For as long as he could remember, he had been able to achieve states of sexual arousal in contemplation of the cadaverous. To qualify: he craved the televised dead—women, actresses, supine on the coroner’s table—not the actual dead. This, he felt, was an important distinction; what separated him from the deviants.
Over the years he had amassed an unnerving collection. On discs he stored his images, a slideshow of stilled women.
He gleaned pleasure from the pretence of their mute stasis, enjoyed the conspiracy of a shared silence.
Though recherché, his tastes were sated through everyday means. He need not scour the web’s dark crevices: his body of women was snipped from prime time television. Cold femme fatales carved cleanly from family dramas, relieved of the fussiness of plot that surrounded them. The schedules were rife with their delicate beauty. Trailers forewarned him to press record, were brimful of dimly lit titillations. Beneath shadowed sheets, lifeless women awaited their unveiling.
He was sure programme makers would argue that these scenes were vital to the narrative’s progression. Often dramas seemed built around these reveals. Their frequency caused him to suspect he was not alone in his predilection. After all, was it he whose camera lingered so longingly over the photogenic dead.
Nightly in his flat he gazed in rapture at their ever-burgeoning parade; would become entranced by their pale languid beauty, shimmering on his screen.
His days were lost to office politics, the dead didn’t bother him there.
How did he account for this morbid fascination? As a youth, ice-skating in the park, a girl he had a crush on, but to whom he had never spoken, plunged through cracked ice into the freezing waters below. Vividly, he recalled her retrieval, her peaceful demeanour as she lay gently by the lake, blue yet beautiful, as efforts were made to revive her; a queue of good Samaritans leaning to her lips. By the time the emergency services arrived, she had slipped from this world. Since then she haunted his dreams. Vivid visions witnessed him scooping her from the lake, tending to her, her glowing skin cold to the touch. Each new addition to his files recalled him to her. This, he thought, would legitimise his fascination. But there was no girl, no lake. It was a false memory summoned to justify disturbing desires, the type of scene to be fashioned for a fictionalised account of his life.
What then were his obsession’s roots?
There had been no funeral home epiphany, a grubby lustfulness while witnessing a familiar face in its restful state.
Nor any fixation with Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. Were there people out there, he wondered, capable of arousal only through outlined means? Cartoon infatuates? Disney himself, he knew, was rumoured to exist in a frozen state, awaiting the future’s kiss. Rumours were rife that only his head survived, a posthumous beheading, intended to be grafted onto a corpse not yet born, or secured atop a cyborg. He wished him well, emerging from deep sleep a space age mutation.
If a prompt was buried deep within he would not be the one best disposed to uncover it. But a psychologist would never hear his story. So, without the benefit of consultation, he pointed the finger at a culprit of his own choosing.
He had, like most youngsters, witnessed his first counterfeit corpse in the company of family. It was an unmarked rite of passage, his body tensing beside his parents as, in the midst of a television medical drama, a near-blue nakedness filled the screen. Sitting, twitching, vulnerable, a maelstrom of pinballing hormones and secret secretions, he became subject to suspect urges. His youthful confusions had found an outlet in this spectral presence. In no other way could he account for his inclination.
From that point he experienced the unzipping of a body bag as a queasy striptease.
The first time he copulated, he was afraid he would only climax were his partner asleep. He needn’t have worried: his body’s responses proved perfectly normal. Still in adolescence, he had realised that his stimulation was purely visual: an end in itself.
For the content the films or programmes from which he clipped his images, he had no interest, and technology now permitted him to excise desired sections without reference to the whole. He could crop out the investigative huddle that inevitably surrounded them, remove any peripherals from his focus.
Once the coroner’s knife made its first incision, he turned away. For slow motion autopsies he did not have the stomach. Ritual intrusions held no appeal: removals scooped and laid to rest on kidney dishes.
Similarly, he had no sympathies with mass murderers nor serial killers. He abhorred violence towards women. Photographs of slain victims reproduced in lavish savagery in newspapers repulsed him. He skipped articles about murders, avoided the lovingly described corpses.
For the women involved he had nothing but praise, their breathless verisimilitude he thought a fine art. The curricula vitae of actresses were littered with corpses. He admired the control they exerted over their bodies, the suppression of movement, the breath held to maintain the illusion: yogic, trance-like states. It must have been ticklish work lying perfectly still while clustered actors in the guise of lugubrious detectives hammed it up around you. He had yet to see outtakes where they erupted, lurched back from the dead in a fit of giggles.
Occasionally they were given past lives, but these reverse resurrections did nothing for him.
What would an unbalanced mind do in his position? Working from the body backwards, the roots of an obsession, perhaps write to actresses, trawl film and programme credits for their names—Corpse #1, Murder Victim, Woman in Morgue—track down their agents and inundate them with enticements and fan letters, flowers sent to a stream of dead girls. He wouldn’t dream of it. He knew where to draw lines.
At work he did his best to deter interested parties from flirtation.
His women remained on discs, hidden from view. But he wished to frame them, a wall of shut-eyed women instilling a churchyard tranquillity. Their serenity would calm him after a hard day at work.
As a halfway measure he filled a digital photo frame with images. In the evening, as he ate, they flashed in rotation, serving the same peripheral function as a lava lamp or fish tank. Receiving visitors, he switched it off. He did not need its deathly rotation while he entertained his parents.
