestures that are the writer’s art, the character is animated in my mind, brought to life within me, resonant of the very existential conundrums that echo through my own beleaguered bones. I accompany them on their journey, and make it part of my own.

And when a character encounters a horror that brings them intimately into confrontation with the potential loss of self, I am visited, in the safe remove of my armchair, by an endearing chill. When the agent of death approaches through the mist, whether undead wearing a flowing cloak, lizard-like with acid blood, mythic with horns and cloven hooves, or wearing a trenchcoat and a fedora and holding a revolver, cue the music, because in that moment I am possessed by the thrill and wonder of the unknown.

I find my reaction telling. I want to know what is on the other side of that mask. One day I’ll find out.  And I’m going to put that day off just as long as I can.

***

Stephen Vessels lives and writes and prays for rain in southern California. In 2012 he received the Best Fiction Award from the Santa Barbara Writers Conference. His short story “The Butcher of Gad Street,” will appear in the upcoming anthology, “Equilibrium Overturned,” from Grey Matter Press. His short story, Doloroso, published by Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and included in their anthology, “The Crooked Road, Volume 3,” has been nominated for the 2014 International Thriller Writers Award.

Beautiful Corpses

by Matthew Lowes

There’s no doubt death discomforts the living. A long history of adaptation for survival has assured we are repelled by the sight and smell of a rotting corpse, especially the corpse of human being. We are disturbed by possible threats to our well-being and reminded of our ultimate mortality. We are heartbroken at the loss of friends and family, and at the horrible absence a corpse represents.

Through the ages, we have developed countless ways of dealing with the dead. We have burned them on funeral pyres and interred them in lofty tombs. We have buried them in the ground and shelved them in catacombs. We have drowned them in the sea and left them on mountaintops for scavengers to pick clean their bones. Perhaps none is more fascinating than mummification, when the flesh of the living is preserved in death through the ages. The word “mummy” come from the Arabic word for bitumen, thought to be used in some Egyptian mummies, but different types of mummies exist from around the world.

To create a mummy the process of decay must be halted, usually though desiccation, but sometimes through chemicals, cold temperatures, or submersion in an anaerobic fluid. While many cultures deliberately mummify the dead, many mummies are a product of accidental conditions. In either case, once the body has stabilized, if the environment is favorable, a mummy may remain intact for thousands of years.

When decay ceases, and the grief of the living has passed into history, a strange beauty remains in the dead. You can sense this beauty gazing upon an ancient mummy. It’s difficult to put into words. This silent face … this still flesh … stirs thoughts of life as much as death, of hopes and dreams, of love and loss and longing. The beauty of this singular person, who walked the earth so long ago, is still here, like a shadow cast forward through time.

Ancient Egyptian culture flourished for 3000 years. An estimated 70 million people were mummified and entombed in the burning sands. For all that time, tombs have been broken into, desecrated, and robbed for the valuables they contained. In the 18th and 19th century, there thrived an international market for mummies as souvenirs and curiosities, and to be ground up and used in paints and medicine. They were even used as fuel for the fire on cold desert nights when wood was scarce.

Thankfully, these practices have ended, and mummies today, from Egypt and around the world, are being treated with care and respect. They are meticulously preserved and studied for the wealth of scientific and historical information they contain. And they are admired by those with an imagination for history, horror, and yes, beauty.

Mummy

Photography (c) 2002 Zubro and released under GFDL

Notes:

I highly recommend checking out Kenneth Garrett’s stunning photographs of the mummies of Tutankhamun’s family from a 2010 National Geographic article.

Also, this amazing Ming Dynasty wet mummy found recently in China. This appears to be an accidental mummy.

If you’re in the Portland area there are a few weeks left to see the Mummies of the World exhibit at OMSI. Well worth the visit!

Death in Three Sentences

by Lisa Alber

Last week I attempted to write a short story in three sentences — beginning, middle, end. A friend named Rick had posted his power shorts on his blog, and I decided to join in the game, thinking, pfft, easy. (Hah!) Here’s what I came up with:

With a secret smile, the woman placed a bouquet of daisies next to the grave marker. She traced her fingers over the name engraved on the marker and reveled in the thought of her new luxury condo with its closet full of designer clothes. She’d always preferred her identical twin’s name anyhow.

Successful or not, doesn’t matter. I present it to you as a prime example of why I was invited to blog with my fellow ShadowSpinners. Namely, that I can’t write three lousy sentences without death waving its skeletal hand. Don’t forget me, don’t forget me!

Seriously, I could write a novel about this simple premise. Never mind that identical twins don’t have 100% identical fingerprints (pah, details details), I could populate 400 pages with subplots, intrigue, red herrings, pathos, and twists all centered around an evil twin who offs her sister to take over her identity. In the Lifetime movie version, Shannen Doherty would play the twins. She kinda creeps me out. (In fact, identical twins kinda creep me out, too.)

Just before writing this blog post, I set myself a new challenge: write a three-sentence story without the death.

Hmm…A girl walks her dachshund and…a car mows down the dog…

Fer-Christ’s-sake-Lisa, you cannot off the dog. People, yeah. Dogs, never!

So, OK, a sad girl with a dachshund named Brutus…Why is she sad? Maybe her mom just died…Or maybe she witnessed a murder. No, she didn’t witness a murder. Instead, maybe Brutus sniffed all around the mulberry bush and pulled out a severed hand! Yeah, that’s the ticket, and maybe, yeah, yeah, and maybe the sad girl recognized the wedding ring on the hand — her mom’s!

Yeah! Wait, no. Oh, never mind. I am and always will be an unrepentant shadow spinner.