Death Obsessed: My favorite incarnations.


November 17, 2012 by Heidi

Death illustrated by Paul Kidby in The Art of DiscworldFall is a season of harvest, but it is also the herald of endings.  For me, the darkening of days, colder weather, and quite visible death of the flora around me isn’t something to dread–it’s something to revel in.  It is a time when I put away my cheery books meant for the bright days of summer or the warm hearths of the holidays, and wrap myself in what humor, insight, and darkness this season has to give.

One of my favorite story-types to sink myself into at this time of year are those involving Death–yes, Death with a capital D–the personification of that mortal inevitability.  People have been giving Death names and faces for as long as they have been telling stories.  In some cultures, Death is a hag, in others, a skeleton.  Death has been a god, a trickster, and even at times known to ride a buffalo (an inspiration to this guy, I am sure). I think that most commonly, we picture Death to be quite like this guy on the left as illustrated in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld–a hooded skeletal figure bearing a sythe.

I’ve found myself in love with a few of Death’s literary incarnations, namely:

Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett book cover

Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett utilizes Death as a character throughout his Discworld novels, but he also gets his own nice little series within including what I am sorry to admit is the only Discworld novel I have read to date, Reaper Man.  Handed to me by a friend after I expressed my love of Death, I loved this novel which explores just what would happen should Death decide to quit.  Clearly I need to get out there and read the rest of Pratchett’s Death stories.

On a Pale Horse by Piers Anthony book cover

On a Pale Horse by Piers Anthony

Okay, I know Piers Anthony books are extremely formulaic and misogynistic enough to make any one of us women consider some poignant hate mail, but I gotta admit–the man can totally suck me in on occasion.  As was such with his Incarnations of Immortality series, in which each book focuses on a different personification–death, time, fate, nature, war, good and evil.  I may be a big time travel nerd, and a fiber arts fangirl who loves the weavings of fate, but there’s no denying that the star of this series is Thanatos, or, Death.  Remember the Tim Allen movie The Santa Clause? Whelp, turns out Death works on pretty much the same system–you kill the guy, you get the job.  And good luck with it!

Death The High Cost of Living by Neil Gaiman book cover

Death: The High Cost of Living by Neil Gaiman

Death illustrated by Chris Bachalo in Death The Time of Your Life

Death is my favorite character in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, and I’m also a fan of the two stand alone trades that she received.  As stated, it seems that Death is as often personified as a woman as it is a man, but because this isn’t something we see much of in western culture, Dream’s sweet and fun big sis opened a new world for me.  In Sandman, Death is one of seven siblings–Destiny, Death, Dream, Destruction, Desire, Despair, and Delirium.  In these graphic novels you’ll find that she’s the only one of these seven whose speech is the same as us lowly mortals.  She’s the only one who bothers understand what it is to be one of us, to really relate to mortals.  If that isn’t endearing, I don’t know what is.

Of course, loving the personification of Death, means I’m also a big fan of reaper stories, so honorable mentions are going to Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers (in which Death does make an appearance) and Graveminder by Melissa Marr.  I’m also decided that aside from more Discworld, I need to pick up Croak by Gina Damico, First Grave on the Right by Darynda Jones, and (don’t glare) The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t leave you with my three favorite TV takes on death:

Death from Supernatural


So…seasons 5 and 6 of Supernatural largely sucked, but one of the best parts for me was meeting Death.  This dude’s one creepy mofo–I can totally see him driving Thanatos’s car from On a Pale Horse.  Supernatural is also the only case I can think of that uses both Reapers and Death as individual beings.  Essentially, Reapers work for Death–makes sense to me.

Ned from Pushing Daisies

Pushing Daisies

One of my all time favorite TV shows that ended too soon (woe to the dark days of the writer’s strike and dangling plot lines at a show’s conclusion), Ned is kind of a reaper…or anti-reaper, depending on how you look at it.  If he touches something dead, it comes back to life, BUT if it’s alive for more than a minute, something else has to die in its place.  If Ned touches a dead object after he’s brought it to life, it dies again.  Of course, this makes him an excellent side kick for solving murders, but his relationship with his alive-again childhood sweetheart a bit complicated.  Pushing Daisies is one of the most charming, quirky, and colorful shows I’ve ever seen.  If you haven’t seen it, I couldn’t recommend it more–just go in knowing that there won’t be a neat ending.

George from Dead Like Me

Dead Like Me

Proving that Bryan Fuller is as obsessed with Death as I am (he created both Pushing Daisies and Dead Like Me), Dead Like Me follows the story of George, a young woman who becomes a reaper upon dying a most embarrassing death.  She’s assigned a position reaping accidents, along with a small crew who receive their duties via post-it notes.  Like Pushing Daisies, Dead Like Me only lasted two seasons, but it was a little less loose in the end.  Pro tip though: don’t want the movie.  Trust me.

