Body Horror

Hexus Press had the pleasure of publishing Oliver Zarandi’s debut collection Soft Fruit in the Sun in September. The book covers a new genre that we’re terming ‘tender body horror’, dealing as it does with Zarandi’s exploration of his own disordered eating through fiction that’s macabre, surreal, and wryly funny. During the course of making the book, I’ve been thinking around the idea of ‘body horror’, which is perhaps more aligned to a certain kind of pulpiness in film in the first instance, from a literary perspective.

Body horror tends to deal with the too-much or too-little; with excesses and scarcity of form that test what our conceptions of the functioning body can be. But central to the idea of it, perhaps, and where the real horror lies, is the exposure of our unwillingness to really look at what our bodies are; how they function and how they degrade. Here, in reality, where the greatest body horror story is perhaps reduced to the two word “palliative care”, literature can do what genre films are generally forbidden from doing — to explore themes in a way that’s ill-fitting with their necessarily simple splattery aesthetic. Here, there’s room for tenderness. I’ve chosen five hopefully lesser-read examples of books that capture the body in its transformation, or flowery grotesqueness, or that simply present us with a point to start considering how the body — as we accept it — is in itself already an incongruous combination of disparate forms.

The Obscene Bird of Night — Jose Donoso

Donoso’s novel, which wallows in the darkest black end of magical realism, opens with a cheerless quote from Henry James to his young teenage sons: “Every man who has reached even his intellectual teens begins to suspect that life is no farce [it is in fact] an unsubdued forest where the wolf howls and the obscene bird of night chatters.” And what better starting place for a book that descends into the bleak uncertainties of the world, and doesn’t surface?

At the centre of the novel is the titular bird of night, the severely disabled son of a nobleman who is enclosed in a purpose-built walled village whose populous are all variously and uniquely differently-abled, in order to shield him from having to see the comparatively homogeneous normality of life outside. Donoso here inverts the transformations and supernatural elements in the rest of the text, positing uncertainty in the way that we perceive our bodies as ‘normal’, and gesturing to the unknowability of the other, even within those that look and act like ourselves. As a foil to this, after chapters variously narrated from the point of view of a papier-mâché mask being kicked around a bar, or a hideous yellow pariah dog stalking a nunnery (whose inhabitants are at the same time playing a game featuring a yellow dog as a playing piece), Donoso’s labyrinth leads to a hideous blind-alley of form — the Chilean legend of the imbunche: a baby stolen by a shaman whose orifices are sealed at a young age, forced to play out the entirety of its days in a darkness as total — and inescapable — as that at the cold heart of this hair-raising and enigmatic book.

As a child, Donoso fooled a local doctor by inventing a stomach pain to get him out of sports lessons. While writing The Obscene Bird of Night, he was hospitalised for a very real haemorrhaged ulcer and suffered from paranoia, hallucinations, and suicidal ideation after discovering that he was allergic to the morphine he was given there. In the course of this novel, I think it’s almost possible to feel his psychosomatic tendencies bubbling to the surface and — fittingly, for a book that deals with flux, polyvocality and plurality — his ambiguous traumas becoming manifest.

The Cipher — Kathe Koja

More of a traditional horror novel than the others on this list, perhaps, but Koja’s portrait of wannabes, abandoned hopes, and destitution in the art world is a peculiar, peculiarly genre-bucking read. Released as the inaugural title from Dell’s early 1990s imprint Abyss — which aimed to update classic horror fiction to chime with a new generation (its mission statement described it as: “Cutting edge psychological horror… about people, and the darkness we all carry within us”) — The Cipher follows would-be poet and general loser Nicholas, who finds a storage room inside his decaying tenement, and in it the terrible, all-consuming “fun hole”: quite literally a fleshily-walled void in the floor which emits a “black nectar” and heat.

Suffice to say that the hole is soon also weeping in his hand, on videotape (which they watch “like porno”), and ultimately somewhere far deeper inside of him. Its evolution through the novel is monstrous, but it’s the way the people who witness it react — seeking to profit from it, falling in love with it — that’s really the focus of the horror. In the end, despite the book’s penchant for silver-glowing skin and exploded rats (and very true to Abyss’ original claim) it’s less a book about the fear of something extruding from the darkness, than the development of a profound weakness that was always within.

Koja paints the denizens of her noirish world with a punky attitude and general downtroddenness that’s redolent of some of the more hopeless Russian and eastern European novellas, and the result is a sophisticated peer over the lip of the crater into a scuzzy underground; a deeper faultline than any mere hole, no matter how bottomless.

Les Guerilleres — Monique Wittig

Wittig’s 1969 experimental novel places the reader into the aftermath of the bloody and limb-strewn battlefield of the sexes, in an alternative reality where women live absolutely content in an almost entirely manless society.

Written in the tumult of the student-worker French riots, Wittig — a sef-described radical lesbian — uses the first two thirds of the text to describe this utopia, and folows it up with an episodic account of the war, in which women use an array of beautifully described, slightly wacky, and very sci-fi weapons against their foe.

