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My Survey of Necromancy in Fiction

March 19, 2018

This is a version of the paper I read at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, about all the fiction I’ve read featuring necromancy, reanimation, and resurrection.

Greater Than His Nature Will Allow: A Survey of Reanimation, Resurrection, and Necromancy in Fiction since Frankenstein by Jeanne Griggs

Victor Frankenstein, in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus, says “Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.”
Victor’s warning to other would-be creators of life is based on two suppositions less familiar to us today than they were to readers in the early nineteenth century:
–That nature itself (or a nature-creating divinity) has intentions and goals.
–That humans are made in the image of God and are to rule the rest of creation.

Victor Frankenstein feels that he should not have tried to imitate the power that only God can properly employ to create life, and the subtitle “The Modern Prometheus” indicates that Victor has stolen the power to create life. Shelley’s introduction to the 1831 edition denigrates the reanimation Victor manages as a “slight spark of life” which can only “mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.”

In subsequent works of fiction, mortals who dare to attempt the god-like power of resurrection suffer similar disappointment, finding that the re-created life is a corrupted version. For instance, at the end of W.W. Jacobs’ 1902 story “The Monkey’s Paw,” the protagonist realizes that the reanimated body of his son cannot possibly retain anything of the person he knew and loved. And in H.P. Lovecraft’s 1922 story “Herbert West—Reanimator,” repeated attempts to restart bodies produce increasingly horrifying results.

In the twentieth century, stories about created beings made of flesh and bone began to move away from science fiction and towards fantasy. They are less about human ambition and the search for forbidden knowledge, and more about magic and being born with the power to raise the dead.

In Ursula K. LeGuin’s 1968 novel A Wizard of Earthsea, Ged has ambition–he is a seeker of knowledge who is drawn in by the use of dark magic he can’t control. He is the only one with the knowledge and talent necessary to repair the damage he has inflicted by letting an undead creature into the world of the living.

The seeker of knowledge who is drawn in by dark magic he can’t control is one of the main tropes of necromancy stories, from 1818 until today. While it sometimes has to do with the intellectual temptation of talking to the dead to find out about the afterlife, it’s also the impetus for the god-like thrill of re-animating dead bodies. Over-reachers who can’t resist the temptation to prove their mastery over death include the necromancer figure in Tolkien’s The Hobbit and LOTR, Lewis in Bellairs’ The House With a Clock in its Walls, Tammy in Martinez’s Gil’s All Fright Diner, Howard’s Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, the ancient Grisha named Morozova in Bardugo’s YA novel Ruin and Rising, Paulsen in Gjevre’s Requiem in La Paz, and Jamie in Stephen King’s Revival. These are traditional necromancer figures, ones who find out, one way or another, that necromancy never pays.

But starting with Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, in 2009, we begin to get more first-person accounts of necromancy. We sympathize with Johannes Cabal and find out what drives him. In more recent YA novels featuring a traditional necromancer figure we see young people who have learned how to reanimate dead bodies struggling with the ethics of using their powers. In F.M. Boughan’s Cinderella Necromancer, we see a lonely young girl trying to resist using the full extent of her newly-discovered dark power. The young necromancer Finn Gramaraye in Randy Henderson’s YA novel Finn Fancy Necromancy also wrestles with the question of whether a necromancer can ever defeat death and mentions “Monkey Paw consequences.” Even when it’s clear that necromancy doesn’t pay, these YA stories offer their young necromancers a redemption arc if they can resist the temptation to see their power as unlimited.

An enduring trope of necromancy tales is the overwhelming desire of a lover or relative to bring the dead person back to life. The father in Pet Sematary, by Stephen King, wants his wife and son back so much that he ignores the horrible way his cat came back to life, hoping against hope that it will be different with the people he loves. Andrew, in Beuhlman’s The Necromancer’s House, literally sells his soul to the devil in order to continue living with his lover Sarah and their dog after they have died. The Jinni turns aside the wish of a little boy who wants his mother back in Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni, because he knows what horrors such a wish can produce.

