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.