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Friday, March 7, 2014

"The Autopsy" by Michael Shea (updated)

First appeared in Fantasy and Science Fiction, reprinted in seven major genre retrospectives by editors Edward L. Ferman, Charles G. Waugh, Martin H. Greenberg, Frank McSherry, Jr., Anne Jordan, David G. Hartwell, Karl Edward Wagner, Gardner Dozois, Jack Dann, John Pelan, Jeff VanderMeer, and Ann VanderMeer. It was up for the Nebula, Hugo and Locus awards.

Shea recently passed away.  The family is asking for tributes to those moved by his work.

Clearly upheld as a classic for over thirty years,  the tale relates a drunk pathologist's story of uncovering what had occurred in a mining accident--was it a bomb?--to appease the insurance company.  Before tackling the bodies, Nate Craven, the sheriff, gives a little background:

People were disappearing in the area. Too many. Due to flies, they locate bodies except in an unusual state, as if prepared for the butcher. They deputize two men to watch over the bodies, but the bodies and the deputies disappear. They run across a man who's supposed to be dead, Edward Sykes, except he now calls himself Joe Allen. Pursuing the man disappears into a mine that collapses.  Whether that collapse was set off purposefully, our protagonist has to discover.

After a number of autopsies and strange consistencies, the patologist senses something odd afoot. He urges himself to run, but does not. Instead, he comes face-to-face (as nearly as can be expected) with the responsible party. It does not go well.

An effective SF horror story, especially the prolonged incapacitation of the protagonist as his new parasite goes through a long, elaborate ritual in preparation. Some of the dialogue/narration over-stresses elevated language, but the horror remains.

Different versions exist. Sometimes the cut or additions improve the tale, sometimes not. It'd be interesting to take a closer look at each one to see what the author was driving at.

Another aspect that may be worth investigating is how much of the tale is not real. After all, the guy has a history of abusing drink and is in the middle of abusing it [see Alcohol-Related Psychosis]. An argument against this is how capable is a man of doing this final act? (In light of that act, how clever is the "auto" of autopsy?)

Anyway, check it out for yourself. It provokes thought.

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