Last night as my wife and I lay in bed together, she curled into the fetal position in pain.
“What’s wrong?” I said as I bolted upright.
“Hurts,” she whimpered. She had experienced pain like this in the past, but never for very long. Ten minutes later and it had gotten much, much worse. She revealed later that it was the worst pain of her entire life.
I looked up local hospitals on the internet, just in case. In situations like that, my mind is split between barely contained panic and an equally strong feeling that the badness will resolve itself any second. I was confident we wouldn’t have to go to the emergency room. I was also confident this was deadly serious.
Ten minutes later, she was no better. “Do you want to go to the emergency room?” I asked. Through a mask of agony she nodded.
I called them to make sure I could bring her in, then scrambled for directions. I have a terrible direction sense. I usually say “hilariously terrible,” but not this time. I had an intense image of us lost in the twisted back streets of Burien, while nearby the love of my life writhed in torment.
We got to the hospital just fine. We checked in, and over the course of the next two hours got tests, medication, and a diagnosis. My wife was barely cognizant or human the entire time. Her brain was awash with pain and panic. My brain, on the other hand, did the same thing it has been doing non-stop for the last few weeks. It searched the shadows for monsters.
I am in the middle of writing a horror novel. Horror is new territory for me, but I am obsessed, like I always am with everything, and so have thoroughly immersed myself within its inky waters. As a fiction writer, I have no serious natural talent for prose. I have trouble with voice, and it takes work to make sure all my characters don’t just sound like me in a variety of fake mustaches and party wigs. But I am very creative. I come up with ideas and images constantly. Right now, all of those ideas and images are terrifying.
In a hospital, generating horrific images is very, very easy. A house of healing is by definition a house of suffering. Otherwise it’s just a house of “why are you here you look fine to me.” There is more misery per square 1000 feet in a hospital than anywhere but a torture dungeon or a particularly bad prison. Add in the utter helplessness of hospital gowns and IVs, all of those needles full of unknown substances invasively forced into the bloodstream, and the requisite dispassion with which doctors have to observe and dish out agony, and it’s no wonder hospitals are a such a popular setting for horror.
Ultrasounds are performed in dimly lit rooms using screens that show the inside of the human body to be the undersea alien mess that they are. As I sat there and watched, it was easy to imagine that Something would show up on the screen that clearly wasn’t supposed to be there. Something misshapen. Or smiling, with teeth. Or perhaps the cute and matter of fact technician would say, “Huh. That isn’t right.” Then she would grab a knife, and without a change of expression slice open my wife’s stomach and begin to tear things out.
The very nice and clearly competent nurse back in the main room removed a lot of blood into tiny capsules while she laughed and joked with my wife and me. I wondered what would happen if she just kept removing blood, filling up vial after vial after vial. What could I say? She clearly knew what she was doing. I would probably sit there, as the stack of vials grew, and my wife whimpered. It would be so easy for the nurse’s comfortable smile to grow just a little too wide.
“What going on here?” I would say as the horror of what was happening twisted in my stomach.
“Don’t worry,” the nurse would say as she stepped over my wife’s shriveled form and approached me, needle in hand. “I know what I’m doing. Now, let’s get you out of those clothes.”
It’s no surprise that my brain did this in the hospital. It’s been doing it all the time. But you want to know what the crazy part is?
I felt better because of these images. I don’t know why, exactly. Maybe it was just a distraction. My mind could retreat into fantasy rather than dwell on the possibility that this was serious. That might have been a factor, but I think it was something deeper. Something that taps into some of the reasons horror is satisfying, and why people need it.
The human body is a ridiculous collection of meat that accidentally stumbled into higher functionality through a long and brutal process of trial and error. It has a laughably small number of error messages for the 6.7 zillion things than can go wrong with it. We are teeming with fully functional living things that can’t possibly care about us, and would feast on our remains in perfect callousness if we dropped dead.
A creature of teeth and tentacles living in the uterus is terrifying. But in a way, cancer is more terrifying. The hanta virus is more terrifying. Because they aren’t anything. They’re just suffering and death, and this is their world as much as it is ours. Cancer is just something the human body does when it gets confused. And harmful micro-organisms out-mass us in the world, and will be around long after our art and science has withered into dust.
Horror puts a face on all of this. It makes it comprehensible, even when it isn’t. For a creative generative mind, it lets us control what is out there. Even if a horror creature is just as scary as a sickness, it is much more interesting. The world of Cthulhu and Azathoth is just as dispassionately deadly as the world of Ebola and degenerative bone disease, but it is also endlessly intriguing. One of the things about cancer is that it is so dreadfully boring. But it kills you just as dead.
My wife’s condition turned out to be nothing serious. Just a ruptured ovarian cyst. One with more blood and pain that usual, but it isn’t life-threatening. But we didn’t know that last night. She avoided mortal terror because she was too uncomfortable. So did I. But my discomfort was spawned by my over-active imagination.
I knew the smiling nurse wasn’t going to steal all of my wife’s blood. She was friendly and fun and she had a utility-belt like some kind of medically-oriented Batman. The fear was as easy to dismiss, but also so visceral that it filled up my image-capacity. It crowded out the real terrors that likely waited just behind it, their hypodermic fangs salivating with hunger. They would have gotten me, if the wait had been long enough. If it took the doctor hours and dozens of tests to find out what was wrong. But it didn’t take that long. And the real monsters couldn’t get in, the tentacle-teeth creature guarded the door.
You’ve got to love that guy.