by Robert Frank

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You must understand, the exhumation and sale of fresh corpses is simply a necessity of the times. Nearing the turn of the nineteenth century, the availability of corpses for medical research and training is scarce at the absolute best, and nonexistent at its worst. In Philadelphia, some in the trade refer to themselves, albeit romantically, as “resurrectionists”; but I find the need for poetry rather indecorous. We are what we are: thieves of corpses.

Being a woman in this foul practice presents certain undeniable advantages over my male cohorts. The crocodile tears of young, pretty women are usually sufficient to assuage the doubts of suspicious eyes where the clumsiness of men oft fails. I’ve found that little more is required to convince onlookers at funerals that I am the banker’s long-lost niece twice removed, or the wealthy aristocrat’s child of affair. Regardless, I sincerely hope you don’t mistake my confidence for pride in my dubious career; while it is extremely lucrative, it is also undoubtedly profane.

I was introduced to this lifestyle through my cousin. His father, my uncle, is a doctor and professor at a medical college wherein he is a student. In correspondence with him I revealed that I was struggling financially, and he enticed me into moving to his hometown in pursuit of opportunity to make money working with the college. Of course, he neglected to inform me of the task’s sinister nature until I had already left my life behind and found a home in his city, otherwise I would have never agreed.

Unfortunately, I was out of options and had no choice but to oblige and join him for his grim operation. I was faint and ill to my stomach the first time we exhumed a corpse. However, after I saw the money afforded to me, I grew to steady my nerves in the presence of such morbid sights and ghastly smells. The rest from there is history and I have been working alongside him for several months. He handled most of the moving of the bodies while I primarily scouted out funerals to make note of where fresh earth was ripe for the plundering.

Truth be told, we made a spectacular team. Our efficiency kept us out of reach from the law, and the college made sure our pockets were well and full. I mention my experience not to regale you with tales of gruesome thrill, but to elaborate the fact that I am well acquainted with the grisly reality of what becomes of a person postmortem. However, I now find my imagination and unconscious thoughts vexed by what I witnessed on our most recent pilgrimage.

My cousin and I set up to embark on another night-veiled expedition to a neighboring town, following up on a recent interaction with an informant working at the town cemetery with whom we are well acquainted. He told us that there was recently a tragic house fire that left the entire family of four dead; yet strangely at the funeral, none of the corpses appeared to be burnt. Even stranger still, he claimed that at the procession, there were several people he had never seen in town in all his forty-odd years there.

Apparently, these strangers came to the funeral in normal attire save for a peculiar symbol they all wore around their necks. One by one, they removed their ornaments and placed them in the caskets with the deceased family members. We paid little attention to this, writing it off as simply strange traditions of superstitious country folk.

That night, with the help of local ruffians who didn’t mind dirty work for dirty money, we exhumed all four of the caskets and loaded them into our cart and we were summarily on route to our destination.

During the ride however, I had an extremely uneasy feeling and could not help but keep my eyes over my shoulder pinned to the caskets. My cousin made several crude remarks asking me if I was feeling up to the task or if I’d lost the stomach for this kind of work. I know he was only trying to lighten the mood, but I could hear in his voice that he was similarly anxious, though he’d never admit it himself.

We were roughly an hour outside of that town when I began hearing sounds coming from the boxes. Instantly my hairs all stood on end, and a lump formed in my throat. I sat there for what felt like hours staring at the caskets, never taking a single breath for fear of what would happen if I did. My cousin asked what I was doing and when I questioned him on whether he heard any noise, he denied it. However, he was unable to deny the thumping we heard from the boxes immediately after.

Chills ran down my spine and I resisted the urge to jump off the cart and make a mad dash away from the terrible sounds. In a frenzy, I pushed and prodded my cousin to stop the horses and investigate the caskets. After some deliberation, he finally agreed and stepped off the cart to get to the back. I kept my eyes fixed to the casket nearest me.

What happened next will haunt me to my very last breath.

My cousin returned to the driver’s side looking as white as a shade, and without a single word, he presented his clasped hands to me. In them, he held four strange medallions. He stammered out that he was sure they were not in the cart when he loaded the caskets; I tried to rationalize that perhaps they simply fell out during our bumpy ride, but he insisted that all the caskets remained shut tight.

