There is another world, but it is in this one.

Paul Eluard. Œuvres complètes, vol. 1, Gallimard, 1968.

Saturday, May 9, 2020

David Morrell: Fin de siècle

At the end of the 1990s two ambitious horror anthologies sought to display the state of the genre at the new millenium. They were Revelations (aka Millenium), edited by Douglas E. Winter (1997) and 999: New Tales of Horror and Suspense edited by Al Sarrantonio (1999). (The scope and seriousness of the two collections recalled Kirby McCauley's 1980 anthology  Dark Forces).


David Morrell had a story in each anthology, and in both cases he turned in works of real weight and value. Both today can be found in his 2004 collection Nightscape, and are well worth reading or rereading.



If I Should Die Before I Wake (1997) 

[from Revelations (aka Millenium), edited by Douglas E. Winter 1997].


"If I Should Die Before I Wake" is one of the most powerful non-supernatural horror stories Morrell has written, and it takes on a particular moral resonance in our Covid-19 period.


"If I Should Die Before I Wake" gives us the impact of the 1918 influenza pandemic on a small town in New York state. The story is rich in historical detail, devastating in its portrait of social disaster and collapse.


....He hung up the telephone's ear piece. His head started aching.

    "No luck?" Powell asked.

    "This is so damned frustrating."

    "But even if we do find out that this section of the state is affected, that still won't help us to fight what we've got here."

    " It might if we knew what we were fighting." Bingaman massaged his throbbing temples. "If only we had a way to get in touch with..." A tingle rushed through him. "I do have a way."


***


    The wireless radio sat on a desk in Bingaman's study. It was black, two feet wide, a foot and a half tall and deep. There were several dials and knobs, a Morse-code key, and a microphone. From the day Marconi had transmitted the first transatlantic wireless message in 1901, Bingaman had been fascinated by the phenomenon. With each new dramatic development in radio communications, his interest had increased until finally, curious about whether he'd be able to hear radio transmissions from the war in Europe, he had celebrated his fifty-second birthday in March by purchasing the unit before him. He had studied for and successfully passed the required government examination to become an amateur radio operator. Then, having achieved his goal, he had found that the demands of his practice, not to mention middle age, left him little energy to stay up late and talk to amateur radio operators around the country.

    Now, however, he felt greater energy than he could remember having felt in several years. Marion, who was astonished to see her husband come home in the middle of the afternoon and hurry upstairs with barely a "hello" to her, watched him remove his suit coat, sit before the radio, and turn it on. When she asked him why he had come home so early, he asked her to please be quiet. He said he had work to do.

    "Be quiet? Work to do? Jonas, I know you've been under a lot of strain, but that's no excuse for - "

    "Please."

    Marion watched with greater astonishment as Bingaman turned knobs and spoke forcefully into the microphone, identifying himself by name and the operator number that the government had given to him, repeatedly trying to find someone to answer him. Static crackled. Sometimes Marion heard an electronic whine. She stepped closer, feeling her husband's tension. In surprise, she heard a voice from the radio.

    With relief, Bingaman responded. "Yes, Harrisburg, I read you." He had hoped to raise an operator in Albany or somewhere else in New York State, but the capital city of neighboring Pennsylvania was near enough, an acceptable substitute. He explained the reason he was calling, the situation in which Elmdale found itself, the information he needed, and he couldn't repress a groan when he received an unthinkable answer, far worse than anything he'd been dreading. "Forty thousand? No. I can't be receiving you correctly, Harrisburg. Please repeat. Over."

    But when the operator in Harrisburg repeated what he had said, Bingaman still couldn't believe it. "Forty thousand ?"

    Marion gasped when, for only the third time in their marriage, she heard him blaspheme.

    "Dear sweet Jesus, help us."


***


    "Spanish influenza." Bingaman's tone was bleak, the words a death sentence.

    Powell looked startled.

    Talbot leaned tensely forward. "You're quite certain?"

    "I confirmed it from two other sources on the wireless."

    The hastily assembled group, which also consisted of Elmdale's other physician, Douglas Bennett, and the hospital's six-member nursing staff, looked devastated. They were in the largest nonpublic room in the hospital, the nurses' rest area, which was barely adequate to accomodate everyone, the combined body heat causing a film of perspiration to appear on brows.

    "Spanish influenza," Powell murmured, as if testing the ominous words, trying to convince himself that he'd actually heard them.

    "Spanish.... I'd have to check my medical books," Bennett said, "but as I recall, the last outbreak of influenza was in - "

    "Eighteen eighty-nine," Bingaman said. "I did some quick research before I came back to the hospital."

    "Almost thirty years." Talbot shook his head. "Long enough to have hoped that the disease wouldn't be coming back."

    "The outbreak before that was in the winter of 1847-48," Bingaman said.

    "In that case, forty years apart."

    "Resilient."

    "Spanish influenza?" a pale nurse asked. "Why are they calling it... Did this outbreak come from Spain?" 

    "They don't know where it came from," Bingaman said. "But they're comparing it to an outbreak in 1647 that did come from Spain."

    "Wherever it came from doesn't matter," 

    Powell said, standing. "The question is, what are we going to do about it? Forty thousand?" Bewildered, he turned toward Bingaman. "The wireless operator you spoke to confirmed that? Forty thousand patients with influenza in Pennsylvania?" 

    "No, that isn't correct. You misunderstood me."

    Powell relaxed. "I hoped so. That figure is almost impossible to believe."

    "It's much worse than that."

    "Worse?"

    "Not forty thousand patients with influenza. Forty thousand deaths."

    Someone inhaled sharply. The room became very still.

