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Books in which necromancy never pays

July 15, 2017

The kind of necromancy that never pays

Spoiler: it’s most kinds. Here’s the Oxford English Dictionary definition of necromancy:
1.a: The art of predicting the future by supposed communication with the dead; (more generally) divination, sorcery, witchcraft, enchantment.
1. b: fig. and in extended use. Something resembling necromancy in nature or effect.
2. As a count noun: an act of necromancy; (more generally) a spell.
3. With capital initial. A name formerly given to the part of the Odyssey (Book 11) describing Odysseus’ visit to Hades.
And here’s my narrower definition:
The kind of necromancy that doesn’t pay consists of trying to communicate with the dead—especially with the intent of trying to find out something about what it’s like after death–or attempting to bring the dead back to life. I don’t differentiate between different kinds of life after death (zombies, vampires, etc.) but include any kind of resurrection in which a living person remembers life before dying and then experiences a changed life.

List One: books and stories in which necromancy never pays

The Black Cauldron, Lloyd Alexander
Arawn raises dead warriors from a black cauldron so they can fight for him.

Xanth series, Piers Anthony
Jonathan, a King of Xanth, re-animates the dead.

Ruin and Rising, Leigh Bardugo
Characters with powers called “Grisha” try to discover the secrets of an early Grisha named Morozova without uncovering the forbidden mysteries that led to his destruction.

The Somnambulist, Jonathan Barnes
Samuel Taylor Coleridge preserved in some kind of steampunk apparatus and then reanimated is briefly amusing, until he begins to lose body parts and spew green poisonous liquid.

The House With a Clock in its Walls, John Bellairs
At a crucial moment, Lewis remembers what he’s read in magic books and is able to destroy the person he brought back from the dead, along with her doomsday device.

The Elementals, Francisca Lia Block
Ariel is asked to join with other characters in a necromancy scheme. And then it is revealed that their purpose was (gasp!) nefarious all along.

The Purple Emperor, Herbie Brennan
Pyrgus, the crown prince of Faerie, is about to be crowned as Purple Emperor. But Pyrgus’s father, the murdered Purple Emperor, has just been raised from the dead.

The Necromancer’s House Christopher Buehlman
What is the price for trying to communicate with the dead? Staying trapped in the past is the price Christopher Beuhlman’s fictional necromancer, Andrew, pays.

Devil’s Kiss, Sarwat Chadda
This novel mixes necromancy, Arthurian legend, and Templar mythology and tosses in a handful or two from Paradise Lost, with just a pinch of the Crusades.

A Good and Useful Hurt, Aric Davis
Getting a tattoo with a dead person’s ashes in the ink allows these characters to dream about their dead loved ones as if they were still alive. When the main character ends up with a dead loved one, he goes to extraordinary lengths to get some of her ashes and make himself a tattoo. And that’s when he realizes that he also has to tattoo the ashes of everyone else her killer has killed onto himself, so the dead women in his dreams can help him find their killer.

American Gods, Neil Gaiman
One character is martyred and then resurrected by a god named “Easter,” and another comes back to life by means of unintential necromancy with leprechaun gold.

Requiem in La Paz, Jonna Gjevre
Isobel, a concert violinist with a cursed instrument, thinks that Paulsen, a necromancer, “sees the devil as he really is” but she is wrong. Paulsen is out of his depth, trying to influence forces that he cannot possibly control.

The Odyssey, Homer
Odysseus must travel to the underworld and raise the spirits of the dead through the use of spells in order to find his way home.

Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, Jonathan L. Howard
It’s the juxtaposition of Johannes Cabal’s dark obsession with regaining his own soul and bringing the dead back to life for his own purposes with his acute sense of morality and the ridiculousness of the situations he finds himself in that gives this novel the tension that makes it worth reading.