What are your favorite incarnations of Death?  Or am I just a creeper for loving these things?  I think it’s very natural for people to be fascinated by death, and to want to put a face on what may be everyone’s most inevitable fear.  Let me know what great Death or Reaper tales I’m missing out on, and how you feel about those I’ve listed here.


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  1. It’s no secret that I love every word that Terry Pratchett writes. Like EVERY word- even the thes and ands and ofs. I am an obsessed Discworld fan. Small Gods, Reaperman and Nation are my favorites but I have a soft spot for any of the ones that Death is a major character in. Well, if truth be told, I have a soft spot for any of the ones the witches are in, and the city watch, and the patrician….and the wizards….and the Feegles…and Susan…and STOP LAURA STOP. But Reaperman is one of my favorites.

    Have you read Hogfather? It is when Death takes over the Discworld’s Christmas-like holiday. It is full of words that will settle in your brain (and soul) and MOVE IN.

    • Heidi says:

      Um, no, but clearly I need to! Putting Hogfather down on my holiday to read list for sure. Sounds very Nightmare Before Christmas. I love that you can really pick up anywhere in the Discworld books. I read Reaper Man which isn’t even the first Death book and didn’t feel at all lost–I’ll probably skip right to Hogfather for Christmas and then go back and read the other Death books!

  2. Kristen says:

    Great picks! I love both Terry Pratchett’s Death and Neil Gaiman’s in the Sandman series. And both Pushing Daisies and Dead Like Me are two of my favorite TV shows ever. I’m actually doing a re-watch of Pushing Daisies now and am incredibly sad once again that there isn’t more of it.

    Did you watch Wondefalls too? It’s another Bryan Fuller show that was great, but it only lasted one season. It’s not about death like the other two, but it had the same quirky sense of humor as the other two shows.

    • Heidi says:

      I love Wonderfalls! I actually just rewatched it a couple of months ago, and I’m currently rereading Sandman, which is what had me thinking about these. :)

  3. Wow, what an interesting post! I actually haven’t heard of anything of these, but when I think of Death, The Book Thief always comes to mind. I’ll need to check out some of your recommendations for sure though and speaking of Supernatural, HOW do you watch that show? I saw five brilliant episodes of it but couldn’t sleep for a week, so I realized I probably need to stop watching it…even though it is SO GOOD. I can’t deal with horror movies/shows unfortunately. :/ Anyway, I love this post, Heidi! :)

    • Heidi says:

      Hehe, Supernatural actually doesn’t bother me at all! I think that I find enough humor in the show that the creepiness doesn’t bother me. For me it’s a lot like reading Urban Fantasy or something rather than horror. Doesn’t bother me as much.

      I really need to read The Book Thief already! It’s one of my blatant gaps.

  4. Ahh..we don’t talk for a few days and then BAM I am again reminded that we are booksoulmates. I love death! Part of the reason (besides the slow burn romance, obvs) that I LOVED Grave Mercy was because Death was there! I don’t know why but I wanna know this guy! Or gal, I suppose. I always picture this character as a person (like Hades, I suppose) who has been put in this job of dealing with all of these deaths and he/she doesn’t love it, ya know? It really is a JOB and it just drags on and really he/she wants to LIVE. Perhaps I spend too much time thinking about this…I actually haven’t read many books with DEATH as a character though I have, of course, read many that deals with death as a plotline….I think I’ll have to pick up ALL of these titles very soon!

    Side note: We have finally have the entire Sandman series at work…except number 1. Seriously?! It has been back ordered for months! SO ANNOYING!

    • Heidi says:

      What?! That’s a tragedy right there. You really need to pick it up. I hope you can get through the first issue, it has some messed up shit and the art isn’t as nice as you’re used to with Fables (though Mark Buckingham does do some issues of Sandman throughout the series!), but the stories are fantastic. I like a number of different portrayals of Death, you’d probably really like Reaper Man, where Death quits because yeah, it’s a crappy job. Also On a Pale Horse he kind of gets stuck with it just because he didn’t want to die. Grats, you get immortality–too bad you have to spend it taking other people’s lives. Death in Sandman doesn’t really like or dislike her job–it just is, but like I said, more than any of her siblings she goes out of her way to keep things in perspective.

      • Ignore all of my spelling and grammar errors, please. Multitasking while at work 😛

        I am waiting patiently for number 1 so that I can read them all but I can’t see not loving them because lady, I LOVE NEIL GAIMAN. I really do. I can’t believe it has taken so long for me to realize my love, really! I love that Death is a she in Sandman and I am definitely going to be picking up these other titles!

  5. As soon as I started reading this post, I though to myself, “I hope she includes the Piers Anthony book!” so…yes. Good. :)

    I remember ploughing through On a Pale Horse while on break during college, impatiently getting the next book of the series, then feeling sad that it didn’t live up to my expectations. Have you read the rest of the series? What are your thoughts on it overall?

