In the interest of understanding horror as an emotional phenomenon, I present this dark and brilliant passage from Stephen King’s excellent novel. I believe it contains basically everything we need, with only a little bit of discernment necessary to extract it.
The protagonist’s wife Rachel is explaining why she freaks out about the concept of death, because it reminds her of the horrifying death of her twin sister Zelda. (I can’t guarantee that I didn’t make any typographical mistakes in reproducing it.)
Later in bed, Rachel said, “I heard what you were talking about with her.”
“And you don’t approve?” Louis asked. He had decided that maybe it would be best to have this out, if that was what Rachel wanted.
“No,” Rachel said, with a hesitance that was not much like her. “No, Louis, it’s not like that. I just get…scared. And you know me. When I get scared, I get defensive.”
Louis could not remember ever hearing Rachel speak such effort, and suddenly he felt more cautious than he had with Ellie earlier. He felt that he was in a minefield.
“Scared of what? Dying?”
“Not myself,” she said. “I hardly ever think of that…anymore. But when I was a kid, I thought of it a lot. Lost a lot of sleep. Dreamed of monsters coming to eat me up in my bed, and all of the monsters looked like my sister Zelda.”
Yes, Louis thought, Here it is; at last, after all the time we’ve been married, here it is.
“You don’t talk about her much,” he said.
Rachel smiled and touched his face. “You’re sweet, Louis. I never talk about her. I try never to think about her.”
“I always assumed that you had your reasons.”
“I did. I do.”
She paused, thinking.
“I know she died…Spinal meningitis…”
“Spinal meningitis,” she repeated. “There are no pictures of her in the house anymore.”
“There’s a picture of a young girl in your father’s—”
“In his study. Yes, I forgot that one. And my mother carries one in her wallet still, I think. She was two years older than I was. She caught it…and she was in the back bedroom…She was in the back bedroom like a dirty secret. Louis, she was dying in there, my sister died in the back bedroom and that’s what she was, a dirty secret—she was always a dirty secret!”
Rachel suddenly broke down completely, and in the loud, rising quality of her sobs, Louis sensed the onset of hysteria and became alarmed. He reached for her and caught a shoulder, which was pulled away from him as soon as he touched it. He could feel the whisper of her night dress under his fingertips.
“Don’t tell me don’t,” she said. “Don’t stop me, Louis. I’ve only got the strength to tell this once, and then I don’t want to ever talk about it again. I probably won’t sleep tonight as it is.”
“Was it that horrible?” He asked, knowing the answer already. It explained so much, and even things that he had never connected before or only suspected vaguely suddenly came together in his mind. She had never attended a funeral with him, he realized—not even that of Al Locke, a fellow med student who had been killed when his motorcycle collided with a city bus. Al had been a regular visitor at their apartment, and Rachel had always liked him. Yet she had not gone to his funeral.
She was sick that day, Louis remembered suddenly. Got the flu or something. Looked serious. But the next day she was okay again.
After the funeral she was all right again, he corrected himself. He remembered thinking even then that her sickness might just be psychosomatic.
“It was horrible, all right. Worse than you can ever imagine. Louis, we watched her degenerate day by day, and there was nothing anyone could do. She was in constant pain. Her body seemed to shrivel…pull in on itself…her shoulders hunched up and her face pulled down until it was like a mask. Her hands were like birds’ feet. I had to feed her sometimes. I hated it, but I did it and never said boo about it. When the pain got bad enough, they started giving her drugs—mild ones at first and then ones that would have left her a junkie if she had lived. But of course everyone knew she wasn’t going to live. I guess that’s why she was such a…secret to all of us. Because we wanted her to die, Louis, we wished for her to die, and it wasn’t so she wouldn’t feel any more pain, it was so we wouldn’t feel any more pain, it was because she was starting to look like a monster, and she was starting to be a monster…oh Christ I know how awful that must sound…”
She put her face in her hands.
Louis touched her gently, “Rachel, it doesn’t sound awful at all.”
” It does!” She cried. “It does!”
“It just sounds true,” he said. “Victims of long illnesses often become demanding, unpleasant monsters. The idea of the saint-like, long-suffering patient is a big romantic fiction. By the time the first set of sores crops up on a bed-bound patient’s butt, he—or she—has started to snipe and cut and spread the misery. They can’t help it, but that doesn’t help the people in the situation.”
She looked at him, amazed…almost hopeful. Then distrust stole back into her face. “You’re making that up.”
