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Indicating the Awakening of Persons Buried Alive


Liz Williams

But Richard, of course I am entirely sure that she was dead!” my brother Jonathan informed me. “Just like all the others.” He twisted his top hat between his hands, crushing it in his agitation. “You surely do not think that I would have sent someone still living to their grave?”

“Isn’t there a particular disease, that mimics the processes of demise?” I asked. I was vague about such matters: Jonathan was the undertaker, the respectable son who had shouldered the burden of the family business, whereas I was merely a starving poet and, as such, regarded by our aged father with contempt. There was little that I could do to assist my brother in his difficulties, I thought. But the next few moments were to prove me wrong.

“No,” Jonathan said, sinking onto the divan. “I have spoken to the doctor. They all died of different illnesses. Simon Anders succumbed to a wasting sickness, Sarah Thorne to pneumonia. And Nathan Lyme died as a result of shock after a dog bit him. Yet all of these people appear to have become revitalised once buried—and these are only the ones who have been exhumed. Indeed, they would have remained below ground had it not been for the need to remove them to the new cemetery. Who knows what other torments might have been taking place beneath the earth? It is putting the wind up my clients, Richard, and one can hardly blame them. Folk are naturally unwilling to commit their loved ones for burial with us if there is a chance that they are not in fact deceased. I shall be ruined! The business is everything to Father, to myself.”

“I can see how it could be a cause for some apprehension,” I remarked. “But a cadaver cannot be kept indefinitely upon a mortuary slab; internment is ultimately necessary.” I considered the matter, my imagination reeling from the horror of waking only to find oneself in one’s grave clothes, nailed inside a coffin. It would make a good verse—I forced my unruly mind back to the matter in hand.

“One really needs some reliable means of rescue once one is in the ground.”

Jonathan regarded me with more respect than he had accorded me for years. “Pray continue,” he said.

It was at that point that The Hugo Patent Device for Indicating the Awakening of Persons Buried Alive was truly born. Jonathan set our coffin-maker, one Eben Frame, to work, and a preliminary device was created. Frame threw himself upon the challenge with gusto, but the developmental process was not without its difficulties.

“Observe,” he remarked, as we stood in the echoing confines of his warehouse. He made a gesture with one of his crutches. “The lid of the coffin is spring-loaded; should you awake in the mortuary and find yourself incarcerated, you merely touch this switch and the lid will open. So!”

He pulled a small string, connected to the coffin’s interior. The lid shot forth as if fired from a cannon, immediately felling my unfortunate brother. When we had ascertained that he was not in imminent danger of becoming the coffin’s first occupant, and had brought him round with the application of smelling salts and water, Jonathan informed us angrily that the device must undergo modification.

“Besides,” he pointed out. “It is useless if one is already buried when one discovers the sorry fact of incarceration. Not even a force sufficient to render a man unconscious can shift six feet of earth.”

Eben Frame sighed. “I fear you are right. I suspect that will also be a difficulty with my second patent.”

We went to look at the alternative model. This coffin possessed the addition of a spring-loaded hammer which, when set in motion via a small knob, would smash a glass panel on the front of the coffin, thus allowing the influx of air. The drawbacks were immediately apparent.

“But this is no good either,” I protested. “The occupant, in addition to his mental distress, will receive not only a shower of glass into the face, but a forceful blow between the eyes. And again, as you have noted, it is only of use whilst the coffin is still above ground. No, what is needed is a rope, attached to a bell or a whistle. Or a little flag. So that if you woke and found yourself in your coffin, you could pluck the rope and be assured of rescue. Some kind of air hose might also be necessary—after all, one might awake in the middle of the night. I am sure such a device would be popular—set the public mind at rest, so to speak.”

A week later, Frame had come up with a third device: a coffin attached to a flag, with a loud electric bell and an air hose running up through the earth to the base of the flagpole. After some trivial modifications, we felt that this was the most effective variant, and production commenced. We placed advertisements in the Times, sat back, and waited.

Gradually, orders began to trickle in, and soon they grew to a flood. Jonathan had his practice to run, but he tried to persuade me to take over the business side of the Device. He was somewhat put out when I refused to do so: I did not endure all the hardships of becoming a poet, I told him, merely to take up a post as a salesman.

“But your work—” Jonathan began, then stopped short.

“What of it?”

