Literary Ghosts, Penning Novels After Death

by M-Gillies

Isaac Asimov published well over 500 novels, short stories, essays and more - Forward the Foundation was published posthumously.

Literature has long been portal of imaginative creations, and for some authors, their creations can spawn critical and international recognition. But for the author who achieves prominence and praise, their mortality soon comes into question and in particular, it’s the remnants of their works that come to mind – a topic that can become controversial and unquestionably messy within the literary world. For many authors, their works-in-progress are just one of many, from fragmented novels, to character sketches and plot outlines tucked away in their hard drives, stashed in their desk drawers or filed away in a safety deposit box.

Some authors may destroy their work themselves, or ask family members to do it for them – others may designate literary executors to handle their papers. While these may seem like honorable final wishes put forth by an author, oftentimes, their wishes aren’t followed through. Like Emily Dickinson, who saw fewer than a dozen poems published during her lifetime, she had instructed her sisters to burn all her correspondence and verses after her death – an order that had only been half followed. Meanwhile, Franz Kafka, a struggling author who saw little success during his lifetime, requested his friend Max Brod to destroy all his works – a task that went completely ignored, but a literary insubordination that gave the world Kafka’s tales such as The Trial, The Castle and Amerika.

While some posthumous publications can prove to be positive, other instances have seen critics suggesting some works would have been better off left unfinished. Below is a list of some of the most famous posthumous publications:

John Kennedy Toole (1937-1969) age: 31

Book: A Confederacy of Dunces (1980) - Posthumously winning the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1981, John Kennedy Toole’s novel A Confederacy of Dunces had been nothing more than a manuscript collecting dust in his mothers house for 11 years after his death. After numerous rejections over the course of his writing career, Toole soon began suffering from paranoia and depression due to the rejections, and after driving to New Orleans, committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning.

The news of his death left Toole’s mother mired in depression, however, she soon became determined to publish her son’s novel to prove her son’s literary talent. After 11 years of rejection letters, her son’s novel was published earning a posthumous award for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and selling more than 1.5 million copies.

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) age: 59

Book: Between the Acts (1941) - As a prominent literary figure of the early 20th century, Virginia Woolf quickly grew to become the foremost modernist writer for literary works such as Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927) and Orlando (1928). However, Woolf suffered the effects of bi-polar disorder, which at times caused protracted periods of convalescence. Often she would withdraw from her busy social life, and distressed over her inability to focus on reading and writing, would spend time in nursing homes for ‘rest cures’.

It was upon completing the manuscript to her last novel, Between the Acts, that Woolf fell into depression. On March 28, 1941, Woolf put on her overcoat, filled the pockets with stones and walked into the River Ouse near her home and drowned. After her death, Between the Acts was published in 1941.

Kurt Vonnegut  (1922-2007) age: 84

Book: Armageddon in Retrospect (2008), Look at the Birdie (2009), While Mortals Sleep (2011) – Blending literature with science fiction and humor, Kurt Vonnegut became a celebrated influential American novelist, having found mainstream success with works such as Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat’s Cradle and Breakfast of Champions. At the age of 84, Vonnegut suffered a fall which led to his being hospitalized for irreversible brain injuries before his death several weeks later.

Mervyn Peake (1911-1968) age: 57

Book: Titus Awakes (2011) - Often compared to his contemporary, J. R. R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake became best known as the author of the Gormenghast books. Set in a fantastical landscape of lurid culture and eccentric characters, the story follows the life of protagonist Titus Groan, 77th Earl, lord and heir to castle Gormenghast. While working on the fifth book of the series, Titus Awakes, Peake’s health subsequently declined into physical and mental incapacitation. Before he could finish his final work, Peake succumbed to his illness. In 2010, the daughter of Peak’s son, Sebastian, found a notebook entitled MS of Titus Awakes in the family attic, and it was soon published to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Peake’s birth.

Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) age: 78

Book: The Original of Laura (2009) - A perfectionist with his own work, Vladimir Nabokov made it clear that, upon his death, any unfinished work was to be destroyed. When Nabokov died in 1977, the task of destroying his incomplete manuscripts was left to his wife, but due “to age, weakness and immeasurable love,” she instead had it placed in a Swiss bank vault, where it remained until her death in 1991. With the sole task of being literary executor, Nobokov’s son Dmitri was faced with the decision to either destroy the work or publish it. After years of private debate, Dmitri published the novel, only to have the book lambasted with negative critical response.

