My friend Nancy Holder and I wrote “Totentanz,” a short story about Death, which was just published in the new anthology Danse Macabre: Close Encounters with the Reaper. We had so much fun researching the art and history of the Danse Macabre, which evolved from the horrors of the black plague and developed into some of the most incredible art and literature during the Middle Ages and beyond. When developing our idea for Totentanz, we wondered how Death would adapt to the changing times and we also wanted to give a nod toward the evolution of art in which the character of Death changes from grim to beautiful. From there, “Totentanz” evolved into a short story that we hope you enjoy.
To celebrate the publication of the Danse Macabre, edited by Nancy Kilpatrick, Underwords is hosting a multi author/editor interview. PLUS, we’re giving away a free copy of the anthology (see below for details).
Q&A With the Editor:
What inspired the concept behind Danse Macabre? What was it about tackling the idea of Death that you enjoyed most?
I’ve been interested in Danse Macabre artwork, which originated in the 1400s in Europe, for many years. This is art that has been called Plague Art, because it came about during the great plagues that decimated the European population over centuries. People had to find a way to image that horror that affected every family, to cope, and I am drawn to this simple and yet sweet representation of Death in the form of a skeleton leading a person to demise through a dance. Because I’m a writer and an editor, I became curious about how this art could be transformed into the written word, specifically fiction. That’s how this anthology got started.
What I find most fascinating about Danse Macabre art is the variety of ways Death approaches a cross-spectrum of the population at the edge of their passing. These can be funny tableaux, sad, scary, seductive. Death will do anything to lead the person into this other realm, which the skeleton, of course, knows well, being a formerly-living person. Being able to find a way to turn what is a visual art form into a literary form was a lot of fun for me.
As an editor, how do you balance the stories that were on the page with the vision that you had for Danse Macabre? Did your vision for the anthology change through the editing process?
With this particular anthology, more than any of the other eleven anthos I’d previously edited, I felt both a strong apprehension and an equally strong anticipation. I did worry that the stories might not reflect the artwork as I experience it. Most people aren’t that familiar with danse macabre art, although they have probably seen Day of the Dead skeleton art from Mexican, so they have some vague idea, although this is not the same approach as the European artwork. I might as well have relaxed because my worries didn’t actualize. The stories are so very true to the artwork images, at least in terms of how I see them. My vision didn’t change any more than it changes for any anthology I’ve edited. What I mean is, as stories come in that I like, the book begins to take on a shape and acquires a feel and in a sense–what is a concept fills out as a three-dimensional reality and I see that reality coming to life through the fiction. It’s a very exciting process for me. With Danse Macabre: Close Encounters With the Reaper, the filling out was astonishing in that it ‘fit’ so well with my vision. I’m delighted with the result. It’s an unusual and special anthology, one that hasn’t been done before, and I’m so very happy that I was permitted to show this artwork that I have loved for such a long time to readers in the form of these amazing stories.
Q&A With the Authors:
If Death were to let you ask him one question, what question would you ask? Why that question?
Lisa Morton: I’d ask him if there’s any secret to keeping him away. If there is and he reveals the secret to me, I will obviously share it with everyone I care about!
Tim Reyonlds: “When you take children, is there any chance you can put on a more pleasant face besides the scary one? Please.” Why that question? Because if I’m talking to Death then my time is already up, so let’s try to do one last good thing.
Tom Dullemond: I would ask Death what eternity was like. If Death was in any way capable of answering questions, I’d like to understand more about how it relates to the universe, in a way utterly alien to my existence.
Brad Carson: It would really depend on the type of death. It could be anything from “Should I have believed in God?” to “Will there be anymore pain?” or if I was feeling particularly philosophical “Is this an exit or an entrance?”
I think the reasons for each are self-explanatory. It’s an interesting hypothesis, although none of the questions really matter. Most are in some way connected to our understanding of the corporeal body that we have just left behind. Most matter not. By the time you get the answer from Death, you’re already deeply into it. It just is. Like you just were.
Nancy Holder: What’s going to happen now?
Stan Hampton, Sr: Why now? The reason I would ask that question is because there’s still so much I want to do and see in the world. And if I leave too soon, does “unfulfilled” mean anything on the other side?
Ed Erdelac: I don’t really contemplate the ‘meaning’ of existence or the universe. I think I’ve got it figured out, and the parts I’m not a hundred percent sure on, I think meeting Death, finding out he was a being, would answer most of those. So it’d probably be something trivial that was in my mind at the moment. Who really killed Kennedy? What happened to Amelia Earhardt? Nothing profound, just something I figure he’d have the answer to. I might be curious about the Grim Reaper, like my character in The Exclusive, so maybe, if the Kennedy/Earhardt questions didn’t come to mind, I’d ask, “how are you?” or “do you like doing what you’re doing? Can you request a transfer?” Something along those lines.
