At three years of age, I had a nightmare that shaped the direction of my professional writing career.
Alone, I am outside in the street during what must be a cyclone. I struggle to stay upright. The wind rips at my hair, whips the skirt about my legs. Trees bend sideways. A sudden gust tears off one of my fingers. Horrified, I watch it roll along the bitumen towards the stormwater drain. Oh God, if my finger drops into that maw, it will be gone forever. I race after it. The squall picks up force. More fingers tear away from my hands. There is no blood. No pain. One after the other, digits tumble and bounce towards the drain, always towards the drain. But I can’t pick them up because my thumbs are gone. Helpless, shrieking, aghast, weeping, the nightmare ends as I watch my fingers, all ten of them, disappear into the sewer.
Upon waking, I needed to know exactly how the human body was put together. I needed to know, without a shred of doubt, that a strong wind couldn’t tear off my fingers. I asked questions, studied pictures, had books read to me, pored over diagrams of the body’s various systems.
And the truth blew my mind.
Prior to my investigations, I had assumed I was made of solid pink flesh, like Playdoh, and animated by magic. The same kind of magic, perhaps, that fuelled the characters in my favourite TV shows: Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men, Andy Pandy, and Humphrey B. Bear.
It was not just a relief but a curious wonderment to learn about bones – stronger than concrete! – and ligaments, tendons, muscles. How bizarre that I contained hose-like structures called arteries, a beating heart, a pair of lungs that pulled air in and out. I began to view the body as a fantastical time-piece, an intricate puzzle, a marvel.
To find out more, I conducted my own – often ill-advised – experiments throughout primary school. (Can a stapler puncture skin as well as paper? Fun fact: yes, it can.)
Each discovery helped mitigate the terror of my nightmare…but the terror didn’t entirely go away. Instead, it morphed into new shapes. While the human body is a miracle of design, I also learned that it contains a thousand traps and deadfalls. Literally everything that could go wrong can go wrong. A powerful wind can’t strip the fingers from your hands, but those arteries might clog with plaque, or the heart stop, the lungs spasm and narrow. The human body is alarmingly fragile.
When I was about twelve, I picked up a kiddy microscope at a local garage sale. You name it, I put it on a slide and gaped at it: blood, cheek cells, saliva, hair. As I grew older and learned more about the human body, the more it intrigued me. If I hadn’t become a writer, I would have trained in the medical field. Perhaps a clinical physiologist or an ER doctor. (Blood and gore don’t faze me, but I’m squeamish about eyes. Ugh, just the thought of a penetrating eye trauma gives me the heebie-jeebies.)
As a writer, my first professional sale at eighteen years of age was a feature article about steroids for a bodybuilding journal. After that, medical writing formed the backbone of the next twenty-two years of my career. I wrote other things, such as non-fiction books and TV scripts, but mostly, I penned articles on health issues for a range of national magazines; co-wrote and script-edited the award-winning SomaZone CD Rom on teenage wellbeing; researched and composed hundreds of entries for the Better Health Channel website; and contributed to scores of patient information pamphlets about various surgeries and what to expect. All up, I published about one and a half million words in the medical genre.
When I started writing fiction in 2007, I produced stories with a sad and melancholy feel. However, elements of body horror always lurked beneath the surface. While there are many subgenres of horror, I believe that body horror is popular because it reflects our innate fear of contamination, parasites, deformity, injury, and death. Despite our best intentions, our bodies ultimately fail, and there’s not a damn thing we can do about it. We are passengers in runaway vehicles. This sensation of being along for the ride feels especially true for women, I think, since the female body has its own stubborn mind: we bleed every month, get pregnant, give birth, produce milk, undergo menopause, without any conscious input or control. Compared to the power of biology, our positive behaviours, affirmations and attitudes don’t add up to a hill of beans.
These days, most of my stories feature elements of body and medical horror. For example, my interest in the illegal trade of cadaver parts led to “Perfect little stitches”. Occasionally, I pick a bizarre medical condition and build a plot around it. Some of my stories are inspired by personal experience. During a recent and lengthy hospital stay, doctors gave me a daily cocktail of medications that provoked hallucinations. The blank screen of the TV monitor held ghastly reflections of things that I couldn’t see in the room. This, plus the apparition of a weird and persistent balloon outside my window, led to the story, “A faithful companion”.
Other tales in my upcoming collection, Perfect Little Stitches and other stories (IFWG Publishing Australia), focus on psychiatric conditions, such as the peculiar and unnerving belief that you are a living and breathing corpse, rotting from the inside out.
At its heart, body horror is about lack of control, the normal becoming abnormal. Otherness – this is what gives me and other horror aficionados goose bumps. Otherness is one of the reasons why films such as Alien, The Fly, and The Thing are such revered classics: they confront us with the terrors of physicality. Through scary films, stories and novels, we safely and vicariously explore our deep-seated existential fears.
And that’s also why the nightmare I had as a three-year-old still gives me the shivers. Decades later, I vividly remember trying to grab hold of my remaining fingers, only for them to pinch off and drop to the ground, heavy, like lumps of clay. In my mind’s eye, I can see – right now, even as I type – the stormwater drain gobble down my fingers. A psychoanalyst or dream expert might go to town interpreting this nightmare. (I hope so! I’d love a professional assessment.) But for me, however, the nightmare represents one thing and one thing only: my fear of dying. The gaping mouth of the drain is Death itself. Once my fingers drop in, there is no coming back.
Deborah Sheldon is a professional writer from Melbourne, Australia. Her short fiction has appeared in many well-respected magazines such as Aurealis, SQ Mag, Midnight Echo, Island, and Quadrant, as well as in numerous anthologies. Latest releases include the horror novel, Devil Dragon (Severed Press), and the crime-noir novellas, Dark Waters and Ronnie and Rita (IFWG Publishing Australia). Her horror collection, Perfect Little Stitches and other stories (IFWG Publishing Australia), and romance-suspense novella, The Long Shot (Desert Breeze Publishing), will be available later in 2017. Her work has been shortlisted for various Australian Shadows Awards. Other credits include TV scripts, feature articles, non-fiction books (Reed Books, Random House Australia), and award-winning medical writing.
Perfect Little Stitches (upcoming publication)