Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Nonfiction

The H Word: Being in the Presence of the Dead

Recently I was reading Peter Clines’ stunningly brilliant novel, 14, and came across this passage:

No,” said Nate. “To be honest, I think I’m going to sleep in the lounge. Maybe forever.”

You’re not sleeping in the lounge,” said Veek.

He shook his head. “I know it shouldn’t freak me out. I know he’s been there all along, but still . . .”

It’s normal,” said Tim. “Everybody freaks out when they see their first dead body. No matter how long it’s been dead.”

Nate looked at him. “You’re not freaking out.”

It’s not my first dead body.”

A few days later I read the following in a short story called “Father’s Day” by Michael Connelly:

The victim’s tiny body was left alone in the emergency room enclosure. The doctors, after halting their resuscitation efforts, had solemnly retreated and pulled the plastic curtains closed around the bed. The entire construction, management and purpose of the hospital was to prevent death. When the effort failed, nobody wanted to see it.

The curtains were opaque. Harry Bosch looked like a ghost as he approached and then split them to enter. He stepped into the enclosure and stood somber and alone with the dead. The boy’s body took up less than a quarter of the big metal bed. He had worked thousands of cases but nothing ever touched Bosch like the sight of a young child’s lifeless body. Fifteen months old. Cases in which the child’s age was still counted in months were the most difficult of all. He knew that if he dwelled too long he would start to question everything—from the meaning of life to his mission in it.

It seemed like a strange coincidence that I should come across those two passages in the span of a few days, because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how horrific it is to be in the presence of the dead. In our world the closest most of us get to this experience is seeing the occasional mangled deer or crushed squirrel on the side of the road. But those we quickly pass by and just as quickly put out of our minds. When it comes to people, most of us know the dead only as waxy, foreign looking shells on display in coffins at the occasional funeral. Our world today has largely divorced us from experiencing the many strange and conflicting feelings that come with being in the presence of the dead. We don’t know that horror as much anymore, no matter how many times we see it on TV, and so I wanted to talk about that today. Being in the presence of the dead is one of the most raw and traumatic experiences in life, and in horror fiction too, and I want to talk about why that is. Why do the dead make us feel the way they do? Is a dead body simply a memento mori, or is something else going on?

In my day job I’m a patrol supervisor for the San Antonio Police Department. I work the west side of San Antonio. The Wild, Wild West, as we call it. The cops who make the calls, who make the arrests, who keep the peace in the busiest part of the city, they work for me. I’m the one they call when they have major crime scenes that need managing, or when something just doesn’t look right. What that means is that I have to see a lot of dead bodies. And I mean a lot of them.

Not too long ago one of my officers called because he had a decomp (that’s police parlance for a body that’s been rotting in place for a good long while) and he wasn’t sure if it was suicide or homicide. I showed up to the apartment and there was the dead guy, seated on the floor (or almost on the floor; his butt was about two inches off the carpet). He had a noose around his neck, though you could barely see it because his skin was so bloated and gummy with rot that it had sort of oozed over the rope.

“So, what do you think?” the officer asked.

“Suicide,” I told him.

“But he’s sitting down. Wouldn’t he have rolled over or something when he started to choke? That’s like an instinct, isn’t it?”

“No,” I said. “What you’re looking at is an act of will. If you want to do something bad enough, you’ll see it through.”

He looked from me to the body and shook his head.

“Besides,” I added, “look at all that medication in there in his bathroom. Those drugs are for hepatitis and cancer. He did this because he was hurting pretty bad. And look up there.” I pointed to the ceiling where our dead guy had nailed the rope to the rafter. “He could have used one nail to do that, but he used a whole handful. He did that because he didn’t want the rope to slip off. And look at where he chose to do this, here in the bedroom, so his relatives coming in the front door wouldn’t have to see him. I bet if you look around here you’ll find a note. Probably in the other room, out of sight of the bedroom.”

The officer nodded.

We both stood there, staring at the body. The apartment didn’t have air conditioning, and it felt like we were standing inside an oven, even though it was the middle of the night. The smell was really bad.

Then the officer chuckled nervously and said, “So, Sarge, I guess this is one for your next book, huh?”

I offered him a bland smile. Cops develop their gallows humor long before they learn that it’s actually a defense mechanism against the horror of confronting your own mortality, and this officer was one of the young ones. He still had a lot to learn.

“Go look for the note,” I said.

He stiffened. “Yes, sir.”

When he was gone I found myself staring at that dead man’s face. Suicides always get to me. Something about standing in the presence of someone so desperate to take control of their pain and their emotional devastation that they would resort to this makes me feel numb.

In the other room, the young officer was clumsily knocking around. Something fell over and broke. I almost called out to him to be careful, but held my tongue because my mind was already drifting from my day job to what I consider my real job. I was thinking about what that officer had said about my next book. So many people seem to have that opinion about horror, and about zombie fiction in particular. To them, a book about shambling dead things eating the living must be nothing but gratuitous violence and gore. What else could it be?

Well, I take exception to that.

I started writing because I was scared of the future. My wife and I had just gotten married. Then we had a daughter, and the world suddenly seemed so much more complex. In the wink of an eye, I went from a carefree young cop—a lot like the one in the other room knocking stuff over—to a man with more responsibilities than he could count. I had a mortgage and bills and aging parents and schedules to manage and a kid to raise. For the first time I started wondering if I had enough insurance, and how I was going to pay for my daughter’s college, and if there’d be enough savings for my retirement. And in a terrifying moment of self-reflection, I realized I needed a will. In short, I had obligations and commitments coming at me from every angle.