Opal Edgar: Just one question is really hard. There are plenty of life mysteries Death could solve in some back handed way. I’d avoid anything about what happens after life; [since I’m] meeting Death, I’d probably be dead myself and about to discover that for myself. Obviously, I’d also feel like I’d have to come up with something extremely clever if he/she gave me a chance, something like:
How long are you going to continue doing that? In the hope I’d get an answer for: is the universe here forever or is it finite… and how long is exactly left.
Or maybe I’d just go for something like:
How do you look when you collect life forms on other planets? So that Death would reveal the ultimate secret about aliens (do they exist? Are there many races?) and might even give me a little peak into what they look like (assuming Death looks like a human, I’d believe he/she would take an Alien shape in the distant galaxy)!
Caroline Ratajski: “Five more minutes?” I don’t really have a burning desire to understand what it all means, or what it was for, or what comes after, or why it has to be this way. But I could probably go for a little more time.
William Meikle: How did you get into this line of business? I believe that one answer would illuminate a whole cosmology and provide some answers to some very old questions.
Lucy Taylor: If Death were to allow me to ask him/her one question, it would be this: will there be animals in the afterworld? Will my animals who’ve already passed on be there to greet me? (If the answer is no, then count me out, please.)
Lawrence Salani: We go through this brief period of consciousness in which we are constantly struggling for survival before finally facing the final drama of death. Some people’s lot is harder than others; some only have a short existence while others have a longer life. I suppose this is leading into metaphysics, but I would sure like to know what this life was all about.
Brian Hodge: Are there any other planets where you work … and if so, how many and where are the closest? Because who doesn’t want to know about life elsewhere in the universe?
Bev Vincent: Do you choose the time of death for your “clients” or are you working for some other, greater power?
The anthology Danse Macabre: Close Encounters with the Reaper is a unique collection of stories about the character of Death in his many aspects. What did you find most challenging or most rewarding about writing your Danse Macabre story?
Lisa Morton: My story has a historic setting (Basel and London in the 16th century), so the most challenging aspect was the research. I already knew a lot about my lead character, Hans Holbein the Younger, and his “Dance of Death” engravings, but there were so many other things to research. What did people eat and drink? What was law enforcement like? How were outbreaks of plague handled? However, the research paid off, because I think the story’s authenticity is probably what was most rewarding for me.
Tim Reynolds: Writing the love story was easy. Writing from the POV of a dying character was no great stretch, either; but still keeping the pretty, sexy, Death as The Reaper was the hard part. At no time could she forget who/what she was, although the humanity (her own or that she’s picked up over the eons) was peeking through.
Tom Dullemond: First the easy answer: the most rewarding part of this whole process was being accepted into the anthology with some serious professional writers. In truth, some of my deepest influences in dark fiction are Tanith Lee and Brian Lumley. Seeing them in a book with a story I wrote is mindblowing.
Most challenging was trying to make the crazy world of Population Management somehow appealing, despite its inherent creepiness. At sometime, someone made a global decision to manage death and dying with robots, and I wanted to show the creepy outcomes of that while still telling a human story. Just trying to explain how challenging it was is challenging. As the last story in the anthology I hope it leaves the reader at peace with death.
Brad Carson: Finding a plausible character to defeat death. Early on I realized it would have to be a combination of innocence and belief, so a child lost in the reality of play. As I worked on the piece it became clear that those attributes were not quite enough, so I introduced anger to heat the crucible. But it still didn’t add up, until I added a portion of recent grief to place my protagonist Brian in that highly emotional state where a person can change the rules of reality.
I used my own history for that grief and by exploring that event and honoring the dead, that was the – Most rewarding.
Nancy Holder: What I found most rewarding was writing this story with Erin. I love her to bits and she’s so talented. It was like learning to dance with a new partner–and finding out we are Astaire and Rogers! [Erin’s response to Nancy’s comment: Nancy makes writing fun! She’s a dream.]
Stan Hampton, Sr: In writing “An Appointment in the Village Bazaar,” I think believability was most challenging. I forget who first used the phrase “willing suspension of belief”, though I feel like it is associated with the old TV series “Star Trek,” but that hits the nail on the head. Is Death believable? Are the characters believable? Are the art details believable? If everything works, if everything is believable, then the reader will find themselves temporarily transported into a world where Death speaks, reasons, and can be very stubborn.
Ed Erdelac: Death in his many aspects. What did you find most challenging or most rewarding about writing your Danse Macabre story?
