Poor old Death, that abstract devil. When it comes to books, Death’s often the bridesmaid, rarely the deceased bride, cutting down characters off screen like an underappreciated civil servant. There are, however, a precious few literary endeavors that bring Death to center stage, allowing him/her/it to become a fully fleshed character in his/her/its own right. Here are some of Death’s most memorable starring roles:
Paradise Lost, by John Milton
Milton’s epic poem about the Fall of Man and Adam and Eve’s Eden eviction introduces the whole concept of death personified. It is not a flattering depiction. In Book II of Paradise Lost, we get the heinous familial backstory that produced Death: while in Heaven, Sin sprang from her father, Satan, who in turn raped his daughter to produce a son, Death, who himself rapes his mother to beget the pack of hell hounds ringing her waist. The three form, essentially, an Unholy Trinity. It’s allegory, it’s grotesque, it’ll stick with you.
The Tales of Beedle the Bard, by J.K. Rowling
In a slightly less terrifying cameo, Death greets us as an old friend in “The Tale of the Three Brothers.” This wizarding children’s story concerns the Deathly Hallows, three magical artifacts that turn out to be ultra-important in the defeat of one Lord Voldemort. And it goes a little something like this: three brothers come to a treacherous river, and being wizards, they fashion a magical bridge over the river. As they cross, they meet an angry Death, who connivingly gives them three gifts: an invincible wand, a stone to resurrect the dead, and an invisibility cloak. Needless to say, the first two gifts end poorly for the unlucky and arrogant men. The third brother, invisible to Death until he chooses to de-robe, eventually meets the Grim Reaper as an equal. Would that we were all so fortunate.
A Dirty Job, by Christopher Moore
Reading one of Moore’s stories often feels like falling into a Dalí painting. A Dirty Job is no exception, as it answers the eternal question, “Why is Death never an option at career day?” Beta Male Charlie Asher, through a series of unfortunate events, becomes one of many Deaths, serving as a soul-collector ferrying soul objects safely to their final rest. It’s not a smooth career transition, particularly for a single dad, but Charlie gives us one of the most relatable Reaper renditions because, heck, he could be any of us.
The Book Thief, by Marcus Zusak
The story of Liesl Meminger in WWII Germany is a heart-breaking read, and Death—not just dying, but the entity itself—is in no small part responsible for the pain. As a narrator, Death is observant, compassionate, and empathetic. As he speaks, so tenderly, of events not even he understands, he renews your own sense of horror. In the end, Death’s final word is as good a summation as any book-jacket blurb: “I am haunted by humans.”
The Discworld series, by Terry Pratchett
The black-robed skeleton is back as Pratchett’s version of Death, who stalks Discworld, collecting wizards, witches, and the well-to-do personally. Should you allow yourself to see him, you’ll recognize him as the one being thwarted by Rincewind, or playing games with eternally high stakes. While death is scary, Death is actually a bit of an everyman, with a great house, a keen sense of humor, and a spunky granddaughter. He’s also a partyhopper, explaining in The Light Fantastic that he’d just left a fabulous party that was going to go downhill at midnight (cough The Masque of the Red Death cough).
The Sandman series, by Neil Gaiman
Finally, it’s ladies’ night! In Gaiman’s Sandman saga, Death is actually the most well-adjusted of the Endless, what with mopey Dream, psychotic Delirium, vengeful Desire, and the rest of the gang. She’s also a babe, appearing as a young, cheerful, dark-haired goth with a chic Eye of Horus tat. It’s not hard to love her, career woman that she is. It’s even easier to respect this Death, who lives and dies as a mortal once each century to fully understand the value of her role. Now that’s how you Lean In.
On a Pale Horse, by Piers Anthony
Remember The Santa Clause? Good. I recommend not killing Santa, and I also recommend not killing Death. Zane, our unfortunate protagonist in the first installment of the Incarnations of Immortality series, is thisclose to committing suicide when he happens to see Death coming toward him. With astounding fight-or-flight instincts, he turns the gun on Death and kills him, thus assuming the role himself. This goes over about as well as you might imagine. Be careful out there, kids.
What’s your favorite capital-D Death in fiction?