Danse Macabre: Closer Encounters with the Reaper is an anthology edited by horror author Nancy Kilpatrick, focusing on Death in all its infinite variations and manifestations. EDGE Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing describes it as:
…the most unusual and original collection of stories you’ll ever read! It is a literary version of Danse Macabre “Plague art”. Twenty-six literary reflections that embody those themed, classical artworks devoted to the spectrum of humanity’s intriguing interactions with the Angel of Death.
Aside from her writing, Kilpatrick is also known for her hobby of seeking out Danse Macabre art (or ‘Plague Art’). This greatly influenced her reasoning for this collection, as she said:
People die from old age, illness, accident, violence, despair. They can die before they are born. The happy and the sad, the sane and insane, the rich and the poor, the law abiding and the criminal, the genius and the fool, the saint and the sinner. Some face death consciously, others die in their sleep. But we all die and Danse Macabre is a kind of universal melting pot for death. My goal is to create an anthology that is a literary version of the Danse Macabre artwork, showing the same range of humanity in a variety of situations and encounters with death.
So, with that morbid premise in mind, how does the anthology hold up on a story level? It’s a solid collection from quite a wide variety of authors, ensuring you’re going to get plenty of different styles and topic interpretations to sample. In some instances, Death is presented in pretty traditional ways, and you know the representative character the instant they appear, either because of their black-on-black clothing, gaunt frame, or skull’s grin. However, this reader more enjoyed those stories where Death came in unexpected forms and broke the usual anthropomorphic personification molds. And, fortunately, there are plenty of instances where this occur.
One of the first pieces you’ll encounter is ‘The Secret Engravings,’ by Lisa Morton. It takes place during the Plague years that inspired Danse Macabre artwork in general. In it, an engraver is given a special task by Death, which could either prove his salvation or his doom. It’s excellent to see a more inhuman form of the Reaper, one whom we should well fear for his alien nature and unsympathetic perspective of our race.
Here are a few other highlights:
- Morgan Dempsey’s ‘Death in the Family’ – When Death is your godfather, and you’re a court physician, it makes for some intriguing–and terrible–conflicts of interest. What would you do to save the ones you love?
- Lorne Dixon’s ‘Pressed Butterflies’ – A sickly girl is aided in her hunt for ‘angels’ by an elderly gentleman who appears on her family grounds. A story that greatly deserves being called ‘creepy’ and ‘haunting.’
- Lucy Taylor’s ‘La Senora Blanca’ – This story pulls the reader to Mexico, where an old woman languishes in a nursing home, where Death stalks in the form of the foul and vicious La Senora Blanca. The woman’s past is revealed in snippets as she comes to understand the true nature of the Reaper and how it clashes with her expectations.
Some pieces don’t quite rise above the basic concept of ‘a character meets Death and then dies,’ while others fall back on uninspired versions of Death that won’t leave much of a mark on the reader. Yet there is plenty here to enjoy, including forays into the military, music, and pulp fiction.
Danse Macabre, ironically, breathes a form of life into Death, turning it from a two-dimensional skeleton hung out for Halloween into a vibrant spirit with countless facets and fascinating layers.