When I think about lives that are built upon death, I think about grave workers and grave diggers, funeral home staff, those working in crematories, forensic scientists and detectives, and more morbidly, murderers. In fiction, the meaning of “life built upon death” becomes further complicated when explored through an unexpected lens both, metaphorically and literally—from necromancers, witch and plague doctors, zombies, spirits, ghosts, and soul eaters, among others. In my debut novella Linghun, the neighborhood in which it is set is a place built upon death, where haunted houses wait and hold within them the ghosts of dead loved ones.
For some, the concept of life and death can be quite binary, yet for others, they are almost interchangeable: when we are born, we are born dying; when we die, we await reincarnation—new life. Though, this differs from person to person, culture to culture. I do think life and death are unarguably intertwined, where there cannot be one without another, and more often than not, there are consequences, prices to pay, when it comes to both.
When I think about “life built upon death,” there are three books I have read recently that I feel accurately encompass what this phrase truly means:
The Scarlet Alchemist by Kylie Lee Baker
Quite literally, resurrecting the dead is the main character Zilan’s livelihood, what pays the bills and puts food on the table. Zilan can return souls to their bodies at a terrible cost—draining the life force of those who love the resurrected most—and those with their souls returned may not necessarily be as intact as one might like depending on how long their body has been deceased and the level of decomposition.
Immortality is not a far-fetched idea in the world that Baker has created either, where the rich can remain young forever by consuming alchemical gold.
However, as Zilan enters the royal palace as a royal alchemist, she realizes dangers lurking where resurrection techniques are used for something more sinister.
What I enjoyed most about this book is not only its wide sweeping world building and fast-paced action, but the way it also tackles the connection between wealth, life, and death, and who holds the power to wield the three.
Dehiscent by Ashley Deng
It is difficult to fully speak about this novella without giving too much away because its short length, but Dehiscent by Ashley Deng is equal parts dark and unsettling as well as warming and wholesome. There are complex familial dynamics, tension between those who are not as fortunate and those who are at the school Yi attends, and the need to hide from others who lack the abundance the Zhu family is blessed with.
But such abundance does not come free, and even though the Zhu family house provides them with everything they need to survive the eco-horror world outside, they are not allowed to share, they are not allowed to question, and because of the way the Zhu family home seems to thrive on death, they will have to sacrifice lives to sustain their way of living.
The Vein by Steph Nelson
In this multi-POV and non-linear debut by Steph Nelson that blends horror, crime, and thriller, the central theme of the novel is very much focused on death and returning ghosts and unravelling the mysteries around disappearances and a found corpse within a silver mine that is not simply a silver mine.
Like the previous two books, there are characters within this book that may go to desperate lengths to obtain wealth, to the point of making unspeakable sacrifices. And sometimes, the beckoning of death is not something easy to shut out or look away from, especially when what it promises entices more than the fear of getting blood on our hands.
For some of the characters “life built upon death” might be dedicating their lives to discovering the reality behind a loved one’s death, and for others, it is more similar to Zilian and the Zhu family, where only through the death of others can the character live.
This is a book both about holding onto those who have passed and learning to let go, as well as discovering the necessity of the latter.
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