“Mortal Echoes: Encounters with the End” is another great collection from the British Library that provides the reader with an intimate experience with the otherwise unfathomable: our own mortality.
Mortal Echoes: Encounters with the End is the second book I’ve reviewed in the British Library’s Tales of the Weird series (read my review of Spirits of the Season), which aims to revive long-lost material from the library’s vaults in the genres of horror, the gothic, and weird fiction. This collection focuses on death, stories which bring us face to face with our own mortality.
Death, of course, is a subject by no means limited to horror fiction; our fascination with death features in the very beginnings in literature. Undoubtedly, this is because death is the only thing we can all be sure of and yet know the least about. We, therefore, need to experience death in other ways; following the death of others with morbid curiosity, for example, and experiencing death through fiction, to give us some sense of how it might feel to die. Death is explored perhaps no more fully, however, than in the horror genre: undeath, encounters beyond the grave, cheating death, and the terror that accompanies the unknown. This collection features stories by two centuries of writers, thematically tied together by their treatment of death, before, during, and after the event. The stories in Mortal Echoes: Encounters with the End are all excellent, although I struggle to see how some fit the theme other than featuring a death or two. I shall gloss over the book’s two most well-known stories to readers of the macabre – Schalken the Painter and the Masque of the Red Death – as well as those that seem to be only loosely tied to the brief, and highlight my favourites.
The Signal-Man (1866) by Charles Dickens
A tonal contrast with Dickens’ earlier works involving railways, The Signal-Man is a ghost story in which the narrator encounters and befriends an isolated railway worker who claims to be haunted by an apparition, the appearance of which always proceeds a tragic event on the line. Premonitions of death. The story may have been influenced by Dickens’ own experience in a railway crash the year before. It’s important to remember that the railway system was a modern concept at the time Dickens wrote this story; whereas gothic stories often used the distant past to evoke a sense of wonder and eeriness, The Signal-Man creates an uncanny experience out of the (then) present day.
An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (1890) by Ambrose Bierce
Ambrose Bierce, an American writer and veteran of the Civil War, is perhaps best known for this short story in which the narrator, a wealthy plantation owner, is prepared for hanging by Federal soldiers. This judgement brings him face-to-face with his own mortality and us, as readers, with the moments immediately preceding death. This is not a political story and doesn’t take one side or the other; rather, it reminds us of the only thing really guaranteed as a result of war: death, and not just death of soldiers but the death of civilians like the story’s protagonist. Kurt Vonnegut called An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge the finest short story in American literature.
The King is Dead, Long Live the King (1890) by Mary Elizabeth Coleridge
Mary, the great grandniece of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, was well-known in her day as a novelist and essayist but is better remembered now for her poetry. The King is Dead, Long Live the King is a story set long ago, in which a king is succumbing to an illness, soon to die, but is given a chance to live again by a voice that speaks to him as his mind is failing, “I will give thee yet one hour after death. If, in that time, thou canst find three that desire thy life, live!” The king then wanders his kingdom as a spirit, expecting the job of finding three who wish him to remain alive easy, but instead discovers that those around him don’t have the opinion of him he assumed in life.
The story, as indicated by the title, is ironic (at the start of the story both the readers and the king’s subjects expect him to live) and shows that not only do things not always turn out the way one hopes but that what we truly think is rarely what we say.
Under the Knife (1896) by Herbert George Wells
Under the Knife is another story of a disembodied spirit, this time of a man preoccupied with, and convinced of, his own death as a result of his surgery the following day where he’ll be put under general anaesthetic. During the surgery, after being administered with chloroform, the man remains conscious and has an out-of-body (and, probably, near-death experience) that sees his soul travel beyond his body, the earth, and solar system. Ten years before writing this story, Wells himself nearly died, and whilst there doesn’t appear to be an account of him having his own near-death experience, Under the Knife appears to a story where he is exploring this idea and phenomena.
The School (1974) by Donald Barthelme
Much more recent, The School is a piece of short (or even micro) fiction by American writer Donald Barthelme, known for his post-modernist stories that are often quite difficult (Barthelme once wrote, “Art is not difficult because it wishes to be difficult, rather because it wishes to be art.”) The School is rather more accessible but displays his great wit and dark humour. It is such a short story I shan’t say too much about its plot (you can read it online for free here), other than its a story about a school that’s practically cursed where the children are encountering death one calamity after another and end up probing the teacher with difficult questions – “is death that which gives meaning to life?” It’s a very funny story that, while exploring a dark subject, finishes with an upbeat message.
Mortal Echoes: Encounters with the End (Tales of the Weird) edited by Greg Buzwell is published by the British Library. Buy this book on Amazon.