Food

Food and Fairy Tales win at the SJV awards!!!

I have had a fantastic weekend. I spent it down in Taupo, at LexiCon – New Zealand’s national SFF convention. I was on two panels: with Seanan McGuire and Meryl Stenhouse on Ecosystems in Science Fiction; and with Meryl again and Cat Langford on Writing Science, Writing Science Fiction. They both seemed to go well, got lots of comments and questions and the people who came up to me afterwards were very complimentary, which was kind of them as I’m not the best public speaker in the world and I’m afraid it showed. But still! I was pleased to make the effort, especially given how well LexiCon went. As a convention it was small but perfectly formed, being exceedingly well organised. Everyone was friendly and excited and happy to be there which is exactly how a convention should be.

But the big news – for me, anyway – happened on the last night, just before the closing ceremony, when the Sir Julius Vogel awards were held. These are our national SFF awards, named after a 19th century Prime Minister who wrote feminist science fiction, and they’re handed out every year. I was nominated in two categories: best novella/novelette for The Convergence of Fairy Tales, and best fan writing for my series of columns on food and horror, both of which were published last year by The Book Smugglers.

I was lucky enough to win both! So I have two lovely new trophies to sit on my bookshelf. (I was also really pleased that A.J. Fitzwater won the best short story category for “Splintr”, which was well deserved.)

I’m super grateful to everyone who voted for me. The competition was very strong, especially in the novella category. I didn’t expect to win, but it seems horror is more popular in the NZ fandom than I thought! So much thanks to my fellow kiwi fans, to the SJV organising team, and to Thea and Ana over at The Book Smugglers for all their support!

The Sharp and Sugar Tooth

I’ve spent the last year thinking a lot about food and horror – how our relationship with food impacts our ideas about consumption, and how that consumption can be made a dark and twisted thing. It’s something I’ve written about in my own stories (for instance “The Mussel Eater”), but it’s also something other people have been writing about. There’s a lot of fantastic stories exploring the dark side of culinary life out there…

I’m pleased to say there will soon be more. I’m editing an anthology for Upper Rubber Boot Books, called The Sharp and Sugar Tooth, to be published late next year. Submissions are open, and you can find the submission call here. Basically what I’m looking for is creepy, beautiful, mouth-watering stories with an element of horror. Stories can be dark fantasy or science fiction or straight horror, but they must be themed around food gathering, food preparation, or the act (and consequences) of consumption. Sex, strong language (and cannibalism!) is fine, but I’m not interested in torture-porn of people or animals even if that’s what gets them onto the plate.

Subversive, diverse stories with a focus on women are appreciated. The Sharp and Sugar Tooth is part of Upper Rubber Boot’s Women Up To No Good series, so authors must identify as female, non-binary, or as a marginalised sex or gender identity.

  • Word count: Up to 5000 words.
  • Payment: six cents per word.
  • Publication history: Original stories only. Reprints may be submitted by invitation only.
  • Multiple submissions: No.
  • Simultaneous submissions: No.
  • Deadline: 31 July 2017. All stories will be replied to by the end of August.
  • To submit: Please send stories in standard manuscript format, attached in .doc or .rtf files, to octaviacade@hotmail.com with the subject line SUGAR TOOTH. Be sure to provide mailing address and a short bio.
  • If the work is a translation, please also provide a statement from the rights holder that you are authorized to translate and submit it (both author and translator will receive full payment).

We encourage and welcome stories from voices underrepresented in speculative fiction, including (but not limited to) writers of colour, LGBTQ writers, writers with disabilities, and writers in translation.

 

Short Stories and Eating Alien Politics

cwFOOD AND HORROR, PART SEVEN

This is the seventh in a series of columns on Food and Horror that I’m writing for Ana and Thea over at The Book Smugglers. It first appeared on their site a few months back.

The thing about food is that it can be a substitution for so much more. Consumption is a metaphor of many parts, with teeth all around – erupting, even, from places we don’t expect. In this month’s column, I’m sticking with contemporary short stories – but stories informed by other narratives of consumption, narratives of fantastic and natural horror that have their own subtext, their own ways of eating through and looking at the world around.

