Necromancy: different angles on a fantasy mainstay

Sometimes the same familiar concept looks completely different from different angles.

Take necromancy, a pillar of fantasy storytelling, usually defined as something involving manipulating the bodies or spirits of the dead. There are so many different ways of exploring and defining this idea, yet we each tend to default to one particular definition. So even though I have half a notebook full of ideas for a novel involving Frankensteinesque science and resurrection medicine, it wasn’t until I found a couple of interesting blog posts this morning that I thought of that as necromancy.

If I'm coming back from the dead, I'm coming back drunk
If I’m coming back from the dead, I’m coming back drunk

The first post, from Michal Wojcik’s One Last Sketch blog, looks at necromancy from a historical perspective – where did this idea come from? what were medieval people talking about when they talked about this? was there some secret criminal cult of priests peddling dark powers for money (probably not, but great idea)?

The second post, from H. Anthe Davis’s The War of Memory Project, looks at necromancy as a fantasy trope, how it’s usually used and how H. uses it in his work. A brief comment conversation with H. got me thinking more about this subject, about why necromancy fascinates us so much, why it works so well as a symbol of darkness.

My current thought is that it’s about taboos. As human beings we have lots of taboos around the disruption of bodies, living or dead. These mostly started as perfectly sensible practices – sticking spikey things in your flesh can lead to infections, as can keeping corpses around. But over time they evolved into customs, then subconscious squirming, then taboos of varying degrees of rationality. It means that stories that prod at dead bodies are likely to hit a very live nerve.

But this is really just a first thought on the subject, and it’s a subject that I’m interested in, on which I’d be fascinated to read your thoughts. What do you think are the great examples of necromancy in fiction? Why is it so appealing, or so repeatedly awful, in our eyes? Care to expand on any of the points Michal and H. have raised? Leave a comment, let me know what you think.


Picture by Diego Torres Silvestre via Flickr creative commons