“The penny papers, monthly poetry journals—it is hardly great literature, Richard. Could you not put your talents to some more lucrative end? Could you not try to be more—well, respectable?”

“A poet lies beyond common society and everyday morality,” I replied, stiffly. And Jonathan sighed, but did not say anything more. We hired a keen young gentleman by the name of Sayers to run the day-to-day dealings of the business, and returned to our respective professions.

There came a week near to the end of November, however, when Richard took to his bed with a filthy chill and Sayers pleaded for a day off. He had an aged mother in Bognor, he said, and he wished to visit her. With extreme reluctance, I agreed to mind the funeral parlor for a day or so. And it was upon that day that I first met Madame Greco.

She was waiting for me, so the housekeeper told me, in the parlor; she had requested it especially, claiming that she felt the cold. When I entered the room, she was sitting in front of the fire with her hands folded in her lap. I had the impression of an elegant figure, clad in the appropriate purple and black of mourning, necklaced with jet. The only curious note was the lily that she wore in her bonnet: it, too, was black and velvety and at first I thought it to be no more than a lifelike ornament, until I realised that the strong sweet perfume that filled the air of the parlor was emanating from its petals.

“I do hope you’ll forgive me for imposing upon you,” the woman said. She rose, offering me a black-satin hand. “My name is Madame Greco; I have recently become a widow.”

Behind the gauzy darkness of her veil her eyes were luminous and huge. It was impossible to tell her age, or her origins; she spoke with something of an accent, but it was not one that I recognised. I was, however, immediately captivated. Something about the timbre of her voice and the almost narcotic fragrance of the lily entranced me. I bent over her hand.

“It is no trouble at all,” I said. “I’m so sorry to hear of your loss.”

I thought I detected a slight smile beneath the veil.

“Damien died as he lived,” she told me. “Ever unexpected.”

“And you will be wanting—arrangements?”

She lowered her head and dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief scented with violets.

“Quite so.”

“Then let us discuss the nature of the internment,” I murmured.

Madame Greco duly ordered a magnificent coffin and, pressing my hand with a pretty gratitude, left. I did not feel that this was the appropriate time to press talk of the Device upon her. I fully intended to leave a note for Sayers to remind him of this fact, but thinking about Madame Greco brought to mind a number of poetic notions, and I became distracted. In the end, no note was written.


It was shortly before Christmas that I set eyes on Madame Greco once more, as I was walking to our father’s house for a party. I disliked these family occasions, which usually involved a series of barbed jibes on my father’s part relating to my choice of profession. I thus took the long way through Highgate, past the cemetery, and it was already past twilight when I reached the gates. Upon glancing through the iron tracery, I was vaguely gratified to see in the dim light of the gas-lamps that a number of recent graves—in addition to handsome marble monuments—bore the small red flag and electric bell that signalled the presence of the Device. It was then that I caught sight of Madame Greco.

She was hurrying along the path that led to the edges of the cemetery, past the older mausoleums. She halted in front of an ornate tombstone in the form of a pyramid. These had been fashionable at one time, but had now fallen somewhat out of favor. I saw her run her hand over the marble facade, then move on down the hill to a much fresher patch of earth. She fell to her knees beside the grave and, moved by a pang of pity, I remained to watch her. She scrabbled at the soil.

“James?” I heard her say. “Have you woken? Do you hear me?”

I frowned. I distinctly remembered her remarking that her husband’s name was ‘Damien.’ She paused for a moment, listening, with her ear to the ground. She sighed, rose to her feet, moved on. I watched her as she visited three more graves in turn. Apparently none of them were clients of my brother, for these graves were undecorated by the Device. She scratched and clawed, until the black satin gloves were torn and her hands were bloody.

“Wake!” she whispered, “Why do you not wake?”

Then, with a start of surprise, I saw the earth at the base of the last grave begin to stir. My heart jumped.

“Damien?” I heard her fierce whisper across the silent graveyard. “Damien!”

Next moment, the soil rolled aside like a blanket and a man was standing there. I saw a white face and pale hands, before he was enveloped in a long dark coat that flapped down upon him like a shadow. Madame Greco was speaking to him in a language that I did not recognise. He turned, and I heard him begin to sniff and snuffle, like a hunting dog.

It suddenly occurred to me that I was not in the most suitable location to encounter someone newly risen from the dead. I am not ashamed to note that I turned and ran. That evening, my father’s jibes ran over me like water. I remained at his house that night, and I was not sorry to do so.

