The initial purpose behind “The Thanatocopyst” was to write a short tale featuring some of “Phaenomena”’s supporting characters, also offering a hint on its main character. So while I was going through the laborious edition and revision process for the book, from time to time and in a carefree mood, I would also look for some piece of information or idea which could spark new inspiration.
I recently spent a couple of years experimenting life in a small city in the countryside, and by the time I was revising the book, I was still there – living in a strategic placed double-story house. It was located in a kind of Bermuda Triangle: to the North, three blocks ahead, there was the city’s public funeral building; to the East was the main city cemetery, two blocks away, and next to our home, half a block to the West, was the thanatoscopy facility. We used to say at home that we were in a kind of Zombie Bermuda Triangle – if there was a zombie apocalypse, we would be one of the first victims in the city to be devoured – the walking dead would come from all directions.
While I worked on “Phaenomena”, I had an “amazingly pleasurable” sight from the window of my room-turned-into-office: the utterly dull crossing of two virtually deserted streets, with plain houses and empty lots, where almost nothing happened all day. There was only one exception, though: a small two-floor building with red walls, a glass sliding door and a panel on its façade with a lettering – “Tanato” – and a logo, the coarse contour of a human body with a red round heart in its chest. What was worse: the ‘T’ letters in the lettering had their middle vertical lines extended beyond the crossing horizontal dash, so that each one would resemble a cross, in an also coarse reference to dying, burial procedures etc.
While I spent the midnight oil into long and dark nights in the middle of the zombie triangle of that faraway small city, I started to realize that the building would not remain closed during certain nights. In fact, one would not be able to tell if the place followed a regular or traditional timetable. Sometimes the doors remained shut and locked for long in the middle of the afternoon, while the nightly traffic was intense. One night, at about 2 AM or so, I found myself sneaking in between the windows curtains, peeking from the distance on a somewhat suspicious car that had parked in front of the building, and there it remained, with lights on. Suspicious, I took the camera and started recording it, and when I zoomed on it I saw them – the coarse human body logo and the “T” resembling a cross. It was the thanatoscopy facility’s car, and probably the thanatoscopist was inside on the wheel.
On those days, during my work brakes, I was already researching what all that was about – summarizing it shoddily, thanatoscopy or thanatopraxis is the set of procedures to determine causa mortis – the physiological reason of someone’s death. There are special technicians with diverse backgrounds who take specialization courses on it, and along with coroners, medic legist, police detectives and other staff, they are the specialized technicians appointed to determine the cause of death of a dead body. Adding to it, in many cities, the same facility where the thanatoscopyst examines the bodies may also accomplish other necessary preservation procedures and the preparation of the corpse for funeral rites and burials.
Some nights later, something intriguing happened. It was past 3 AM; we were all asleep at home, when I woke up with a loud, sharp prolonged sound, like an engine that was turned on and kept working in high rotation. I got up, walked in the dark along the corridor to my office room, and opened the window curtains. For my amazement, on the next block to the West, I saw a truck, a big tank truck, parked beside the corner of the thanatoscopy building, in a diagonal line to the street and occupying part of it, in a way that passing cars or people – which obviously weren’t there at that moment, the area was deserted – would have to skirt it to follow their way.
Curious as I was, I decided to take a risk and go outside. I went downstairs, grabbed the hard wood stick that I used to keep and hand’s reach beside the garage door, opened the door and stepped outside. The moon was full and its creamy light cleared the street; I walked towards the building and approached the truck. It had a long silver tank on it, with all sorts of symbols such as skulls, lightnings and entangled circles draw on it, indicating it was carrying dangerous infected materials. On its rear part, there was a large engine box, a kind of pump. A wide, long metallic flexible pipe, like a huge hose, was connected to a valve on the top of the engine box – that was where the noise was coming from.
Up to that moment, I had not seen anyone on the street. I looked up and examined the “Tanato” building. The doors were shut; lights were off. There was no sign or sound of anyone inside. Attached to the side of the building that I was close to, there was what seemed to be an unfinished secondary construction, with open spaces on a naked brick and cement wall that would probably hold large windows of an additional hall. I followed the metallic pipe coming out of the truck tank with the eyes: the other end of the huge hose had been shoved into one of those opened spaces on the bare cement lateral wall, and disappeared into the darkness inside the building.
That was a strange scene – and in the next minute it got stranger. I was on the side walk, just behind the truck, and, determined to discover something about what was happening, I stepped into the street and started skirting the vehicle. While I walked slowly, I stretched my neck, trying to see the supposed driver in the cab, already holding a light smile on my face, ready to say “excuse me”… But there was no one in the truck. I stepped back, stood on the tips of my toes and peered in – the cabin was empty. I felt a chill on my neck. No one in the building; no one in the truck. And, as I looked around me… No one in the street. When I realized I was strictly by myself in the middle of the street, accompanied just by the noise of the pump and the cold breeze that blew about, I felt quite uneasy and decided to walk back home.
Before going back to bed, I still took a glance at the scene from between the curtains of my office’s window. As I watched that silver tank truck I imagined what kind of infected material that he pipe was sucking from the basements of that mysterious building – remains of corpses? Organs and pieces of limbs?? Blood???
Along the next weeks, I tried to keep my watch on the thanatoscopy building; I speculated with the few people I knew in the neighbourhood; I even discovered that the unfinished extension attached to the main building had been an attempt by the Thanatoscopyst to build a crematory – and that the surrounding neighbours, worried that the finished project could launch gulfs of infectious bloody smoke all over the block, fiercely opposed it, and, with some political influence on the mayor’s office, managed to block the construction process. In fact, I heard all sorts of local legends, mainly based on people’s lack of knowledge and superstition. However, after that night, none of that would be necessary. That seemingly ghost tank truck, sucking the remains of the dead stored in that sinister living building – or their blood? Maybe even their… Souls?!? – ; that strange, never explained scene was all the inspiration I needed to write those new stories. After that night, “The Thanatoscopyst”’s stories came out as easily as blood from pours from an incision into human flesh.