During the whole of a dull, dark, and dreary day, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the sky, I had been sitting alone in my chamber, poring over a medical treatise of singular interest and merit. Its author was the eminent Doctor M. Valdemar of Leipzig, whose earlier volume, The Recrudescence of Leprosy and Its Causation, had done much to divest that grave affliction of the aura of preternatural dread that has surrounded its sufferers throughout the ages. In one remarkable stroke, Valdemar had succeeded in elevating the study of this ancient scourge -- so long steeped in primitive superstition -- to the heights of pure science.
Valdemar's latest treatise, which had so absorbed my attention throughout that dismal afternoon in the latter week of April, was offered in the same spirit of enlightened rationalism. Its subject was, if conceivable, even more repugnant to refined sensibilities than the bodily disfigurements produced by infectious leprosis. Indeed, it was a subject of such extreme morbidity that -- even in the hands of one as averse to mere sensationalism as Valdemar -- it resounded more of the ghastly themes of the Gothic than the concerns of medical philosophy.
The volume, prominently displayed in the window of a venerable bookseller on Lexington Street, had caught my eye a few days earlier. Even more than the name of its distinguished author, it was the title of the book, gold-stamped on green leather, that had riveted my attention: Inhumation Before Death, and How It May Be Prevented. Here, indeed, was a matter worthy of the most rigorous scientific investigation. For of all the imagined terrors that vex the tranquillity of the human soul, surely none can parallel the contemplation of that awful eventuality to which Valdemar had addressed himself in his newest book. I mean, of course, the grim -- the ghastly -- the unspeakable -- possibility of premature burial!
Personal affairs of more than usual urgency had delayed my perusal of this remarkable volume. At last, with sufficient time at my disposal, I had sequestered myself behind the closed door of my sanctum, where, by the sombre yellow light of my table lamp, I had devoted the better part of the day to the intense scrutiny of Valdemar's treatise.
Applying the prodigious erudition that is the hallmark of his genius, Valdemar had produced a veritable encyclopedia of knowledge concerning this most awful of subjects. His chapter headings alone gave ample indication of the enormous breadth of his undertaking: "Cataleptic Sleep and Other Causes of Premature Burial," "The Signs of Death," "The Dangers of Hasty Embalmment," "Cremation as a Preventive of Premature Burial," "Resuscitation from Apparent Death," and "Suspended Animation after Small-Pox," among many others. It is scarcely necessary to state that the wealth of useful -- nay, indispensable -- knowledge embodied in these pages more than justified the somewhat exorbitant cost of the volume.
Still, the all-compelling interest of the book did not derive solely, or even primarily, from the practical information it contained. Rather, it stemmed from the many documented cases Valdemar had assembled from medical reports throughout the world: the all-too-numerous instances of wretched fellow-creatures whose fate it had been to suffer the supreme torments of living interment. Indeed, though Valdemar's prose style (in his scrupulous efforts to avoid any taint of the lurid) verged, at moments, on the dryly pedantic, the mere recitation of these cases was sufficiently chilling to provoke in the reader an empathic response of the highest intensity.
At least, so it proved with me.
One particular instance, cited from the Chirurgical Journal of London, had transfixed me with horror. This was the case of a young English gentleman who had fallen victim to an anomalous disorder -- a cataleptic state of such profound immobility that even his physicians mistook it for death. Accordingly, he was placed in his coffin and consigned to the family plot. Some hours later, the sexton heard an unearthly gibbering issuing from the ground. The gravedigger was summoned; the casket uncovered; the lid prised open. Within the box lay the young man, cackling wildly, his black hair bleached completely white by fear!
When, by slow degrees, he recovered the power of speech, he described the agonies of his experience. Though seemingly insensate, he had retained his auditory faculties throughout his ordeal. Thus, he had listened -- with an acuity born of absolute terror -- to every sound that attended his intombment: the closing of the casket; the clatter of the hearse; the grieving of his loved ones; the sickening fall of shovelled soil upon his coffin lid. And yet, in consequence of his paralysis, he had been unable, by either sound or motion, to alert those around him to the extremity of his condition -- until, set loose by his utter desperation, a torrent of maddened shrieks had vomited forth from the very pit of his fear-harrowed soul.
