REVIEW: Premature Burial: How It May Be Prevented – Walter Hayden, William Tebb & Edward Perry Vollum

I always have a hard time visualising units. Take 200 litres of air. That’s, what – 100 two litre bottles of Vimto? How much does that look like? It seems like a lot (particularly of Vimto), but let me tell you this, when it comes to atmospheric air, it is not enough.

I have this thing about running out of air. I hate video game levels where they’re underwater and you have to swim through an air bubble before Sonic dies. Not that I mind so much when Sonic dies, because he’s extremely annoying. Still, though. Every time the clock starts to tick down I feel claustrophobic, my chest gets tight and I start to hold my breath without realising. I even do it in that bit in Finding Nemo when they’re above water. What the hell, Katherine!?

In spite of all this, Premature Burial: How It May Be Prevented seemed to me like a good read – my idea of a fun time. And don’t get me wrong, it was. It’s a contemporary Victorian report with a rash of examples of people being mistaken for dead and buried alive.

And it is so very chilling.

Warning to bat fans - image not indicative of content. Sad lack of bats in the text.

Warning to bat fans – image not indicative of content. Sad lack of bats in the text.

This book is a collection of anecdotes and newspaper clippings from throughout the nineteenth century, about people who gave every appearance of being dead but, in fact, were still alive. There are some incredible descriptions of people saved from an early grave just in the nick of time, and an equal or greater number of discoveries that happened just too late. And that’s only the ones who were discovered. Here’s the thing – you are highly diverted until you remember, these are (purportedly) true accounts. Then the air seems a little thin.

So I’m now actively concerned about being buried alive. A very real risk when you appear to be dead but are in fact not, which clearly happens all the time.

I’m kind of surprised it hasn’t been used more in fiction – and it hasn’t in any of the Gothic mysteries I’ve come across – but I can’t help but think that if it had, I wouldn’t have believed it. I’d have tossed the book aside with a snort of derision and been a little bit cross about it for a couple of days.They expected me to believe that, I’d have scorned, and I would have been wrong to do so. It’s one of those instances where truth is stranger than fiction, which is a shame because I’d quite like to use it in a book. Perhaps in passing, rather than as a major plot point? What do you think, would you believe it?

The 200 litres mentioned in the intro was relevant – it’s the average amount of air you have when you’ve been sealed in a coffin, and it will last you 20-40 minutes. Which is more than I’d expect, but nowhere near enough.

I’m immersing myself in this death stuff, not just for morbid kicks but because I’m researching Victorian mortuaries and funeral practices for t’next book series. I’m finding it difficult to get information on some of the more nitty-gritty aspects, like body preservation. I know all about jet beads and crape, but I’m struggling finding out the more medical aspects. Any sources you’ve come across, I’d love to hear about! I think a trip to Thackray Medical Museum is in the offing…

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