Mel Brooks has famously been quoted as saying “Tragedy is when I stub my toe. Comedy is when you fall down a manhole and die”.
I returned to this quote as I worked my way through Chantal Noordeloos excellent short story collection ‘Deeply Twisted’ – a women in horror recommendation. It’s a fine collection of tales, evoking Clive Barker and Neil Gaiman, whilst having a distinct voice all its own. Noordeloos is not a ‘safe’ horror writer. The places, situations and people are often bleak, and when violence occurs (as it frequently does) it is graphic and brutal. Not that this collection is simply gore for gores sake – though these tails often contain significant shock value, their true worth is in the characterizations – the number of different characters and voices encountered represent a considerable feat of imagination, and each character and voice is well realized and believably drawn, even as the situations they encounter plunge them out of the world as we know it and into dark, often nightmarish landscapes.
As you can probably tell from the above, I had a blast with this collection.
My favourite story in the collection, ‘When The Bell Tolls’ (nope, not going to tell you – go buy the book and read it for yourselves) stuck with me for quite a while, and brought into mind the above quote. Without going into any detail at all, there’s a way you could describe the basis of this story that would make it sound pretty funny. It even almost has the structure of a joke, complete with punch line. When I thought about it, many days after finishing the tale, it even made me chuckle, a little.
But here’s the thing – it’s only funny from the outside – from a distance. It’s not remotely funny when you’re reading it, because Noordeloos treats the idea with the seriousness of a heart attack, and through her choice of protagonist and supporting cast puts you so close to the action that the reading experience is high stress terror right to the close.
It’s a great piece of writing, a superb short horror, the kind you always hope to read in a collection like this. The kind that you take with you, and treasure.
And it got me to thinking…
Because if tragedy is when I stub my toe, and comedy is when you fall down a manhole and die, maybe horror is when you fall down a manhole but don’t die. Instead, after your forty feet plunge into foul smelling darkness, your heart lurching in your chest as the ground opens up and swallows you, you land badly, fracturing both legs in several places and dislocating your hip as your body is smashed into the bricks by gravity. Your left leg has a greenstick fracture, and you gaze in mute wonder at the bright white of your own tibia poking through your blue jeans, like some bizarre conjuring illusion. The small circle of daylight from the hole you plunged through illuminates your shattered leg, and you see the blood soak the denim of your jeans, darkening the fabric. There’s no pain, not yet. It all seems to be coming from a long way away. There’s a weird ache below your waist, somewhere, but it feels disconnected, not a part of you. You don’t feel like a part of you. You feel like you’re watching this happen to someone.
You don’t know how long you float down there, dislocated, hovering on the edge of shock. All you know is that you’ve become aware of a noise. At first you think it’s the roar of some wild creature, and the animal part of your physiology, the part that kept all your ancestors from being sabre tooth tiger food, fires synapses that release a potent chemical dump direct into your blood stream, and you come all the way awake at once, jerking forward, and the movement, the forward roll of your hips, sets off an explosion of pain in your midsection so intense that your teeth clack together into your tongue and you don’t even feel it, any more than you feel the tears on your cheeks. The pain transports you, bashing you, disorienting, and when the warm flood hits you, you assume it’s just part of the inferno engulfing your nervous system. It’s only as your repeated gasping sobs elevate your oxygen levels and the adrenaline deadens your nerve endings enough to lower the screaming of your shattered body from life threatening to merely intense agony that you catch up with the signal from your taste buds and realize that you’ve just been splashed by a tidal wave of human waste. You can taste the sharp ammonia deep in your throat, feel it stinging in your right eye where the wave broke. You are now waist deep in a river of shit, and you can taste it. The gag reflex is uncontrollable, and the last meal you will ever eat is forcibly ejected from your throat, hot chunks of partially digested breakfast splattering into the river of filth before being swept away by the current. The spasm of vomiting triggers another detonation of pain in your broken hips and you scream in agony, a full throated roar that sounds nothing like your true voice, and the pain doesn’t stop and you heave in more air and scream again, the sound rolling down the tunnel, echoing uselessly from the dripping bricks, and all the while the river of shit oozes by, already infecting your bloodstream via the hole in your leg caused by the jutting spear of bone that has torn through muscle and skin, stabbing out of you like some jagged tooth from the mouth of a monster.
