A familiar trope in many horror entertainments is that of prolonged contact or proximity with dead people. Sometimes it is just a scene or two in a larger work, or it can be the focus of a single story. Aside from the religious, civil and forensic procedures needed for managing the deceased, their physical nearness to us activates primordial fears and taboos—which is why we surround them with virtually antiseptic rituals and distance. And write horror stories about the experience.
It seems inherently challenging to write fiction about a live human being encountering a dead one. Dialogue and characterization are quite limited for the dead character, and because of that, so are the options for conflict, resolution, and a narrative plot involving the two. The dead character in these stories is often at risk of becoming simply a prop, a convenient way to increase the Primal Yuck Factor, (PYF) of the story. (See 1. Calculating the Primal Yuck Factor (PYF) in Ho...) What are the options for a vignette that includes two people, one of them dead?
Robert E. Howard’s The Touch of Death (1930) is an example of one of these stories. A man named Falred is asked by a departing physician to spend the night with Old Adam Farrel, who won’t be getting any older, having just died. “Rather a useless and primitive custom, sitting up with the dead,” says the doctor, but Falred agrees to abide with tradition, and remains with the corpse.
Howard sets the tone by describing the old man as a harmless but disagreeable recluse, without friends or close family. Although the corpse remains unmoving throughout the story, he becomes a kind of screen on which Falred projects his own terrors of death, towards his own undoing at the end.
The Touch of Death is not one of Howard’s best. It is quite short and seems more of a sketch for what could have been a more elaborate story. However, there are some genuinely creepy moments as Falred nervously studies his host throughout the evening.
Later that same year, Weird Tales published another short story in a similar vein, Paul Ernst’s The Tree of Life, which was discussed in an earlier post, (see 3. A Rodent Resurrection ). A teen-aged boy volunteers to remain with a recently deceased neighbor. As in Howard’s story, some characterization of the dead woman is offered through biographical detail remembered by the narrator—she is thereby humanized for the reader. This story is marred by a bizarre and unsuccessful attempt to revive the dead woman, which is thwarted by the probable intervention of another ghost. While Howard’s story is a bit more believable because of its realism and psychological focus, The Tree of Life lacks credibility and coherency.
Finally, an earlier and better known story of this type comes from a contemporary of these two authors. H.P. Lovecraft’s In The Vault was originally published in The Tryout in 1925, but has shown up in dozens of anthologies ever since—and with good reason, because it is one of his best. (See also 2. Applying the PYF to a Story by H.P. Lovecraft) In The Vault is unencumbered by antiquarian scholarship, 18th century grammar and vocabulary, or the paraphernalia of the Cthulhu Mythos. In this story Lovecraft builds suspense and mood through deft use of non-visual detail and even throws in a bit of black humor. It is unadulterated, gruesome horror involving “justice from beyond the grave”.
S.T. Joshi did not like this tale, dismissing it as “a commonplace tit-for-tat supernatural vengeance story.” Given Joshi’s enthusiastic atheism, it seems likely the story did not appeal to him simply because it contained a spiritually animated cadaver. One could ask whether a true atheist can really appreciate, much less write, really good horror stories—he or she is likely devoid of the supernatural assumptions that underlie much of weird fiction. (More about this matter in a future post.)
To Lovecraft’s credit, In the Vault contains one of the archetypal roots of our discomfort and fear of the dead—an unresolved injustice. If the dead should ever become animate again, would they not deliver to us exactly what we deserve?