This month, I’m looking at alien predation. Eating aliens, and being eaten by them. This does tend away from the more fantastic or fairy tale narratives that I’ve talked about in some previous columns. “Alien” tends to imply science fiction, the coming of another sentient species – and one that hails from other worlds, other civilisations. This isn’t the witch with a candy cottage, sugar syrup in the cauldron and waiting for kids to eat up. This is space ships and invasion, the influence of foreign biology. But major differences aside – and there are major differences, for I’ve always thought that science fiction has markedly different concerns than fantasy (although that’s a whole other series of columns) – genre comes from the same mindset: a human one, and one that deals with human concerns. Thus similarities remain, even once the differences have been stripped off.

One of those similarities is the desire to use story for metaphor. I’ve talked before in these columns about vampires and how their blood-sucking has often been seen as a substitute for sex, and they’ve not exactly been original comments on my part. That’s an argument that has been around for a long time… something creepy to get past the censors, a sensual violation of a kind that can be lit up on a cinema screen without risking too much in the way of fines and obscenity charges. It’s consumption as a substitute for sex, and a fairly well understood one at that.

Recall also the success of natural horror: bands of tourists floating through the crocodile infested waters of the Northern Territory, or splashing in the seaside waters of Amity. This too uses consumption to tell a story, and if that story isn’t concerned with sex so much as survival, it’s still anchored to biology. The creature horror narratives are nasty reminders of our place in the food chain. They assign the label of prey animal instead of lover, instead of top-of-the-heap, the chosen party, or the most successful species – the most dangerous, the one slaughtering all the others. It’s a reminder that brains aren’t all that, and that they don’t protect against teeth and appetite. Splitting the atom has no effect on a rampaging croc, and no great white shark is going to fall under the spell of any swimming Scheherazade, telling stories in her swimming costume to keep her legs from being taken off at the hips.

These aren’t the only examples, of course, but they do illustrate ways that both fantastic horror and natural horror use consumption to tell stories other than the surface one. And that subversion, as it was last month, is where the modern short story really shines.

So: aliens. Aliens and food. Aliens who want to eat us.

It’s arguable that this kind of story belongs in a subset of creature horror. Is there really that much of a difference between being eaten by a crocodile, and being eaten by a reptilian alien that has substantial crocodilian characteristics? This hypothetical alien has a natural origin, suspending disbelief as we are. That’s why it’s science fiction. It’s not some entity raised from a Hellmouth, or cobbled together out of magic and spare parts, electricity and the remnant imaginings of Frankenstein. It is, supposedly, the product of natural selection, having evolved on a difference world with different population pressures, different ecologies and competing species. A rational construct, in other words: a created, imaginary creature, to be sure, but one created according to scientific principles and subject to natural laws.

On that level, there’s probably not that much difference between a carnivorous croc from Australia and one from outer space. Maybe minor variations in tooth size and structure, but that’s not going to matter if they hold and tear and bite… at least not to the one being held and torn and bitten. Which tends to beg the question: why use alien creatures at all? There are plenty of hungry beasties on Earth which could do the job quite nicely, and actually do so in any number of stories.

The answer is, of course, substitution. It’s using alien creatures to tell a story that can’t be told using animals from this planet. The most obvious difference is sentience. A large enough crocodile could destroy a propeller, but it can’t actually pilot a boat – or a spaceship, for that matter. It lacks technical and social intelligence enough to not only traverse space, but to cooperate with others of its species to do so.

And that’s where the short story comes in. I talked last month about how today’s short SFF story increasingly values diversity, with stories by diverse authors becoming increasingly more common and accessible. Because each of these authors write stories informed by their own experiences, the resulting stories indicate a wider range of these prompting experiences, and one of the ways they illustrate this is in their relationship with, and attitude to, power.

