On a Pale Horse: Piers Anthony and Five Favorite Personifications of Death


If you’ve got an ebook reader then I’ve got a great suggestion for you: Piers Anthony’s Incarnations of Immortality series. These eight books explore the adventures and philosophical quandaries faced by regular men and women chosen to personify divine powers: Death, Time, Fate, War, Nature, Evil, Good and Night. Three of these volumes, On a Pale Horse, Bearing an Hourglass and Being a Green Mother (Death, Time and Nature, respectively), are making their premiere in ebook this week.

The first volume, On a Pale Horse, remains one of my favorite works of speculative fiction. It’s the story of a depressed man named Zane who decides to commit suicide. As he’s about to pull the trigger of the gun at his head, the Grim Reaper appears before him: skull-face, scythe, robes and all! Terrified, Zane pulls the gun from his head at the very last second and shoots the Reaper instead. Unbelievably enough, the Death himself dies, but Zane’s adventure is just beginning. He learns that “Death” is an office, and that in the event of a vacancy, another mortal must fill the position.  Zane, being responsible for this most recent vacancy, becomes the new Death. It’s not a bad job, at least at first: he gets all kinds of cool magic gear and gets to meet all kinds of interesting people. However, things get complicated when Satan – another Incarnation of Immortality – enters the picture. The devil has plans for the beautiful daughter of an infamous magician and Zane – Death – stands in the way.

Zane’s adventure was particularly appealed to me as a young adult. On a Pale Horse made Death knowable – sympathetic even. He isn’t a bad guy, he just has a job to do – a necessary one. It was the first time I had encountered Death in this way, but it wouldn’t be the first. Over the years I’ve run across several more personifications of Death that were amusing, kindly or in some other way human. Here are a few of my favorites.

Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.
In Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, Death is a cute, perky goth chick. She’s kind and friendly, and tries to make humanity’s journey into the next world a pleasant one. Why? It’s because she knows what it’s like to be human. Once every century she assumes a human guise, dying herself at the end of her day on Earth. If you’ve got to go, hanging out with Neil Gaiman’s Death for a little while seems like a good way to do it.

Seth MacFarlane’s Family Guy.
Initially voiced by Norm MacDonald and later Adam Carolla, Family Guy‘s Death is an acerbic, put-upon figure with little patience for Peter Griffin’s shenanigans. He’s also a bit of a loser who lives with his mom and can’t get a date. Only Peter’s willingness to help Death out has kept him from the business end of a scythe.

Stephen Herek’s Dead Like Me.
Okay, well this one isn’t Death: It’s Deaths. Dead Like Me follows a crew of “reapers,” regular people selected upon their own deaths to serve as the afterlife’s civil servants. Charged with pulling peoples’ souls from their bodies just before death, the reapers ensure that no one suffer needless pain before they go to the next world. It’s a comforting idea, really, and the reapers themselves are a motley bunch, all of whom have their own problems – including having to hold down day jobs alongside their deathly obligations. Mandy Patinkin plays supervisor Rube, a fatherly sort of guy whose patience is occasionally tried by Georgia “George” Lass (Ellen Muth), a young reaper dealing with her own death while occasionally rebelling against her new post-mortem obligations. (An example: One storyline finds George trying to save a coworker’s cat from another reaper charged with collecting pet’s souls. – another comforting idea for us pet owners who dream of meeting our beloved critters in the afterlife.) George isn’t as perky as Gaiman’s Death or pitiable as MacFarlane’s, but she has her own charm.

Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.
With the exception of the skull-faced Grim Reaper, The Seventh Seal‘s version of Death is probably the most recognizable in popular culture. A scene from The Seventh Seal depicts a knight playing a game of chess against Death, a pale-faced man in black robes. While this particular manifestation of Death isn’t particularly funny, this scene has spawned tons of parodies that are, including Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey: the eponymous slackers challenge Death – really kind of a fun guy –  to games of Twister, Battleship and Clue.

Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life.
While it never achieved the fame of Holy Grail or the infamy of Life of Brian (both fine films, in my opinion), The Meaning of Life is a hilarious movie worth seeking out. Meaning of Life is divided into several sections, each addressing a single stage of life. The one dealing with Death depicts the reaper (John Cleese) attempting to collect the souls of a bunch of distracted pensioners who think that he’s just another dinner guest. It takes a special kind of annoying to irritate a being who has all of eternity at his feet, but in short order they do.