He smiled grimly. “Want me to show you the textbooks? How about the suicide statistics? Want to see those? In families where a terminal patient has been nursed at home, the suicide statistics spike right up into the stratosphere in the six months following the patient’s death.”
“They swallow pills, or sniff the pipe, or blow their brains out. Their hate…their weariness…their disgust…their sorrow…” he shrugged and brought his closed fists gently together. “The survivors start feeling as if they’d committed murder. So they step out.”
A crazy, wounded kind of relief had crept into Rachel’s puffy face. “She was demanding…hateful. Sometimes she pissed in her bed deliberately. My mother would ask her if she wanted help getting to the bathroom…and later, when she couldn’t get up anymore, if she wanted the bedpan…and Zelda would say no…and then she’d piss the bed so my mother or my mother and I would have to change the sheets…and she’d say it was an accident, but you can see the smile in her eyes, Louis. You could see it. The room always smelled of piss and her drugs…she had bottles of some dope that smelled like Smith Brothers’ Wild Cherry cough drops and that smell was always there…some nights I wake up…even now I wake up and I think I can smell Wild Cherry cough drops…and I think…if I’m not really awake…I think ‘Is Zelda dead yet? Is she?’…I think…”
Rachel caught her breath. Louis took her hand and she squeezed his fingers with savage, brilliant tightness.
“When we changed her you could see the way her back was twisting and knotting. Near the end, Louis, near the end it seemed like her…like her ass had somehow gotten all the way up to the middle of her back.”
Now Rachel’s eyes had taken on the glassy, horrified look of a child remembering a recurrent nightmare of terrible power.
“And sometimes she’d touch me with her…her hands…her birdy hands…and sometimes I’d almost scream and ask her not to, and once I spilled some of her soup on my arm when she touched my face and I burned myself and that time I did scream…and I cried and I could see the smile in her eyes then, too.
“Near the end the drugs stopped working. She was the one who would scream then, and none of us could remember the way she was before, not even my mother. She was just this foul, hateful, screaming thing in the back bedroom…our dirty secret.”
Rachel swallowed. Her throat clicked.
“My parents were gone when she finally…when she…you know, when she…”
With terrible, wrenching effort, Rachel brought it out.
“When she died, my parents were gone. They were gone but I was with her. It was Passover season, and they went out for a while to see some friends. Just for a few minutes. I was reading a magazine in the kitchen. Well, I was looking at it, anyway. I was waiting for it to be time to give her some more medicine because she was screaming. She’d been screaming ever since my folks left, almost. I couldn’t read with her screaming that way. And then…see, what happened was…well…Zelda stopped screaming. Louis, I was eight…bad dreams every night…I had started to think that she hated me because my back was straight, because I didn’t have the constant pain, because I could walk, because I was going to live…I started to imagine she wanted to kill me. Only, even now tonight, Louis, I don’t really think it was all my imagination. I do think she hated me. I don’t really think she would have killed me, but if she could have taken over my body some way…turned me out of it like in a fairy story…I think she would have done that. But when she stopped screaming, I went in to see if everything was all right…to see if she had fallen over on her side or slipped off her pillows. I got in and I looked at her and I thought she must have swallowed her own tongue and she was choking to death. Louis—” Rachel’s voice rose again, teary and frighteningly childish, as if she were regressing, reliving the experience—”Louis, I didn’t know what to do! I was eight!”
“No, of course you didn’t,” Louis said. He turned to her and hugged her, and Rachel gripped him with the panicky strength of a poor swimmer whose boat has suddenly overturned in the middle of a large lake. “Did someone actually give you a hard time about it, babe?”
“No,” she said, “no one blamed me. But nobody could make it better either. No one could change it. No one could make it an unhappening, Louis. She hadn’t swallowed her tongue. She started making a sound, a kind of, I don’t know—gaaaaaa—like that—”
In her distressed, total recall of that day she did a more than creditable imitation of the way her sister Zelda must have sounded, and Louis’s mind flashed to Victor Pascow. His grip on his wife tightened.
“—and there was spit, spit coming down her chin—”
“Rachel, that’s enough,” he said, not quite steadily. “I am aware of the symptoms.”
“I’m explaining,” she said stubbornly. “I’m explaining why I can’t go to poor Norma’s funeral, for one thing, and why we had that stupid fight that day—”
“Not by me, it isn’t,” she said. “I remember it well, Louis. I remember it as well as I remember my sister Zelda choking to death in her bed on April 14, 1965.”
