There’s a morbid joke that goes like this: I want to die peacefully in my sleep like my grandfather, not screaming in terror like the passengers in his car.
One of the things that makes early October challenging for me is that it’s the anniversary of my father’s death. He died many years ago of a heart attack surrounded by doctors and nurses fighting to save his life.
My dad’s death has never really stopped haunting me and I think it goes a long way to explain my interest in vampire fiction. After all, vampires are immortal. However, I’ve come to realize there’s another dimension to the appeal of vampires. Anne Rice introduced me to the idea of vampires who don’t necessarily want their victims to suffer. In effect, they’re companions in those last, terrifying moments of death. A vampire can create a death that’s not only peaceful, but almost pleasurable. Even in Nosferatu, Lucy doesn’t die alone. Orlock is with her, almost loving her. Her death has purpose in that she’s sacrificing herself for her village.
Death is inevitable and it’s often an important component in horror fiction. Sometimes, the subject is explored in depth as in the vampire stories I discussed. The vampire might prove to be a tragic figure, denied the death he’s able to grant. Other times, it’s the shocking tragedy of death that motivates the characters into action and provides the adrenaline rush for the reader. A vampire who rips people’s throats out is likely to be seen more as a monster to be hunted rather than a sympathetic character in his own right.
When I wrote Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order and Vampires of the Scarlet Order, I was most interested in exploring vampires coming to terms with their immortality and living in a world where death not only happens all around them but where they are often the cause of death. The vampires use their power to be mercenaries so they can exist in a world with humans. Because they want to coexist with humans, they endeavor not to be cruel when they kill. When they can, they place a pleasant fantasy in the mind of the victim. Otherwise, they endeavor to be merciful and quick.
Death in The Astronomer’s Crypt is more sudden and horrific. The creature who deals death has no interest in humans, perhaps even actively hates them. In that sense, the monster is more like a force of nature. You don’t know who the monster is going to kill or why. The only choices are get out of its way or try to stop it, and the latter may prove futile.
The way death is addressed in the story sets the tone. Even a story where no one dies can raise questions about death. For example, a story of torture might not have death, but the reader may question whether it would be better for the tortured character to die. In a psychological horror story, the question may be whether or not madness is a type of death.
Unfortunately, we don’t get out of this life alive, but this aspect of horror has allowed me to explore this difficult subject and to find ways to appreciate the time I have with those I love.