I read a lot of books about dead things.
It’s an occupational hazard for a Frankenstein scholar with a penchant for medical history. Doubly so for one who teaches a course on plague and apocalypse fiction.
Because of this both my real and virtual bookshelves are stacked with titles like Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (2003), From the Brink of the Apocalypse: Confronting Famine, War, Plague, and Death in the Later Middle Ages (2001), Asleep: The Forgotten Epidemic (2010), and The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic (2006).
It means that I can discuss John Snow’s revolutionary deduction that cholera is a waterborne disease (not carried on foul smelling air called miasma) ad nauseum, and that I can describe the stages of decomposition with vivid detail, if not completely accurate medical terminology. I can tell you about the ghoulish transi tombs of the Middle Ages and the remarkable courage of the people of Eyam.
I can recount the origins of the 1665 plague in London (likely actually started in late 1664), as described by Defoe, and explain why Byron’s poem “Darkness” (1816) was so unique compared to other so-called Day of Judgement poems.
I dwell in dark places, maybe even thrive in them, but I am not alone.
Far from it, death hasn’t just gone mainstream in the past few years, it’s become a legitimate and growing portion of the entertainment industry.
Not so much the histories that I favor, but there can be no doubt that True Crime, and a fascination with the bizarre and terrible, once relegated to salacious books with generally small print runs and late-night Dateline special investigations, has blown into a phenomenon the world over.
Delightfully parodied in a recent Saturday Night Live song titled Murder Show, entertainment for the morbidly curious is no longer a shameful secret. Prestige documentaries are made about particularly salacious crimes, Peabody award winning podcasts on the subject have literally millions of listeners.
Listeners who engage in active communities, who even further investigations, exonerate innocents, and have helped get justice for victims. It’s a two-sided coin, with an audience this large victims’ families and suspects alike run the risk of being hounded. Juries and judges can be tainted by preconceptions.
Despite this, I can’t help but seeing this shift in cultural perception as a largely good thing.
It’s sparked curiosity, not only morbid fascination in gruesome details, but real and tangible engagement with an overwhelmed justice system that has never served all parties equally, and empathy for victims and their families.
Coming up on the year anniversary of the first lockdown, it’s easy to dwell in dark places. Isolation, fear, and distrust can bring out the worst in people, but curiosity can bring out the best.
Curiosity shines light in the dark spaces.
It can give power to the powerless and solve mysteries that some thought would never be solved. It can force monolithic institutions to change for the better. From shifting staid 19th century views on disease transmission and thus shaping public sanitation practices for the better, to the exoneration of an innocent man and investigation of the corrupt DA who kept him behind bars for over twenty years—new light can only be a good thing.
Humanity trends relentlessly upwards. On the ground, progress feels altogether slow, and then sudden, and then it slides back to slow again, but I have read enough history to know this: we always do better. Sometimes through a confluence of events, sometimes dragged forward by a few leaders, frequently through a combination of the two, but always upwards.
Always closer to the sun.
A few favorites for the morbidly curious and those who look for the light: