Questions like What happens when you die? and What happens to you if you come back? aren’t new; in the Western tradition, you can trace them back to the Greek myth of Persephone. But I noticed that I’ve racked up a certain familiarity with the modern near-death experience sub-genre, and it has been largely by accident. It’s not that I am especially interested in near-death experiences themselves (you’ll notice there is no non-fiction on this list); it’s more that I tend to be interested in the way authors employ these experiences in service of a larger story. What draws me in is the idea of a brush with death as a transformative and specifically elevating experience. It’s as if the prize for coming face-to-face with ultimate destruction is to be fundamentally enhanced, with powers or abilities never before imagined. Watching authors explore that transformation (and especially its dark side) has quickly become a niche interest of mine. Here are three novels from the last 15 years about people who have experienced death – or come very, very close – and lived to tell the tale.
Passage by Connie Willis
Johanna Lander is a clinical psychologist who is studying near-death experiences. Frustrated with the lack of subjects for her research (and the poaching of existing ones by a kooky pop-culture spiritualist), Johanna decides to take matters into her own hands and work with neurologist Richard Wright to clinically simulate her own NDEs. Johanna quickly becomes obsessed with the experience, returning again and again to the liminal space between life and death, which feels bizarrely familiar. Passage follows the classic Connie Willis formula: original deployment of big ideas combined with some action, some farce, and a flurry of characters theorizing and researching. If you have an inner academic hiding somewhere, this is the NDE lit for you.
The Name of the Star (Shades of London series) by Maureen Johnson
Johnson’s YA series follows Rory Devereaux, a teen from small-town Louisiana whose exchange at a London boarding school is complicated by the seeming reemergence of Jack the Ripper (yeah, that would do it). When a near-death experience leaves Rory with the ability to see ghosts,* she becomes involved in the hunt for the Ripper by way of the Shades, a ghost-hunting group of special agents. Each installment of Shades of London blends humor – courtesy of Rory’s fish-out-of-water antics and kooky small-town anecdotes – with fast-paced, chilling mystery. Here the near-death experience serves a dual function: for Rory it is a jumping-off point for the real adventures, but for many of her fellow Shades, the circumstances surrounding their NDEs are an essential part of their back stories.
*Please note how valiantly I resisted a Sixth Sense joke there
Vicious by V.E. Schwab
Vicious is the story of a pair of brilliant, misanthropic friends who discover that a near-death experience can result in a single near-unlimited power, which is determined by the physical and emotional circumstances of the NDE. What happens as a result of this experiment sends the two young men spinning in opposite directions, and transforms them from friends to bitter, bone-deep rivals. Like all great superpower stories, Vicious is so much more than thrilling, supercharged action: it’s a fascinating character study and a meditation on religion, death, power, and morality. Combine all that with a revenge plot and a complex cast of unlikely superheroes, and you have got a seriously dark and addictive read.
Up next on my NDE list: Abandon by Meg Cabot.
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