They tend towards the subversive, is what I’m trying to say. Last month I talked about some stories that used consumption to illuminate transformation, particularly in those stories that explored changing gender relationships. This month, I’m looking at how stories can use consumption to explore other power relationships – specifically that of political structures – specifically those that address inclusivity. Using alien societies to examine this sort of structure allows them to act as a metaphor for human debate without getting too bogged down in it (one hopes – there are always those painfully thin efforts that are poor disguises for polemic, but one doesn’t have to go to the trouble of reading them when there’s jam to be made and cupcakes to ice).

Passage of Earth” by Michael Swanwick, takes the phrase “you are what you eat” to a whole new level. It starts, however, with an illustration of exoticism. It defines the alien through autopsy, essentially. Hank is a pathologist whiling away the night shift with drowning victims and hopes of fishing. Then his ex-wife Evelyn brings him a Worm: an eight foot monstrosity stretched out on a slab and ready for the knife. The Worms are engaged in an invasion of Earth, but one of their ships crash-landed and suddenly science has a number of corpses to play with – and play Hank does. He fillets and dissects and holds open with fishing nylon, opening up this horrible creature, preparing it for the table of his morgue.

The Worm, being a Worm, has its own markedly different relationship with food. It appears to be a mud eater:

“Let me take a look at that beak again. . . . Hah. See how the muscles are connected? The beak relaxes open, aaand—let’s take a look at the other end—so does the anus. So this beast crawls through the mud, mouth wide open, and the mud passes through it unhindered.”

There’s also three stomachs, so one assumes that minerals are filtered out therein in order to feed the truly massive brain. But whatever Hank’s comments on the transformative nature of the Worm’s digestive system – “It tastes the mud as it passes, and we can guess that the mud will be in a constant state of transformation, so it experiences the universe more directly than do we” – the horror is not solely in the dissection of this once living, thinking creature.

The horror comes when Hank starts to eat it.

Don’t get the wrong impression here. His autopsy kit doesn’t come with a steak knife or a lobster pick. Hank doesn’t go in for that sort of gluttony. His consumption is automatic; his will undermined by an alien… something. For behind a stinking black gland is a “small white structure, square and hard meshwork, looking like a cross between an instrument chip and a square of Chex cereal”.

It’s this that Hank eats, with his corpse-covered, glove-covered hands – and he’s not the only one. It turns out that this is the invasion, the crashed ship a deliberate ploy to use consumption as a transformative agent. To make Hank a Worm, to eat him up and steal his memories.

And the worst of it is he suspected the Worms would do something like that. Evelyn brings him one of the crashed corpses because she has faith in his ability to be imaginative in strange ways, to see around corners and make assumptions in biology and psychology. This is the science of science fiction, fitting form to thought, cause to effect. Differences in physiology impact on how a creature perceives the world, and how they interact with it. Assessing the massive brain and the chemical conversion chambers attached to the digestive system, Hank makes a decent guess at the nature of the enemy:

“I’d say the Worms are straightforward and accepting—look at how they move blindly ahead—but that their means of changing things are devious, as witness the mass of alembics. That’s going to be their approach to us. Straightforward, yet devious in ways we just don’t get. Then, when they’re done with us, they’ll pass on without a backward glance.”

Just as they do when passing through mud, because food is something to be absorbed and excreted and left behind. But the problem with mud-dwellers excreting digested mud back into the ground again is that eventually other mud-dwellers will swim through that excretion. Like humans pissing in a swimming pool, if you’ll forgive the crudeness of the expression. And what do you know, this particular characteristic mimics the political structure of the species.

The Worms are essentially the Borg of the annelid world. A hive culture, and when one individual dies its remains are eaten by the rest. Its flesh is returned to the species, transformed into new Worms, and its memories absorbed. (“Your biological and technological distinctiveness will be added to our own.”) And there’s Hank, beating his ex-wife to death and slowly being taken over, being driven insane, as he literally drives himself to an alien ship to be eaten – only to discover that his sense-images and memory of the drive, of the whole hideous experience, are just that: recollections, because Hank is already being digested. He’s the mud in the machine, and conscious the whole time.

