Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

The notion that death is not the end is common to most religions and mythologies; some have opted for Reincarnation as a putative mode of extending the span of the individual Soul, some look instead to Ghosts, some have posited a continued beingness on an Astral Plane of some sort, and some claim the existence of what are in effect Secondary Worlds – be they Heaven, Hell or Valhalla – where the virtuous (depending upon how that term is defined) or the lucky enjoy a second, eternal "life". With such a rich array of options available from traditional sources, it is not surprising that the Posthumous Fantasy has proved such a popular subgenre, though modern taste tends not to find attractive the late-19th- and early-20th-century tendency to interpret afterlife experiences in terms of Spiritualism. All too often the afterlife is experienced, as in Marie Corelli's The Soul of Lilith (1892), through a state of enchanted sleep; or, as in R H Wright's The Outer Darkness (1906), is mostly submerged in pious Allegory, though this tale, by treating Purgatory in Lost-Race or lost-world terms, does hint at developments later in this century (see below). A late Spiritualist experience of the afterlife appears in Time Must Have a Stop (1944) by Aldous Huxley (1894-1963), where a character dies, travels through the afterlife, and reports back on events (including the forthcoming World War II) to his associates.

Depictions of the afterlife as a place (rather than as a condition) are reasonably common in both written and cinematic fantasy. Job: A Comedy of Justice (1984) by Robert A Heinlein briefly portrays a peculiarly mundane, bureaucratic Heaven and a slightly more interesting Hell. Earlier, in Inferno (1975), Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle reworked Dante, sticking fairly closely to Dante's geography (although assigning contemporary political enemies, like environmentalists, to Dantean punishments they considered "appropriate"). It is unsurprising that these quasi-rationalizations have been produced by sf rather than fantasy writers.

Much more interesting from a fantasy viewpoint is the afterlife portrayed by John Kendrick Bangs in A House-Boat on the Styx: Being Some Account of the Divers Doings of the Associated Shades (1896) – sequelled by The Pursuit of the House-Boat (1897) – in which historical noteworthies are gathered in the eponymous venue; Frederic Arnold Kummer's very similar afterlife stories include Ladies in Hades (1928) and Gentlemen in Hades (1930). A thematic descendant is Philip José Farmer's extended Technofantasy, the Riverworld series, in which a resurrected humanity is placed along the banks of a river many millions of miles long. Indeed, Rivers are popular symbols in this context: Sheri S Tepper's The Awakeners (1987), for example, which blends sf and fantasy themes, again centres a large human population along the banks of a hugely long river. The dead rise in countless local "afterlives", which have physical existence. Return of the dead to the areas occupied by the living is Taboo, as, for the most part, is the incursion of the living into the "afterlives". In John Grant's The World (1992) multitudinous afterlives are equated with the territories of Dreams, which are themselves seen as Alternate Realities, so that the continued existence of the individual is in effect a form of Reincarnation, but each time into a different venue.

Fantasy writers have also used the afterlife as a place for living protagonists to visit, usually via Portal, as with L Sprague de Camp's and Fletcher Pratt's The Incomplete Enchanter (1941), whose protagonist participates in events – the travails of the Norse Aesir as Fimbulwinter deepens – that mortals are meant to see only posthumously. Indeed, any fantasy visit to the abode of the Gods implies an afterlife context: for the gods may visit us whenever they wish, but we normally visit them only after we have "passed over" into their sphere.

A cluster of movies have depicted the afterlife, or more especially Limbo. Limbo is portrayed in Here Comes Mr Jordan (1941), which was sequelled by Down to Earth (1947) and remade as Heaven Can Wait (1978). A more extravagant version of Limbo appeared in A Matter of Life and Death (1946), and the notion of Limbo as a sort of vast bureaucracy is perpetuated in movies like Beetlejuice (1988) and especially Defending Your Life (1991). In Outward Bound (1930) and its remake, Between Two Worlds (1944), by contrast, Limbo is a steamship making its way from our world to the hereafter, at the end of which voyage the passengers shall be judged; suicides are doomed to repeat the journey endlessly. The Limbo of Always (1989) is a tract of green countryside, deserted save for the protagonist and an instructing Angel. Very few movies go beyond Limbo in their explorations of the afterlife: a couple of recent examples are Don Bluth's All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989), which depicts Heaven, canine-style, and Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey (1991), which memorably portrays both Heaven and Hell. [JG/JC]

see also: Ghost Stories.

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.