There are many tales of people who have had “near death” experiences, most of which feature bright light and long-lost loves and generally good feelings all around. In the titular story of the collection How It Feels To Die… by Grant Allen, there are no such comforts.
As a young man, Charles Grant Blairfindie Allen fell through the ice of a frozen pond while skating. He published an account of this in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1892 (anonymously), describing his overall feeling of his ‘death’ to be one of nothingness. Having slipped through a thin spot of ice, he panicked and was unable to locate the hole where he fell in, and so struggled against the thicker ice further from the opening, stunning himself in the process.
Just before I died, however, I noticed – deliberately noticed – for I am psychological by nature – that my whole past life did not come up, as I had been given to understand it would, in a single flash before me. On the contrary, I felt only a sense of cold and damp and breathlessness, a fierce wild struggle, a horrible choking sensation, and then all was over.
He was brought back with artificial respiration, heat, and brandy. In all likelihood, Allen was not dead but unconscious. However, his assertion that he had already died removed from him the fear of death. He’d done it, it was no big deal, he’d come back, he’d do it again someday for good, and that’s all there was to say about it.
Allen was a prolific writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and worked under pseudonyms and anonymity on a regular basis. This collection features his memoir of dying, a few short stories (including My One Gorilla), and two of his essays on the craft of writing, The Trade of Author and A Scribbler’s Apology. The Trade of Author, in particular, struck me with its detailed description of discrepancy of pay between authors and other skilled artisans. Medical specialists, painters, and lawyers are all ranked as skilled practitioners who earn princely sums for the hours they dedicate to their craft; but the words of writers are “…worthy of their hire – market price, two guineas per thousand.”
Allen knew this from experience; along with his various essays, short stories, and published letters, he worked regularly as a reviewer for several publications. Spider Robinson is a modern writer who speaks of this in an essay titled Spider Versus the Hax of Sol III (published originally in 1975; you can find it in Time Travelers Strictly Cash [it’s worth your money!]). He recounts his conversation with then editor of Galaxy magazine, Jim Baen:
[B]: You’re my new book reviewer. Deadline is next week; we’ll call it a guest column and then phase you in permanently in a couple of months.
[R]: You’ve got a book reviewer. One of the biggest names in the business.
[B]: I had a book reviewer. Sturgeon has this bad habit…. Eating. We owe him a great many cheese sandwiches.
[R] Ah. I take it the cheese sandwiches you are offering me are similarly promissory in nature?
[B]: You’ve got it. Same as buying stories: I promise to pay you before you die – but you have to promise not to die.
Allen posits that one of the primary reasons for poor wages in his chosen profession is competition from a source difficult to fight: the deceased. “Authorship is, in fact, the only trade in which men suffer from the Competition of the Dead. And what is more, and more fatal in its effect, the dead are always ahead of the profession.”
The second big reason for authors being paid a pittance? Competition from non-authors:
Nobody would entrust the management of his case in the Queen’s Bench to the Archbishop of Canterbury. But if a great doctor, a well-known soldier, a popular painter, a familiar singer or actor or beauty writes a book, it sells, not only as well as the average book of the professional author, but a great deal better. The name of a lord, or a Cabinet Minister, or a fashionable preacher, or a momentary lion, the comet of the season, or the cover of the Review itself, draws far more, I venture to guess, then the name of the ablest essayist or the deepest thinker now working regularly in English letters.
With a pragmatic, scientific, and often wry sense of observation – even in his fictional narratives – Allen reads as a far more modern writer than some of his era. With the exception of occasional topical references, his stories and essays in this collection are quick reads requiring little specialized vocabulary to comprehend.
If you would like to read it yourself, Feedbooks has you covered with How It Feels To Die… for FREE.
While Librivox does not offer any of the stories in this collection, it does offer you a number of his works, including The Woman Who Did and My New Year’s Eve Among the Mummies (track #10 in the collection).