In fiction as in life, death is often as banal as it is terrible. Yet both life and fiction deal in the unexpected. To everyone’s sorrow, life gets the better of fiction in this respect. What’s more, its surprises tend towards the tragic.
One great thing about fiction is that it makes it possible, or at least easier, to poke fun at death. Sadly, even in books, death always has the last laugh.
But this list isn’t all about the (perhaps forced, perhaps inappropriate) laughs.
The absurd has many uses. It may create distance, or do the opposite: sometimes the more farcical fictional deaths are, the more they haunt us. It may reflect on human destiny and its lack of meaning. It may serve poetic justice. It may create nightmares. Or, as in life, tragedies.
Or it may result from a bad choice on the part of the author. Even so, involuntary humour is still humour. Black humour, in this case.
10. Death by Slipping While Attempting Suicide
Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy is a strange and deadly affair. The gloomy, gigantic castle of the title sees several of its dwellers meet grotesque, surreal ends.
The cook Swelter and Mr Flay, the earl’s exiled manservant, fight a long and dramatic duel, involving the cook’s beloved meat-cleaver and a female spider. Sepulchrave, the seventy-sixth earl of Groan, mad after the burning of his library, dies by death-owl. That is, believing himself to be one of the death-owls living in the Tower of Flints, joins them with the body of the freshly killed Swelter, and are both devoured. And this is only in the first novel, Titus Groan.
The fatalities in the second novel, Gormenghast, include two characters who starve to death and another who is struck by lightning.
Even in this context, the death of Lady Fuchsia Groan has the power to shock. Her fate seems the saddest of all. A fragile, dreamy creature, she feels lonely and unloved, and falls prey to desolation. The thought of suicide takes root in her mind.
Locked in her room, Fuchsia walks to the window and stares out across the waters (this happens during a great flood). She falls into a reverie and, in a game of pretend, she climbs on the windowsill almost without realizing the meaning of her action. A knock at the door startles her. She finds herself suspended high above the waters, tries to turn, and slips. She finds nothing to hold on to, strikes her head against the windowsill, and falls unconscious to her watery grave.
9. Death by Sword and Bookcase
In Howards End, E. M. Forster stages a bizarre death for an unlucky, defeated character.
Nothing works out right in the life of Leonard Bast. He is a bookish young man ‘at the extreme verge of gentility’. He earns his living as an insurance clerk when he meets the cultured Schlegel sisters, Helen and Margaret. Wishing to help him, they end up losing him his job. His wife Jacky turns out to be the discarded mistress of Margaret’s future husband Henry Wilcox. Leonard has an affair with Helen, which leads to pregnancy. Helen leaves for Germany, and Leonard and his wife descend into a miserable existence.
When Helen returns to England and her condition is revealed, the sisters decide to spend an evening at Howards End, a house that belonged to Henry’s first wife. The latter disapproves and sends his meddling, bellicose son Charles as messenger.
Leonard, racked with guilt, arrives to talk to Margaret. One sentence courses through his mind ‘Mrs Wilcox, I have done wrong.’ He enters the house through an open door. Upon hearing his name, Charles Wilcox shouts for a stick to thrash him. Leonard barely has time to say his piece.
For lack of a better weapon, Charles grabs a sword (belonging to the sister’s father) and strikes Leonard with the flat. The latter sees only the flash of a bright stick that hurts him not where it falls ‘but in the heart’. He catches hold of a bookcase for support, but it falls on him. Books tumble down, and nothing makes sense. Charles, very calm, accuses him of shamming. The others carry him outside and pour water over him. But Leonard is already dead.
He died of heart disease. Charles is sentenced to three years in prison for manslaughter.
8. Death by Saw and Bible
Evelyn Waugh’s first novel Decline and Fall treats murder with cruel humour.
