Aug 31, 2016

From Silence to Death

When I was young, my mother gave my father a human skull as a gift. With a child's instinct, I knew this was something to fear. Not the thing itself, of course - trapped in its glass case, the skull represented no immediate threat - but there was an undeniable menace there, in the yellowed bone and the empty eye sockets, in the smallness and silence of it. This is what we become.  

I was simultaneously drawn to and repelled by it, as one is of snakes and spiders and maggots and things we know instinctively to be dangerous but wish to understand in spite of the danger. I would sometimes have my afternoon nap on the mattress in my parents' bedroom, the skull looking blindly down at me from its case on the dresser. 

This was a period of nightmares for me. At night, I kept my hands and feet tucked firmly under the covers, I dared not peek under the bed or in the closet, I whispered the prayer my father had taught me to keep the nightmares away (sometimes it worked): 

Four angels round my bed, 
Two at the foot and two at the head, 
Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, 
Guard the bed that I lay on. 

(But what about the middle of the bed?)

I had nightmares of fires and zombies and mad dogs and pursuit, and of skulls, naked and grinning and horribly alive. But with the nightmares came partial lucidity: my subconscious came up with a way of dealing with the terrors, and I invented a friendly flying skull that protected me from the monsters. 

Looking back, I realize the symbolic importance of that semi-conscious creation: I had made friends with death. 

And with this uneasy friendship came my interest in horror. Children's authors like John Bellairs and Roald Dahl at first, then the pulp horror of Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Peter Straub, Anne Rice, and F. Paul Wilson's The Keep, which all served as further nightmare fodder. (With age came unpleasant dreams about my teeth falling out, not being able to find the classroom or forgetting my locker combination, ghosts, vampires, rejection.) The classics followed: Stoker and Shelley and Stevenson and Coleridge, Edgar Allen Poe and Shirley Jackson and Richard Matheson. My guides in facing the specter of death.

(There were movies as well, of course, too many to mention, but there is something inherently more terrifying in creating the images myself from the words on the page than in seeing someone else's nightmare vision come to life - the alien bursting from his chest and grandpa trying to git 'er being notable exceptions.) 

It's harder to scare me these days, and I can usually wake myself up from nightmares before things get too dire, which is a skill I am happy to possess. (The nightmares themselves tend to be more mundane and less fantastical, although no less terrifying.) I don't possess a human skull (other than my own), but I have ceramic skull bookends and art and a framed photograph of a skull illicitly snapped in the catacombs of Paris. I have seen three corpses in their coffins, and I have seen life vanish while looking into my cat's eyes.

When I sat down to write this, I was inspired by a line from a book I recently finished reading, called Outline, by Rachel Cusk: "She had sat there, she said, and thought about her own lifelong habit of explaining herself, and she thought about this power of silence, which put people out of one another's reach." I was thinking about silence, and from silence I went to skulls, and from skulls to death. Which is a natural progression, I guess. When we stop attempting to express ourselves, to communicate what is in our heads and in our hearts, when we close ourselves up and cut ourselves off, that's when we die. 

And as much as I want to face death, make friends with it, I don't want to die. I don't want anything to die. So I'm going to continue this lifelong habit of explaining myself, in the hope that you will explain yourself, too, and together we can share our terrors until all that's left is yellowed bone and silence.