By the time you finish screaming and sob yourself into unconsciousness, the hyperventilation and pain proving too much, the germs that will kill you are already shooting through your circulatory system. By the time the circle of light has grown to a narrow oval that shines directly into your eyes, driving spikes of pain into your skull and forcing you to resurface, the sweaty feeling you put down to the sunlight and the pain is actually the first symptom of the fever that will ultimately claim you. For now, you sob some more, screwing your eyes tight and cursing the light that brought you back, that causes your head to ache and eyes to water. You cast about, trying to see past it to your surroundings, but it’s impossible – the light is too bright. You gradually become aware that you’re no longer sitting in a river, but rather the shallow stream you first landed on (the last two flushes having passed you by as you slumped unconscious, unaware of the tide of waste that at one point reached your chin, leaving a dirt mark there you’ll never remove). The smell, the taste, is now so all pervasive that you barely notice it. You also are aware that your throat is cracked, bleeding, and your lips feel painfully dry. You remember drinking from a bottle of water however many hours ago, in a world of light and cars and people and phones and ambulances and laughs and work and email and food and things, and you start crying again. You wonder for the first time if that world was real, if you really were a part of it. You wonder why that world has not come back to you, found you, saved you. Your body temperature begins its inexorable climb, unnoticed, as you snivel and pray, incoherently, for rescue. The irreplaceable fluids fall from your eyes and into the stream of shit trickling under your legs.
The light moves from your face. The after-image lingers long enough for you to start to think that permanent damage has been done, but eventually you readjust to the gloom. There’s not much to see. The pain in your lower body swirls and snarls and bites, but either it’s lessened or you’ve become more used to it. You think about that, and the fact that you can no longer smell your surroundings. You think about earthquake victims who survive for a week, even two. About what they do to survive that long.
You wonder what else you can get used to.
The next flush (by this time the light is fading totally, the trembling hand you hold in front of your face becoming dim, indistinct, fading) you resolve to find out. As the tide reaches your chest, you plunge your cupped hands into it, skin crawling at the texture and the warmth, and you raise your hands to your lips and try to sup, but at the consistency of the liquid on your tongue, your throat clamps shut, refusing to swallow, and you spew the fluid out instead, spitting and sobbing (but no tears now, your body having belatedly realized the need to conserve its remaining fluids has become a mortal concern) as the tidal wave of filth rolls over you and past you and the light fades and your body shivers for the first time – the fever, having wrapped itself around you, now beginning to squeeze. You close your eyes, in defiance of the fading of the light, and try to bring the world of light into your mind, to picture friends and loved ones and people and hope.
The faces surround you in your mind, but the plunging external temperature and slowly climbing internal one conspire to distort them, twisting features of loved ones into grimaces of pain or mockery, taunting and tormenting you in your pain. Every time you shiver, the pain wakes you up, your eyes open sightlessly into darkness, and the pain climbs until you slip back into the fever dream, the faces returning, distorting further, until you no longer recognise them or remember their source.
This is how your final night passes, a purgatory of pain and hallucination, the sickness and the hurt driving your mind ever deeper into itself. By the time the sunrise casts a yellow oval upon the opposite wall, beginning its crawl towards you, you are no longer you. All higher brain function has ceased. You are an animal, in pain and afraid. Language, love, hope, understanding are all behind you now, stripped from your mind by dehydration and agony. The primal state you have become fears the yellow oval, hates it, tracks it as it crawls so slowly towards you, but before it reaches your face once more, you slip into a coma. In that coma, the faces become mouths full of teeth that bite and rip and tear at your legs, but you have no way to move or fight them off, and your mind is too damaged for the pain to cause you to resurface, and eventually, the sheer exhaustion and injury fuelled adrenaline are too much for your heart, and the muscle stops pumping, and you plunge away from the sharp teeth and into final cold black.
Yeah, I think that’s horror. Thanks, Chantal – for the inspiration and the lesson.
Sleep well, everyone.