shining the spotlight on short story collections
Constable & Robinson 2012
““The acromegaly infected the left side of his face, warping the facial bones like untreated pine boards. The flesh on that side of Rand’s face resembles a water balloon filled to capacity. The upper forehead bulges like a baby emerging from its mother’s cervix, its weight pressing against his bristling brow ridge. The puffy, bloated flesh of his cheek has long since swallowed the left eye, sealing it behind a wall of bone and meat. (…) But these deformities alone did not make Rand Holstrum the successful freak that he is today. While the left half of his face is a hideously contorted mass of bone and gristle, like a papier-mache mask made by a disturbed child, the other side is that of a handsome, intelligent man in his late fifties. That is what draws the fish. He is one of the most disturbing sights you could ever hope to see.”
From Freaktent, by Nancy A. Collins.
One could be forgiven for thinking that The Mammoth Book of Body Horror is a book suffering from elephantitis. Weighing in at a not-to-be-sniffed-at five hundred and odd pages and containing twenty-five stories – some of which are real heavyweights, almost novellas – this epic tome is not one which can be gobbled down quick. And that’s not only because of the sheer scale of the book. At times unsettling, at others heart-stoppingly terrifying, and constantly, viscerally shocking, one could say this is the literary equivalent of the infamous Quadruple Bypass Burger from that Las Vegas staple, the Heart Attack Grill.
Lip-smackingly taste-tastic. But count them calories.
In the excellent Introduction by Stuart Gordon, he observes “The best Body Horror makes your own body turn against you.” And he describes his reaction – most definitely flight, not fight – to watching a particularly graphic scene in David Cronenberg’s classic film, Shivers. And in a way, this book’s one for the thrill-seeker. For the person wants to challenge themselves, to push their body to the extreme. It’s a white-knuckle ride in which reading becomes more than simply a passive exercise, but one which demands a reaction, and often a bodily one. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll gag. You’ll want to avert your eyes. But you won’t be able to.
Because this mammoth’s far from extinct. This mammoth’s defrosted itself from whatever giant freezer has encased it all these years, and it’s now on the rampage. Can’t you hear it stomping up your stairs, crashing through your bedroom door? Crack open a similarly sized book, say, the Thesaurus – which may or may not have been a prehistoric creature frozen in the next ice-compartment to our mammoth – and take your pick from any of these snappy epithets which could quite adequately describe the collection as a whole. It’s gruesome. Bloody. Gory. Extreme. Shocking. Sickening.
It’s also quite a lot of fun. As could be suggested from a book in a series which contains, variously, such titles as The Mammoth Book of Hard Bastards, The Mammoth Book of Really Silly Jokes and The Mammoth Book of Gorgeous Guys’.
This mammoth’s subtitle describes it as “25 stories of transformation, mutation and contagion”. And that pretty much Ronseals it. But not totally. Because this collection is about more than simple prehistoric thrills. And it contains far more than just five-minute burger satisfaction. As a whole, though I’ve enjoyed myself writing all those comparisons with a particular artery-clogger, the book isn’t frivolously long. Nor is it needlessly flabby.
Head chefs Paul Kane and Marie O’Regan, acclaimed writers in their own right, have served up a veritable feast, containing undoubted, unforgettable classics of the genre. The huge majority of tales herein have real bite. And sure, a couple of the stories are flabbier than they need be, but most are capable of burying their tusks beneath your skin. A cursory glance at the table of contents gives the reader an idea of the particular thrill-ride they’ll be experiencing. And this ain’t the kind of menu which needs to show pictures of the food to salivate the tastebuds. There’s talent here aplenty. It’s a list obese with names of the genre glitterati, a veritable who’s who of horror heroes (and their sons). If this list were challenged to show us their credentials, their collected awards would swamp a battleship. Incinerate a burger. Saddle up a mammoth and ride it.
And they ain’t just your common or garden look, I’ve grown an extra head/ hand/ testicle stories either. This ain’t no Channel 4 Embarrassing Bodies show. Dr. Christian’s nowhere in sight. No, there’s all kinds of different bodily horrors on display here, just as there are different types of bodies.
There are hellish and freakish bodies (witness the echo of Frankenstein’s monster, one “loathsome and foul-shaped wretch” in Mary Shelley’s Transformation). Of course there are. But, on a deeper level, these are stories in which bodies which act as loci for political, gender-based, and scientific debate.
In Survivor Type, by Stephen King, the dark fiction master forces himself, and us, to confront a rather distasteful medical question:
“Sooner or later the question comes up in every medical student’s career. How much shock-trauma can the patient stand? Different instructors answer the question in different ways, but cut to its base level, the answer is always another question: how badly does the patient want to survive?”
And survival becomes about more than just keeping body and soul together. Horribly, it becomes more about amputating parts of the body in order to keep the whole alive. Under extreme stress, some octopi will eat their own arms for sustenance. And King’s protagonist, a high-flying New York surgeon, is forced to plumb the depths of depravity in order to stay alive. Survival, he convinces himself, “is a business of (…) the superior mind.”
