On a recent trip to Vancouver, my sister found a book that she picked up and gave to me as a present. It's called A Dictionary of Superstitions and is edited by Iona Opie and Moira Tatem (great names! I couldn't have invented better!) And it's fascinating.
I am casually reading through it at odd moments for weird story suggestions, something I seek very frequently, and came across an entry called CLOTHES of the dead. ("Clothes" has no less than six entries, including CLOTHES first time worn and CLOTHES inside out, among others). Naturally, any phrase including the word "dead" is going to catch my eye, so I read the the paragraph. The entry included the observation by a woman back in 1925 who noted that some linens that had been left to her by a lady had rotted away "fretting for their owner." Two particular things about this notation struck me, hard.
First of all, the idea of inanimate objects "fretting" for something is absolutely terrific. Especially expressed by someone other than me! I have a tendency to think every thing has feelings. To see this idea espoused by someone from another time and culture felt great.
But the second notion was the more forceful: the idea of rotting away. "Rot" is something closely associated with death. It catches the morbid fancy of a lot of us - the idea of someone's corpse decaying in the coffin. We write and read about it (see Stephen King, Edgar Allen Poe, etc.). We sing about it (anywhere from John Brown's Body to The Hearse Song.) We put it into movies and television - and WHY are zombies so popular right now? We are both fascinated and horrified by the rotting process that accompanies physical death.
Stephen King once said that when he felt he couldn't frighten his readers with the more subtle kinds of scary images (although I believe he does that extremely well), he wasn't above "going for the gross-out." He does that extremely well, also, as readers of IT, The Stand, and oh, yes, Misery, will know. Graphic novels, horror comic books, even the annual Halloween Haunted Houses make use of the whole rotting-body concept. After all, there are so many ways to play with that.
As a writer, I think about it from time to time. When Michael Penfield sees his dead people, so far, he has only been aware that they are dead. Sometimes, he is unfortunate enough to see them as they were at the moment of death, but not always. Frequently they look like anyone else, just a bit transparent, and usually from another era. But I wonder if his luck is about to change...
That said, I do prefer the more, well, aesthetically-pleasing haunt, myself. The misty figure, the shadow that is darker than night, the presence that is all cold air and a clammy touch. Maybe I'll get all the way to rotting corpses one of these books. But not yet. There are currently so many examples of decaying dead people all over the mass media that I think I'm okay hanging back with my wispy phantoms. But hey, please do let me know if you think otherwise!