10 Death-Obsessed Books to Satisfy Your Inner Goth
The cofounder of the Morbid Anatomy Museum and author of ‘Death: A Graveside Companion’ offers a reading list for mortals
Since I was a kid, people have called me morbid for being interested in death. For the longest time I accepted this epithet, but at a certain point, I began to wonder… If everyone who has ever lived has died; if I — barring some medical miracle—will also die; and if we still don’t know what happens after we die, well, isn’t it more morbid not be interested in death?
My fascination with death led me to found Morbid Anatomy where, via a blog, exhibitions, books, public programs and a recently shuttered museum, I showcased ways in which people have dealt with death at different times and places. My intention was to urge people to question contemporary attitudes, and to demonstrate, via a preponderance of historical examples, that the way we think about death today, in our particular time and place, is the exception rather than the rule. Improbably. Morbid Anatomy hit a chord, and went on to become a nexus for “death-curious” people all over the world.
Following is a list of ten of the books that were most influential in shaping my worldview and cultivating my interest in the intersections of art and death. Some are from my youngest childhood (encouraging my belief that all children are interested in death!) and others were discovered more recently.
Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White
Charlotte’s Web was a very important book in my development. My mother lovingly read it to me when I was a very young girl, and I was solemnly gifted my own copy when I passed my first reading tests. The book is a heartbreaking evocation of the facts of life and death as experienced on a mid-20th century American farm through the travails of Wilbur, a young pig who learns, to his dismay, that his purpose in life was to be made into bacon. His life is ultimately spared through the generosity of his friend, a spider, who saves his life by sacrificing her own. The 1973 Hanna-Barbera film — with Charlotte, the spider, voiced by singer Debbie Reynolds — is just as poignant and evocative.
A Nervous Splendor: Vienna 1888–1889, Frederic Morton
A Nervous Splendor is a literary cultural history that presents an arresting vision of the grand lives — and grander deaths — of the inhabitants of Vienna, Austria. Capital of the glittering Habsburg Empire, it was also, as the author demonstrates, a city “given over to the dramaturgy of death.”
The book traces the lives of some of the city’s most illustrious citizens — including Gustav Klimt, Sigmund Freud, and Arthur Schnitzler — as they intertwine with, and respond to, the mood and movement of their city. The story moves to the drumbeat of ornate suicides reported on with relish by the local papers, revealing the city’s fascination with the schöne leich, or beautiful corpse.
These culminate in the mysterious death of Vienna’s beloved Prince Rudolph — young, handsome, and progressive—whose corpse was found in his hunting lodge with that of his beautiful young mistress Baroness Mary Vetsera in what many believed was a double suicide. The book ends with an intimation of more deaths yet to come with the introduction of a baby named Adolf Hitler, born just after Rudolf’s body is interred in his family’s imperial crypt.
Down a Dark Hall, Lois Duncan
I have always been a huge fan of author Lois Duncan, the unrivaled queen of 1970s and ’80s young adult supernatural. She wrote many wonderful novels dealing with death and the paranormal, taking on such phenomena as witchcraft (Summer of Fear), ESP (The Third Eye), and astral projection (Stranger with my Face). She even published a fascinating book about the real-life murder of her daughter, which she came to believe had been eerily presaged by her novels, bringing up provocative ideas of the relationship between creative work and mediumship.
My favorite of all of Duncan’s books is Down a Dark Hall, in which protagonist Kit Gordy, a self assured teenager, is admitted to an exclusive boarding school in an eerie gothic mansion. She soon realizes that the students have been selected not for their academic achievement, but for their special sensitivities; every night, when they go to sleep, they are being used without their knowledge as mediums to channel the ghosts of dead artists, writers, scientists and composers who produce work through them from beyond the grave. Kit discovers that all of the former students of this infernal academy either succumbed to madness or died, and makes it her mission to liberate herself and her fellow students before it’s too late.
Trilby, George du Maurier
Trilby was an instant sensation upon its publication as a serial in 1894, but is rarely read today, probably because of the overtly anti-semitic characterization of its villain, Svengali, an infernal Jewish mesmerist and musical virtuoso. Nevertheless, it was hugely influential, with what we know as the Trilby hat tracing back to the first London stage production, and the word “Svengali” now a part of our everyday lexicon.
The eponymous heroine of the book, Trilby, is a beautiful artist’s model whose free-spirited ways and questionable moral repute make her an inappropriate wife for her true love, a young artist from a good family. The sinister Svengali is also in love with her, and woos her by seductively playing Chopin’s funeral march while whispering in her ear what a beautiful skeleton she would make, put on view in “a nice little mahogany glass case” at the nearby medical museum. Meanwhile, the Paris Morgue — a popular tourist attraction at that time, where people would come to look at the unclaimed bodies on slabs — looms in the distance.
Ultimately, Trilby sacrifices her true love to save him from the harm that might come from marrying beneath his station, leaving her vulnerable to Svengali’s spell. Through hypnosis, he transforms her into his obedient servant and the finest singer the stage has ever seen, making her an international sensation. Not surprisingly, both she and Svengali meet a tragic end.
