There is the Gothic. There is Horror. There is Dark Fantasy, and the Supernatural, but there is not currently a genre of fiction that specifically centers itself around death. So I made it up: Death Fiction, or Death Mythos, if you want to get fancy.
While Death Mythos can fit into any of these four genre descriptors, I want to isolate it because it requires only one of four things to identify it: a mediation on death; an exploration of death culture or death history motifs; the hierarchy or process surrounding death; or the enigmatic mystery of the afterlife. It can have markers of the other genres (Victorian motifs of Gothic, the disturbing rapture of Horror, the unsettling magic of Dark Fantasy, or the spectral wonders of the Supernatural) but it is not required to.
Many might think that anything dealing with death automatically becomes Horror, in some way, but I think that’s false: death isn’t required to make a Horror story a Horror story, and likewise, elements of Horror are not required in a tale of death. We all die. There is no terrible surprise in that.
Death Mythos already exists, it’s just usually called something else. But it deserves to be its own genre because its theme is so distinct. I’ve curated a collection of my five most recent favorite Death Mythos stories for you to sample. These are the kinds of tales that I gravitate to in both my reading and my own writing. These are the themes that hold power for me, and that I attempt to explore again and again.
Three of these stories can be found in Nightmare Magazine, a publisher of Horror.
1.Who is Your Executioner? by Maria Dahvana Headley
A tale that dwells in the supernatural and the darkness of disturbing fantasy, “Who is Your Executioner?” is compelling because of Oona, its bewitching death mistress.
2. Death and Death Again by Mari Ness
What is the afterlife like? What does it feel like? Is it painful? The murderess in this story is obsessed with these questions; they are what drive her to kill, time and time again.
3. On Post-Mortem Birds by Natalia Theodoridou
I love this tale because of the way it conveys its myth as truth: we all have a bird inside of us, and the living must know how to care for it when we die. Will it be freed, upon our deaths? What kind will it be? Will someone trap and keep it, never letting our soul find peace?
4. Burial by Helena Bell
Another compelling myth tale, reminiscent of Ursula K. Le Guin, that follows the Shipmaker, the wise woman who disposes of the dead.
5. The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter by Angela Slatter
My absolute favorite. It’s a deathling’s dream – the protagonist’s a coffin-maker, for crying out loud! The Victorian elements are ever ornate and macabre, and the passion brewing underneath the surface in this story is enthralling. I want to read it over and over again.
Death Fiction! I’ve never really thought about it, but that now that I you mention it, we DO need such a genre. I mean, I read ghost stories all the time, but that’s not nearly the same thing, now is it? As a matter of fact, now that I am thinking upon it, I really cannot come up with a single title to add to your list. But it’s such a fascinating idea, I’m going to continue pondering it. In the meantime, I look forward to tracking down these deathly stories and giving them a read 🙂