Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy. Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus. Viking, 2012.
There’s certainly something vile about a disease that does not admit even the crudest distinctions: humans can get rabies, dogs can get rabies, bats can get rabies. The vaccination syringe is especially haunting—four feet long and plunged straight into the gut.
On May 26th, surveillance cameras installed on the Miami Herald building captured footage of a man walking along a causeway, stopping suddenly, and dragging a vagrant out of the shade. He crouched down, stripped the vagrant naked, and proceeded to chew him up.
Multiple fourth grade weekends were ruined by infected foxes wandering into the yard. My sister and I would be displaced indoors, where from the windows we’d watch them salivate and stumble around the garden like drunks. They’d twitch and jerk in reaction to nonexistent stimuli, while completely ignoring our legitimate threats—screams, hurled rocks. I remember these sick foxes with distinct disgust: there is almost nothing more hideous than an animal without instincts.
Rabid is more than just a cabinet of curiosities though. It is, in fact, a book reviewer’s worst nightmare. Plotted like a chess match, it stays multiple steps ahead of even the most free-associating of readers. It leaves almost no room for transcendent analysis.
“For centuries,” they write, “rabies was the only illness in which the animalistic transfer, or more like transformation, was clear.” Besides hypersexuality (thirty ejaculations in a single day!), one of the disease’s most gruesome symptoms is hydrophobia, “an eerie and fully physical manner,” in which the desperately thirsty patient cannot bring himself to drink. The diaphragm involuntarily contracts and the throat spasms, producing “cries of agony” that give “the impression of an almost animal bark.” After sustaining a rabid bite from a pet fox in 1819, the Duke of Richmond was so repelled by water that he “could not even accept his customary shave.” He died, “like an animal, in a barn laid with straw.”
There’s certainly something vile about a disease that does not admit even the crudest distinctions: humans can get rabies, dogs can get rabies, bats can get rabies. The vaccination syringe is especially haunting—four feet long and plunged straight into the gut. And the literalness of the disease’s course is revolting: its “time of onset depends on the distance of the wound from the head.” The very etiology of rabies is mythic: once the bite heals and the virus has traveled to the brain, “the wound will usually return, as if by magic, with some odd sensation occurring at the site.” Then there’s the fact that no definitive diagnosis can be made without taking a biopsy of the sick animal’s brain, leaving only one gory solution: decapitation.
n+1 | Horror’s Muse
You’ve got to sell your heart
Late-1938, eager to gain some feedback on her work, aspiring young author and Radcliffe sophomore Frances Turnbull sent a copy of her latest story to celebrated novelist and friend of the family, F. Scott Fitzgerald. Before long the feedback arrived, in the form of the somewhat harsh but admirably honest reply seen below.
The amateur, seeing how the professional having learned all that he’ll ever learn about writing can take a trivial thing such as the most superficial reactions of three uncharacterized girls and make it witty and charming—the amateur thinks he or she can do the same.
I’ve read the story carefully and, Frances, I’m afraid the price for doing professional work is a good deal higher than you are prepared to pay at present. You’ve got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly, the little experiences that you might tell at dinner. This is especially true when you begin to write, when you have not yet developed the tricks of interesting people on paper, when you have none of the technique which it takes time to learn. When, in short, you have only your emotions to sell.
The amateur, seeing how the professional having learned all that he’ll ever learn about writing can take a trivial thing such as the most superficial reactions of three uncharacterized girls and make it witty and charming—the amateur thinks he or she can do the same. But the amateur can only realize his ability to transfer his emotions to another person by some such desperate and radical expedient as tearing your first tragic love story out of your heart and putting it on pages for people to see.
That, anyhow, is the price of admission. Whether you are prepared to pay it or, whether it coincides or conflicts with your attitude on what is “nice” is something for you to decide. But literature, even light literature, will accept nothing less from the neophyte. It is one of those professions that wants the “works.” You wouldn’t be interested in a soldier who was only a little brave.
Letter of Note | You’ve got to sell your heart
Once Upon a Time
The lure of the fairy tale.
In Grimms’ Fairy Tales there is a story called “The Stubborn Child” that is only one paragraph long. Here it is, in a translation by the fairy-tale scholar Jack Zipes
Once upon a time there was a stubborn child who never did what his mother told him to do. The dear Lord, therefore, did not look kindly upon him, and let him become sick. No doctor could cure him and in a short time he lay on his deathbed. After he was lowered into his grave and covered over with earth, one of his little arms suddenly emerged and reached up into the air. They pushed it back down and covered the earth with fresh earth, but that did not help. The little arm kept popping out. So the child’s mother had to go to the grave herself and smack the little arm with a switch. After she had done that, the arm withdrew, and then, for the first time, the child had peace beneath the earth.
This story, with its unvarnished prose, should be clear, but it isn’t. Was the child buried alive? The unconsenting arm looks more like a symbol. And what about the mother? Didn’t it trouble her to whip that arm? Then we are told that the youngster, after this beating, rested in peace. Really? When, before, he had seemed to beg for life? But the worst thing in the story is that, beyond disobedience, it gives us not a single piece of information about the child. No name, no age, no pretty or ugly. We don’t even know if it is a boy or a girl. (The Grimms used ein Kind, the neuter word for “child.” Zipes decided that the child was a boy.) And so the tale, without details to attach it to anything in particular, becomes universal. Whatever happened there, we all deserve it. A. S. Byatt has written that this is the real terror of the story: “It doesn’t feel like a warning to naughty infants. It feels like a glimpse of the dreadful side of the nature of things.” That is true of very many of the Grimms’ tales, even those with happy endings.
The New Yorker | Once Upon a Time: The lure of the fairy tale.