Death: The Highest Stake for a Writer

I’m postponing the next installment on my series, Fiction as Art, as we’ve embarked on a Halloween themed week. 

Hand Inked Grim Reaper IllustrationThe Grim Reaper broke into my house on a frigid January night  when I was five and stole the body and perhaps the soul of my four-year-old brother. I had no understanding of death at such a tender age and society had no intention of explaining it to me. Consequently, I had a nightmarish fear of death well into my teen years, constantly looking over my shoulder for the arrival of the sinister harbinger of death, waiting for his scythe to slice my soul from my body and take it to…well… I had no idea where a soul went.

Most of us can describe the image of The Grim Reaper, having seen depictions of him in folklore and movies. It puts a human face on death as the black-cloaked, skeletal, scythe-wielding entity who collects the soul at the moment we die. He escorts our soul to the other side, acting as a guide, often called a Psychopomp, and helps us make the transition to the afterlife. Some accounts say he just touches the person to pop their soul so they don’t feel pain when they die, but most say he uses that sharp blade to slice the soul from the body. According to the Book of Revelation (6:1-8) he is considered to be the fourth horseman of the Apocalypse.

The Grim Reaper is known for not saying much, always having a grin on his face, able to turn his head completely around a la Linda Blair, vigilant lest someone try to cheat him. He rides in a rickety old coach drawn by white horses that makes a horrifying noise because of the stones he carries in it. When he takes someone’s soul, he drops off a stone. If we browse through medieval history we can see that the figure of death as a skeleton might be linked with the massive deaths that occurred between the late fourteenth to early fifteenth century as a result of the Black Death.

The biological definition of death is the total cessation of life processes that eventually occurs in all living things.  Life and death are inseparable and inevitable parts of this world’s existence. But we humans crave to know more, to understand what that means and thus, our obsessive fascination with death. We want a vivid picture, someone to come back and tell us what’s on the other side. Profound questions arise: Is there really a God, Heaven, Hell? Does Satan exist? We want to know what it feels like to die, what we will see, where we will go, if we’ll meet our loved ones again. And since most of us are terrified of death, we put a scary face on it, whereas we could have made The Reaper a friendly guide to help us make this important transition.

This fascination results in a fertile field for artists. The presence of this frightening entity has captured the imagination of storytellers, writers and artists for as long as man has existed on this earth. And as writers there is no greater stake in our stories than death, in all its scary and magnificent forms. Crafting the visage and the fear into a manuscript is an exciting way to produce tension because it is universally felt. Your protagonist must save the town, the country, the world, or even the universe from annihilation. She must reverse the evil antagonist’s plan to murder innocents and set the world on its path to destruction. Or, maybe she just saves one life: a child, a lover, a parent, a stranger. Your story can evolve from the result of an unfortunate accident, or death can be used as the ultimate sacrifice or punishment. Killing characters has become very popular in modern fiction, be it film, television or novels. TV actors often lament that they don’t get a script until the moment of the table read and they quickly go to the last page and read backwards to determine if they survive the episode. No one is spared theses days, not even a lead character. One of my favorite editors constantly quips when reviewing my stories: “Who dies? We’re writers! Someone must die!”

My first book, which morphed into a trilogy because I had so much to say, is the result of that first encounter with the Grim Reaper. I’ve always been interested in what happens to the energy in your body after death. The science of physics teaches us that energy cannot be created or destroyed, so it must go somewhere. Is it a cohesive entity? Is that what we call a soul? Is there someone or something in control of it? These questions have walked me down many pathways in my life as I explored, studied, and questioned religion, astrology, reincarnation, and the science of death. Unfortunately, I have no answers. No one does, and most of us rely on faith in some form to help us cope with the scary notion of death.

The concept of the Grim Reaper is a chilling reminder that death is a reality that we all must face. However, he can also teach us much. He reminds us that life is short and we should make the most of every moment. So, eat dessert, sing and dance every day, tell your loved ones how much they mean to you. Because one day, when you least expect it, he just might crook that bony finger at you and say, “Come, my pretty. Time’s up!





Author: Caryn McGill

Caryn is a former high school science teacher, school district administrator and adjunct college professor.

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