Wittig’s prose is writing as ritual, writing as dance; her passages — comprised of short paragraphs of text that tell of the women-warriors lives and cut through (as if on a monument to war dead) with lists of exulted heroines — are suffused by the ever-present bold black-outlined ‘O’ shape that permeates the novel: the “sacred zero” of the vulva.

Wittig theorised that inequality of the sexes was bound up in the way that femininity is ultimately constructed by the dominant masculine, and that ‘man’ defines ‘woman’ in opposition to himself. But also that, in undoing the concept of the dominant ‘man’, those ideas (and hence that battle) would simply fall away. Unfortunately, and somewhat ironically, much of this version is apparently mistranslated. Where Wittig strove to describe women as Elles — meaning an ungendered they — Le Vey’s 1971 translation always has them as the women, robbing her somewhat of the argument that in language “made up of signs that rightly designate what men have appropriated” — as every other construct of a patriarchal society — there is no release until revolution. In Les Guerilleres, with its main focus on what happens after, in what is essentially depolarised — cut loose from the need to fight —  Wittig shows us the moment after the “immense communal graves” have been filled, after the righteous war has been won, and the feminine fury spent. The moment when the women “say that they are leaving the museums the show-cases the pedestals where they have been installed. They say they are quite astonished they can move.”

Of course, I don’t mean to describe this as ‘body horror’ in its normally recognised and reductive terms, but this scorchingly angry short novel gives a taste of the freedom that lies beyond the supposed reality of our own established and presumed identities. Identities — and the manifold horrors that unfold from them —  that are firmly rooted in the flesh, as well the paradigms that we use to conceive of it. And ultimately even beyond that, into the very meat of how we describe them — as Wittig simply has it: “the language you speak is made up of words that are killing you”.

(As a nice aside, poet Ruth Wiggins is working on a more sympathetic, presumably less deadly ongoing translation and layout of the text, examples of which can be seen in a recent issue of Blackbox Manifold.)

The Toys of Princes — Ghislain De Diesbach

French author de Deisbach has seemingly forever been in thrall to the idea of the divine right to rule, having written extensively on the history of royalty and the upper classes. Of course, since this book’s publication in 1962 it may have become more common to see (admittedly an iteration of) the name Ghislain tied to the idea of the sons of royalty not-so-secretly abusing their power, but I digress. And that allegedly.

This collection of short stories contains no bubbling pustules or howling metamorphoses, but it does take swingeing swipes at that supposedly most sacred of bodies — the body politic. Throughout de Deisbach’s sardonic tales, peasants are regularly dispatched to save their masters’ dignity: whipped and hung and left for dead. The author plays a discordant tune of damning the sport of various noblemen as vile, while at the same time presenting their actions as somehow justifiably above the people who would — one presumes — gladly sever their pretty Hobbesian heads at a moment’s notice.

Placed somewhere between the comedy of Les Liaisons dangereuses and the grim reality of the Tory manifesto, these sharply vicious little tales of ill privilege — despite being filled with a certain nostalgia — remain tragically modern.

The Unyielding — Gary J Shipley

Shipley’s the modern master of a kind of contemporary horror that pushes deep into alien territories, yet to be discovered by many. We had the pleasure of publishing his experimental novel Warewolff! A few years ago, but it’s his next book, The Unyielding, that fits more readily into body horror.

Shipley’s work often focuses on what happens after saturation point is reached — on what lies beyond the beyond, on what takes place when the thing that should have stopped just doesn’t. Often, his novelistic conceits are matched by his deconstruction of language and his philosopher’s eye for extrapolation into a sort of logical illogicality; a kind of white noise that looks and feels like reality, and shares many of the same building blocks and processes, but is overwhelmingly, terrifyingly different.

The Unyielding takes as its starting point the death of a wife and mother, and then shows the reader, in a kind of scientifically well-lit nightmare, what happens when her death simply refuses to disperse. Quite literally: her body, undisturbed by the forces of decomposition, stays immovably rooted to the floor in the house. So far so This House Has People in It, but it’s in what transpires that Shipley manifests his uncertain metaphor for grief, and eventually upends it.

“I googled too much blood… I googled immovable objects. I googled is it possible to forget your children.” By the time the unnamed husband and father who narrates the story finds her still immovable body appearing randomly around the house, covered in a slime she seems to be excreting — takes his first taste of the mucous; finds his own muscles softening to merge with her; finds that his children do the same — he is driven to write that “the detail of the universe is a mess… I saw how those [people] that continued [to live] did so interstitially, how God was just one of many interstices”.

And so Shipley’s exploration of the body, and of the psychology around the ending of that most puzzling thing, life, leads to the moment that his narrator becomes so inured to his own disgust that he eventually loses his capacity for it, and with its passing, all meaning. With this, Shipley manages to come as close as it is maybe possible to get to to a sort of paradoxical ‘embodied bodilessness’, that is surely pressed right up against the bulging cell walls at the extremities of the concept of corporeal horror.


Thogdin Ripley is a writer and co-editor at Hexus Press.

Image: From cover of Les Guerilleres, Monique Wittig, 1969

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