Book Review: Morbid Magic
Author, Tomás Prower
by Jarad Johnson
This is a book that I’ve been meaning to read for some time. If you’re a long-time reader of the blog, you’ll know that Julie and I have no problem discussing death or the topics that relate to it. People call it morbid; I call it healthy. To me, it’s important to come to terms with the fact that your death is going to happen. Not that I’m encouraging you to speed up the process, of course, but accepting your mortality brings a sense of peace. So many things we do are motivated by our fear of death. Why fear something you can’t avoid? As the saying goes, “no one makes it out alive.”
But people are uncomfortable with death, aren’t they? It’s one of the few real taboo subjects we have left. The worst part is that when you’ve experienced a loss and you attempt to talk about your grief, people often shut the conversation down, illustrating how afraid we are of the old Grim Reaper. Perhaps even speaking of death is seen as inviting it back to take another victim. Nevertheless, death is all around us. The death of an animal on the side of the road, the death of relationships, relatives, or even just that houseplant you’ve been neglecting. (Here is your friendly psa to WATER YOUR PLANTS!.) It’s necessary, too. For the new flush of green growth in the spring, things have to die in the winter and go dormant. To grow as a person, some things must be left behind. Without death, there cannot be life, and vice versa.
I know that this is a long introduction for a book review, but I think it sometimes helps to know the context of a reviewer’s thought process. Anyway, Morbid Magic, reminds me of another book I read, by a very cool youtuber and author named Caitlin Doughty. Her book was called From Here to Eternity (a review of which you can read here). However, Caitlin’s book was more experiential based. She had travelled to the places she talked about, observed and documented their death rituals. This was more of a historical look at death practices from around the world. And before we get any further, I have to say that I have mixed feelings about this book- many parts I enjoyed, and some I felt were a little lacking in depth.
Now at long last, let’s look at the book I came here to review. (Nothing like suspense to get the reader fired up.) I really enjoyed the tone of this Morbid Magic. The author clearly believes, as I do, that we should be more comfortable with death and the dead, instead of sweeping it under the rug. At the end of each chapter, Prowers sets a challenge for the reader. He takes a moral from each of the cultures he talks about and challenges us to incorporate them into our day to day lives. That might be honoring the dead, examining our relationship with death or the traditional funeral. Things that will make people uncomfortable and force them to look within to understand why they feel they way they do about each topic. All of this is done with respect and humor, which I really appreciate. I don’t buy into this idea that people must be serious and dour faced at all times when discussing more serious topics. I’m not saying the next time you give a eulogy that you should break into stand-up comedy, but you are allowed to laugh!
This book is also very well researched- as an English major, a works cited is very helpful for me. Not only does this tell me you’ve researched what you’re talking about, it also gives me more reading material! This comes across in the writing, and you can tell Prowers has spent time with this topic. It’s not haphazard or slapdash, but methodical and well-articulated. However, as with anything, please remember that this is one person’s view of these practices. That’s not a bad thing, but it is important to do your own research and form your opinions without taking someone else’s word as gospel. That’s not a critique, just a reminder to think critically in everything you read or consume.
Sometimes I compare what I expected from a book versus what I actually got when I was done reading it. When I saw the words, “Morbid Magic,” I thought there would be a little more of that in the book. There aren’t many of necromantic practices in the cultures he talks about or what you would usually think of as magic in relation to this topic. This is heavier on the spiritual side of things – what people in each culture believe about the afterlife, how the body is prepared, mourning, and that sort of thing. And that is still fascinating or me to learn about, but I did think there was room for a little bit more, well, magic.
This book was a broad overview of each culture, meant to give a general idea of how death is perceived and death within each culture. Prower compares it to a tour guide, and that is really an apt description. You go in, see some sights, and move on. You could probably write a series of books on each culture that he talks about, and I imagine the editing process was a challenge, just because there is so much information there. In that regard, I think each piece of information was well delivered, but I wanted a little more. I wanted to spend more time in each place and learn the ins and outs of each culture before moving on. I’m just greedy, I suspect, for more and more knowledge, but I did feel a tad rushed through each chapter.
Overall, I think this was a good read, and if you want to pick it up, I think you should. If you struggle with death and topics relating to it, I think this a good way for you to begin examining and breaking down those walls. I look forward to reading more of Prower’s work, specifically his book on La Santa Muerte.
Jarad recently graduated from college at MTSU, loves tea and coffee, and tries to spend every spare second reading. He has been a fervent gardener for 6 years and is fascinated by all related topics and has spent the last several years writing about this passion. He believes that nature is our greatest teacher. He majored in English with a concentration in literature and plans to pursue and master’s degree in Ecocriticism.
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