A virus originating in Boston tears through America and then the world, leaving mass death and anarchy in its wake as ethically dubious scientists seek a cure: F. Paul Wilson’s “Soft” (1984) reads almost like a precursor to The Last of Us. Instead of zombies, however, the protagonist must face off against a bone-eating disease that eventually leaves one a soupy lump of flesh on the ground.
A disturbing body horror story, “Soft” hits harder after living through a pandemic, since the isolate-in-place protocol is rather painfully familiar to most of us. The protagonist, a scientist, has lost his legs to the disease. His wife has died as a result of it, and he is left to live alone with his daughter Judy, who trained as a dancer before losing her legs to the “softness.”
In the—ahem—jaw-dropping opening line, a newscaster’s jaw literally drops off his face. The protagonist comments that there’s “nothing funny about a man’s tongue wiggling around in the air snakelike while his lower jaw flopped down in front of his throat like a sack of Jell-O.” The story balances the physical comedy of the disease with bleak horror in an unflinching description of the grotesque.
The editors mention how Donald Wollheim introduced Wilson to Lovecraft, and the effect of the influence can be felt in “Soft.” Mobs of cannibal rats have taken over the city, but the protagonist boasts that his apartment is reinforced against them: “no rats in the walls here.” Ironically, the influence of Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls” can, in fact, be felt in Wilson’s story, particularly in his ability to create creeping tension with sound. Lovecraft describes the “impious, insidious scurrying” of little rat feet to famously creepy effect in his story, while Wilson uses auditory description in much the same way, creating a sense of premonition in the tiny sounds the virus makes as it dissolves one’s bone structure: “a soft sound, like someone gently crinkling cellophane in your head.” The sound is the results of “millions of tiny fractures slowly interconnecting into a mosaic that eventually causes the bone to dissolve into mush.”
The protagonist believes he and his daughter have developed immunity to the disease. Only their legs have dissolved; the disease has stopped consuming them. Judy wants to go to Rockefeller Center to offer herself as a subject in the hope scientists will find a cure, but her father won’t let her, knowing what they would do to her. It’s strongly suggested they will have to isolate her, inject her with experimental, harmful medicine, and maybe even kill her. The moral decision that faces Judy is a strong parallel to what Ellie faces in The Last of Us.
The plot complicates when Judy’s father goes to check on George, their friend, who they suspect to be immune to the softness. Lately, he has not been returning radio signals, which is cause to worry. George is actually not as immune as he thinks he is (surprise, surprise). Either the virus acted slower on him, or he caught a new mutation, but the virus has left George little more than a head and upper torso floating in a “quivering pool of flesh.”
Suffering, George asks Judy’s father to shoot him. The father feels conflicted about doing it, but in the end shoots him with a revolver, granting a quick, merciful death.
When he returns home to Judy, the sense of safety he has allowed himself to feel has been undermined. Not only can scientists not be trusted, the virus mutation can take them any time. Though Judy’s father insists he and Judy will “inherit the earth” without even having “to be meek about it” in a world depleted of humans, the truth is that he can no longer take refuge in survivorship bias. A mutation can take him at any time. The only thing left is to wait, so he waits, waiting for the sound of gently creaking cellophane, a sound that he knows he “will listen for the rest of [his] life.”
Reading this story in 2022, I cannot help but riff awhile on how the ending of “Soft” anticipates the horror of our “post-COVID” moment. Recently, I heard a story of someone who, though he boosted as often as medical authorities would recommend, got the disease anyway. The feeling that even our best defences against a pandemic are not enough is a very real fear. We may all be just waiting around to catch a new mutation of COVID that slips through our immune system, much like the father in “Soft” is awaiting the return of the virus.
Personally, I’ve never had COVID-19, but despite being quadruple vaxed, I may yet get sick from a mutation that slips through my immune defences. We’re all at risk even in the best circumstances, much like Judy’s father is, and in a way, the “post-pandemic” world (which isn’t really post-) is one where we are all “listening” for the telltale signs of COVID, or, perhaps later, another pandemic-scale respiratory illness.
This ending not only anticipates post-COVID but encapsulates John Clute’s conception of the “Aftermath” of a horror story: the sense that “there is nothing to be done, that there is no cure to hand, no more story to tell, no deus ex machina, no statement that It Was All A Dream.” The constant fear of the softness is the “new normal” being projected into the wasteland that is the future of these characters and their society.
In a similar way, the “post-COVID” world has torn the veil off our naïvety: COVID may only be the first in a series of pandemics that will increasingly define our world. The horror is that there might nothing that can be done. As climate change and resource extraction creates a wasteland of our planet, it has been predicted the twenty-first century will be marked with an increase in the frequency of these pandemics as animal-to-human viral transmission incenses. Like the father in this story, we’re not just waiting to catch a disease; we’re also waiting for the the murmurs of the next pandemic. And we probably will be listening for it, like the father does, for the rest of our lives.
Next week, I’ll be reading “Bloodchild” (1984) by the great Octavia Butler.