The homicide occurs while Paul Pennyfeather, the protagonist, is serving a prison sentence for traffic in prostitution (of which he isn’t guilty). Mr Prendergast, also known as Prendy, a previous acquaintance, acts asprison chaplain. He is the ‘modern churchman’, a species of clergy for whom religious belief is optional.Doubts are the scourge of his ineffectual existence.
One day Paul gets to know a fellow prisoner, a burly man with twitchy red hands. He’s a carpenter by profession and believes God has appointed him killer of sinners. Doubts never plague him. Divine visions have guided his murderous hand, hence his present abode. In his own words, he is the ‘the sword of Israel’ and the ‘lion of the Lord’s elect’. He describes a vision in which the prison is at first carved as if of ruby and then drips with blood.
When the elect insults a warder in colourful biblical language, the reform-mad Prison Governor diagnoses a case of frustrated creative urge. He prescribes self-expression. So the elect receives a work bench and carpenter’s tools.
The way he gives way to his creativity is by sawing off poor Prendy’s head.
The prisoners sing the information to each other during the hymn in chapel. The warders approve of the choice of victim, rejoicing that it wasn’t one of them. The event leaves a minimal mark on the life of the prison. The killer is sent to Broadmoor, and the Governor softens his urge for reform.
7. Death by Spontaneous Combustion
Bleak House may be the Dickens novel with the highest death toll. Several characters expire in heart-breaking ways. But the demise of one of them just leaves readers scratching their heads.
Mr Krook, nicknamed the Lord Chancellor, owner of a rag and bottle shop, spontaneously combusts.
It happens on an ugly, oppressive night. Mr Weevle, Krook’s lodger, and his friend Mr Guppy are sitting on the windowsill in Weevle’s room. It’s past eleven and the air is heavy with a mysterious, suffocating smell. A strange sort of greasy soot is falling. As the two men discuss their business, Guppy is tapping absent-mindedly on the windowsill. Suddenly he notices something unpleasant on his fingers. It’s a foul-smelling, thick, yellow substance of unknown origin. Disgusted, he scrubs his hands again and again.
Weevle is supposed to meet Krook at midnight. When the clock strikes, he descends to the old man’s room. He returns frightened: the man is absent, but the room stinks of burning and is covered in soot. Both men descend and find Lady Jane, Krook’s cat, snarling at something on the floor. They notice that the old man’s hat and his usual bottle, of which he was particularly fond of, lie in their normal places. Yet there’s no Krook.
And then they realise the horrible truth. Krook is there. A pile of ashes, the soot, the foul substance coating the walls are what is left of him. Happily (or not, depending on inclination) readers are left to build their own detailed picture of Mr Krook’s combustion.
Some critics, notably G. H. Lewes, objected to Krook’s death on scientific grounds. Dickens defended his choice in the novel’s preface, mentioning several recorded cases of spontaneous combustion. He believed it to be possible. Who are we to question him?
6. Death by Being a Giant Insect
The protagonist of Franz Kafka’s nightmarish novella The Metamorphosis dies a death such as no real human has or will ever experience. Unless history takes an astonishing turn.
Cockroaches are supposed to outlive us all. But when Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning turned into one (or some sort of giant insect), death lurks just around the corner. His family, dependent on him, tries to cope. The household carries on for a while in a surreal routine, until Gregor frightens his mother into a faint and wanders from his room.
His father then arrives, hands in pockets, yet brimming with anger. The son, to prove his good intentions, huddles against the now shut door of his bedroom. The father misunderstands, or perhaps gives way to a long-suppressed impulse. He starts to chase the insect. Gregor staggers across the room, struggling to keep away from the large feet. Suddenly, he realises a projectile has been hurled at him. Others soon follow. His father is bombarding him with small red apples from his capacious pockets.
One apple brushes the insect’s back without much damage. The next hits him full on and embeds itself into his body. Gregor is rooted to the spot with pain and confusion. He remains conscious long enough to witness his mother begging her husband to spare him.