Another major trope of necromancy stories is the puppet master, who has the power to reanimate bodies and uses it to supply more bodies for war, the purposes of another (usually a boss or ruler), or his own profit. The Death-Lord Arawn uses the power of the black cauldron, in Lloyd Alexander’s story of that name, to supply bodies for a war. Piers Anthony’s Jonathan of Xanth and Garth Nix’s Abhorsen can raise and command obedience from the dead. The Purple Emperor of Herbie Brennan’s novel is raised from the dead in order to keep the crown prince from ascending to his throne. Hades raises undead warriors to fight for his side in Riordan’s The Last Olympian.

The puppet masters in more recent fiction have a few qualms about animating their undead puppets. Although it’s Anita Blake’s job to raise the dead in Laurell K. Hamilton‘s Vampire Hunter series, she objects to removing too much of their free will. The evil necromancers in Jim Butcher’s novel Dead Beat have no qualms, but his hero Harry has plenty, being undead himself. In Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone series, Karou’s foster father Brimstone didn’t have too many qualms about raising the souls of his dead people so they could continue fighting a generations-long war, but when Karou becomes the resurrectionist of her people, her friend exclaims “you’re freaking Frankenstein!” and Karou indicates that her creations have free will by saying “If a human created ‘life,’ there could be no soul, only a poor benighted monster with no place in the world” whereas “I have the souls already….I’m just making the bodies.”

Related to the puppet master trope is the idea of the undead creature as a chimera, put together from parts of different bodies and also an impossible or foolish fancy. Although in Shelley’s novel Victor Frankenstein uses alchemy to create his monster, subsequent versions of the story of Frankenstein’s monster present him as a creature stitched together out of parts of different bodies (an image that gets comic treatment in the 1974 movie Young Frankenstein). The demon in Wells’ I Am Not a Serial Killer keeps himself alive with body parts he takes from different victims, chosen for their arms or eyes or whatever part he needs next. The Whatsitsname in Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad is also made and continually re-made from parts of bodies found blown up in the streets. Maggie Stiefvater’s hero Gansey is resurrected as The Raven King in a body miraculously patched together by a combination of nature and magic. Rather than a foolish fancy, Gansey’s resurrection is a necessary part of the power balance in his world.

Lust for power drives another common type of necromancer–the seeker of forbidden knowledge who keeps seeking because he or she wants to live forever. At first, the creatures created by these seekers exhibit a lack of soul or human feeling. They have no sense of agape, or love for fellow humans, like Frankenstein’s monster who says “if I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear.” Stoker’s Dracula preys on humans with no sign of remorse. Vampire stories often feature creatures who have no human feeling, like the vampires in Holly Black’s The Coldest Girl in Coldtown.

Other seekers of knowledge who want to live forever and exhibit a lack of human feeling include the Dark Magician Cob in LeGuin’s The Farthest Shore, Voldemort in Rowling’s Harry Potter series, and The Elementals in Francesca Lia Block’s book of that name. This kind of knowledge-seeker can also become a creature who possesses another in order to continue his own life, like Curwen in Lovecraft’s “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” Ephraim Waite in Lovecraft’s “The Thing on the Doorstep,” and the demon who possesses Kate’s first husband Eric in Kenner’s Deja Demon.

Recent vampire stories usually twist this trope, featuring undead characters who want to live forever and can do it without much loss of human feeling and with very few adverse effects, like Rice’s vampire Lestat, Betsey and her vampire and werewolf friends in Davidson’s Undead and Unwed series, and members of the Cullen family in Meyer’s Twilight series.

Recent zombie stories also feature undead characters who exhibit no loss of human feeling, often because they played no part in their own reanimation. Like the vampire stories, many of these imagine happy endings for the originally-innocent monster like Frankenstein’s. The zombies in Waters’ Generation Dead are as bewildered about why they’ve come back to life as anyone else, and they struggle in a very human way with prejudice from the living—they prefer to be called “living impaired” or “differently biotic.” Carey’s Girl with all the Gifts, who doesn’t even know she’s a zombie at the beginning of the story, turns out to be a new and hardier kind of human, and is the key to the survival of a new kind of life on earth.

The girl in Wasserman’s Skinned, who wakes up to find that a download of her brain has been installed in an artificially-made but still flesh-and-blood body, exhibits no loss of human feeling. The long-dead general in Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit, whose consciousness is downloaded by the main character, Cheris, helps his flesh-and-blood host assimilate some of his knowledge.