As readers, we all know what King’s talking about here, but the horror is all in the pauses, in what’s missing, what’s been amputated (and gobbled up) from the text:
“Haven’t I told you I’d had nothing to eat for four days? And that the only help I could look to in the matter of replenishing my sapped vitality was my own body?”
“My teeth have begun to rot, did I tell you that? If I were a superstitious man, I’d say it was because I ate – ” And: “I kept telling myself: cold roast beef. Cold roast beef. Cold roast beef.”
And then that wonderful line:
“Judas Iscariot, the sweet smell of roasting pork.”
Then there are otherworldly bodies. Most particularly in Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell. This story was twice optioned as a film, and has now become world-renowned as The Thing. In this story, the scientists open Pandora’s Box and release a creature which is at once “inherently inhuman”, “from beyond the stars”, but also one which is adept at “imitating” any living being it comes into contact with, including humans. Who Goes There? is also one of the many stories which seems fascinated by tentacles:
“Like a blue-rubber ball, a Thing bounced up. One of its four tentacle-like arms looped out like a striking snake. In a seven-tentacled hand, a six-inch pencil of winking, shining metal glinted and swung upward to face them. Its line-thin lips twitched back from snake-fangs in a grin of hate, red eyes blazing.”
There’s moral bodies and immoral bodies. For example, Edgar Allan Poe’s classic The Tell-Tale Heart. And this story really is a classic (indeed, it features on English Literature exam papers these days). I’d like to personally thank the editors for including it because, having studied it myself, I’d grown sick to death of it. And now, when read anew, with new eyes (well, not really new eyes, that would be a body horror story all of its own) I revisited the slow-burn of the horror here. Specifically, I was impressed by Poe’s matter of fact description of the dismemberment of the corpse: “I cut off the head and the arms and the legs.” And of course, by the dramatic way the heart, buried underneath the floorboards becomes both a potent symbol for his guilt, and of bodily revenge: “the noise arose over all and continually increased. It grew louder – louder – louder!”
Then there’s immortal bodies (such as in Almost Forever, by David Moody). And also there are bodies which revolt and are revolting. In The Body Politic, by Clive Barker, Charlie George (who once played for Arsenal, I believe) finds his hands conspiring against him, “plotting against the body politic.”
There are sexual bodies, as seen in Others, by James Herbert:
“It was as if the meat there had been cut away, leaving bones and muscle, gristle and tendons, organs and tubes, arteries and veins, all open to the foetid air, all displayed before my probing torch. (…) The cavities glistened with wetness(…)”
This uncomfortable male gaze echoes into Richard Christian Matheson’s Region of the Flesh, in which “I began to see her insides; the corridors and cul-de-sacs. The shattered futility. The way her insides were butchered and bloody.”
The strain of gender/ sexual body stories reaches its apotheosis in Changes, by Neil Gaiman, a story in which “the war against cancer has been won,” but at a cost:
“Rajit has spent the two days before her death wondering how he will explain the fact that, as the autopsy demonstrates beyond a doubt, the patient now has a penis and is, in every respect, functionally and chromosomally male.”
“Jo/e wakes at ten pm, feeling tender and new. Back when Jo/e first started on the party scene, each change would prompt a severe self-examination, peering at moles and nipples, foreskin or clit, finding out which scars had vanished and which ones had remained. But Jo/e’s now an old hand at this and puts on the bustle, the petticoat, the bodice and the gown, new breasts (high and conical) pushed together, petticoat trailing the floor, which means Jo/e can wear the forty-year-old pair of Doctor Martens boots underneath (you never know when you’ll need to run, or to walk, or to kick, and silk slippers do no one any favours.”
“While Rajit realized that Reboot would make gender-reassignment surgery obsolete, it never occurred to him that anyone might wish to take it for reasons of desire or curiosity or escape. Thus, he never foresaw the black market in Reboot and similar chemical triggers; nor that, within fifteen years of Reboot’s commercial release and FDA approval, illegal sales of the designer Reboot knock-offs (bootlegs, as they were soon known) would outsell heroin and cocaine, gram for gram, nor than ten times over.”
The idea of bodies in transformation also features in perhaps the least shocking story in the book, Butterfly, by Axelle Carolyn, which is a lovely, hopeful piece…..
Read Part 2 of this review here
Read a story from this collection on ScaryForKids.com
About the reviewer: A J Kirby is the award-winning author of six published novels (Sharkways, 2012; Paint this Town Red, 2012; Perfect World, 2011; Bully, 2009; The Magpie Trap, 2008; When Elephants Walk through the Gorbals, 2007), two collections of short stories (The Art of Ventriloquism, a collection of crime shorts, which was released August 2012, and Mix Tape 2010), three novellas (The Haunting of Annie Nicol, 2012; The Black Book, 2011; Call of the Sea, 2010), and over fifty published short stories, which can be found widely in print anthologies, magazines and journals and across the web in zines, writing sites and more. He is also a sportswriter for the Professional Footballers’ Association and a reviewer for The Short Review and The New York Journal of Books. AJ Kirby lives in Leeds, UK.