The Monkey’s Paw, W.W. Jacobs
A wife asks her husband to use a magical object to wish their son back to life. Soon afterwards they hear a knock at the door and he is afraid to open it, realizing that their son’s body has been buried for more than a week. He suddenly understands that the thing outside is not the son they knew and loved and makes another wish so that when the door is finally opened, there is no one there.

Pet Sematary, Stephen King
A man’s cat and then his two-year-old son and his wife return from the dead as monstrous versions of their former selves.

Revival, Stephen King
What Jamie sees and hears when a preacher’s electrical device is successful at raising the dead is horrifying. It kills the preacher and brings Jamie himself to the edge of sanity, where he totters, off-balance for the rest of his days, afraid to die and find out that the horrifying glimpse he had of life beyond death is all that there is.

The Farthest Shore and A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. LeGuin
Ged is a magician in Earthsea. When he was young he dared to try a powerful necromantic spell and let an undead shadow loose upon the world. He must cross the threshold of death in order to restore balance. In The Farthest Shore, Cob, a dark mage Ged defeated many years before, has learned how to cheat death and live forever, which is sucking all the life out of the world. Ged finally manages to defeat Cob by sacrificing his own magic powers.

Herbert West—Reanimator, H.P. Lovecraft
Each of Herbert West’s attempts to restart bodies after death produces results more horrifying than the last, until one of the reanimated bodies leads the others in an assault on West in revenge, and they tear him apart.

The Thing on the Doorstep, H.P. Lovecraft
“The thing” revealed at the end of the story is the narrator’s friend trapped inside his wife’s putrefying corpse, after the demonic character who possessed her has thrown it off.

Gil’s All Fright Diner, A. Lee Martinez
A necromancer plans to rip open a hole in the fabric of space so old gods can emerge, destroy the world, and give her powers. Her portal is in Gil’s Diner.

Doctor Faustus, Christopher Marlowe
Dr. Faustus rejects the advice of a good angel; he takes the advice of an evil angel who lures him by promising him god-like powers from the practice of necromancy.

The Abhorsen Trilogy, Garth Nix
The necromancer’s bells are used by the Abhorsen and the Necromancers, and can either bind or raise the dead, but there are unintended consequences if the user is improperly trained.

The Last Olympian, Rick Riordan
Hades calls warriors back from the dead to fight Percy Jackson.

Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling
Acts of necromancy in this series include the reanimation of Voldemort and the ability to speak with the dead using the “resurrection stone” which was formerly owned by one of the three brothers who performed necromancy.

Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
Nothing good happens when a man experiments with the reanimation of dead tissue.

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
In The Hobbit, the evil force is called the “necromancer.” In The Lord of the Rings, he has become Sauron.

The Golem and the Jinni, Helene Wecker
The Jinni gives a speech against necromancy to a little boy whose mother has just died when the boy comes to him saying “bring her back!”

I am not a Serial Killer, Dan Wells
When John discovers a demon keeping himself alive with body parts he takes from his victims, he resolves to bring him to justice.

…“what never? well, hardly ever”
List Two: books in which a version of necromancy is not absolutely evil:

Hold Me Closer, Necromancer, Lish McBride
The hero, Sam, doesn’t actually raise anyone from the dead. That has already been done by an evil necromancer named Douglas and when Sam has learned how to harness his own necromantic gift, he uses his power to help put some of them to rest again.

Necromancing the Stone, Lish McBride
In this sequel to Hold Me Closer, Necromancer, Sam is successfully learning to use his necromantic power to fight for what is right. He explains to his own sister that he won’t call up their dead father because “it doesn’t really seem right, calling him up for no reason. Kind of, I don’t know, disrespectful.”  By the end of this book, Sam even gets himself a tattoo to remind himself of the distinction between good and evil use of his power.