The injury torments Gregor for more than a month. The rotting apple remains lodged in his back without anyone trying to remove it. His family, taken with their own daily business, pay him little attention. Even his sister, who has taken care of him so far, grows distant. The trash piles up in his room, and he gradually stops eating. After an incident with some lodgers, he realizes to the fullest how much of a burden he is to his family and how they resent him.
The next day the charwoman nudges his dried-up body with her broom and finds that he has died. The family, after a conventional show of sorrow, feel happy and relieved.
6. Death by Giant Helmet
In Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, the earliest gothic novel, death falls from the sky in the shape of giant black-plumed headgear.
The starting point of a genre known for horrid happenings, violent passions, and general grimness and gloominess, Otranto is naturally a rather silly book. What’s more, it may be held accountable for a lot more silliness than lies between its own covers. But it’s all good fun.
The novel starts off in style with the horrid death. Fiendish prince Manfred has orchestrated the wedding of his frail son Conrad with persecuted damsel Isabella. On the appointed day, as the company has assembled for the ceremony, the groom is nowhere to be found. The servant sent to look for him returns speechless and in extreme distress. He can only point to the courtyard and scream ‘Oh! the helmet! the helmet!’
General horror ensues, even before anyone knows what has happened. And it’s only going to get worse when they find out. In the courtyard, Conrad lies crushed under a giant helmet, ‘an hundred times more large than any casque ever made for human being’ and adorned with a huge bunch of black feathers.
The grim event sets into motion a plot rich in thrills, chills, chivalry, and melodrama. It features, among other things, secret identities, a mysterious prophecy, an adventurous escape, a good deal of shrieking and swooning, a gigantic apparition, and a genuinely horrible murder. Good triumphs over evil in spectacular fashion (involving the said apparition), but not until the heroic characters do their share of suffering.
The killer helmet’s usefulness does not end with the killing. Joined by a giant sword and sundry bits of armour, it continues to serve as portent throughout the story, shaking its feathers to the blaring of a trumpet. Even the villain puts it to use as place of imprisonment for the hero.
4. Death by Music
Music may have a deadly effect on the musician, as shown in the story of Stanley, a supporting but important character in William Gaddis’s The Recognitions. It takes up much of the extensive novel’s epilogue.
A pious Catholic, Stanley has set his heart on playing the organ at the old Italian church of Fenestrula. He has written a piece that ‘might have been a Requiem Mass had he done it three centuries ago’. After a series of bizarre adventures (during which the bodies pile up) his wish comes true.
The wonderful day has come, and Stanley is wearing his best suit, moth-eaten in embarrassing places. The gift of an American, the organ is gigantic. The local priest, who leads him to the instrument, speaks no English. Stanley sits down, and pulls out all the stops. The priest pushes back two. He warns Stanley in incomprehensible Italian to refrain from using too much bass or any strange combination of notes. The church is old, the vibrations might be dangerous. Then he hurries away.
Stanley’s composition requires all the stops. He pulls them again, straightens his tie, and strikes the first note. As he plays the devil’s interval (a once forbidden dissonance), the huge bass pipes rumble, and the walls begin to quake. He goes on regardless. The music soars and surrounds him.
The church of his dreams comes crashing down on Stanley. Nobody else is injured. As a parting gift, the author lets us know that most of Stanley’s music survived and ‘is still spoken of, when it is noted, with high regard’. For inexplicable reasons, it’s seldom played.
3. Death by Parrot
The bird in question, found in Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, is not a killer parrot. Just a perverse parrot. Wecan deplore histricks, but we can’t blame him if a self-important octogenarian decides to chase him up a mango tree.
The bird’s accomplishments are many and have gone to his head. He speaks elegant French and Latin, sings French songs, and can frighten away thieves by barking like a mastiff. Even the president of the republic once came to witness his prowess, on which occasion the parrot remained silent as the grave.
He is the cherished pet of Dr Juvenal Urbino, an illustrious physician and leading light in his community. When he escapes from his cage, the entire Urbino household goes out of its way to catch him, but in vain. The summoned fire brigade also fail, but succeed in causing damage to the property.