The Gashlycrumb Tinies, Edward Gorey, 1963
Edward Gorey is one of my great all time heroes; author and illustrator, he penned (and inked) charmingly dark fables — often in rhyming couplets — of death, disaster and the absurd. He published dozens of exquisite, small-scale books which he both wrote and illustrated, most of which take place in a vaguely Edwardian universe of his own creation.
It is very hard to pick just one of his books, but the The Gashlycrumb Tinies, arguably Gorey’s most iconic work, is perhaps also my favorite. This illustrated A to Z is reminiscent of a Victorian childrens’ book intended for moral improvement, except that, in this case, each letter of the alphabet details the death of a child. A few choice lines: “M is for Maud who was swept out to sea, N is for Neville who died of ennui, O is for Olive run through with an awl, P is for Prue trampled flat in a brawl.”
A few other of my favorite Gorey works are The Hapless Child, which narrates the demise of its innocent heroine Charlotte Sophia; The Insect God, in which a kidnapped child is sacrificed to an enormous, skull faced insect; and The Loathsome Couple, a charming little book inspired by the real life Moors Murders, where a couple murdered five children in the 1960s.
Salomé: A Tragedy in One Act, Oscar Wilde, with illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley
The story of Salome is drawn from The New Testament. It tells the story of King Herod and his step daughter Salome, who demands, at her mother Herodias’ behest, the decapitated head of John the Baptist on a platter. Wilde took this brief biblical sketch and wove a lavish femme fatale fantasy around it, culminating with the depraved temptress passionately kissing the blood dripping head of the saint while musing on the mysteries of love and death.
Banned in Britain until 1931, it nevertheless inspired such memorable film adaptations as Alla Nazimova’s 1923 Salomé — with expressionistic visuals inspired by Aubrey Beardsley’s original decadent illustrations — and Ken Russell’s provocative 1986 Salome’s Last Dance. It also features heavily in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950) in which aging silent film star Norma Desmond tragically acts out the role of Salome in real life after succumbing to a madness brought on by preparing to play the role for her comeback.
The Turn of the Screw, Henry James, 1898
On Christmas Eve, in an old house, a story is told to friends around the fire; The story is said to be from a manuscript written by a young woman about her experiences as governess for two precocious children on a large isolated British estate. Over the course of her tenure, the governess becomes convinced that her wards are under the thrall of the ghosts of two of the estate’s former employees, sinister figures who were engaged in a torrid romantic relationship and, it is intimated, might have even taken sexual liberties with the children.
The story ends with a shocking, eros-tinged death that leaves us no closer to knowing if the ghosts were real, or figments of the sexually-repressed governess’ imagination. A wonderful book, it was also adapted into one of my all time favorite films, The Innocents, starring Deborah Kerr and with a script co-written by Truman Capote.
A Taste of Blackberries, Doris Buchanan Smith, 1973
I cannot have been alone as a child in my predilection for books in which main characters died, or this book would never have been the successful award winner it is. I won’t say much more, for fear of giving too much away, but like Charlotte’s Web — to which it is often compared — it is a meditation on love, loss, and coming to terms with brevity and fragility of life.
Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice, 1976
With its atmospheric evocations of an 18th-century New Orleans full of crumbling plantations and slave revolts, the 19th-century Parisian Théâtre des Vampires in which a coven of vampires kill and feed from their victims on stage before an unsuspecting audience, and a vampire love triangle between two men and young girl, Anne Rice’s sexy revision of the familiar Dracula story created a new vampire mythology, one that went on to impact all that followed, most notably the Twilight series. To me the most poignant character is Claudia, a New Orleans waif transformed into vampire at the age of 5 and cursed to live forever in the body of a child. The character — as well as the book itself — is said to have been inspired by Anne Rice’s daughter Michelle, who died of leukemia at 5 years old.
The Leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
This book, a favorite of my now-deceased grandmother, is an elegiac evocation of the end of the aristocracy heralded by the rise of democracy in 19th-century Italy. Written by a Sicilian prince and published only after his death, it is a melancholy meditation on the death of a way of life, via the ruminations of a man who sees the end is near, both personally and for the culture that gave his life meaning. Ultimately death comes to take the old prince — a great romantic adventurer in his day — in the form of a beautiful woman beckoning him on to a final amorous adventure.
About the Author
Joanna Ebenstein is a Brooklyn-based writer, curator, photographer and graphic designer. She is the creator of the Morbid Anatomy blog, library and event series, and was cofounder and creative director of the recently shuttered Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn. Her books include Death: A Graveside Companion, The Anatomical Venus, The Morbid Anatomy Anthology (with Colin Dickey) and Walter Potter’s Curious World of Taxidermy. She works regularly with such institutions as The Wellcome Collection and Amsterdam’s Vrolik Museum, and her writing and photography have been published and exhibited internationally. Her work explores the intersections of art and medicine, death and culture, and the objective and subjective.