Dead Beat, Jim Butcher
The hero, Harry, has been brought back from the dead. He learns that some would-be-necromancers are looking for a copy of a book that would give them “a new round of necro-at-home lessons to expand their talents.” When one of Harry’s friends says it doesn’t sound that bad to bring the dead back to life, he tells him “you’re assuming that what the necromancer brings them back to is better than death.” He explains in more technical terms, later, that “magic is closely interwoven with a wizard’s confidence….magic is essentially a force of creation, of life. Grevane’s necromancy made a mockery of life, even as he used it to destroy.”

Undead and Unwed series, Mary Janice Davidson
This series features some characters brought back from death by supernatural means and others by a wacky time travel/alternate universe plot which is eventually resolved. The group of friends who live with Betsy and her (undead) husband Sinclair all get to live forever by various means, and there are no terrible consequences.

Three Parts Dead, Max Gladstone
Tara is a kind of magician called a “Craftswoman” in her world. She starts her adventure by literally digging up a grave and reanimating the bodies inside it, but is then called to a city called Alt Coulumb to investigate the death of the god. This is a wild romp through eschatology, metaphysics, and the nature of justice that ends up with Tara taking some responsibility for the continuing welfare of Alt Coulumb and its inhabitants. She takes a leave of absence from the necromantic firm in order to see the life she has brought back to the god take hold, rather than just moving on to the next dead fellow someone wants brought back to life.

The Library at Mount Char, Scott Hawkins
Carolyn, a librarian, wakes up from the dead and we find out that she has been reading “outside her catalog,” which is forbidden by her Father. She has a confrontation with another character in which he guesses that she killed Father. Eventually Carolyn takes over the library, and the surprises keep coming until Carolyn brings Father back from the dead and they are both revealed to be immortals.

Finn Fancy Necromancy, Randy Henderson
Finn Gramaraye (whose older brother Mort once called him “Finn Fancy Necromancy Pants”) has a group of friends and family who help him fight to find out what is right and who among the dead might be ready for a good talking-to. The novel has to wrestle with the question of whether a necromancer can ever defeat death. Finn says “there’s no cure….At least, not one that doesn’t require a constant flood of raw magic and serious Monkey Paw consequences.” That never stops anyone in such a novel from trying, however.

Deja Demon, Julie Kenner
Kate fights against demons. The person Kate brings back from the dead is her first husband Eric, who turns out to be infected with a demon even in his borrowed body. Finally Kate can let her husband and best friend in on the secret of her demon-whacking activities, but Kate still hasn’t learned to be entirely open with her daughter about dad’s demon infection.

Archivist Wasp, Nicole Kornher-Stace
Wasp’s job as “Archivist” consists of trying to get information from “ghosts.” She traps the ghosts to find out who they were and what happened to the old world. She succeeds.

The Possessions, Sara Flannery Murphy
The main character Edie and her fellow workers, known as ‘bodies,’ wear the discarded belongings of the dead and swallow pills called lotuses to summon their spirits. The novel isn’t
about an attempt to find out what lies beyond death, however. The people who go to the “Elysian Society,” where Edie works, ask about unresolved issues from their dead loved ones’ lives, not about what has happened after their deaths.

The Raven King, Maggie Stiefvater
A main character comes back from the dead. He is changed, but he is still essentially himself and there is no real penalty for bringing him back. His death is couched as a sacrifice, but he’s only dead for a couple of minutes (so in Princess Bride terms, I guess he’s only “mostly dead”). For the other characters, those couple of minutes are significant; one of them declares that she “was already tired of a timeline without Gansey in it.” But for the reader, it’s a simplified ending to a story that could have set up more interesting stakes.

Skinned, Robin Wasserman April 29, 2009
When a girl from the future wakes up dead she finds that a download of her brain has been installed in an artificial body. She is essentially immortal, since a new body can be made anytime this one wears out. The people of her century don’t consider downloaded-brain people, or “skinners,” to be real people. She struggles to fit back into her old life, and must eventually find a way to build a new one.

