John Galt speculates on what it’s like to be dead in his short Penny Dreadful “The Buried Alive.”
“The Buried Alive” is written from the point of view of a man on his deathbed– he describes what it’s like to be surrounded by loved ones as he lays dying, and what it feels and looks like to finally pass on.
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What it’s like to Die
The narrator says he was “seized with a strange and indescribable quivering– a rushing sound was in [his] ears– [he] saw around [his] couch innumerable strange faces; they were bright and visionary, and without bodies.”
I tried researching what these “floating faces” might be. They have to be more than just curious ghosts looking on as the narrator dies. And they disappear right away. What are they?
Apparently many people complain of seeing “floating, disappearing faces” at night while they are trying to sleep. Some see the same face over and over again, some see a series of faces. This phenomenon has been described as anything from brain tricks, to people visiting from past lives, to visions of the future.
The narrator only witnesses this phenomenon for a minute or so– these floating faces that watch him as he dies. It’s strange that we never find out what they are: another aspect of “the unknown” that I mentioned in my first serial, “The Adventure of the German Student.”
In a moment, these strange visions are gone. The man recovers each of his senses: he can still see, hear, feel, but he can’t move a muscle.
He watches his friends and family members weep over him until someone reaches over and closes his eyes. When he is left alone with the attendants, he mentions the appalling way in which they treat his corpse.
In three days, the friends who are still visiting him complain about the smell of his rotting body.
Treatment of Corpses in the 1800’s
The narrator’s funeral date arrives and his coffin is buried in the ground. He listens to it all (his eyes are still closed). He describes the sound of the dirt hitting the top of the coffin: the rattle and reverberation. The slap of the spade.
What would it be like to feel nothingness?
When at last the hole is filled in and the final sound of the funeral fades away, the first thought the narrator has is, “This is death.”
An eternity of waiting. Forever in silence.
I always imagined: if death was nothing, then it wasn’t something we could feel or remember. But what if we could?
Galt imagines a death much scarier than the pain or finality that accompanies it. This death is one of complete, experienceable oblivion.
Thankfully, it doesn’t last long.
The true history of body-snatching in the 1800’s clues the reader in on the narrator’s economic status, and may even give us info on his sickness.
As the narrator waits in his coffin, he begins to hear terrible noises which he describes as “a low and undersound in the earth over [him], and [he] fancied that the worms and the reptiles of death were coming.”
But instead of being food for the proverbial sharks in the proverbial infested waters, the narrator realizes he is being grave-robbed, or more accurately, body-snatched.
Body-Snatching was a huge deal in the 1800’s. Body-snatchers, called “Resurrection Men” primarily targeted the poor, minorities, and the previously terminally ill. It was a good bet that our narrator had tuberculosis or something like it.
The robbers then sold the bodies to the growing number of medical students for dissection. But most believed that if a body was dismembered after death, the soul could not be resurrected on judgement day.
Dissection was considered such a lowly and appalling act that the public became outraged at the frequency of the crime and formed a mob against the medical students. Not the universities, not the professors, not the state, but the students. This got so out of hand that the students had to hide briefly in jail and the jailhouse was attacked.
The narrator’s eyes are thrown open again through the course of an electric shock experiment that “vibrated through all [his] nerves; they rung and jangled like the strings of a harp.”
The narrator sees students that he somehow recognizes, and they suddenly recognize him. They feel pity for the narrator, but not enough for what they’re about to do, which was apparently so dastardly as to piss off the entire public.
The demonstrator aims his scalpel at the narrator in preparation for dissection. Just as he pierces the corpse’s chest, the body is suddenly re-animated.
The story ends with the narrator feeling, “a dreadful crackling, as it were, throughout [his] entire frame.” He is revived by the students and regains his normal functions within the hour.
Galt took “resurrection from dissection” literally. But…
The Terrible Implications
The narrator’s body was rotting. Does he now have to live his life forever in a state of decay? Is he in constant pain from cell-death?
Also, his friends have had days to mourn for him. They’ve reached a place where they’re on their way to letting him go. And, what, the narrator shows up stinking of rotting flesh like, “Hey, I’m back,” and that won’t mess up his friends for the rest of their lives?
Man. That’s dark.
If you want the Penny Dreadful book you can buy it here on Amazon. It’s got a bunch of other Penny Dreadfuls that I haven’t written about in my Halloween Serials, as well as two full-length novels: the original Frankenstein and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Also it just looks really pretty on a bookshelf.
Check out yesterday’s dreadful, “The Apparition of Lord Tyrone to Lady Beresford,” And stay tuned for tomorrow’s, “The Case of Lady Sannox” by Arthur Conan Doyle.
What did you think of this story? Do you know anything about the weird history of dissection and body-snatching during the 1800’s? Do you see floating faces at night? Got any scary stories to share in the comments?