I sold a short story last year, perhaps the best-received of the small handful of stories I’ve written thus far. “The Mussel Eater” told of a sea-maiden and temptation, the bribery of shellfish, an attempt to lure a wild creature into a human environment with human food. But wild creatures eat wildly. They’re red in their appetites, and when the time comes to bite down they prefer those who cook mussels to the mussels themselves.
The Mussel Eater got eaten, in other words.
This is not unusual in horror. I’m not talking about carnivorism or even cannibalism here, though these have their special places in the literature of terror and misery. No. I’m speaking of food in general. Horror comes best from small things – from things we can’t avoid. If we could avoid them they wouldn’t be scary. That’s what real horror is for me: the other side of ordinary, the bloody banquet, through the dinner plate darkly.
Food fits well in horror because it’s an imagery that crosses borders. We all know bread. We all know meat and maize and mead, or their local variations. We know what it means to take them into our bodies. We know what it means to live without them.
But we can’t live without them for very long, and that is I think the genesis of the food-as-horror trope. It’s a power relationship and power comes with need and strings, all tied up like a joint of beef about to go in the oven.
It starts off innocently enough: food as a tool, a means of getting things done. In the real world, that tool is a means of sating hunger, providing fuel, but even in the fairy tales it’s more sinister than that. It’s a tool of temptation, it’s bait… something that appeals to greed and indulgence, a lack of self-control. It’s Edmund gorging on Turkish Delight, not realising that by tasting her food he’s sold his agency to the White Witch (and if you think Lewis didn’t mean this to be scary, think again. The ordinary child, said Lewis, “wants to be a little frightened”).
But horrifying sweeties were around long before Lewis. Hansel and Gretel, abandoned in the woods and having thrown away their bread for the birds, would never have run up to gnaw on an ordinary witch’s house, covered over with cobwebs and with paint peeling on the shutters. No, they’re licking at the windowsills and trying to gobble down the doorknob because it’s sugar, that house – sugar and marzipan and toffee, all dressed up in a little forest glade like an angler fish ready to bite. It’s the saccharine, saving light in a dark and scary place, and that cottage hides teeth. It’s a drawcard, a tool to lure little children towards a creature much more interested in carnivorism than confectionary. And off they go, like rockets. Hansel and Gretel don’t stop to think or wonder. They don’t care about property damage. The story presents them as good children, victims of an evil stepmother and a weak father, and good children wouldn’t throw stones at the glass windows of their neighbours… but when the windows are made from wafer thin sheets of caramel then all bets are off. There’s a little lamp of gingerbread shining ahead of them in the darkness and they lose their heads entirely.
Then, of course, they lose their freedom.
It’s the power relationship again, come at from different angles. The witch has the power given to her by food used as a tool. The children lose their power because they can’t control themselves around that tool. It’s no use expecting mortification of the flesh from most people, let alone kids, but gluttony is a sin that stems from loss of control – of self-control, of power over the self – and there’s a cultural history of wanting to see that punished.
(Sing together now: “Augustus Gloop! Augustus Gloop! That great big greedy nincompoop!” About to be turned into fudge, as I recall…)
Strange how these old ideas survive, bleeding into story and reality and ideology and then back again. Just look at the apple: knowledge and expulsion and cynicism, the Songs of Experience. Poison and crystal coffins and cyanide, Alan Turing and Snow White all bound together by Blake. It’s a heavy load of metaphors to lay on a piece of fruit – except it isn’t just a piece of fruit, is it?
Food is transformative. What we eat becomes part of us. It seeps through flesh and bone and blood and that’s a fairly horrifying image in itself, depending on what you’re eating. Are we lamb or calf or rabbit? Are we vegetables grown under the ground, are we fish that swim in the sea, what happens if we swallow an egg? What do we grow into with that inside of us? There’s one answer in a biology textbook, and another lying under the surface.
Sara Saab takes this to even greater lengths in her story “Hani’s: Purveyor of Rusks, Biscuits, and Sweet Tea”. Here the village children are delighted with the local confectioner, an elderly man who spoils and cossets them, who periodically chooses a child to take quietly away for a few hours and load up with sweeties. Because dark fantasy and horror fans are a suspicious bunch, there’s the immediate guess that something is dodgy in the back of the shop, and it’s true that this sweet old man is fiddling with the kiddies… but not in a way that anyone expects. He’s replacing their organs with spun sugar and bonbons, with the things they like most to eat. We’ve all heard the saying, that first principle of consumption: you are what you eat.
Bad enough… except in horror, there’s always a counterweight. You are what others eat.
We’re used to being top of the food chain. Accidents happen, yes – there are shark attacks and lion attacks and occasionally someone actually does exit stage left having been pursued by a bear. But on a species level this is not the norm. There’s a number of what Timothy Findley calls “expendable animals” and we aren’t them. Findley, who wrote a horrifying retelling of Noah’s Ark, Not Wanted on the Voyage, was brutally clear in his depiction of misuse of (often sentient) beasts. In one scene he rapes the betrothed of his son Japeth with a unicorn horn. The horn is still attached to the animal at the time, an innocent loving creature about the size of a dog, and if young Emma survives the experience the unicorn does not. “There was blood all over its face, as well as its horn, and its horn had almost been torn from its brow. Some of the blood was its own – and it was bleeding to death on the table”. It’s a terrible scene, but Noah is unmoved. The animal is there to be used, to be consumed, and that he can toss it away so easily is no surprise, given that the expendable animals of the ark exist to be fed to the carnivores. Those carnivores include (naturally) Noah and his preferred family members. They’re the alpha organism, the mouth through which all animals can go, and they no longer need to hide behind the use of food as tool to demonstrate their power.