I’d been writing stories for a good long while at that point, starting sometime in my early teens, but never with the intention of doing anything with them. I would write them out on a yellow legal pad, staple the finished pages together, and leave them on the corner of my desk until the next idea came along. Never once did it occur to me to do something with what I’d written. I just threw the already written stories away and forgot them. But then came adulthood, and parenthood, and I found myself groping to put the world in order, to regain some of the control I felt I’d lost. I realized that writing could help me with that. I realized that I could focus my anxieties and make something useful of them. And so I started writing a science fiction novel. It was a big space opera epic, and it was pure trash. Every word of it was awful.

The reason?

Well, it wasn’t authentic. It wasn’t me. The real me, the kid who sat at his desk filling up yellow legal pads rather than going out bike riding with his friends, was a horror junkie. I was crazy for the stuff. Horror was my first literary love, and I figured seeing as love was what drove me to return to writing that I should write what I love. I was feeling like the world was rushing in at me from every side, so I wrote a zombie story about characters who had the living dead rushing in at them from every side. That’s when things started to click. That’s when it all made sense. It made sense because I was finally tapping into a real source of fear.

I sincerely believe that fear is the most authentic, and the most useful, emotion available to the storyteller. It is as vital as love, and indeed, gives love its profundity, for what makes love, and family, and everything we treasure so valuable but the fear that it could all go away in the blink of an eye? That’s why being in the presence of the dead has such a terribly arresting effect on us. On all of us, no matter how hardened by experience we may have become.

Like Bosch in the passage quoted above, I have seen more dead bodies than I care to remember. I have seen a dead baby that’s been tossed into a dumpster. I have seen what a man looks like when he’s been beaten to death with a hammer. I have seen suicides by shotgun, and the body of a prostitute eaten by turtles along the banks of the San Antonio River. I have met the surprised and terrified gaze of a rape-murder victim as the dirt from a shallow grave was swept from her eyes with a fingerprint brush. The dead arrest us. They seize us in the sense that we are not free to walk away from the cold hard reality that we too will die.

In his essay, “The Uncanny,” Sigmund Freud writes that there “is scarcely any other matter [. . .] upon which our thoughts and feelings have changed so little since the very earliest times, and in which discarded forms have been so completely preserved under a thin disguise, as our relation to death.” Freud argues that we’ve changed so little in our reaction to death, and to the dead, because being in the presence of death elicits such an overwhelmingly powerful flood of emotion, fear being tantamount among them. He even goes on to suggest that that flood of emotion is really a manifestation of the primitive fear that the “dead man becomes the enemy of his survivor and seeks to carry him off to share his new life with him.”

I don’t think any of us believe this in a literal sense, no matter how much we may enjoy The Walking Dead, but I do feel there’s an important truth being said here. Looking at a dead body—and here I’m talking about the raw ones, the bodies found in situ, not the porcelain-faced products of the undertaker’s craft found in open casket funerals—forces us to confront how very fragile our hold on life can be. That’s terrifying stuff. It’s not like a fear of snakes, or a fear of heights. Those fears you can manage. You can avoid high places. You don’t have to look down. You don’t have to go into pet stores, or to the reptile house at the zoo. But you do have to face death. It waits for all of us, and being in the presence of the dead makes that truth impossible to deny.

But that’s really the easy answer, isn’t it? To say that we fear the dead because we will one day become them is so obvious it’s almost trivial. It belies the terrible import of the message. One might say that the real horror comes from the surprised, confounded look in the eyes of the dead man. When he woke up that morning, did he consider that it was the last morning he’d ever see? Did he go through that day tying up all the loose ends of a lived life? Or did he leave behind a whole litany of things undone? That’s what gets us about being in the same room as a dead body, isn’t it? The idea that death can come at any time, no matter what safeguards we put in place against it?

Yeah, maybe.

I can’t help but wonder though if there isn’t something else lurking just outside of our heretofore-enumerated thoughts on the matter.

After all, this is a dead body. We are in the presence of the dead.

A little respect is warranted.

But why?

There’s the rub. Why do we care about someone else’s end, someone we may not know from Adam? Why do we look on a corpse, a vessel we know to be devoid of thought and emotion and perhaps even a soul, and feel something akin to a spiritual experience?

I suspect the answer lies in our power for empathy. The sociopaths among us may shrug and say, “Yeah sure, whatever,” but the rest of us can’t do that. We look upon the dead, we stare into their eyes, and we see a glimpse of the numinous. We see that which we should be able to put into words, but can’t. We see the ineffable. We see the end that will not be named, and once experienced, can never be translated. Like the coming of age story, the meeting with death remains a personal and ultimately inexplicable experience. The dead are a cypher for us, the living, and as such represent the final reduction of our fears. You can’t get any more finite than a dead body. Once you’ve stood in the presence of the dead, you’ve experienced the end all and be all of fear.

That’s as intimate as it gets.

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Joe McKinney

Joe McKinneyJoe McKinney has been a patrol officer for the San Antonio Police Department, a homicide detective, a disaster mitigation specialist, a patrol commander, and a successful novelist. His books include the four part Dead World series, Quarantined, Inheritance, Lost Girl of the Lake, The Savage Dead, Crooked House and Dodging Bullets. His short fiction has been collected in The Red Empire and Other Stories and Dating in Dead World. His latest novel is the werewolf thriller, Dog Days, set in the summer of 1983 in the little Texas town of Clear Lake, where the author grew up. In 2011, McKinney received the Horror Writers Association’s Bram Stoker Award for Best Novel. For more information, go to http://joemckinney.wordpress.com.