As a child, I recall aged medical texts my father left open in his study. My earliest memories are a conflation of leather desk-tops, cracking yellow blotters, and Gray's Anatomy. I recall the sensation of waking in the morning to the smell of formaldehyde and cold metal instruments, of my father at work alone in a surgical theater as modern as the newly-installed electrical power would allow. Still, the house seemed to resist such modern facilities, eventually masking the odor of ozone with the age-old scents we grew up with, redolent of paraffin and mouldering wool carpets. Our house seemed wary of the new devices and powers my father wielded, more content with the strange pre-Victorian bone-saws and leeching-jars that now served as a monument to the fallacious past from which our family practice rose.
I have my fathers copy of Gray's upon my writing-table to this day, left to me on his death. While I still live in the family house, with the family legacy to keep me company in the long nights, I am also left with a feeling that only my childhood belongs in this house. The rest of my life is somehow divorced from this place by my calling, by my decision to leave four generations of medical doctors to their own groves in life, and their own graves in death, while I uncovered a new path through the dark earth surrounding my work. I inherited a certain amount of curiosity, a certain amount of rigor of mind. I inherited a personal history of medicine, a lineage of august and skilled physicians. Nevertheless, I chose to leave behind my professional birthright in favor of the precarious life of a writer, basing my scribblings upon the soul of my inheritance rather than the corpus.
The idea of the physical body. The dream of physiognomy, circumscribed in such meticulous and loving detail by Gray's Anatomy. Auricles and lobes and cauls and shanks; the stuff of the body, of the uniquely human form. The spleen, the cerebrum, the pericardium, the nostrum. These regions provided fertile ground for my childish fancies, and later my adolescent fever-dreams of my own future. I learned well the uses of these regions, the paths to glory concealed so cleverly therein. For instance, the nostrum can be made to serve as a direct route to the cerebrum, with the application of certain force. The Egyptians used this method during embalming, to reach the most delicate of all organs. Paths to the mind are precious and few, but they can be traversed by medical philosophy. Medicine is devoted to healing, of course, but healing can be well-hidden.
Trepanning is the another good route, supremely challenging for a man of medicine, and supremely dangerous for the victim. The Eskimous perform this ritual, as did the Aztecans. But ritual is the wrong word. In truth, it is an arduous and ancient species of surgery. Not a type of surgery that my father would have recognized, though his tools seem an equal discourtesy and hazard to the patient. Three holes through the skull, made with care enough not to pierce the delicate membrane surrounding the twin lobes of the cerebellum. Three holes, each made with a hand-drill or more primitive variant, each made with exacting and presumably excruciating slowness. The procedure can take hours per hole. Should the subject survive this ordeal, he or she typically contracts brain fever from infection. Then again, perhaps brain fever is a mixed blessing.
Witness Alfred Wallace, who conjured an infinite progression of alteration, of times surgical reformation of organisms and clades, from inside the throes of Malaysian fever. What took Darwin twenty years to find with the clarity of a Victorian mind was given up in an instant to a bedraggled explorer lost on the subcontinent. Perhaps fevers are a way of passing through the delicate membrane that protects us from insanity.
The other books in that room, the non-medical texts? What else did my father leave behind? God help me, all I seem to recall is Poe and le Fanu, Stoker and the copious collection of penny dreadfuls that made the shelves buckle, burst. My childhood is a melange of Varneys and Camillas and violent aberrations acted out time and again in the memory. Non-Euclidean geometries, obscurantist rantings and the menace of forms that hide true things. Cold streets in London and stifling summers in Paris, all hounded by the apparitions of the underworld.
I recall wondering aloud to my father, demanding an explanation for literature so profoundly horrific. At the time, perhaps merely in jest, my father dismissed the writings as the ravings of fever-victims and alcoholics, of pederasts and psychological miscreants. But these depredations visited upon the human body and, worse by far, the human mind, were hardly the work of imaginations infected by tropical fever. These books seemed to be the result of a life-long devotion to the macabre, the outré , the horrible and the sublime. Of course, I knew at the time that I was kindred, that I was kind to these lunatic authors. My own terrible seduction by anatomy and the history of anatomical nightmare were more than equal to all the fabrications of those annals. Frog-faced children, snake-limbed offspring. Botched surgeries and aborted medical movements. These were far than the false visions of vampires and werewolves and basilisks, precisely because they were so visceral and tangible. Surgery is real; clinical horror is true. Neither of these realms can terrify in the same manner as the penny dreadfuls by Poe or Le Fanu, because they hold infinitely greater possibility for the unimaginative. They can grip even the dullest mind in a frenzy of horrid realization.
I did not live a lonely childhood. I had three siblings, all of them older than me, but never so old as to be unknown to me. I had two parents, and the customary number of grandparents to accompany them. I had friends. And I had a library, not inherited as a professional bequeathment, but mine by virtue of fascination and disgust. Some of my family yet practice the family art, but they had no real claim against me with regards to the library, filled to overflowing with the detritus of my fathers life. Those pieces of his life flowed through my veins and boiled in my mind, slowly remade as if by incorporeal surgery into the monsters bred by my imagination. Those intellectual trappings my family bore like a coat of arms were, in myself, retailored to a more horrible form, refashioned to fit a mind bent towards the terrible recreation of humanity in malignancys likeness.
All of those beautiful books, full of blood and guts, full of the raw material which generations have turned into an instrument to be plucked, to be cruelly misused. I was fascinated, of course. The parallels between clinical horror and my fathers profession were unavoidable. I saw the body as a palette, full of shape and color unrealized. To alter the body is horrible, to be sure, but it is an act of will and beauty. Surgery is art, surgery is the redefining of the body in the image of genius. An operation on the body is a perversion and exaltation of the natural order. My fathers profession held nothing but awe and terror for me. He would remake individuals as surely as Victor Frankenstein remade a man from the corpses of criminals. As surely as that library remade my own mind.
The proximity of medicine and terror, of physiognomy and fear; my path was spread before me as if preordained, as if laid out by the patient and determined hands of a surgeon. Nothing except those books explains my fascination and the limit of my imagination. All the world is viewed through a prism of anatomical perversion and terror. Mutilation and divine horror. The depths of my heart, all four chambers, are stygian night, a dark place where only the darkest forms take shape, and blossom forth into depravity. My writing stretches the body to the breaking point. I defile the human form in the name of horror, instead of science. I find our progress to be trapped within our mental limitations, and distinguished in our ability to redefine our physical limitations.
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Copyright (c) 2000, 2004, David Erik Nelson, Fritz Swanson, Morgan Johnson