Michael Shea innovates the traditional weird tale with surgical precision in “The Autopsy” (1980). Early weird tales focused on supernatural events such as demonic possession, but Shea modifies this trope, updating it for a more scientifically inclined audience.
Weird fiction blends with other genres, insinuating itself into their anatomical structures. Weird science fiction is one result. Here horrific effects, which used to be given supernatural causes, are attributed to scientific ones. Demonic possession becomes possession by an alien lifeform, a parasite stranger than any creature found on earth.
A doctor stricken with cancer, Doctor Winter, gets called into a mining town to examine the victims of an underground explosion at the mine. Joe Allen, a miner under investigation for murder and cannibalism, gets hold of a small sphere made of metal, or perhaps glass, after a meteor shower. He runs into the mine, pursued by the authorities, where the sphere then detonates, killing several people.
Doctor Winter performs the autopsy on the bodies of several men who were at the mine that day, deducing the causes of death, making anatomically and physiologically precise observations. It emerges that some wounds are inconsistent with shrapnel punctures, and he begins to think Allen’s bomb was an object “whose destruction was itself more Allen’s aim than the explosion produced thereby.”
Winter realizes Allen had fed on the victim he was buried near during the explosion. Somehow, he survived long enough to partially eat him. Eventually, Winter decides he will examine the corpse of Allen himself. However, Allen’s bruised body then steps out of the freezer on its own.
Shea describes the terrible sight of Allen’s zombie, which “reduced the world itself around him to a waste of dark and silence, a starlit ruin where already, everywhere, the alien and unimaginable was awakening to its new dominion.”
The parasite within Allen speaks through his vocal cords, explaining that the sphere he found was the his own spaceship, which he had to destroy to avoid discovery. The parasite, a network of nerve endings that can take over a body and its sense receptors, believes itself a superior race, since it survives by finding hosts and colonizing their bodies.
Winter loses all sense of fear before the being that stands before him, as he falls into a recognition of the horror of cosmic space-time: “his parochial pity for Earth alone stretched to the transstellar scope this traveler commanded, to the whole cosmic trash yard with its bulldozed multitudes of corpses.” All of Earth is, for the parasite, nothing more than a series of corpses, hosts it can possess.
The parasite attacks him, and when Winter awakens he is numb from the waist down and lying stretched out on a dissection table. The parasite, working Allen’s body like a puppeteer, begins a self-dissection, ripping open its own chest cavity to pull itself out and transfer itself to Winter’s body.
The process is described in excruciating, medically accurate detail: “the corpse reached into its gaping abdomen, and out of its cloven groin the smeared hands pulled two long skeins of silvery filament[, …] the bright vermiculate roots of the parasite [withdrawing] from within Allen’s musculature.”
The parasite has the ability to live in the interstices of the nervous system, receiving Winter’s sense impressions from the ears, hand, and tongue, while making his body react to stimuli as it sees fit. There appears to be no hope for the human race before such a colonizing monstrosity.
Winter, who has already been diagnosed with a fatal cancer, realizes the parasite will prey upon other humans as soon as it takes control of his body. All hope seems lost. However, Allen catches a grim glimpse of hope when the parasite transfers bodies: while the parasite vacates Allen’s body in preparation of taking over Winters’, the doctor sees Allen’s body contract its fingers around the scalpel it is still holding. For a split second, Allen had the freedom to send a single, unconscious but free impulse into his hand.
Bleak hope is hope nonetheless. It inspires Winter to take the scalpel and do as much damage to his own body—the parasite’s future host—as he can. He stabs himself in the ears and eyes, destroying his own sense organs, then leaves a message in blood on the table, warning the others who might find him about the alien. He even stabs himself in the back of the head to remove his vocal cords. Mercifully, he feels no pain, since the parasite has placed him under a kind of anaesthetic.
“Welcome to your new house,” Winters tells the parasite, just before he perishes. “It’s been a lovely home to me for fifty-seven years, and somehow I think you’ll stay…”
The ending is brutal, needless to say, but what surprised me was its depiction of hope, however grim it might be. Though Earth’s position in the universe is revealed to be precarious and meaningless in face of the unknown, terrifying forces that may suddenly colonize it out of nowhere, the human will is still capable of exacting a last-ditch revenge.
One of the (many) reasons this story made my skin crawl was that the parasite was more than an exterior threat: it colonizes the human body. In fact, it can insert itself between the sense receptors and the nerves that act on the muscles to react to stimuli. That’s a whole other level of intrusion.
Weird tales build suspense by throwing doubt on the point of view’s sense perceptions, usually accomplished by things like shadows or fog. In this case, the monster lies in the very space between the subject and their own sense perceptions. It is a far more intimate violation of the body.
One must imagine how the story might have been written from the point of view of the possessed (provided at least a modicum of their own consciousness survives intact). Allen might perceive the world through his eyes, but his physical reactions would be not be his own, as he witnesses his own body cannibalize his fellow miners, unable to prevent himself from doing it.
This is by far one of the most macabre stories in this collection. The element of cosmic horror and cannibalism reminded me of “The Window” and, at first, the autopsy made me think of Georg Heym’s “The Dissection,” given its similar subject matter and the interest both authors have in the mind-body connection.
Next week, I’ll be reading William Gibson and John Shirley’s “The Belonging Kind” (1981).