Why Do We Keep Writing About Life After Death?

The afterlife provides an opportunity to ponder our biggest existential questions: Your weekly guide to the best in books

A black and white image of the sky with clouds
Toronto Star / Getty

When the world is at war, and you’ve endured night after night of fires and bombs going off all around you, how do you make sense of your own survival? For the unnamed narrator of R. P. Lister’s short story “My Grandfather’s Ghost”—published in The Atlantic in 1960—the solution is to transform the experience into a sort of tall tale, playing up the comedic moments over the real fear, long after the danger has passed. After hearing the whistle of a bomb during the London Blitz, the narrator races up to the roof—but, he claims, he’s fleeing his grandfather’s spirit. He tries to convince himself that the ghost is a figment of his imagination, but still takes cover in a passageway, hoping that the older man—despite tracking him down from the grave—will go away. The chaos of the city around him becomes less important as he relays asides about the spirit’s supposed prior messages.

When writers want to to know what is unknowable, to make sense out of the senseless, or to right wrongs, it’s natural to explore death and the afterlife. While in Lister’s story the narrator’s understated humor serves as a distraction from the fear of the situation, other authors—such as Joy Williams in her 2021 novel, Harrow—prefer to stare directly into the void. “For decades now,” Anthony Domestico notes, “Williams has been consumed with this question: What will death be like, and how would we live differently if we knew?” ​Yet some writers have another impulse, as Tope Folarin writes in a review of Namwali Serpell’s new book, The Furrows: They refuse to “accept death as the last word on a loved one’s life; the desire to hold on, to imagine, to desperately dream that the end is not the end.” That desire is particularly poignant in Maisy Card’s novel, These Ghosts Are Family. The spirits in her work cannot be escaped; they demand accountability for both historical and recent injustice.

The question of what happens when we die provides us an opportunity to ponder our biggest existential questions, whether we embrace or run away from our ghosts. In whatever form they take, they reinforce how attached we are to our own lives. As the poet Andrea Cohen writes, “Any ghost will / tell you— / the last thing / we mean / to do / is leave you.”

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas. Know other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward them this email.

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What We’re Reading

Fred Ramage / Getty; Bert Hardy / Getty; The Atlantic

Fred Ramage / Getty; Bert Hardy / Getty; The Atlantic

Other worlds ended that night, but not mine

“The night was cloudy, and not the faintest speck of light was visible from the opaquely shrouded town; the principal sound was the distant, thin drone of another bomb chugging its way across London toward Enfield or Elstree or Edgware or some other northerly objective. After a time the drone stopped, but I could see no indication of where the bomb fell. And then I became suddenly aware that my grandfather’s ghost had gone. ”


Abstract grainy, blue-gray silhouette of woman wearing dress in orange-pink doorway

Paul Spella / The Atlantic

Ghosting

“How cavalier
people are—

with language
and with silence.”


A black and white image of workers standing in a field

Hulton Archive / Getty

An epic novel haunted by the ghosts of colonialism

“Like other works of Caribbean literature, These Ghosts Are Family takes a wide-ranging approach to its depiction of undead spirits. The titular beings aren’t just malevolent boogeymen who show up to frighten the living, as in a Halloween tale. Rather, they drift in and out of the humans’ perception, shifting people’s relationship to the world around them by compelling overdue reckonings. Some of Card’s ghosts … are born of recent familial wrongs. Others force characters to remember longer-buried transgressions, recalling the tradition of Haiti’s post-revolution zombie folklore, which emerged from imagined horror stories about enslaved people trapped in their bodies after death.”


A reader holding "Go Set a Watchman"

Emin Ozmen / Magnum; The Atlantic

A world where death isn’t the end

“The book traverses many genres and points of view, but it is primarily concerned with exploring one of the most enduring human impulses: the inability to accept death as the last word on a loved one’s life; the desire to hold on, to imagine, to desperately dream that the end is not the end.”


Joe Sohm / Universal Images / Getty; Getty; Catherine Falls / Getty; Cedric von Niederhausern / The Atlantic

Joe Sohm / Universal Images / Getty; Getty; Catherine Falls / Getty; Cedric von Niederhausern / The Atlantic

The prophet of nothingness

“For [Joy] Williams, unknowing is the route to God, and grace’s gift is to remind humanity of its insignificance. Nothingness provides Harrow with its most consistent drumbeat. Sentimental language, our profit-maximizing society, and the ravaged world it has left behind: All must be purged before new life can reappear. Grace comes only after harrowing.”


About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Mary Stachyra Lopez. Her favorite ghost story is Patrick Stewart’s reading of A Christmas Carol.

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