A Dark Trend in Speculative Fiction: Death More Beautiful Than Resurrection

Christian Fantasy God

Sometimes as Christians, we’re immersed in our own world, unaware of the ebb and flow in the culture around us. I know I am, at times, yet I try to keep abreast of trends in the area of books and publishing, particularly as it pertains to speculative fiction. And I’ve become aware of something troubling, a dark fascination that appears to be growing. It’s an obsession with death, dying, and the undead.

This marks a significant shift from the fairy tales and folklore of past eras, which contained patterns of death and resurrection and brought hope in the midst of seeming despair.  These stories reflect a greater truth, one that elicits a positive response from the human heart. Yet it now seems that a segment of the speculative fiction market, particularly that aimed at young adults, seeks to imprint another pattern–one that celebrates death more than the anticipation of resurrection.

Rachel Stark, an assistant marketing manager at Bloomsbury & Walker Books, recently spoke out against what she sees as “a ghastly, gruesome, and growing trend in YA book covers,” that of “dead girls. Dead girls in water, dead girls in bathtubs, dead girls in forests, dead girls in pretty dresses. Girls who might be dead, or might just look dead. Dead girls in so many pretty dresses.” Her photo montage provides a chilling illustration to her point–and most of her examples come from speculative fiction.

Such images and themes glorify death as a thing beautiful in itself and encourage the thoughts to dwell on it, without an eye toward the resurrection that defeats death and imparts hope. This unhealthy emphasis echoes within the books themselves–writers even proudly proclaim their role in the darkening of fiction. Like many other recent stories, Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver is narrated by a dead girl. According to an article in The Guardian, Oliver was inspired by “a zeitgeist movement towards darker material…including all the paranormal stuff, and the vampire books. We’ve come to think of them as a romance but it’s a very dark picture of romance, when someone wants to kiss and kill you. ”

It’s a perspective askew which celebrates death, which lifts up undead creatures or fallen angels as desirable, which beautifies darkness. We should care about these trends, even if they don’t impact us directly, because stories influence views on life, death, and the supernatural. These tales shape not only culture but individual lives. Without the redemption of beauty and some hint of resurrection, the darkness increases and hope diminishes. Good becomes evil, and evil good.

Amid such a shift, we have the opportunity to offer true hope and to engage others with redemptive beauty. Of course, that doesn’t mean we neglect the very real suffering experienced on this earth, only that this pain doesn’t have the final word. Ultimately, we will say “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” And that is a message of hope in a landscape of despair.

Your thoughts?

Comments

  • Abigail Hartman
    November 30, 2011 - 4:28 pm · Reply

    You make an excellent point, Sarah. There is a place, perhaps, for making evil stark in fiction, but it ought to be done only so that Good shines out more gloriously; the trouble with modern fiction (not that it is a wholly modern phenomenon) is that black as portrayed as white and evil is made to be good. Your comments on the obsession with death made my thoughts ramble to Isaiah 61 and the passage concerning how God gives us beauty for ashes. It is not the ashes that are beautiful; what God brings out of them is beautiful. And, in the same manner, it’s resurrection and not death that should be dwelt upon.

    • Sarah Sawyer
      December 2, 2011 - 2:45 pm · Reply

      It’s good to hear from you, Abigail! I’m with you in that I believe there’s a place for making evil clear in fiction. Despite my concerns about this glorification of death, I’m not one to shy away from portraying it in stories, either. In my manuscripts, death plays a role. It touches lives in painful ways, and yet I hope that what the reader will remember is the redemption in the midst of it. That’s what makes all the difference.

      The same with your example of beauty for ashes. We see the ashes and the mourning, but also give a glimpse of the beauty and joy to spring from them.

      It’s less about subject matter, I think, and more about how it’s portrayed.

  • Maria Tatham
    December 1, 2011 - 8:38 am · Reply

    Sarah, Abigail,

    A kind of ‘glamor’ is attached to death and dead things now. As a mystery reader, I’ve always been struck by the gulf between fictional crime and true crime. True crime is sordid. Fictional crime, interesting and tinged with this glamor. In relation to this YA trend, real death is sad and awful–and kids have a TERRIBLE time when a friend actually dies; and yet, death is glorified.

    But, you take this where it needs to go–to Resurrection. To Christ. To seeing things as they ARE, fearing what we need to fear, loving what is good, glorifying this.