How would he feel, he wondered, upon visiting a woman’s flat only to be confronted by pictures of dead men? Women, he sensed, would have trouble sourcing images of men in deathly repose. The camera lingered less lovingly over their corpses.
From flickering beginnings, clarity was now on his side. Technology had been a great enabler. Catch up television, screen grab downloads, all advances seemed geared towards facilitating his needs. His compilations had begun on VHS, endless tape-to-tape transfers, shredded segues detracting from his viewing experience, faux corpses barely visible beneath interference, dead women in a blizzard.
No longer did he negotiate the clunky lumber of two video recorders.
Hours were devoted to isolating images, streamlining stills. He cropped any distractions. He would watch, enraptured, his gallery of still lifes unfolding. Had he compiled the same images and placed them within a gallery context, he felt that no one would disapprove. With a suitably self-regarding title,—Freeze Frame Ophelia, say,—it could have been viewed as some examination of the culture's televised obsession with murdered women: their relentless sacrificial offertory, schedules gleaming with their peaceful presence.
Intent was everything.
In the staff room, over lunch, he engaged in conversation, the previous night’s television dissected. He found that they had often watched the same programmes. Did anyone suspect him? He didn’t exude his enthusiasm.
His truth would pollute water cooler moments.
Again he doubted he was alone in harbouring strange traits. Among colleagues: what of their sexual foibles, what were their secret fantasies and hidden squalors?
His collection was one over which he had laboured in solitude. He was well aware that he could exchange images online, that the likeminded lurked in corners.
The internet hadn’t invented perversion. It had created a market of anonymous trade, the blackest of which. Cyberspace, a deviant’s democracy.
He would forego ethereal exchanges, he did not wish to share his secrets with strangers, nor to see his passion reflected.
At times, he envied those with more prosaic tastes, their departures readily accepted, vanilla confessions, the sort of thing that, once mentioned to a prospective partner, would not see them fleeing. He imagined the life of the fully furnished fetish.
He had noticed of late desires darkening. A welter of women read publicly of bondage, masochistic fantasies openly flaunted. In the office he eyed telltale covers. Ball gags and safe words, whips and chains, this was dinner party fare now: fetish catalogues crumbed with cupcakes, bondage boutique credit accounts.
In parks teenage girls read paranormal romance, flagged erotic affiliations to the undead, advertised allegiances. Why did everyone want to fuck a vampire of a sudden? Was his own aesthetic any more macabre?
His relationships with women had been brief. Rejected lovers thought it a fear of commitment. It was perhaps more gentle than the truth. Conversely, he had no wish to get close to corpses, to spend evenings speed-dating in the morgue, witness rigor mortis in the flesh.
The new girl at the office proved particularly persistent. His resistance to after work drinks was slowly wearing down. She would not take no for an answer.
Though he had accumulated a solid library of material, he was often amazed by news reports of men, always men, taken into custody, hard drives crammed indecently. What shocked him was not just the content but the quantity involved, glum looking men harbouring hundreds of thousands of indecent images. Where did they find the time? This was the point, he felt, where the sexual tipped into pure accumulation, dead-eyed collection, trainspotting, a system of learned behaviour.
He declined to quantify his own collection.
How would people describe his amassment? Though his tastes were debatable, they were not indecent or illegal. Inappropriate perhaps. But were the women in pornographic films and images, listless models ritually splayed, any less lifeless?
At leaving drinks he found himself unable to negotiate his way out of, she cornered him. She talked at him, tipsily spilled intimacies.
He lived in anticipation of a police swoop, his door kicked down in the middle of the night, his computer confiscated, officers in a back room scrolling through his archives. He had considered his explanation many times, a rehearsal that served to justify his passion less in the eyes of the law than in his own. For the time being he made excuses exclusively to himself.
In his ear, she whispered that she found him enigmatic.
Bold with drink she had leaned in and kissed him.
He had never felt the urge to arrange first-hand encounters, to see quelled flesh up close, prostitutes paid to play dead. Surely it would be only a matter of time before the police took an interest in his peccadilloes. Or was he overestimating their concern for the welfare of sex workers?
He had anticipated that she would shy away in the office, embarrassed by her inebriated transgression. Instead her campaign became more aggressive. She harangued until he agreed to take her out to dinner.
Where would they go? He had read of restaurants serving sushi off women, banquets balanced on gently breathing tables. He pictured businessmen chopsticking sloppily, retrieving items from a naked form, a reverse bukake; an occasional uneasy woman amidst their rank proving herself game by jabbing wooden cutlery into a woman’s groin.
No, this was not the place for a first date.
Of late, it was true, he had begun to feel lonely. No gallery of glacial mannequins was going to supplant that feeling.
He began to accept that his aesthetic reverie was perhaps an empty fulfilment: frigid illusions would fail to keep him warm at night. He rounded up discs, disconnected his digital frame. He would miss their silent company.
For now he would keep them close enough to hand, retrievable in case he had a change of heart. He boxed his dead women and buried them in his wardrobe.
With due care, he prepared for his date.
Stuart Snelson’s stories have appeared in 3:AM, Ambit, Bare Fiction, HOAX, Lighthouse, Popshot and Structo, among others. He has been twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Links to previous stories can be found at stuartsnelson.wordpress.com. He lives in London where he is currently working on his second novel. He can be found on Twitter @stuartsnelson.