Stieg Larsson (1954-2004) age: 50

Book: The Millennium Series (2005-2007) - A Swedish journalist, Stieg Larsson was known in Stockholm as an independent researcher of right-wing extremism, which eventually led to him exposing Sweden’s extreme right and racist organizations, further inciting years of death threats from his political enemies. During his time as a journalist, Larsson also wrote on the side, constructing a series of novels known as The Millennium Series. Two Swedish publishers accepted the manuscripts for publication, however before they were released, Larsson died of a heart attack at the age of 50. While his three novels, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl who Played with Fire, and The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest saw international critical acclaim, his partner has said that she has found a manuscript for a four novel, and a synopsis for a fifth and sixth book in the series, which she has stated, finishing the book is a task she is capable of doing.

Franz Kafka (1883-1924) age: 40

Book: The Trial (1925), The Castle (1926), Amerika (1927) - Much like Vladimir Nabokov, Franz Kafka had requested his works be destroyed after his death. A man of severe self-loathing and low self-esteem, Kafka never found the literary success during his lifetime that was owed to him. While he finished the novella The Metamorphosis, many of his full length novels were never finished, and upon his death at the age of 40 in 1924, Kafka left explicit instructions to his friend and literary executor to destroy all of his works. Ignoring his request, Kafka’s literary executor published the works, which soon attracted high critical regard.

Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988) age: 80

Book: For Us, The Living: A Comedy of Customs (2003) - Dubbed, the “Dean of Science Fiction Writers”, Robert A. Heinlein was considered one of the most influential and controversial authors of the genre during his time, while raising the genre’s standards of literary quality. With 32 novels and 59 short stories written, Heinlein maintained an active literary career, however, as he got older he was plagued by a series of health crises, and soon died in his sleep from emphysema and heart failure. After his death, one novel, For Us, The Living: A Comedy of Customs was posthumously published, followed by a second novel, written in collaboration with science fiction author Spider Robinson, who used seven pages of a novel outlined in 1955, which became known as Variable Star.

Ian Fleming (1908-1964) age: 56

Book: The Man with the Golden Gun (1965), Octopussy (1966), The Living Daylights (1966) - A heavy smoke and drinker, Ian Fleming lived his life as a man as suave as his brainchild James Bond. A former liaison for numerous sections of the government wartime administration, such as the Secret Intelligence Service, the Political Warfare Executive, the Special Operations Executive, the Joint Intelligence Committee and the Prime Minister’s staff as a Naval Intelligence Officer. After his service in World War II came to an end, Fleming worked a number of odd jobs before penning his first novel, Casino Royale. Garnering international success over his Bond series, Fleming continued writing of the exploits of his character until, while visiting friends, he had exhausted himself to the point that he collapsed from a second heart attack (the first, three years prior). His last recorded words were an apology to the ambulance drivers. “I am sorry to trouble you chaps. I don’t know how you get along so fast with the traffic on the roads these days,” Fleming said.

In total, from 1953-1966, Fleming had written twelve Bond novels, two of which where posthumously published, Octopussy and The Living Daylights. While The Man with the Golden Gun was published after Fleming’s death, the work was unsatisfactory to Fleming at the time of completion. Due to health affects, his ability to complete two thousand words a day had declined to him writing for only one hour a day. Deciding he would re-work it the following spring, Fleming moved to his home in Jamaica for five months, only to pass away upon his return.

Michael Crichton (1942-2008) age: 66

Book: Pirate Latitudes (2009), Micro (2011) - Author of Jurassic Park and The Lost World, Michael Crichton found considerable fame when Steven Spielberg adapted his two novels into box-office record-breaking films. While he had maintained a high level of success throughout his career, beginning in the early 70s, Crichton kept his personal life private, so much so that news of his battle with throat cancer was not made public until his death. After his death, Harper Collins announced the posthumous publication of two of his novels – the first was Pirate Latitudes, found completed on his computer by his assistant, and the second, titled Micro, which had been a third of the way finished. Ultimately, it was Richard Preston who was selected to complete the novel.

Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400) age: 57

Book: The Canterbury Tales (1478) - Dubbed the father of English literature, Geoffrey Chauncer had been for years, known as a philosopher, alchemist and astronomer, as well as a courtier and diplomat, however, it is his ability as an author for which he has become most known. After achieving fame during his lifetime,  Chauncer had set out to create his magnum opus known as The Canterbury Tales. However, by 1400, Chauncer had mysteriously died, with some circumstantial theories suggesting he had been murdered. While his work had been compiled by a scribe, the first version of The Canterbury Tales would not be published until 1478 – 78 years after his death.

Albert Camus (1913-1960) age: 46

Book: A Happy Death (1970), The First Man (1995) – Albert Camus was an author, journalist and philosopher, best known for his views and contributions to the rise of the philosophy known as absurdism - the conflict between the human tendency to seek value and meaning in life and the human inability to find any. Two years after being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, Camus died in a car accident along side his publisher and close friend.