There’ve been a lot of depictions of the Grim Reaper over the years, so the challenge I think for me in writing The Exclusive was doing something different yet keeping enough familiar aspects to make the character recognizable. When you read a story about the personification of Death you come into it with certain expectations after all, and I think when writing the character, you have to meet at least some of them. The most rewarding thing for me was working with an editor like Nancy Kilpatrick, knowing she had faith in the story, and of course appearing alongside so many admirable writers. I savored putting this one on my shelf.
Opal Edgar: I cannot say this story was a challenge; it came to me very smoothly, everything clicking into place as soon as I read about the theme of Danse Macabre. In fact I was inspired to write that story at the very moment I read about the anthology. I had this picture of a crow in my head, one that talked for quite sometime; a melancholic character. I’d also been thinking about writing a story related to mass killings perpetrated by cults. Those where not at all linked in my head, I have many stories slowly brewing in there… but then I read what Nancy was looking for, and all the different bits and pieces knitted together. Suddenly, I knew my crow had to be Death himself and the story was to take place in Japan where crows are just everywhere and there is so much tragic cult news. It was perfect! My crow took on all these brooding disenchanted and self-loathing thoughts. And perhaps this was my reward: I was very happy with the characterization of my Death, and his perception of himself. I really wanted to make him humane, highlighting the difficulties he faced and I hope I’ve managed that!
Caroline Ratajski: This was actually the first story I’d written after a massive bout of writers block. I completed it a few years ago, and let it gather dust. When I saw this prompt, I thought this would be a great fit (with some editing, of course). It’s very exciting to have this particular story be included in this great anthology, since it’s the story that ended my drought.
William Meikle: The little old lady in my story is based on my own Gran. The challenge for me was not to let her take over. Like all Scots women, my Gran could talk the hind legs off a donkey. The reward was getting her manner, speech patterns and a sense of her as a person (mostly) right.
Lucy Taylor: I enjoyed portraying Death as a cynical, overworked being who is willing to put up with human follies to a certain point for the sake of expediency, but draws the line harshly when she feels too many of her duties are being usurped. And I found it great fun to portray her in the form of La Santa Muerte, letting her puff Cohibas, swig hard liquor, spew Spanish curse words, and even recall with fondness the time her devotee Naldo offered her a statue of herself with cocaine stuffed in the nostrils. I also liked the character of Lupe for her feistiness and courage and tried to give her ‘a good death.’ I hope that came across in the story.
Lawrence Salani: I wrote “The Angel of Death” before I saw the submission call for “Danse Macabre.” The mystery of Death is something that everyone contemplates once in a while, and writing the story allowed me express my feelings on death. Azrael, the Angel of Death, attracted me more than a ghastly skeleton as Death. Why see Death as something evil when no matter what we do there is no escaping it? Why not see Death as something beautiful?
The most rewarding thing about writing the story was that it allowed me to look into myself, come a little closer to the unconscious and see life from a different angle. The most challenging thing was to make the story blend together as a cohesive whole.
Brian Hodge: The greatest challenge was what tone to take with the depiction of death … how to make it work in context, without it seeming like this jarring contrast to what the story’s like up to the point that Death appears. It’s a crime story at heart, based on a real-life incident in the life of Richard Kuklinski, also known as the Iceman, arguably the most infamous hired killer in the history of organized crime. When a man he was about to murder prayed for his life, Kuklinski gave him a brief reprieve for God to save him. Pure psychological torture. So there’s this gritty world of lowlifes, and I was plenty comfortable with that, but then it slides into this metaphysical dimension. I’m fine with that too, but with two polarities like this, I didn’t want the slide to feel so abrupt you could practically hear the tires squealing. I was very concerned with making it flow, and seem like a natural progression.
Bev Vincent: Several years ago, Hellnotes held a monthly flash fiction (< 1000 words) contest. The editor, Judi Rohrig, posted a story prompt and people then had the opportunity to write a story inspired by this question or scenario. Several times, Judi told me my story was close to winning. For the final contest, the prompt was to write a tale about why the Grim Reaper was so grim, and “Therapy,” my Danse Macabre story was my response. I researched the mythological character of the Grim Reaper extensively and decided to put him under a therapist’s microscope. After months of having a go at the contest, I finally won! So, I consider writing “Therapy” a highly rewarding experience.
ENTER THE CONTEST
Danse Macabre: Close Encounters With the Reaper
Enter for your chance to win a copy of Danse Macabre by posting a note in the comments below by midnight (Pacific Time) on Halloween, October 31st. One entry per person.
**You can get a double entry by posting the link for this contest on your blog, Facebook page, in Twitter, or somewhere else. Then, mention in the comments below that you “boosted the signal” and your one entry counts as two entries – doubling your chances to win.**
The contest is open to anyone with a U.S. mailing address. The winner will be chosen at random and contacted via email for mailing instructions. If you are under 17, please get your parent’s permission to enter this contest.