Many cyborg, robot, and Artificial Intelligence stories also show this progression away from an emphasis on the creator’s over-reaching or the creature’s lack of soul and towards an imagined happy ending for the brave new creature; this is still explored by science fiction writers today.

Fantasy writers usually head in a different direction. One of these is an increasingly common twist on the trope of the necromancer who is drawn in by the intellectual temptation of talking to the dead. The twist is that there’s a chosen one whose communication with a dead person results in that chosen one being compelled to continue a quest. The degree to which the living retain any free will varies. The people who work as “bodies” in Murphy’s novel The Possessions take a drug to summon the spirits of the dead so their loved ones can talk to them. Their job is set up to keep the dead from taking over the bodies of the living, but it turns out that someone else’s life can start to look good after they’ve lived it for long enough. Archivist Wasp, in Kornher-Stace’s novel of that name, survives by trying to get information from “ghosts.” When she succeeds, she is able to not only lay some of those ghosts to rest, but is armed with information that frees her from her former life. Mike, in Aric Davis’ A Good and Useful Hurt, gives himself a tattoo with ink that has ashes from the body of his murdered girlfriend and is then able to find her killer. Tara, who works for a necromantic firm in Gladstone’s Three Parts Dead, finds that bringing a god back to life means derailing her own career in order to see the life she has brought back to the god take hold in her city. Even the quest of Odessa, a court necromancer in the kingdom of Karthia in Marsh’s Reign of the Fallen, is to find out who has turned her undead king into a “Shade,” making him unfit to continue his rule. Occasionally the quest is continued by the dead person himself, as in Amy Plum’s Die for Me, where a hero come mysteriously and spontaneously back to life so he can continue his heroic acts, saving good people who would otherwise die before their time.

Sometimes, in 21st century fiction, resurrection goes right–or at least not as wrong as when a person tries it–because it is performed by a god. This happens in Gaiman’s 2001 novel American Gods, Hawkin’s 2015 novel The Library at Mount Char, and Drayden’s 2017 novel The Prey of Gods.

I think the culmination of the necromancy tropes in 21st-century fiction comes with novels in which the seeker for knowledge manages to contain dark knowledge or destroy dark magic. This happens in the comic YA novels by Lish McBride, Hold Me Closer, Necromancer and Necromancing the Stone. The hero, Sam, doesn’t even know he is a necromancer until he is visited by a scary-looking older guy who tells him that he is. When Sam confronts his mother, he finds out that she is a witch and was afraid of his powers when he was born, afraid enough to bind them. His quest is to decide how to act once his powers can no longer be hidden from the world by his mother’s protective spells. The main thing he does in the novel is loose the spirits that the older guy, the evil necromancer Douglas, had resurrected, so they can help him rid the world of Douglas. Between pop tunes used as chapter titles, references to pop culture, and a comic perspective on young adult life, this is a new treatment of the old tropes, showing that the modern way to dispel darkness is to laugh at it and try to fix what has been previously twisted by fear.

In the sequel, Necromancing the Stone, Sam and his supernatural teen friends learn how to incorporate their powers into everyday life. When his sister begs him to resurrect their dead father, Sam explains that “it doesn’t really seem right, calling him up for no reason. Kind of, I don’t know, disrespectful.” By the end, Sam gets a tattoo to remind himself of the distinction between good and evil use of his power. In this world where magic is real, the teenagers have to learn how to use it to produce good that can replace the evil of the past. Sam is not working against Nature, but trying to restore the balance of magic in his world.

The effort to contain dark knowledge also happens, in a more serious way, in Nick Harkaway’s latest novel Gnomon, a novel about the urge to resurrect a picture of the universe that includes a particular person—a longing so intense that the person who has been left alive will try to break the rules of the universe itself. Although the effect is metaphoric in the novel, the character with the most literal urge for resurrection is Athenais Karthogonensis, a 4th-century alchemist with a dead son. She often thinks about bringing things back from the dead, once even considering it to prevent the waste of a duck she had planned to cook, thinking she could “speak to the duck and make it fresh again, though always careful not to push too hard and bring it once again to life.” The alchemy of this novel, harkening back to Victor Frankenstein’s original area of study, is based on making the metaphor of resurrection literal, as “there’s a very real chance the basic unit of our universe is information. Meaning is as fundamental as matter.” What we think we know and want individually is just one piece in the larger picture of how we can function collectively, as a society.

