The idea that death is somehow not the end permeates human imagination. We’re mortal. We know we’re all going to die, no matter what. That knowledge seeps into our stories, our laws, our beliefs. It shapes our cultures. It’s something we fight, or something we meet with grace; something we transcend by leaving a legacy; something we fear. But what if death wasn’t inevitable? What if… death were a revolving door, or a state-change? Vampires, zombies, ghosts, gods (and the occasional mortal protagonist) find a way to defy what should be the end. And while the first three began as monsters, and as monstrous, now they’re as often the hero as they are the villain.
Now, I like a good (bad) vampire. I wrote my college personal statement about the vampire Lestat, back in the day (and they still let me in). I teach classes about zombies. But my favorite don’t-stay-deads are the ghosts, those echoes of personality, strong emotions: love or hate or rage or grief. At the very least, they float around being ominous and at the very worst, they do physical harm to the living. And sometimes they come back. I could probably blame Poltergeist for my long-running fascination with the impermanent dead, but I think it’s really all Star Trek’s fault. Spock didn’t stay dead, so why should anyone else?
World War Z by Max Brooks
No ghosts here! This is a classic zombie apocalypse story, told as a series of interviews with survivors and presented as a faux-history. The fascination here, for me, is not on the zombies, but on their effect on the living, and how our fear of death defines us. Corpses shuffling around, killing the living by the force of sheer numbers … inspiring the best and worst (mostly the worst) of human behavior. The horror of the zombie is that it’s the embodiment of inevitable, unavoidable death. We’re all going to succumb, eventually: our friends, our families. But it’s what we do before it gets to us that defines us.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight translated by Simon Armitage
Also no ghosts. King Arthur is having a fine Christmas until a snarky green half-giant arrives with what seems like an absurd bargain. Hit me, he says. Cut off my head. And then next year, I’ll do the same to you. Young Sir Gawain takes that bargain, imagining easy victory. Oops. And while technically, the Green Knight doesn’t die, he does sustain what should be life-ending damage and walks away afterwards (much to Gawain’s chagrin). The Green Knight is neither monster nor hero, ghost nor monster—but he definitely doesn’t stay dead.
Rusalka by CJ Cherryh
A rusalka is the ghost of a drowned girl who seduces men into joining her. She’s a remnant of grief, of loss, of rage. In Cherryh’s magical Russia, young wizard Sasha and his fugitive friend Pyetr take shelter with an old hermit deep in the woods. While Sasha learns to control his powers, Pyetr discovers the pretty girl in the river … and she discovers him. The rusalka’s complication and development as a character, rather than a mere antagonist, make this one of my favorite ghost stories.
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
Shadow is released from prison the day he learns of his wife’s death. On the way to her funeral, he meets the mysterious Mr. Wednesday, who offers him employment. But then Shadow’s dead wife turns out to be … well … still dead, but also corporeal, and still invested in her husband’s welfare. She has all her memories, but the emotional resonance behind those memories, not so much, and her sympathy continues to deteriorate along with her body. The parallel of her physical and emotional decay makes her tragic, but also compelling.
Woken Furies by Richard K. Morgan
In this third of Morgan’s Kovacs novels, Takeshi Kovacs returns to his homeworld, birthplace of the Quellist revolution and its leader, Quellcrist Falconer. In a world where consciousness is stored in cortical stacks and bodies are simply “sleeves,” death is rarely forever. But when Falconer’s body died, her stack was lost, and the revolution died with her. Now DeCom teams stalk old battlefields, hunting the semi-sentient war machines left over from the failed rebellion. Then one team’s leader has her implants infected by what seems to be Falconer’s data, and suddenly the revolution’s back on. This is a story of ghosts and possession, but also of being haunted by memory and regret. And those, in the end, are worse than any ghost.
Top image from World War Z (2013)
K. Eason is a writing teacher, gamer, knitter, habitual yogini, frequent cook, and wrangler of cats. Her novel, Enemy, is full of characters who just don’t know how to stay dead.