It discomforts to have a world where this isn’t the reality. You are what others eat, but there’s another inversion of the first principle that goes hand in sticky hand with that: you are what you eat, except when you aren’t.
James Herbert’s giant killer rats stay stubbornly inhuman, no matter how many people they swarm and guzzle. Werewolves rip a character to shreds and the fact that they’re gorging on gentleman instead of goat makes not the tiniest shred of difference. Even the more science-fictional horror removes humanity from human-eaters. In John Wyndham’s stranded spacecraft story “Survival”, salvage workers eventually come onboard the lost ship to retrieve the expected number of bodies, only to find two survivors: an infant and its mother. The child is healthy, but Alice, who has eaten the rest of the crew, is found skeletal with starvation (that crew has long since been consumed) and quite insane, singing to her baby. She lives in antigravity, ghostlike, and when she lets go of the child to attack the salvage crew (“Food! Lovely food…”) it hangs in the air as she does. Alice might be a cannibal but she’s not human any longer. She’s become a ghoul, an insubstantial thing that floats in dark places and waits for prey. She can be rescued and fed bean soup and buttered toast for the rest of her life but she’s not coming back from that.
You are what you eat, except when you aren’t.
No-one likes the idea of being eaten. It puts us on the wrong side of a power relationship. A sarlacc doesn’t care that you’ve got opposable thumbs and are good at calculus. It’s going to be a long slow digestion regardless, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Of course some of us are more used to consumption than others. Vampires in particular have a history of biting down on toothsome young women dressed in sheer nighties, and ten to one if there’s someone to sacrifice to the dragon it’s going to be a woman. Similarly, if you skip back to Findley’s Noah you’ll see he feels as entitled to Emma’s body as he does the unicorn. It’s something to be eaten up, to be consumed (albeit this time metaphorically). The lower you are on the social hierarchy, the more likely you are to get chomped.
This is a particularly enjoyable trope to see subverted, as Chikodili Emelumadu does with some of her short stories. In “Candy Girl” the heroine is turned slowly into chocolate after an ex-boyfriend doses her with a magic spell. (“Please say you forgive me,” Paul blubs. He kisses my hand many, many times. He pauses, licks his lips. “You taste like Bounty.”) But bounty or not, this transformation comes with a nasty, ricocheting price. In “Tunbi”, pus from a boil slipped into the food of a lascivious uncle slowly rots his penis, studding it with pustules until it swells up “big as a toddler’s arm”. And in “Soup”, a sentient catfish about to be stewed in the cooking pot encourages young Akwaugo, on the cusp of being sold off into marriage, to hack her father and skeevy betrothed to death with a machete. “We’re both in the same pot of soup” says the catfish, reasonably, and neither is in much of a mood to be consumed.
It’s eat or be eaten, in other words. Food is transformative: it changes not only you, but what you can do. And what you can do can be pretty bloody dark, because consumption comes not only with eating food, but with making it. And with making the things that eat it.
One can create via cookery or witchery with good intent. Recycling the bodies of the dead into nutritious rations might be horrifying, but it’s also an ecologically responsible way of feeding the population, whatever that population might think about it. They don’t know, of course. Soylent Green is supposed to be plankton; the population’s all just in the throes of blind consumption. But as they might say, intent isn’t enough.
Sometimes these things take on a life of their own. Maurice Gee explores blind consumption in his young adult trilogy Salt, and in the first, titular volume the consumption seems, as it is in Soylent Green, directed. The population is used to retrieve radioactive minerals from below ground, slave labour to a cruel government. (“You will die in Deep Salt,” hissed the clerk. “Salt worms will eat you. Your soul will be sucked down into the dark.”) The mines are eventually destroyed, but in the subsequent volume the callousness and cruelty that allowed them to exist are made manifest in the Gool, amorphous creatures that, like the Nothing in The NeverEnding Story, slowly consume all in their path. A Gool is “a gaping mouth, a blank disc-like eye, a straining bulk, bear-sized but jellyfish grey” and what it does is feed – on people, on animals and plants and rock, until everything is eaten.
Humans aren’t even special prey to a Gool like they are to a vampire. They get eaten simply because they’re there – in the same way that fruit is there, or granite, or dirt. Against that hunger they are perfectly insignificant, and that is perhaps the most horrifying monster of all.
So have fun this Halloween, with your candy and your toffee apples and your costumes in the dark. You’re taking part in a lovely tradition, and what it’s doing to your insides… well. That’s your business. But remember: Soylent Green is people. Your blood is warm and tasty, the gingerbread house has teeth, and there are always wolves to eat you up.