The day after the getaway, Dr Urbino is due to attend the funeral of a friend. While resting as usual on the terrace, he contemplates his own mortality. Not a moment too soon. A familiar voice distracts him, and he notices the parrot in the mango tree. They exchange insults, and Dr Urbino pulls up his green-striped suspenders and hurries into action.
The parrot, perching on a lower branch, appears easy to reach. Singing a little song, the good doctor steps on the first rung of the ladder leaning against the tree. The parrot moves a little farther away, echoing the words to the song. The doctor climbs on. The parrot sits still. The doctor stretches his right hand for the parrot, while clutching at the ladder with his left. He manages to seize the parrot by the neck.
His triumph lasts but a moment. He has to let go as the ladder slips beneath his foot. Then he drops to the ground. He can only hold on to life long enough to tell his wife, Fermina Daza, how much he loved her.
The parrot comes back of its own accord and ends up as a gift to the City Museum. A famous painter depicts Dr Urbino’s final moments in a giant canvas. But he leaves out the green-striped suspenders.
2. Death by Love
In Patrick Süskind’s bestseller Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, the power of love is such that it kills. The unsettling source of love lies in the hands of a monster.
The events take place in eighteenth-century France. The ‘gifted and abominable’ Jean-Baptiste Grenouille has an extraordinary sense of smell. Able to experience a wealth of odours inaccessible to ordinary humans, he becomes a master perfumer. But he has no odour of his own unless he creates one for himself.
One scent in particular fascinates Grenouille: the smell of teenage girls. He ends up killing twenty-five, just to preserve it. Condemned to death for his crimes, he wears his latest creation on the day of the execution. The effect is staggering. It makes the thousands of people attending love him and set him free. The crowds get so drunk with his scent that they abandon themselves to an orgy. The father of one of his victims offers to take him in as his son.
But the more they love him, the more Grenouille hates and despises them. So he chooses to leave, carrying a vial of his potent perfume in his pocket. It can make him popular, rich, and powerful, but he finds it all meaningless.
He arrives at a cemetery, where a group of thieves, murderers, and other worthies have built a cosy fire. He splashes himself with a generous amount of his love potion, and joins the party. The ruffians feel shaken and mesmerised. A force they can’t resist pulls them towards the stranger. They want to touch him and possess him. They fall into raptures and ecstasies. Their love is all-consuming. So they eat him up.
Soon there’s nothing left of Grenouille. He’s been carved up and devoured. The revellers feel a little embarrassed after dinner. But they get over it soon, as they look into one another’s eyes and smile with pride. For the first time, they have done something out of love.
1. Death by Tram and Devil
In Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, the devil descends on the Soviet Union, and Mikhail Alexandrovich Berlioz, pompous chairman of the literary association Massolit, loses his head.
It all happens on a sweltering May evening in Moscow. Berlioz and the young poet known as Bezdomny are resting on a bench and having a chat about Jesus. That is, Berlioz explains that there never was such a person. A foreign-looking stranger joins the conversation. He appears delighted at Berlioz’s denial of God, and in particular of the devil.
He informs Berlioz that a Russian woman will cut off his head, and makes a mysterious reference to spilt oil. He introduces himself as Professor Woland, black magic specialist, and goes on to share an eye-witness account of Jesus and Pontius Pilate.
Berlioz concludes that the stranger is insane, in which case his duty as a good Communist is to inform the authorities. He hurries to make the necessary phone call. As he is about to cross the tramlines, a tram lurches into view. He steps back, but his foot slips on something oily. He crashes onto the tracks, and knocks his head against the cobbles. He catches a glimpse of the woman tram-driver’s horrified face, and then a last distorted flash of the moon.
To the sound of desperate shrieks and screeching wheels, the tram rushes towards the prostrate body and decapitates it. The head rolls away on the cobbles.
The stranger was the devil. While in Moscow, he’ll be staying in Berlioz’s flat.
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