At the time of his death, Camus had been writing the  unfinished novel, The First Man, an autobiographical novel that was found in the mud at the accident site, which was later transcribed and printed in 1995. Meanwhile, his novel A Happy Death, is said to be the first novel he had written, it was only published after his death. While just over a hundred pages long, the book is divided into two parts – Part 1 titled Natural Death and Part 2 titled Conscious Death.

William S. Burroughs (1914-1997) age: 83 & Jack Kerouac (1922-1969) age: 47

Book: And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks (2008) - Written in 1945 before the two authors became synonymous as leading figures of the “Beat Generation”, William S. Burroughs and Jack Keruoac would later go on to pen their literary works that would achieve their own cult status, such as Naked Lunch and On the Road (respectfully).

However, while he had seen critical success with his writings, Kerouac suddenly fell ill in 1969, while drinking whiskey and malt liquor at 11 in the morning. Having thrown up a large amount of blood, Kerouac was rushed to the hospital where he died of internal hemorrhaging caused by cirrhosis as a result of a lifetime of heavy drinking.

Meanwhile, Burroughs’ subsequent heroin addiction and the controversy of his novel Naked Lunch saw him frequently running into the law. In one incident, he took his wife and two children to Mexico, and after a drunken game of William Tell, in which Burroughs accidentally shot and killed his wife, was charged with manslaughter. As months went on, Burroughs bribed police, witnesses and ballistic experts, but after his attorney fled the country, Burroughs decided to return to the States, where he was convicted in absentia of homicide.

After years of drug addiction, Burroughs died from complications of a heart attack he had suffered the previous day in 1997. Since then, his works have seen posthumous publication, as well as resurgence in his literary contributions.

Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) age: 72

Book: Forward the Foundation (1993) - Professor of biochemistry, historian, essayist, textbook writer, humorist, short story writer and novelist, Isaac Asimov maintained an impressive roster of achievements, but perhaps his most famous and recognizable acknowledgment was as a master of hard science fiction writing, or more importantly, the author of the Robot series.

In 1977, Asimov underwent a triple bypass surgery after suffering a heart attack. While he continued to write throughout the following years, Asimov died on April 6, 1992 of heart and kidney failure. Ten years after his death, it was revealed in his autobiography that his death was the result of an HIV infection, contracted from a blood transfusion during his bypass operation, but had been kept secret due to the stigmatizing attitudes and behaviors of the public during the anti-AIDS prejudice of the time. A year after his death, the novel Forward the Foundation was published.

Douglas Adams (1952-2001) age: 49

Book: The Salmon of Doubt (2002) - He gave us the answer to “Life, the universe and everything” and further reminded us of the importance of carrying our towel with his most famous literary work The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Since 1977, Adams found success with his series and further followed his novels with a secondary series known as Dirk Gently. However, in 2001, after resting from his regular workout, Adams died of a heart attack on May 11.

After his death, his long-awaited novel but unfinished novel The Salmon of Doubt was posthumously published, and further included many short stories, essays, letters, and eulogies from Richard Dawkins, Stephen Fry, Christopher Cerf and Terry Jones.

David Foster Wallace (1962-2008) age: 46

Book: The Pale King (2011) - Dubbed one of the most influential and innovative writers of the last 20 years, David Foster Wallace began a career as an author before moving onto teaching. During his time as a professor in the English department at Illnois State University, Wallace continued writing, publishing short fiction in GQ, Playboy, Harper’s Magazine, The New Yorker, and other notable magazines, as well as authoring the novel Infinite Jest.

After suffering from depression for more than 20 years, Wallace took his own life on September 12, 2008. During that time, he had been in the process of writing his third novel but at the time of his death, had left it unfinished. From the pages and notes left behind by Wallace, editor Michael Pietsch pieced together the novel for posthumous publication. The Pale King went on to become a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940) age: 48

Book: The Master and Margarita (1967) - Featuring Satan in the guise of a professor; a mischievous, gun-happy, fast-talking black cat; a fanged hitman; a pale-faced angel with a death-inflicting stare; and a beautiful, redheaded succubus, Mikhail Blgakov’s complex and multi-level novel, The Master and Margarita has gone on to inspire authors and musicians throughout as a grandiose fantasy of epic proportions.

It was in 1928 when Bulgakov began writing his novel, but feeling he had no future as a writer in the Soviet Union after the government had censored his work, he burnt the first draft. However, after writing a personal letter to Stalin, requesting permission to leave the Soviet Union if they could not accept him as a writer, was granted permission to continue working at the Art Theatre. Despite his renewed approval, his works were still prohibited, with many of his works staying in his desk drawer. In 1931, he went back to writing his novel, beginning from memory.

On March 10, 1940, at the age of 48, Bulgakov died of an inherited kidney disorder. At the time of his death, The Master and Margarita was on its fourth draft as he continued to polish the work. It wasn’t until 1966 that the book was first published in Moscow, though 12% of the text had been removed as part of the censorship.

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