    "Deaths," a nurse whispered.

    "That's only in Pennsylvania. The figures for New York City aren't complete, but it's estimated that they're getting two thousand new cases a day. Of those, a hundred patients are dying."

    "Per day?"

    "A conservative estimate. As many as fifteen thousand patients may have died there by now." 

    "In New York State."

    "No, in New York City."

    "But this is beyond imagination!" Talbot said.

    "And there's more." Bingaman felt the group staring at him. "The wireless operators I spoke to have been in touch with other parts of the country. Spanish influenza has also broken out in Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, Denver, San Francisco, and - "

    "A full-fledged epidemic," Kramer said.

    "Why haven't we heard about it until now?" a nurse demanded.

    "Exactly. Why weren't we warned?" Powell's cheeks were flushed. "Albany should have warned us! They left us alone out here, without protection! If we'd been alerted, we could have taken precautions. We could have stockpiled medical supplies. We could have.. .could have..." His words seemed to choke him.

    "You want to know why we haven't heard about it until now?" Bingaman said. "Because the telephone and the telegraph aren't efficient. How many people in Elmdale have telephones? A third of the population. How many of those make long-distance calls? Very few, because of the expense. And who would they call? Most of their relatives live right here in town. Our newspaper isn't linked to Associated Press, so the news we get is local. Until there's a national radio network and news can travel instantly across the country, each city's more isolated than we like to think. But as for why the authorities in Albany didn't warn communities like Elmdale about the epidemic, well, the wireless operators I spoke to have a theory that the authorities didn't want to warn anyone about the disease."



Rio Grande Gothic (1999) 

[from 999: New Tales of Horror and Suspense edited by Al Sarrantonio, 1999].


"Rio Grande Gothic" is a novella of contemporary non-supernatural folk horror. Morrell's modest scope and long rolling climaxes pay rich dividends. We follow Santa Fe cop Gabe Romero as he becomes obsessed with solving the most mundane of everyday mysteries.


....He'd hoped that the passage of time would ease his numbness, but each season only reminded him. Christmas, New Year's, then Easter, and too soon after that, the middle of May. Oddly, he'd never associated his son's death with the scene of the accident on the Interstate. Always the emotional connection was with that section of road by the Baptist church at the top of the hill on Old Pecos Trail. He readily admitted that it was masochism that made him drive by there so often as the anniversary of the death approached. He was so preoccupied that for a moment he was convinced that he'd willed himself into reliving the sequence, that he was hallucinating as he crested the hill and for the first time in almost a year saw a pair of shoes on the road.

    Rust-colored, ankle-high hiking boots. They so surprised him that he slowed down and stared. The close look made him notice something so alarming that he slammed on his brakes, barely registering the squeal of tires behind him as the car that followed almost hit the cruiser. Trembling, he got out, crouched, stared even more closely at the hiking boots, and rushed toward his two-way radio.

    The shoes had feet in them.


    As an approaching police car wailed and officers motioned for traffic to go past on the shoulder of the road, Romero stood with his sergeant, the police chief, and the medical examiner, watching the lab crew do its work. His cruiser remained where he'd stopped it next to the shoes. A waist-high screen had been put up.

    " I'll know more when we get the evidence to the lab," the medical examiner said, "but judging from the straight clean lines, I think something like a power saw was used to sever the feet from the legs."

    Romero bit his lower lip.

    "Anything else you can tell us right away?" the police chief asked.

    "There isn't any blood on the pavement, which means that the blood on the shoes and the stumps of the feet was dry before they were dropped here. The discoloration of the tissue suggests that at least twenty-four hours passed between the crime and the disposal."

    "Anybody notice anything else?"

    "The size of the shoes," Romero said.

    They looked at him.

    "Mine are tens. These look to be sevens or eights. My guess is, the victim was female."


    The same police officers who'd left the pile of old shoes in front of Romero's locker now praised his instincts. Although he had long since discarded the various shoes that he'd collected, no one blamed him. After all, so much time had gone by, who could have predicted the shoes would be important? Still, he remembered what kind they'd been, just as he remembered that he'd started noticing them almost exactly a year ago, around the fifteenth of May.

    But there was no guarantee that the person who'd dropped the shoes a year ago was the person who'd left the severed feet. All the investigating team could do was deal with the little evidence they had. As Romero anticipated, the medical examiner eventually determined that the victim had indeed been a woman. Was the person responsible a tourist, someone who came back to Santa Fe each May? If so, would that person have committed similar crimes somewhere else? Inquiries to the FBI revealed that over the years numerous murders by amputation had been committed throughout the U.S., but none matched the profile that the team was dealing with. What about missing persons reports? Those in New Mexico were eliminated, but as the search spread, it became clear that so many thousands of people disappeared in the U.S. each month that the investigation team would need more staff than it could ever hope to have.

    Meanwhile, Romero was part of the team staking out that area of Old Pecos Trail. Each night, he used a night-vision telescope to watch from the roof of the Baptist church. After all, if the killer stayed to his pattern, other shoes would be dropped, and perhaps-God help us, Romero thought-they too would contain severed feet. If he saw anything suspicious, all he needed to do was focus on the car's license plate and then use his two-way radio to alert police cars hidden along Old Pecos Trail. But night after night, there was nothing to report.

    A week later, a current model red Saturn with New Hampshire plates was found abandoned in an arroyo southeast of Albuquerque. The car was registered to a thirty-year-old woman named Susan Crowell, who had set out with her fiance on a cross-country car tour three weeks earlier. Neither she nor her fiance had contacted their friends and relatives in the past eight days.




Jay

9 May 2020





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