    I wish I could think of some other great personifications of Death, but I think you’ve got every one I know covered—love Dead Like Me, and Lee Pace’s face…I mean, Pushing Daisies.

    • Heidi says:

      I read the series up until it got to Good and Evil, and that’s when I fell off. My other favorite besides On A Pale Horse was With a Tangled Skein, but as I said, they’re all very formulaic and have pretty much the same plot. I think I liked Fate so much because there were the three aspects of fate, and so she has a slightly different path than the other aspects seem to. I’d say that one’s worth reading!

  6. It’s blowing my mind that you haven’t read The Book Thief. That’s the first thing that came to my mind when I read what this post was about. I also loved Death’s little cameo in The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making – remember that? I guess Deathless is more about the god of life, but I think it still counts. Such an interesting post, Heidi! I’ve never thought about “death as a narrator” as a category.

    • Heidi says:

      I know, I know, it’s terrible. The Book Thief is one of those that I know I’ll love, but for some reason I never pick it up. Oh, you’re right! I’d forgotten about Death in Fairyland honestly–silly since I just read the second. I also really want to read Deathless as well.

  7. WHOA. This is an awesome post. Especially when you shouted out Death from Supernatural. Was he not the BEST character?! I got a little nerd-giddy when I saw that you mentioned him because he was the perfect creepy, superior, quietly menacing embodiment of Death.
    And I’ve always wanted to read Sandman and The Book Thief. I can’t believe I haven’t read either of these yet. I NEED to read them.

    • Heidi says:

      Thanks, Amy! You really should read Sandman and The Book Thief, but as I haven’t read the later either I can’t really nag. I love the Death from Supernatural though! He’s PERFECT. I love that he’s kind of an entity of his own, and doesn’t have to answer to the struggles between Heaven and Hell–he’s got his own business to take care of.

  8. Sandra says:

    Oh you really do need to continue to venture into discworld. It’s one of those series that is actually best read out of order in my opinion. Pratchett strengthens as a writer as he moves on, and I’m not sure I would have gotten as hooked had I started at the beginning as a normal person would 😉

    That said, since it’s the season and you’re a Death fan, check out Hogfather. Again there’s a Santa Clause touch-something has happened to the Discworld version of Santa and Death takes his place. It’s snarky, endearing and brilliant.

    (Have you done Good Omens yet, seeing as you mention both Pratchett and Gaiman here?)

    • Heidi says:

      Yes! Good Omens would be ranked in my Top 5 favorite books of all time. I actually just got another new copy of it this year–it’s one of those I keep pushing on people, but they all seem to love it too much to ever return my book. 😛

      Also, yes! I’m totally going to put Hogfather on my December TBR. You’re the second person to mention it to me, and it sounds like just the type of book I’d love to read.

  9. I am not glaring, but giving you a total judgmental look over not having read The Book Thief, legit it is a Heidi book. It is beautifully written, moving and emotional.

    On the other hand, I have not read any of the books mentioned in detail or seen any of the shows, so I suppose you can give me a judgement look in return hahahaha.

    • Heidi says:

      Lol, you’re right, I DESERVE the judgmental book, I know it’s a total Heidi book. I think I keep eyeing the audio constantly on Overdrive, but never checking it out because it’s just so dang long. Goal for 2013: read The Book Thief!

  10. Jasmine Rose says:

    I love Pushing Daisies! I wish there was more of it :[
    I tried watching Dead Like Me, but I just couldn’t get into it. I really wanted to like it, but I didn’t want to force it either.

    • Heidi says:

      Yeah, that’s fair. Dead Like Me isn’t as good of a show, and a lot of people just don’t get into it–so don’t feel bad about that one! Word on wanting more Pushing Daisies though.

  11. […] that I’ll be back for more: Wtf people?  I just put up this post about how I love books with Death as a character, and all of you failed to point me toward Leavitt’s Keturah and Lord Death. […]

  12. I will forgive you for mentioning The Santa Clause and Tim Allen because you talked about Dead Like Me, which is one of my favorite shows of all time. I watch my DVDs all the time, to this day:) You’re right that the movie is total crap.

    I also liked the Death episode of Family Guy when Norm McDonald (Macdonald?) as Death breaks his ankle and Peter takes his job for a bit. (and gets tasked to kill the cast of Dawson’s Creek:))

    • Heidi says:

      Bwahaha, I apologize for The Santa Clause reference. It’s unfortunately pretty universal though. I love you for loving Dead Like Me!! I love it so much, have you watched Pushing Daisies/Wonderfalls? I wish that his shows would make it more than a season or two on their own and he didn’t go off to write on more stable/successful/less quirky things.

      I love that episode of Family Guy!! I’d totally forgotten about it, thanks for the reminder. Hehe, that and the Deep South episode are probably my favorites.

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