Decomposition Twice Over

I suppose I have always had a morbid fascination for what many would call the grotesque. I am still drawn to the things in life that could be dark or twisted: literature, the mind, even human nature. I enjoy finding the juxtaposition of light and dark, how they intertwine and often play off one another to reveal the truth of the matter. It was this interest of mine, forever hooked into my being, that has led me down the path of discovery. Coupled with my morbidity is that of an over-active imagination. A shadow in the doorway, a bump in the night, or the mere whisper of the wind through empty winter trees can conjure up literary puzzles that must be unravelled step by step to understand the true meaning of the plot. I am in love with Gothicism, of course, as the genre most fits my forte. As I read through Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”, I could not help but imagine the decomposition of Homer Barron which reminded me of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Facts of the Case of M. Valdemar”.

To properly understand the link between these stories, one needs to consider the stages of decomposition. For the faint of heart, turn back now! The decomposition of the human body is not like that portrayed by Vincent Price in the third section of the horror film, Tales of Terror, released in 1962 (IMDB).

Decomposition can be defined as: “the continual process of gradual decay and disorganization of organic tissues and structures after death” which leaves the skeletal remains as well as possibly hair untouched (Enotes). The process which renders human beings into a pile of bones occurs in five stages. Immediately after death, the “fresh” stage begins its gruesome job of settling blood, stiffening muscles and breaking down cells. As lividity and rigor mortis set in, the body is filled with gases leading to the second stage of “bloat”. Those gases distort the body, forcing fluids from orifices, and causing the skin to darken and sprout strange patterns. “Active decay” steps in for its turn of the process. The body is scavenged by the nasties: bugs, animals, and weathering. The next to set in is “advanced decay”, in which the body has little mass, and starts seeping into the surroundings, such as soil, bedsheets, or coffin linings. The final stage is “dry”, and is more familiar to us as the skeleton. The body has rotted away into bones and connective tissue (Forensics4Fiction). A fascinatingly gruesome ending for a formerly living creature, if the author may say so herself, that the divinely constructed human body merely falls apart.

Now, in relation to the two stories which are very different, each features a decayed man. Homer Barron, the former lover of Emily Grierson in Faulkner’s tale, was discovered in her bed, dessicated and vile. He was described as having a “profound and fleshless grin” and “rotted beneath what was left of the nightshirt…inextricable from the bed in which he lay; and upon him and upon the pillow beside him lay that even coating of…dust” (Flightline). The worst part of the matter was finding Emily’s grey hair on the pillow beside the corpse! She had slept beside a dead man for years, so far to the point that his body had melded to the bed! Can you imagine the strongest stench to gag a grown man? Imagine the putrid gelatin-like body as it withered into a husk of the former body. Miss Emily Grierson, mightily disturbed, had laid down every night at the side of such a horror. Tying such an outrageous plot to yet another appallingly unbelievable story may seem unlikely to some, but to my mind, has been incredibly easy.

I instantly remembered “The Facts of the Case of M. Valdemar”. Within this story, the narrator holds a man on the brink of death via hypnotism, a feat no one had yet achieved in the field. The man allowed his friend, the narrator, to put him into the trance. He was dying from an intense lung disease, in which his lungs had adhered to the ribs, decaying in his body, in essence, “entirely useless for all purposes of vitality” (ClassicLit). The story then continues to document what occurred while M. Valdemar was under the hypnotic spell. At first, Valdemar was cold, scarcely breathing and with imperceptible pulse. Upon being asked if he was asleep, he responded in the affirmative, and asked to be left in peace to die. His body was rigid, yet malleable. His voice was faint throughout the interview. As Valdemar insisted he was dying, a change came over his countenance. The skin paled, the mouth shrunk away from the teeth, revealing “the swollen and blackened tongue”, as the “death-bed horrors” occurred, causing a “general shrinking back from the region of the bed” (ClassicLit). All vitals in the man seemed to vanish, as if dead, yet upon prompting, he responded! “For God’s sake! — quick! — quick! –put me to sleep —or, quick! —waken me! —quick! — I say to you that I am dead!” (ClassicLit). How on earth in heaven or in hell, can a dead man respond?! The narrator, unsettled, thought it would be better to pull the man from underneath his hypnotic trance than to leave him between dying and asleep. As the narrator began to un-hypnotize M. Valdemar, the entire corpse disintegrated beneath his hands, in one of the most grotesque quotes in literature:

“…his whole frame at once —- within the space of a single minute, or even less, shrunk — crumbled —- absolutely rotted away beneath my hands. Upon the bed….there lay a nearly liquid mass of loathsome — of detestable putridity”  (ClassicLit).

It is upon my understanding of the process of decay that I thought to link these two stories together. Though disgusting and off-putting, decomposition is a captivating mechanism of the human body, and necessary to comprehending the parallels between these two literary creations.