Thursday, January 26, 2006

Lovecraft's Legacy: Jan Bodeson

Every horror writer, Poe and Lovecraft afficianado, and historian of myth needs to read this book.

Bodeson’s exposition details how, until the twentieth century, the medical profession was unable to clearly define death in many instances. This created the millennia old practice of “the wake” or “the vigil”. As a southerner, I've participated in many of these three day, bone-wearying ceremonies. I’ve also had the incredible experience of being present when two people died in my presence – My Grandfather and my Mother.

In those early days, myths and legends of people comatose, but alive, propagated that many were being buried alive. Physicians worked hard and had special instruments and techniques to determine death. The most prevalent practice was to wait- to allow putrefaction to set in.

For those “in a hurry” long needles were inserted in toes, fingers, and other areas to see if muscles twitched. In earliest days, the cessation of the heart was unclear as a sign of death. Even specialized aides could not always determine this, and even if the heart stopped, often the connection was not made between organ functions, and life and death.

Poe wrote frequently of being buried alive. During the nineteenth century this was a vivid issue. At the end of the nineteenth century, a craze of being buried with telephones was all the rage. I believe that Lovecraft’s dream, and subsequent story – The Statement of Randolph Carter – used that prop because of an incident that happened in his youth. [1, p. 130]

In 1908, a wealthy Louisiana matron, Mrs. Pennord, greatly feared a live burial. She subsequnetly was buried in a vault with plenty of air and atelephone connected to the guard house. It never rang, for she was truly gone. This was one of many dozens of wealthy members of society that were frightened out of their wits of being buried alive. They had the money, and means, to set up telephone relays to their coffin. None are recorded to have dialed for help.

The practice of embalming became established in urban American areas at the turn of the twetieth century – though even in the 1940’s in Kentucky, the practice had not caught up in rural areas.

However, this sure means of ascertaining the person was truly dead deflated many Victorian horror tales [2] . Lovecraft wrote to Clark Ashton Smith that one of his stories would not work, that the practice of embalming would never let being buried alive be believed by the reading public of their day. Another, more obscure, means would have to be devised to make the patient appear to be buried alive. [3, p.232, 233]

Lovecraft’s In the Vault, was itself scandalous and rejected by Farnsworth Wright for not passing the "Indiana Test". [4, p. 225] It is in reality a routine, albeit jazzed up Lovecraftian-style, revenge motif ghost story that explores - as did Poe's Legeia - what connotes death and the living dead.

All in all, Bodeson's book is an essential reference for the book shelf. It was definietly a delight to see a mainstream author quote HPL.

1 Jan Bodeson, Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear, W.W. Noton, 2001.
2 Like Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tale, The Dissapearance of Lady Frances Carfax.”
3 Jan Bodeson, Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear, W.W. Noton, 2001.
4 H. P. Lovecraft In His Timre: A Dreamer and a Visionary, Joshi, Liverpool University, 2001. The reference is to Lovecraft's collaboration with his pal, C. M. Eddy, Jr. and their story "The Loved Dead" that alluded to a demented man having intercourse with a corpse. The scandal set off a new wave of censorship, and simultaneously saved Weird Tales from bancruptcy. The scandal made it the hottest selling magazine on the pulp newsstands.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Who can forget Edgar Allan Poe's BURIED ALIVE!, October 1, 2002 with Robert Vaughn, Donald Pleasense, Karen Witter and John Carradine star in this classic tale of underground terror from the master of horror, Edgar Allan Poe.

The story is about an isolated school for troubled teenage girls which was once an asylum for the incurably insane. The school is run by the charistmatic psychiatrist, Gary Julian (Vaughn). . . Captivated by his charm, a young teacher joins the staff. Soon, she is driven to the edge of madness and the school's underground corridors... where a masked killer runs amok, his victims end up being buried alive!

In "The Premature Burial" Poe said "The boundaries which divide Life from Death, are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and the other begins? We know that there are diseases in which occur total cessations of all the apparent functions of vitality, and yet in which these cessations are merely...temporary pauses in the incomprehensible mechanism."

Poe comments that there are illnesses where the victim may appear to be dead, when in fact the body is still very much alive. At these times the person may even be buried, because everyone thinks that he's dead, and it will not be until later that the individual will awaken, locked in a coffin and unable to escape.

I wrote a story "One Small Bite" (posted on look in the vault)that takes place in the Amazon where illness, according to the Papallata Indians, passed through distinct stages: first one feels hot, then feverish, then ill, then dead, then absolutely dead and finally dead forever. When the Papallata Indians found the main character -John Carter, they took him for dead. He was not, however dead forever, not even absolutely dead, and they set about nursing him back to life with medicines derived from wild native plants.

19th and 20th Century medicine was still in its teenage years and Doctors knowledge about death was limited to no heartbeat no breathing. Poe grabs this concept and takes us into the void of death.

BTW Lovecraft in his unique style horrifies us in "The Loved Death" about life and death.


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