    • Sarah Sawyer
      December 2, 2011 - 2:50 pm · Reply

      Glamorizing death is a good way to describe it, Maria. Such tales put a false veneer on reality. Death only has beauty in that it paves the way for resurrection–it’s not an end, but a beginning. 🙂

  • Patrick J. Moore
    December 1, 2011 - 1:57 pm · Reply

    I think this trend may be coming from a growing number of authors who have no personal faith.

    Statistically speaking, even though an author’s personal beliefs may not be known, there had been a high probability that any given person in Western culture (in the not too distant past) would have had a belief in an “after life” of some sort; whether they were a professing or practicing “Christian” or not. That probability seems to no-longer exist.

    If one does not believe in the resurrection they can have no hope in it, and can not share that hopeful perspective with us. They must rationalize to themselves a way for what they believe to be fact to also be good. In that way they can make peace with the world as they perceive it. If there is no alternative to permanent death, then it is just the good and natural end to all things that live.

    • Sarah Sawyer
      December 2, 2011 - 2:55 pm · Reply

      Great point about the influence (or lack thereof) of faith in modern culture. It is especially evident in perceptions of after life/eternity. Even the writers who allow for some sort of after life or consciousness after death present it very differently than it’s portrayed in Scripture.

      If one does not believe in the resurrection they can have no hope in it, and can not share that hopeful perspective with us.

      So true…and that’s why it’s all the more important that those of us who do have hope allow it to influence our fiction. It doesn’t mean tales that are all “sweetness and light” but that in the darkness we offer hope of a dawn.

  • Rebecca LuElla Miller
    December 1, 2011 - 3:33 pm · Reply

    I agree with Patrick.

    I used to take a stand against “Christian horror” but have relented in the last few years because there are some godly people writing to put hope into the stories. Not a bad thing, though I don’t want to read all the death and fear and hopelessness that precedes it. But in the end hope shines through, and those stories might be the ones most needed in a culture that seems fascinated with the dark.

    Either that, or something entirely different, like epic fantasy. 😉

    Becky

    • Sarah Sawyer
      December 2, 2011 - 2:57 pm · Reply

      Though I don’t read Christian horror, I’m less concerned about it than I am this trend to beautify and glorify darkness. At least in Christian horror, evil is evil (and quite terrifying at that). It may not be my genre of choice, but as you said, it has the potential to connect with those who want chilling stories…and then offer them a sense of hope.

      And I vote a hearty yes to more epic fantasy. 🙂

  • Kessie
    December 2, 2011 - 12:26 am · Reply

    As a teenager, I was fascinated with death and tragedy. I loved it because it had never touched my personal life. My homelife was good and death was foreign to me. So it fascinated me.

    Then relatives started dying, and I saw what death really was. Once it touched my life, it no longer fascinated me. I started looking for happy endings, not tragic ones. And now I see my sister working her way through the great Russian authors, lapping up the tragedy, because she has none in her personal life. I think it’s a balance issue. You can’t appreciate your happy life unless you have some sadness somewhere.

    I think Patrick also hit the nail on the head, with our culture having no hope of an afterlife. I think there’s lots of reasons that death is hot. But then, we’ve always had a fascination with the morbid. Death and horror is not unique to these last few decades. :-p

    • Sarah Sawyer
      December 2, 2011 - 2:59 pm · Reply

      Interesting perspective, Kessie! I always disliked tragedies, so it’s harder for me to understand those who seek them out, but your theory about the way life experiences influence the type of fiction we’re interested in makes sense and sheds some light on cultural trends.

      You’re absolutely right that fiction dealing death and horror isn’t unique to our time. However, I do think this trend of attaching glamor to death itself is new. In past eras, they grappled with death more face-to-face and rarely portrayed it as something intriguing in its “otherness.”

  • Sienna North
    December 4, 2011 - 11:27 am · Reply

    Yes, I have also noticed this chilling thread in modern YAs. I can hardly visit the library without being inundated by vampire novels and ghost stories and more.

    However, let me insert a little note in death’s favor: a very few YA novelists have managed to use death as it should be used–in a noble self-sacrifice to save others. “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” It’s that kind of death that I want to read.

    • Maria Tatham
      December 5, 2011 - 12:30 pm · Reply

      Sienna, good point! I hadn’t thought about this. This would be another positive way to present death in YA, as the result of a selfless act, of wanting to protect others.

    • Sarah Sawyer
      December 7, 2011 - 12:07 pm · Reply

      Thanks for stopping by, Sienna. That’s a perfect example of how death could be used in fiction in a way that’s both beautiful and true–because it’s not glorifying the death itself, but rather the love compelling it as well as providing an echo of Christ’s sacrifice. Such a depiction of death can have a powerful impact in a positive way.

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