Body Horror. The most intense and graphic of subgenres. It gnaws at our vulnerabilities and devours the pretense that we are safe if we take certain prescribed precautions. Our bodies can betray us in infinite ways and the short story collection Body Shocks explores a good number of them. Editor Ellen Datlow has compiled twenty-nine visceral tales that pack a jolt like an electrical current. Datlow distills the raw power of body horror thus: “It might be the most disturbing type of horror because it deals with the body’s integrity being breached by intentional mutilation, accidental infestations by parasites, invasion by alien forces, degeneration, transformation, grotesquery, and pain.” Complacency is simply not an option when reading the stories, and any resonance will vary from reader to reader. I have chosen a fraction of the anthology’s offerings to discuss, based on subjective impact. The selected six grabbed me on different levels, including a few that perversely tickled my subversive funny bone.
“Welcome to Mengele’s” by Simon Bestwick made me laugh despite some inherent repulsion. This yarn about a bordello in which the customers can have sex with the objects of their wildest fantasies, whether dead or alive and tailored to proclivities, is catty to the max: For example, the narrator who partakes of the wide-ranging array of services wonders, “Although why the hell anyone would want a porn video whose star was Margaret Thatcher was beyond me. Maybe it was an S&M thing.” He does go on to explain his personal experience with the enticing house offerings: “Try to imagine it. Whoever the most attractive woman or man (or plural) you’ve ever seen on the small or silver screen might be. Try to imagine walking into a room and finding them waiting for you in a huge, soft bed, naked as the day they were born, with every costume and sexaid possible close at hand. They get up, come over, and they undress you, run their hands over your body and purr with delight. Then they lead you to the bed, pull back the covers, and press you down.” Because this is a horror story, it’s inevitable the stuff that these fantasy dreams are made of is the stuff of terror. There’s a nifty twist at the end of the narrative; a set up for a come-uppance, so to speak.
The fashion industry is fertile ground for writers to parody, and two tales in Body Shocks dig into that with relish. Christopher Fowler’s “The Look” is about a chameleon-like designer who has achieved rock star status in his universe. His eclectic staging of shows enhances his charisma: “Once he showed his fashion designs on this video installation in New Jersey, setting monitors all around a morgue, where he ran footage of his clothes dressed on real corpses, teenagers who had died in car crashes.” As is the case with all artistes, the designer must modify not only the clothes but the models who wear them.
Modifying models also is a theme in another scathing satire, “La beauté sans vertu” by Genevieve Valentine. Valentine goes for the jugular, via the arms, in the opening paragraph: “These days they use arms from corpses—age fourteen, oldest, at time of death. The couture houses pay for them, of course (the days of grave-robbing are over, this is a business), but anything over fourteen isn’t worth having. At fourteen, the bones have most of the length you need for a model, with a child’s slender ulna, the knob of the wrist still standing out enough to cast a shadow.”
Youth, and the fiery passions that are so readily identified with it, gets a reboot of sorts in a steamy story written by Pat Cadigan. “It Was the Heat” focuses on a thirty-something woman in New Orleans on a business trip, far from the domestic placidity of her home in a much cooler climate. The sultry allure of the French Quarter combines with her indignation about the societal double standard (the story was originally published in 1988, but certain aspects of gender inequality persist) to release her from inhibitions. Heat is a timeless metaphor for unbridled passion, and author Cadigan fires up the libidinous liberation while addressing the physical and psychological responses that are part of it: “The heat gets inside you. Then you get a fever from the heat, and from fever you progress to delirium and from delirium into another state of being. Nothing is real in delirium. No, scratch that: everything is real in a different way.” The quotation could also be construed as an allegory for impending menopause if one chooses to see it that way. The protagonist’s age is an important factor to be considered in this penetrating narrative about bodily reaction to unanticipated stimuli.
Two other tales that profoundly affected me are “Skin City” by Gemma Files and “Spores” by Seanan McGuire. The Files story has a raw power that is peppered with poignancy. It’s harrowing to discover that a friend from one’s youth is no longer comfortable in their own skin and has taken things to the extreme: “Partially stripped, her bloodied skull nods moronically, face a crossfire of nerves. Her nose hangs flat, the torn half-mouth slack. She jerks her head aside and both wounds flap open at once, revealing the craters at their roots. A lipless grin chatters from chin to ear. The nude moon of her left eye bulges and slits, blankly, as its lid smears itself shut.”
McGuire’s “Spores” is the consummate OCD nightmare. The protagonist, who works in a science lab, suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder. She does everything in her power not to literally bring her work home with her and is extremely protective of the welfare of her wife and adolescent daughter. Loss of control is difficult for most people to handle, but here the ensuing implications are far-reaching. Emotionally credible and utterly chilling, “Spores” is another stellar story by the ever-reliable McGuire.
Body Shocks confronts and contorts the fragile physicality of our bodies with convulsive imagery that is indeed a shock to the system. Published by Tachyon, the anthology is another jewel in the crown of the queen of genre editors, Ellen Datlow.