For a long moment there was silence in the room.
“I turned her over on her belly and thumped her back,” Rachel went on at last. “It’s all I knew how to do. Her feet were beating up and down…and her twisted legs…and I remember there was a sound like farting…I thought she was farting or I was, but it wasn’t farts, it was the seams under both arms of my blouse ripping out when I turned her over. She started to…to convulse…and I saw that her face was turned sideways, turned into the pillows, and I thought, oh, she’s choking, Zelda’s choking, and they’ll come home and say I murdered her by choking, they’ll say you hated her, Rachel, and that was true, and they’ll say you wanted her to be dead, and that was true too. Because Louis, see, the first thought that went through my mind when she started to go up and down in the bed like that, I remember it, my first thought was Oh good, finally, Zelda is choking and this is going to be over. So I turned her over again and her face was black, Louis, and her eyes were bulging and her neck was swelled up. Then she died. I backed across the room. I guess I wanted to back out the door, but I hit the wall and a picture fell down—it was a picture from one of the Oz books that Zelda liked before she got sick with the meningitis, when she was well, it was a picture of Oz the Great and Terrible, only Zelda always called him the Gweat and Tewwible because she couldn’t make that sound, and so she sounded like Elmer Fudd. My mother got that picture framed because…because Zelda liked that of most of all…Oz the Gweat and Tewwible…and it fell down and hit the floor and the glass in the frame shattered and I started to scream because I knew she was dead and I thought…I guess I thought it was her ghost, coming back to get me, and I knew that her ghost would hate me like she did, but her ghost wouldn’t be stuck in bed, so I screamed…I screamed and I ran out of the house screaming ‘Zelda’s dead! Zelda’s dead! Zelda’s dead!’ And the neighbors…they came and they looked…they saw me running down the street with my blouse all ripped out under the arms…I was yelling ‘Zelda’s dead!’ Louis, and I guess that maybe they thought I was crying but I think…I think maybe I was laughing, Louis. I think maybe that’s what I was doing.”
“If you were, I salute you for it,” Louis said.
“You don’t mean that, though,” Rachel said with the utter surety of one who has been over a point and over it and over it. He let it go. He thought she might eventually get rid of this awful, rancid memory that had haunted her for so long—most of it, anyway—but never this part. Never completely. Louis Creed was no psychiatrist, but he knew that there are rusty, half-buried things in the terrain of any life and that human beings seem compelled to go back to these things and pull at them, even though they cut. Tonight Rachel had pulled almost all of it out, like some grotesque and stinking rotten tooth, its crown black, its nerves infected, its roots fetid. It was out. Let that last noxious cell remain; if God was good it would remain dormant except in her deepest dreams. That she had been able to remove as much as she had was well nigh incredible—it did not just speak of her courage; it clarioned it. Louis was in awe of her. He felt like cheering.
He sat up now and turned on the light. “Yes,” he said, ” I salute you for it. And if I another reason to…to really dislike your mother and father, I’ve got it now. You never should have been left alone with her, Rachel. Never.”
Like a child—the child of eight she had been when this dirty, incredible thing had happened—she reprimanded him, “Lou, it was Passover season—”
“I don’t care if it was judgment trump,” Louis said with a sudden low and hoarse savagery that caused her to pull back a little…[section cut]
Where was the nurse? There should have been an RN in attendance…they went out, they actually went out and left an eight-year-old kid in charge of her dying sister, who was probably clinically insane by then. Why? Because it was Passover season. And because elegant Dory Goldman couldn’t stand the stink that particular morning and had to get away from it for just a little while. So Rachel got the duty. Right, friends and neighbors? Rachel got the duty. Eight years old. Pigtails, middy blouse. Rachel got the duty. Rachel could stay and put up with the stink. What did they send her to Camp Sunset in Vermont for six weeks every year, if not to put up with the stink of her dying, insane sister? Ten new shirt-and-jumper combinations for Gage and six new dresses for Ellie and I’ll pay your way through medical school if you’ll stay away from my daughter…but where was the overflowing checkbook when your daughter was dying of spinal meningitis and your other daughter was alone with her, you bastard? Where was the R-fucking-N?
Louis sat up, got out of bed.
“Where are you going?” Rachel asked, alarmed.
“To get you a Valium.”
“You you know I don’t—”
“Tonight you do,” he said.