Danse Macabre: Close Encounters with the Reaper is an anthology edited by Nancy Kilpatrick and put out by Edge Publishing. These tales are about Death and its personification. Like a Harlequin romance, you pretty much know how it’s going to end. In Harlequins the woman gets her man. In Danse Macabre, every tale deals with dying. Originally I sent in a concept to Nancy for this anthology, but she rejected it. In some ways, I didn’t quite understand that she truly wanted tales where Death is personified. (However that idea will soon be out in Bibliotheca Fantastica as “The Book with No End.”)
Death is a man, a woman, a specter with scythe and hood, a wisp of grey, a bird, or a skeletal neuter. The one form of Death I did not come across, which I thought I might, was the black dog, but perhaps that image is used more for the devil. But I was curious to see what the anthology embraced, and Nancy is a good editor so I was intrigued. There are twenty-five tales and one verse titled “Danse Macabre,” which opens the anthology, so it’s meaty.
The term “Danse Macabre” refers to the dance with death. Medieval images in paintings and engravings depicted skeletons and other forms of Death interacting with the living. For this anthology Death is the one character who you know will be there in the end. However, Death does not always prevail and is in fact set upon in different ways. There are stories here, with Death as an unwelcome companion, or where someone pleads or tries to make a deal. In some cases they try to stay Death’s hand, seduce, understand or hunt the Reaper down. Many of these stories are from the viewpoint of the person coming to terms with or fighting Death. Yet just when I wondered if any individual story would be from the point of view of the Grim Reaper, indeed the viewpoint changed. Sometimes Death hunts, sometimes he courts his prey or feels loneliness or love.
I don’t know if I had any preconceived notion of this book but as I began to read I was delighted. You
might not think so but for a collection that is truly macabre and is the essence of the word, I didn’t find most of the tales depressing. This is both an indication of the skill of the authors and how they wove their tales, and of Nancy’s careful honing of just such an anthology. I’m actually hard pressed to say which tale I liked best or least, but I’ll try to point out a few that stick in my memory. The verse “Danse Macabre” by Ian Emberson was good. It didn’t grab me completely but it had a coquettish air and a wry humor. The last line delivers the punch like it should.
Another aspect of this anthology that I particularly liked was that the tales take place in different times and different cultures. They’re not all 20-21st century stories set in North America. The first story is Lisa Morton’s “The Secret Engravings” about Death visiting Hans Holbein with a commission for danse macabre engravings. This one is well crafted and has an superb twist when Holbein realizes the horror of what he’s done. Many collections and anthologies begin and end with the strongest stories, to pull the reader in and leave them with a good impression. This story stayed with me past finishing the collection.
“Death in the Family” by Morgan Dempsey looks at an unwilling apprenticeship. Yet Dominik defies and turns the tables, which are turned again. Perhaps an ironic tale of leaving a legacy. The theme is echoed, but shown differently in Dan Devine’s “The Physician’s Assistant,” but both show how death is a constant companion to those in the healing arts.
Timothy Reynolds’ “Blue-Black Knight,” “Totentanz” by Nancy Holder and Erin Underwood, Angela Roberts “A Song for Death” as well as “An Appointment in the Village Bazaar” b S.S. Hampton Sr. address the dance with Death through art, whether painting, dancing, singing or playing music. These stories were all strong and evocative with Reynolds looking at a moment of communion with the Reaper, while a balancing of accounts takes place in “Totentanz.” Roberts’ tale of a woman working in the deathly wards of those taken by the influenza and “An Appointment” have at their essence deals and trades made with Death. Sometimes the characters win out or the trade is taken and sometimes they just do not go gentle into that good night.
Not all the stories stayed with me and I don’t have time to review each one. A few I didn’t care for but I found that even those drew me in and were well written, so really the overall level of this collection is high. The two biggest names in the collection are Tanith Lee and Brian Lumley. Lee’s “The Death of Death” is about a woman who hones herself till she can see and follow death throughout the world. She is on the ultimate hunt and this tale is rich with personality and style. Probably my least favorite story was by the best known author. Lumley’s “Old Man With a Blade” is very short but to me it relies on you knowing his Necroscope characters and premise and it left me flat, traveling the least distance of all the stories.
While I liked many of the stories a great deal Opal Edgar’s “Elegy for a Crow” stood out in intensity and horrific effects. It made me really think about what would happened if death did not come but life still tumbled through its miseries and accidents. The final story “Population Management” by Tom Dullemond is probably the only story in the collection that is more SF than fantasy. Yet as an ending it’s fitting and somewhat more sinister, even if wry, when Death is taken out of a more human hand. I would say Danse Macabre really isn’t horror despite being about death. There are a few stories that are indeed horrific or disturbing, but overall this collection, far reaching in style, eras, cultures and viewpoints, is about life and living. I give it 9 scythes out of 10.