Thursday, November 19, 2020

"Lazarus" (1906)

The story of Lazarus as told by the Russian writer Leonid Andreyev in the 20th century is great. It asks an obvious question no one ever seems to ask: How did the rest of his life go for Lazarus after Jesus brought him back from the dead? No doubt it was a hand-slapping moment of jubilation for Jesus and his followers and the crowd. But what about the guy stumbling out of the tomb? I think we have always presumed he would be a grateful, joyful disciple in waiting, but this story sees it in a more believable way. He is bewildered and haunted. He still bears the marks of a corpse—his face and hands are "cadaverously" blue, his belly distended ("one sensed the presence of the rank liquid of decomposition"). At gatherings, people always ask him what it's like to be dead but he never answers. He doesn't say very much in general. Before long, he's kind of unpopular, and avoided, though he's also a celebrity or at least a well-known freak. Later in the story, he is sent for by Augustus Caesar and visits Rome. He has something of a strange power, which is that anyone who looks into his eyes is permanently depressed and filled with despair. A newlywed couple he meets, for example, remain in love and stay together but are never happy again in their lives. Accordingly, in the Roman fashion, Augustus has his eyes put out and Lazarus spends the rest of his life blind. His shabby treatment, the shunning and cruelty, are nothing particularly insightful for students of human psychology, but I am stopped by this picture of Lazarus himself. He is disturbingly unforgettable, and raises many questions. Is the afterlife so terrible? What did he see? What does he know? Is it just black nothingness after all? But doesn't his resurrection itself put the lie to that? We feel certain whatever Lazarus experienced explains his psychological collapse, which is contagious as noted. It's not just eye contact. You get a hit of this despair reading the story too. It's remarkable. There's a recurring and virtually cinematic image of him as a dark silhouette against a giant red setting sun on the horizon, which he walks toward every evening. The story follows him all the way to his second death, which is anonymous and obscure. "And it came to pass that once he went out and did not come back"—nice biblical cadence there, at least partly the uncredited translator in my Big Book of Masters product. Everyone knows about the resurrection of Lazarus and no one knows anything about his second death—he disappears from the Book of John after Jesus' big mic drop, and remembering also that John is the most fanciful gospel and the only one with the story. In some ways this story looks forward to and connects quite neatly with Stephen King's novel Pet Sematary and it even looks forward to zombies a little too. Powerful story—a great one.

The Big Book of the Masters of Horror, Weird and Supernatural Short Stories, pub. Dark Chaos
Read story online.

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