No one knows what happens when we die. Religions, pyramids, and entire industries have cropped up in response to humanity’s quest to solve the mystery without, you know, actually dying. Arguably the entire institution of literature is a response to death—either to ruminate and philosophize on The End, or to snatch a piece of literary immortality. A few authors have taken a direct route in answering the big questions: they’ve written from the POV of someone who is already dead.
Some might complain that deceased narrators are indefensible, but the trick can be pulled off quite successfully from time to time—as in the following six books, pulling from a wide range of speculative approaches, will hopefully reveal.
The Last Days of Jack Sparks, by Jason Arnopp
Arnopp’s new book is a modern exercise in metafiction, with the fate of its protagonist and narrator made pretty clear from the title. Sparks is dead, and while he isn’t technically narrating as a self-aware ghost (the book is structured as a manuscript draft Sparks leaves behind, detailing, you guessed it, his last days), considering his final hours are plagued by apparent hauntings and other supernatural events, you’d be forgiven for assuming so (when did he find the time to write it all down?). Arnopp had created a fabulous character, equal parts arrogant and hilarious, doomed and unreliable. A successful author in the Hunter Thompson mold who is working on a book about the supernatural, Sparks begins his downward spiral when someone mysteriously uploads an inexplicable video to his YouTube account, and the reader follows along as Sparks’ manuscript—and his state of mind—grow increasingly unhinged.
Warm Bodies, by Isaac Marion
Marion’s narrator and protagonist is, of course, a zombie, which is a modern twist on the dead narrator angle. R is an unusual zombie, at first, able to think semi-coherently and still retaining some spark of his living humanity. When his appetites drive him to kill a young man and eat his brain, R experiences the man’s memories—which include his girlfriend, Julie. R saves Julie and protects her, continuing to consume her boyfriend’s brain in order to experience more memories—and slowly, along with some of his fellow zombies, evolving into something more. A surprisingly touching story that found a surprising new angle for the zombie apocalypse, not to mention a new angle for a posthumous narrator.
My Life as a White Trash Zombie, by Diana Rowland
In the same vein (ew) as Warm Bodies is this first volume is Rowland’s freaky funny urban fantasy series about a drug-addicted high school dropout who is going nowhere fast—until she wakes up in the hospital one day with hazy memories of overdosing and a car crash, but nothing to show for it but a strong hankering for brains. Angela is most definitely dead—consuming the contents of the fresh cadavers that come across her slab at the coroner’s office (where else is a zombie going to find a job with a meal plan?) is the only thing that keeps her flesh from rotting—but she’s still possessed of all her human desires, including an attraction to a hunky sheriff’s deputy, and a sense of duty to her (former) fellow man that compels her to try to catch a serial killer on the loose. If this concept sounds familiar, it may be because the CW series iZombie, which was created a few years later, features a suspiciously similar premise (it is ostensibly based on a the excellent comic series of the same name, but the two are…rather different).
The Third Policeman, by Flann O’Brien
O’Brien’s nearly unclassifiable novel seems to be about a one-legged scholar who helps a friend murder and rob a wealthy neighbor, and then suffers through an increasingly bizarre and hellish aftermath. Once it becomes clear the narrator is, in fact, dead (and has been all along), everything snaps into clearer focus: the book details his punishment—the hell his soul has descended into because of his crime. Circular and filled with beautifully disturbing passages, O’Brien’s novel continues to fascinate new generations—including millions of fans of the TV show Lost, which used the book as an early clue as to the eventual plot resolution. Whatever you think of dead narrators, The Third Policeman is one of those books that rewards multiple careful readings with new insights, revelations, and ideas.
The Lying Game, by Sara Shepard
The idea of beautiful, separated twin girls suddenly discovering each other isn’t a new one, and has been used in various YA stories for decades. Shepard’s story is a little different, as one of the sisters, Sutton, is not only the poster child for the Mean Girls club, but also very, very dead from page one. While Sutton isn’t an omnipresent voice, her ghost attaches itself to her twin sister Emma and is a constant presence in the story, as the surviving sibling assumes Sutton’s identity and begins to plumb the mystery of her mean-spirited life—and her murder. The mystery is surprisingly meaty, and Shepard uses the dead narrator to interesting and novel effect.
Spoon River Anthology, by Edgar Lee Masters
Poetry, yes—but fascinating poetry, as Masters offers up the remembrances of the deceased residents of Spoon River. Each poem is, in fact, the epitaph of someone buried in the graveyard, as recited by themselves, and over the course of the collection, the poems take on a novel-like complexity, sporting over 200 characters who refer to each other and shed light on each other’s stories as they explain, patiently, how they lived and died. If you’re normally not a poetry person, this collection could be the exception to your rule, as it’s definitely poetry that tells a story—and does so with the largest collection of posthumous narrators ever assembled.
The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein
Whether this book is speculative or literary is up to debate, but any book whose narrator is a self-aware dog who wishes to be reincarnated as a human is arguably a fantasy, we think. While Enzo the dog isn’t technically dead until the end, since the story is told from his earnest, noble, and thoroughly wonderful point of view (and he does, in fact die at the end) it’s safe to say he’s telling his story of his efforts to learn human ways by watching TV and to guide his family through various tragedies and challenges from beyond the grave. You might consider that a spoiler, but we consider it a public service for anyone who accidentally watched Marley and Me without knowing that ending either.
The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold
Perhaps the most famous modern example of the form, Sebold’s bestseller is both a meditation of what death does to the survivors who must reassemble their lives with one huge piece missing, and an exploration of one possible version of the afterlife. As the novel opens, 14-year-old Susie Solomon is cruising around a strange version of heaven that is shaped by her own living dreams and imaginings, even as she peers into the lives and hearts of her surviving family members—and spies on the man who murdered her. Though a literary sensation, this one could easily be shelved with other works of fantasy, as the speculative elements only become more prominent as the book reaches its somber, sad, ultimately uplifting finale.