Something about this story so impressed itself upon my imagination that, as I sat there lost in contemplation, I gradually fell into a kind of waking reverie -- or rather, nightmare. I lost track of time. My familiar surroundings -- the small, shadowy chamber with its meagre furnishings and black-curtained window -- appeared to dissolve. Darkness embraced me. I felt myself enveloped by the suffocating closeness of the grave.
No longer was I merely ruminating upon the agonies of premature burial; I was experiencing them as vividly as if my own still-living body had been laid, all unwittingly, in the tomb. I could feel, hear, and sense every particular of that dread calamity: the unendurable oppression of the lungs -- the clinging of the death garments -- the rigid embrace of the coffin -- the methodical thudding of the gravedigger's shovel -- the unseen but palpable presence of the Conqueror Worm.
A scream of the purest anguish arose in my throat. I opened my terror-parched lips, praying that my cries would save me from the ineffable torments of my predicament.
Before I could summon this agonized yell (an act which would unquestionably have alarmed the entire neighborhood and occasioned me a great deal of embarrassment), a dim awareness of my true situation broke into my overwrought fancy. Suddenly, I realized that the noise I had mistaken for gravedigging was in reality the muffled thud of some unknown caller, pounding on the front door of my residence. Or rather, I should say, of the residence I shared with my beloved Aunt Maria and her angelic daughter, my darling little cousin Virginia.
I pulled out my pocket handkerchief and, with a deep groan of relief, wiped away the moisture that my all-too-vivid fantasy had wrung from my brow. Laying aside Valdemar's treatise, I cocked an ear towards the front of the house. I could discern the distinctive tread of my sainted "Muddy" (for so, in tribute to her maternal devotion, I fondly referred to my aunt) as she hastened to answer the knocking. Dimly, I could hear her interrogative tone as she greeted the visitor.
An instant later, striding footsteps echoed in the corridor, succeeded by a sharp, determined rapping upon my chamber door.
Shaking off the horror which, even then, retained a lingering hold on my spirit, I bade the caller enter. My door swung in upon its hinges and a tall, broad-shouldered figure stood silhouetted within the frame. He posed there for a moment, critically surveying my quarters before delivering a statement of such stentorian quality that it smote upon my ears like the discharge of a cannon. The content of his remark was no less surprising than its volume.
"Well I'll be jiggered if it ain't as glum as a bear-cave in here," he boomed.
So startling was this comment that, as if by reflex, I swivelled in my chair and parted the heavy curtains obscuring the window behind me. Owing to the lateness of the hour (which was rapidly approaching dinnertime), as well as the sullenness of the weather, only a modicum of daylight was admitted by my action. Still, this illumination, added to that of my table lamp, proved sufficient for me to take stock of my visitor.
He cut an imposing figure. Though his height fell several inches short of six feet, he appeared to be a man of nearly Herculean stature: an effect that was in large part due to his erect, indeed military, carriage, as well as to the exceptional span of his shoulders and chest. His full head of thick, black hair framed a visage of equally striking character. There was something in his features -- the piercing blue eyes, hawklike nose, and prominent chin -- that spoke of boundless interior strength and resolution. To this must be added a vague yet palpable air of natural bonhomie. Perhaps his most noticeable characteristic, however, was his robust complexion, which attested to a life of rugged outdoor pursuit.
This latter impression was heightened by his clothing; for though his garments were of the most presentable cut and fashion -- high-collared coat, gray-striped pantaloons, stiff shirtfront and cerulean cravat -- he seemed strangely constricted in this formal attire, as though he were more accustomed to the loose-fitting garb of the yeoman or hunter.