The medallions were flat and made of some lightweight metal, but something about them felt otherworldly. Despite their smooth surface, the center of the symbol had depth, as if one could put their finger deeply into them. Their strange symmetry was like nothing I had ever seen; the longer I looked the more unsettled I became. In a rush of panic, I took them and put them on the floor of the cart in front of us and begged him to keep going. He reluctantly agreed. The noises had ceased, and I held onto nervous hope that there was a rational explanation that merely evaded our perception. After all, we were both well aware that gases could escape from corpses, and that phenomena had been the culprit for bizarre sounds we’d heard on previous expeditions.

Close to another hour passed in silence, with my cousin and I too shaken to make conversation for fear of any other strange happenings taking place while we sat idle and unaware. Then I heard my name being called. I could not make out the voice as it was quiet like the whispers from an empty house.

I looked feverishly around but saw nothing. I asked if my cousin had just said my name but before he could answer I heard it again. This time slightly louder, but still little more than a whisper. Though, I was sure that it was coming from behind me. Slowly, I turned my head and the thing that caught my glance sent my senses into retreat.

A young girl was peering out from the casket nearest me. Her hair was pale like straw and thin enough to see her scalp, her skin was near transparent enough that her veins looked like ink run down her body, and she had sullen, mirror-like eyes that were sunken so far back into her head that she appeared to have twin abysses on her face. She once again whispered my name, then slowly sank back into her casket.

In a break of sanity, I leapt over into the back and lifted the top off her coffin. What I saw in her casket was a swirling vortex spiraling down, down into pitch-blackness. I saw the girl and several similar looking beings, who I could only assume were the other three family members, twisting downwards into that darkness, waving up at me as if beckoning me to join them. I believe the thing that terrified me most, was the overwhelming feeling that I was supposed to join them. The symbol of the medallions burned into my mind and I felt my body moving. Yet as I nearly plunged into that nightmare, I felt my cousin’s hands pulling me back. He was howling at me in a fright, but I could not make out the words, I simply glanced back and saw the casket door just as it closed with fearsome thud.

The rest of that night was a blur; we eventually made it back to the college where the bodies were to be collected. Unfortunately, we did not receive payment for our delivery. After all, the college was not in the business of buying empty caskets.

©️ 2020 by Robert Frank

“Resurrectionist,” by Robert Frank, was first published on December 24, 2020 in Love Letters to Poe and can be found in Love Letters to Poe, Volume I: A Toast to Edgar Allan Poe.

Interview with Robert Frank, Author of “Resurrectionist”

What inspired your story?

I had listened to two different podcasts’ episodes on the topic of grave robbing just days before writing it. I found myself fascinated by the practice and the moral ambiguity that enshrouded it. The idea for the story itself came about when I put myself in their shoes and thought about how unnerving it would have been to not only be operating while avoiding the law, but also to be in the close company of the recently departed.

What led you to meld the world of the occult with the world of science in your tale?

I have a scientific background and an affinity for horror, so the marriage of the occult and the world of science was only natural. The difference between performing carefully crafted scientific experimentation and madmen in ritualistic robes chanting in an eldritch tongue is nil with some imagination. After all, nothing is scarier than reality.

What’s your favorite gothic story or poem and why?

Goethe’s Faust has been my favorite for several years. I took a college course on the history of short stories and this was a major topic of discussion. One of our final projects was to create our own chapter in the Faust lore, and having that hand on it to make it my own really cemented it as a personal favorite.

How long have you been writing?

I have been writing since I was in middle school. I was an imaginative kid, so it was a natural and satisfying outlet to create worlds and characters. I put it away as a hobby for a long time, but have within the recent months since the COVID-19 outbreak I have reinvigorated my passion for the art.

Do you have a theme you return to time and again?

Almost always I tend to create stories wherein the protagonist is revealed in someway to be the story’s main villain. Especially in cases where some seemingly malevolent force is pursuing them as a means of forcing them to confess to their crimes.

Do you have a favorite quote that inspires you?

From Fahrenheit 451 “Do your own bit of saving, and if you drown, at least die knowing you were headed for the shore.”

What are you working on now?

Brainstorming ideas to get started drafting my own full-length novel. I have some written down and even more in my head, so I suppose I just need to pick one and get started.

What else would you like people to know? Where can people find you online?

While I haven’t been writing for an exceptionally long time, I’ve been a freelance writer for a few months, and I’ve had more success than I thought I would have. I’m currently on Fiverr at fiendishlyrob.