“Dearly beloved, we’re gathered here today to get through this thing called life.” In the words of Prince, I think that’s why we read.
Or write or do anything that sparks joy because at the heart of it, life sucks ass. The world can be a cruel, dark place. Grimdark offers us a catharsis for that; yes, the world’s unfair and you’re not the only one suffering the injustices of a cruel world. But there’s something else.
Unlike Prince’s opening monologue of “Let’s Go Crazy” (and by proxy, the opening of the film Purple Rain), life certainly doesn’t mean forever in grimdark fantasy. It’s nasty, brutish, and short. And typically, in our world and in many worlds of fiction, there’s a glowing hope that peace, happiness, and reward for our needless suffering in life will come after the sweet release of death.
And maybe some characters cling to that hope in the pages of your texts. But in the crap-sack worlds of grimdark fantasy, their puny hope is often seen as naivety, or an unhealthy coping mechanism in the face of so much suffering and injustice.
But as a reader, with all the death in these books, sometimes I wonder, is there anything after the author gives them the ax on the page? With so much death, do we ever ponder where these characters go when they die? Is death the end? Is there a judgment system – a heaven or a hell? Knowing grimdark, if there is, is it as unfair as the world our characters inhabit?
At this, I can imagine some pastiche of sin and damnation: “You ate a rock three days before you died and that’s forbidden!” St. Peter bellows. “Go straight to Hell you heathen!”
So let’s explore the possibilities and dive into where we can go with this perennial literary question: where do grimdark fantasy characters go when they die?
First, I’m taking some time to acknowledge that the big questions aren’t exclusively grimdark. Shocker! However, the lens grimdark views the world in is what it says on the tin: grim, and dark. Thus, the way this literature views the afterlife is most likely through the same grim reality the entire book series sets up.
But… grimdark fantasy is fantasy. Thanks to the vehicle of a secondary world (or extra knowledge people can gain about the afterlife in our primary world because magic), the author isn’t as bound by reality to create a plausible afterlife. It only has to be plausible to the reader in the context of the pages, so they can suspend disbelief and keep engaging in the world.
Ironically, you can create an entirely new system, but what engages readers’ suspension of disbelief the most is what’s been done before. Bringing me to the possibilities of grimdark afterlives.
Death as a Repository
In this version of the afterlife, you’re not here because you’re good or bad. You’re here because you’re dead. This version of the afterlife is more common than a lot of people think. Greek, Hebrew, and Norse mythologies all have a variation of this. In Ancient Greece, the asphodel fields awaited most mortals. People who were neither remarkable nor remarkably wicked wandered around a grey wasteland with only the memories of their previous lives to comfort them.
Valhalla aside (and like the Greek counterpart Elysium, you went there if you were a warrior or did something heroic), most people in Norse beliefs would go to Niflheim, a cold, dark realm where they would await Ragnarök, the Doom of the Gods and the epic battle of the end of the world.
In The Old Testament, Sheol is a wasteland deep in the earth, a repository where both the righteous and unrighteous dead go. The silver lining is that there, you’re reunited with your family and tribe, which … for some people, that’s not a silver lining at all!
Everybody Goes to Hell
Ah, eternal damnation. Reserved for the truly wicked … or so we think.
This is supposed to be reserved for the irredeemably heartless: a small comfort for the masses to believe that the bastards who wronged them, did them dirty, will be held accountable in the afterlife.
This is an especially appealing hope in Grimdark Land. After all, in a world where might makes right and people get fucked over all the time, having faith that there’s justice after you die can put anyone to sleep at night. However, there are two possibilities that blow this faith out of the water.
The first is this gnawing question: how perfect are you?
Have you ever fucked someone over and escaped accountability? Lied, cheated, stolen, killed someone? Did you sneak twelve items through the ten items or fewer checkout line? Really? How can you be so sure that your soul is spending eternity in bliss, or even a grey wasteland respite that’s dull if not torment?
Few, if any souls, are perfect enough to go through the afterlife with this worldview. Nearly everyone ends up going to Hell, because no one can measure up to the creator’s sky-high standards. Nobody’s perfect, so aren’t we all doomed anyway?
This grim, dark version of the afterlife is more present in comedies than tragedies. South Park and The Good Place both come to mind. The king of this literary version of the afterlife is, of course, The Divine Comedy. Dante’s opus is full of ironic punishments for many transgressions. Fortune tellers must always look backwards. Greedy bastards have to carry sacks and sacks of stuff on their backs through the desert. The deepest circles of hell are reserved for traitors, who are frozen in a lake of ice, or devoured by Satan personally.
Don’t like grey wastes and torment? Well, there’s another alternative:
That’s it. Life is all there is, and your consciousness ceases to exist after you die. As Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka put it: “You get nothing. You lose. Good day, sir!”
In this scenario, the false hope of justice in the afterlife is only a means to control the masses, an “opiate of the people” to sedate them out of holding their authorities accountable. Or it’s just a nice hope to get people through their daily, miserable lives.
Either way, in my humble opinion, it’s the most in-line with the grimdark worldview. It works for fantasy pieces where magic, if it exists, is low-powered and unreliable. It also works for books, games, and movies where the afterlife doesn’t come into play. After all, has anyone even come back from the dead?
Resurrection and Life
When it’s near the end of a series, resurrecting a character can seem like a cop-out. Plot armor that makes a moral point at best or a lazy way to save your darlings at worst. If resurrection is done well, not so the good guys can win the day or your favorite character can live until the end of the series, it can open up a dark, engaging series of questions.
In a world where gods are in control of your soul and eternal fate, resurrection can be a salacious inciting incident. It can also be a great point of deconstruction: why was the protagonist given a second chance at life? What does the protagonist owe their resurrecting god? How can the protagonist be exploited by said gods, or more intriguing, will they use their powers to betray their benefactor and take their place once they’re done with their mission?
If you want to read a book with a juicy afterworld and a bit on intrigue, Raven Queen: Arise is the first book in a series that delves into dark afterworlds. Pick it up on Amazon today!