My inspection of this singular individual -- who had yet to trouble himself with the nicety of an introduction -- lasted no more than a few seconds. Determined to learn his identity without further delay, I parted my lips and made ready to speak. Before I could give voice to my question, however, he withdrew a folded sheet of paper from his side pocket and opened it with a flourish.
"I reckon I had best say why I'm here, for I see that you are set to bust like an airthquake with curiosity," he declared in his unmistakable backwoods "drawl." There was something strangely familar in his manner of speech, as though I had heard his voice before. Where I had encountered it, however, remained a mystery, for it was indisputably the case that I had never laid eyes on him before.
"Mighty poor light in here for a feller to read by," he muttered, turning his paper this way and that.
Focussing my attention on this item, I now perceived that it was a printed page which had been detached from a book or periodical. Its tattered right edge offered conspicuous proof that it been carelessly -- even violently -- removed from its source.
Having finally settled on a position, my visitor began to read in a manner which suggested that, though not entirely foreign to him, this activity was by no means habitual. His halting pronunciation, however, in no way impeded the forcefulness of his delivery, which was enlivened by his colorful interjections.
"' -- Moreover, we find this work cens...cens-u-rable' -- consarn it, but that's a jawbreaker! -- for the frequent vulgarity of its language -- '"
As I sat there listening, my bemusement at his performance rapidly turned into astonishment, for it did not take me long to recognize that he was reading from a work of my own! -- a review that I had lately contributed to Mr. Thomas White's enterprising new journal, the Southern Literary Messenger.
A realization began to dawn within me. At that moment, however, I was distracted from my thoughts by a lively commotion outside my window, as though from a congregation of chattering schoolboys. Though their words were indistinct, there was no mistaking their tone of excited incredulity.
In the meantime, my visitor continued with his reading. "'If the author wishes to make himself a laughingstock, that is his affair. We see no reason, however, why the public should support him in this undertaking, and we would regard ourselves as remiss if we did not warn the unwary away from such fiddle-faddle.'"
With this sharp, though by no means undeserved, admonition, my review ended -- and with it the stranger's recitation. Looking up from the page, he crushed it into a ball and dropped it unceremoniously onto my writing table.
"Well, sir," he said, placing his hands upon his hips and regarding me with a challenging air. "I don't suppose you'll deny that them disfavorable words was written by you."
"I would not under any circumstances disavow my opinions," I coolly replied. "I do, however, insist that you offer an explanation for this remarkable intrusion."
"Why, if you ain't figgered that out yet, I don't suppose you're as all-fired smart as your fancy speechifyin' would have folks believe."
This retort so piqued my anger that -- in spite of his superior physique (to say nothing of the debilitating influence which Valdemar's study had exerted on my overstrung nerves) -- I half rose from my seat, prepared to forcibly eject the impudent stranger from my chamber.
At that very instant, however, I heard the patter of approaching feet. Suddenly a tiny figure burst into the room. I recognized him at once as Jimmy Johnston, the youngest son of the merchant whose family occupied the residence adjacent to my own. In his wake followed a half-dozen of his playmates. They crowded into the doorway while little Jimmy gazed upward, his expression suffused with such undisguised wonder that he might have been beholding one of Nature's marvels: the snowcapped peaks of the mighty Rocky Mountains, for example, or the roaring cataracts of Niagara.
"Is it...is it really you?" the awestruck boy finally managed to stutter.
Emitting a laugh that seemed to originate in the depths of his capacious chest, the stranger leaned down and placed a hand on the shoulder of the gaping lad.
"Right you are, young 'un. I'll be shot if you ain't a dang sight quicker than some other folks hereabouts."
Drawing himself up to his full height, he threw his head back and exclaimed, "I am Colonel David Crockett for a fact. Half-horse, half-alligator, with a little touch of the snapping turtle thrown in. I can shoot straighter, run faster, dive deeper, fight harder -- and write better -- than any man in the whole country."
Then, turning his gaze directly at me, he grinned with a ferocious glee. "And I'm here to skin the infernal hide off'n any lowdown cricket who claims different."
Copyright © 1999 by Harold Schechter