Thursday, November 07, 2019

"The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" (1845)

The first time I read this unpleasant story by Edgar Allan Poe was in a collection my parents gave me for my 12th birthday, along with the Beatles album Rubber Soul. I wrote about it here when I wrote about the album. Later I tracked down the book and found out the only thing I remembered right was it had "The Yellow Wallpaper" and a story by Poe—this story. The collection is called These Will Chill You, edited by Richard G. Sheehan and Lee Wright, who went on to little else. Most of the stories are about as unpleasant as the cover, above. As for Poe, I had previously trudged through "The Purloined Letter" as a kid, but in both cases I was hampered by the archaic language. "The Cask of Amontillado" may be Poe's best for horror generally, at least the way I see it, but his version of body horror here (and in "The Colloquy of Monos and Una" and no doubt elsewhere), is about as bracing as it is prescient. Wikipedia dryly lists Poe's enduring themes as "questions of death, including its physical signs, the effects of decomposition, concerns of premature burial, the reanimation of the dead, and mourning."

I like the motivating concept of this arguably science fiction story, with hypnotism temporarily capable of arresting the death process, but I like even more how it was a bit of a prank. It was published in two New York City papers simultaneously with its clinical-sounding title and no indication it's fiction. Apparently people believed it. Maybe they still do, in their coffins with their undying minds. Our hero, M. Valdemar, is dying of tuberculosis and agrees to allow the unnamed first-person narrator, a mesmerist and scientist, to hypnotize him exactly at the moment of death. Through the magic of telling it just this way they manage the unlikely feat. Death appears to steal over Valdemar, his color changes, no breath can be detected. The narrator asks him if he is still asleep and, in a real scary voice, Valdemar says, "Yes; – no; – I have been sleeping – and now – now – I am dead." Leaving him in trance is deemed the prudent course. And so there he lays, with no sign of life yet no sign either of the decomposition of death, for seven months. They check on him regularly but leave him be. Then they decide to wake him, ignoring the advice of Ernst Raupach in Germany, author of the 1823 vampire story "Wake Not the Dead." Result (spoiler): "Upon the bed, before that whole company, there lay a nearly liquid mass of loathsome—of detestable putridity." THE END Janitor!

There is always a certain desolation when it comes to body decomposition even when it's roadkill. It's distressing and repulsive. It's generally kept out of sight except in most horror movies, which prominently feature it (it's the main visual detail of zombie movies, for example). I don't have the impression Poe injects it in places like this just for macabre effect. It feels more like these things actually horrify him in obsessive ways and he can't stop thinking about them. It reminds me of someone I knew who had an absolute horror of organ transplants. This person took legal steps to ensure that neither a donor nor a recipient would they ever be. The belief was evidently that the self, or soul, literally resides in the body, and discrete pieces of it are distributed in the organs. No word on the limbs. The pantheistic vision of Poe's "Colloquy" similarly sees consciousness (or self, or soul) retained in the body, eventually displaced with decomposition and dispersed into the landscape itself. No word on cremation. In "M. Valdemar" the mind—or something—can hold off putrefaction if the subject is kept in a hypnotic state. Body horror seems right, and quite an early example too. And you have to wonder what the poor guy was thinking about for seven months—there's the real horror.

The Big Book of the Masters of Horror, Weird and Supernatural Short Stories, pub. Dark Chaos
These Will Chill You, ed. Lee Wright & Richard G. Sheehan (out of print)

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