Next day, I did not wake until past three o’clock. Sitting over tea in the pale winter sunlight, I felt somewhat foolish. I had surely been mistaken, I thought. No doubt I had merely glimpsed a friend stepping out from behind the tomb, in order to comfort poor Madame Greco in her time of need. Perhaps she had become distracted in her grief, had been initially unable to find her husband’s burial place. I debated the matter for some time, before resolving to go back to the cemetery and make a few investigations.

When I reached Highgate, it was already close to twilight. I could hear the bell of St Paul’s toll out the time, a melancholy note sounding from across the river. My feet crackled on the last dead leaves; the high wall at the edge of the cemetery was half-hidden in bramble and the smoky haze of wild clematis. A flock of crows spiralled up from the path as I approached, startling me.

I found the tall point of the pyramid tomb without difficulty. I was somehow unsurprised to note that it bore the name of one Aessia Greco. I took note of the date: she had died at the age of twenty-seven, more than two hundred years before.

I touched the tomb briefly, to reassure myself that it was real, then turned to take my leave. A great dark wing swept across my face. I leaped, stumbling back against the tomb.

“Why, it’s Mr Hugo,” said a voice behind me. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to alarm you.”

My vision cleared. It was Madame Greco, still swathed in mourning. Her face was invisible behind a heavier veil.

“No, the fault is mine. A dizzy spell,” I said. “Well, delightful to meet you once more, Madame Greco, and now I really must be on my way—”

“Please, let me help you. You’re quite faint.” She took hold of my arm. Through her thin gloves, her touch was icy cold, with a thread of subtle warmth running through it. I felt a guilty, delicious rush of desire, but I snatched my hand away. She stood like a shadow on the path. The sun had long since fallen below the horizon.

“I suggest some hot tea, Mr Hugo,” she said briskly.

“An excellent idea. I shall seek some at once. Now—”

“I think I should accompany you,” she said. The thought crept into my mind like a little serpent: what harm was there in that? We would have tea, and then we would climb the stairs to her small attic room and I would raise the veil and she would fall to her knees and—I blinked. Unruly thoughts, of a carnal nature, were flowing into my mind like water, and nothing was standing in their way. I felt myself growing flushed, heard myself stammering something.

The next thing I knew, I was sitting opposite Madame Greco. I had no idea where I might be. The room was shrouded behind curtains of ebony velvet, and lit by a single taper. In the chancy light, Madame Greco’s face gleamed like a flame. The room smelled of dust and mould, but the furnishings were rich.

“Where am I?” I asked her.

“At my home,” I heard her say. Her voice sounded very distant, as though she spoke from the bottom of a well. She took my hand. I could feel her nails, small and sharp, through the ruined glove, and again that icy touch.

“What are you?” I asked, as if through a dream.

“You are a poet, are you not?”

“Yes, I do my poor best.”

“I direct you to Keats, therefore—the poem called The Lamia. Are you familiar with it?”

“Yes. It is a poem about a woman who preys on young men.”

“Quite so. It is a little like that with my kind. Though I prefer the term ‘seduces’. ‘Preys’ sounds so unlovely.” Her grip tightened. “We do our poor best for those we—select. We take what we need, and often they rise to join us. They have life, after all, of a sort.”

Dream-like or not, there was a voice struggling at the back of my mind, and it told me that I was in grave danger.

“But I fear you have already seen too much.” She leaned closer. I could feel no breath upon my neck. Then, through a roaring in my head, an idea came to me.

“Wait,” I said. “Indeed, I have seen too much. I watched you there, searching the graves.” This time, it was I who reached for her hand. “Searching, clawing, ruining your hands as you try to wake them. It does not always work, does it? They do not always return.”

After a moment, she shook her head.

“Would it not be easier, if you had certain knowledge of when they awoke?”

Her head moved in the fraction of a nod.

“And thus I have a proposal for you,” I whispered. I held my breath.

In the dim light, her eyes glittered with a tiny crimson flame.

“I am listening,” she said.


Occasionally, when my gaze falls upon the rise of Highgate Hill above the city, and I think of the scarlet flags that flutter within those walls, I wonder if I have behaved quite like a gentleman. I fear I have not. But a poet is, as I have said, beyond the common morality, and as my brother is so fond of reminding me, a business deal is a business deal, no matter with whom—or what—one transacts it.

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