Generation Dead, Daniel Waters May 21, 2008
What happens in a world where some teenagers have risen from the dead? In this novel, they have to learn how to live again while they struggle with prejudice from the living.
“You aren’t supposed to call them zombies….”
“Zombies, dead heads, corpsicles. What’s the difference?”
….”You could be expelled for saying things like that…You know you’re supposed to call them living impaired.”
The term “living impaired” is eventually rejected in favor of “differently biotic.”

Do you know of a book or story (written or translated into English) that features necromancy but isn’t included on these lists? Please comment with the title and I will read and include it!

I have some reading time now, since I’m recovering from a right knee replacement. (And it seems appropriate, since I started this blog while recovering from a left knee replacement.)

12 Comments leave one →
  1. July 15, 2017 2:12 pm

    What! No no, surely you must admit that necromancy at least sometimes pays in The Necromancer’s House. Right? It pays CASH MONEY JEANNE.

    Also, have you read Ninefox Gambit? They do necromancy using science! And that is not the only good thing about the book. There are many good things about the book! Once you get past the very confusing first bit (which you can ask me questions about if you want, but basically it’s just that if everyone agrees on the same calendar, they can do special magic) (the magic may be physics or math, idk, I am not Science), the book is really really good, A+++ science fiction. I liked it a LOT, a lot, and I think you would too.

    • July 15, 2017 3:19 pm

      You are right; it does pay cash money in Christopher Beuhlman’s novel; I thought about that as I compiled this list. I still think The Necromancer’s House belongs more on the first list than the second. Not only does it draw from so many traditional sources (Baba Yaga) but the notion of paying is meant to be METAPHORICAL. (By the way, this is part of why I enjoy the bits where mortals sell their souls to Crowley in the tv show Supernatural–the way he makes them squirm, like the man he kisses under the overpass.)
      I have not read Ninefox Gambit but am about to order it right now from my bed, on your advice. Thank you!

  2. July 17, 2017 7:14 pm

    Great fun lists!

    How was your surgery? I hope it went well and you have a speedy recovery!

    • July 18, 2017 9:02 am

      The surgery went well and now it’s a long road to make the leg function again. My knee is a “resister” which I find funny for the metaphorical implications, although not for the literal effects—it means we have to find ways to trick it into bending, using gravity. I keep quoting Treebeard: “I am not very hmmm bendable.”

      • July 23, 2017 6:49 pm

        I am glad it went well. A sense of humor is a good sign! A resister knee is metaphorically excellent! And Treebeard quotes, can’t go far wrong there!

  3. July 18, 2017 5:09 am

    Don’t forget “The Hour of the Dragon” (1935) where raising Xaltotun turns out to be a very bad idea. I wonder what effect Tolkein was aiming for with that name The Necromancer … he wrote “The Hobbit” long before fantasy with fireballs and polymorphing and armies of skeleton was part of pop culture. As a philologist he probably thought of necromancy as a kind of divination, but what associations did he expect his readers to have?

    • July 18, 2017 9:18 am

      I’ll have to read The Hour of the Dragon; haven’t read many Conan novels. Thanks!
      I think Tolkien probably expected his readers to have the associations for the figure of a necromancer that are traditional to listeners/readers of The Odyssey.

  4. July 22, 2017 9:44 am

    American Gods by Neil Gaiman? Kind of an accidental act of necromancy (Shadow unintentionally revivifies Laura with a magic coin) with interesting pro and con aspects.

    • July 22, 2017 12:39 pm

      Yes! The lists are alphabetical by last name of author, so Gaiman’s American Gods is on the first one, right before Gjevre’s Requiem in La Paz.

      • July 22, 2017 3:23 pm

        Oh duh, don’t know how I missed that. Then there is The Time of the Ghost by Diana Wynne Jones, in which the narrator is a ghost who doesn’t know which of four sisters she was in life, and has to figure out what happened to her. Includes a blood drinking scene to enable the ghost to communicate.

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