All of these stories of “the modern Prometheus,” after Shelley’s, have increasingly contained a degree of postmodernist play on the horrors of alchemy or magic, which were originally thought to produce only “imperfect animation.” The creation of a simulacrum of a human has spawned more simulacra in a growing body of fictional treatments. Both the creator and the creature become chimera, composed of various parts from different films, drawings, songs, stories, and novels.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. the other theo permalink
    March 21, 2018 1:01 am

    Have you considered how Necromancy literature descends from the older body of Jewish golem stories? There, a man-like creature created of mud or clay is rendered animate by a rabbi through Kabbalistic rituals and incantations. There are some of the same concerns with controlling the creature, from what little I know (mostly from reading the modern science-fiction rendition “He, She, and It” by Marge Piercy.)

    The golem is created by Kaballah, esoteric religious teaching from God. The golem is, to some degree holy.

    Frankenstein’s monster is the creation of man, and of science. It is therefore not from God and outside the natural order.

    Necromancy is of a third and darker order: it disturbs the dead from their eternal rest and comes from darker beings, demons, Elder Gods, dark forces. They are not merely outside the natural order, but antithetical to it.

    • March 21, 2018 7:39 am

      I did hear a presentation by my friend Jonna about golems, and she talked about how the golem is, to some degree, holy.
      You make good distinctions between golem stories, science reanimation stories, and dark magic necromancy stories. That might be the next direction I want to go with this, making more distinctions.
      That move would mean including robots, cyborgs, and AI because (like golems) they are created beings.

  2. March 21, 2018 11:36 am

    I love being able to (slightly) see literature through your eyes. While I’m not as enamored of necromancy, what you’ve written makes me look at the books I’ve read a little differently.

    • March 21, 2018 2:24 pm

      I’m glad. And yes, I am slightly enamored, which is why I advise against it so strongly. I think people often rail against what they fear they could most easily fall prey to.

  3. K D permalink
    March 21, 2018 1:48 pm

    I enjoyed this. I think that Voldemort could’ve done double-duty here. He sought immortality for himself, but he also (like Arawn) animated corpses for an army of Inferi. (Spoilers!) I suppose Sauron falls in this category, too, though his Nazgul were not so voicelessly/mindlessly enslaved as either the Cauldron-Born or the Inferi.

    How does Dr Who fit in? His resurrections are not “against Nature”, so perhaps his iterative life doesn’t count as an example of necromancy?

    I like the way you make me wonder new things.

    • March 21, 2018 2:28 pm

      It’s true about Voldemort. For this presentation, at least, I was painting with a wide brush, so I put the creator characters in the category where I thought they fit best, and then accommodated the creature characters to those categories, to some extent. I’m more interested in the creator but it’s easy to confuse creator with creature sometimes.
      I think you’re right about iterative life. I’d put it near the category for reincarnation, although the doctor does sometimes use the same body.
      That’s a nice compliment, that I make you wonder new things!

    • the other theo permalink
      March 21, 2018 4:02 pm

      As a long time fan of Doctor Who, I do not see “regenerations” on the show as fitting in with necromancy at all. There, the Doctor never really dies. He may become so injured that he radically heals, and changes appearance and persona in the process. Granted, the 1996 US TV movie really muddles this up by pairing the regeneration sequence with audio from the animation sequence in the 1931 Frankenstein film and showing a period of quasi-death before regeneration, but the BBC series never does this. There, it’s always living Doctor to living Doctor.

      • March 21, 2018 4:08 pm

        I love it that we are making such fine distinctions, here. It really spurs my thinking.
        One of the arbitrary distinctions I made for this presentation, to keep it in the time limit, was to discuss fiction only. Although you may notice I cheated by mentioning the movie Young Frankenstein.
        The bit about postmodernism in the conclusion was a nod to all the movies, tv shows, songs, etc. that I didn’t have time to discuss.

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