This is a story that clearly cannot be told with a saltwater crocodile. As briefly as one might be aware of ambush, of teeth fastening onto a torso, no-one in the stomach of said crocodile has any remaining awareness. (Because they’ve already been torn into bloody chunks, but you get my drift.) This is a story that can only be told with an alien antagonist, one with a social and biological structure so foreign, so anathema to our own that the method of eating is insult compounded. As a species we are individualists. Compared to the hive mind of the Worm, ideological conflicts as massive as, for instance, the Cold War, are as nothing. They’re the disorganisation of a minor species. Hank simply cannot tell, of course, from a single specimen, if there are racial or sexual differences between members of the Worm population. But here’s the thing: if there are, does it even matter? The collective experiences of each hive member are shared by all the members of that hive. One has to ask: what use is Worm racism then? What use sexism? (If they have sexes.) These questions are all implicit. Swanwick doesn’t explore them in the text, but they’re there bubbling up underneath. Still, there’s an uncomfortable tension between the dystopian and the utopian here; the moral state of monsters.

It’s the Borg story again, writ large over the cosmos. Eating as a means of control, of colonisation, yes – but also eating as a mirror. Star Trek, with its (grossly overused, I can’t stop myself from saying) device of the mirror universe is used to looking at society through a glass darkly. And with its foundation principle of infinite diversity in infinite combinations, the Federation is the resulting political structure of this principle. The Borg, however – they’re infinite diversity in a single (hive) form, but the value of diversity remains. They’ll assimilate nearly everything – and so will the Worms. Because knowledge is valuable, and not just that which serves the periodic table, or propulsion systems. Knowledge is individual as well, personal – and personal is political. Worms will get medical knowledge of their dinner by consuming doctors, yes – but they’ll also get knowledge of unequal pay, and female circumcision, and lynching.

If they colonise.

Because this tactic, the one designed for diversity, is fundamentally flawed, as Evelyn points out. Given the human response to the crash, a response couched in the military industrial complex of an individualised, non-hive species, consumption is limited.

“The Worms crashed it in the Pacific on purpose. They killed hundreds of their own so the bodies would be distributed as widely as possible. They used themselves as bait. They wanted to collect a broad cross-section of humanity.

“Which is ironic, really, because all they’re going to get is doctors, morticians, and academics. Some FBI agents, a few Homeland Security bureaucrats. No retirees, cafeteria ladies, jazz musicians, soccer coaches, or construction workers. Not one Guatemalan nun or Korean noodle chef. But how could they have known? They acted out of perfect ignorance of us and they got what they got.”

And I’m reading this, and maybe it’s the beer and maybe I’m just used to talking about subversion in this column but it’s hard not to see this as a commentary on the state of the SFF short story today. Food and horror is so dependent on context, on the sub rosa presentation of power, that it’s now something I expect to see kept behind teeth and tongue and gullet.

Possibly the ongoing conversation at the moment in SFF is diversity. Who gets published more, who gets reviewed more. Who ends up on “Best of” lists. Look at this table of contents. Look at that one. How did that anthology end up so skewed? Our submission guidelines are open to everyone; we’re just taking the best of what we get – says the editor (says the Worm), and you know, I reckon half the time they really do believe in the value of diverse stories but their sampling systems are skewed. Their submission system is set down in one place and it eats up every story fed into it, but the Worms don’t go looking because they seem to trust to cross-sections. The Pacific will offer up Guatemalan nuns and Korean chefs and if it doesn’t, then they don’t exist. Their stories are not the ones to be consumed, and unless the Worms crash land in a number of different places, sent Hank and his ilk out to actively sample more meals, to stuff themselves forcibly down the throats of unsampled populations, then what the Worms get is a small snapshot of a culture only.

Some groups submit stories less than others; some submit earlier than others. This isn’t news. I’m always interested in submission stats… they feed a desire to know and analyse and argue. And while it’s problematic to describe other people as alien or the other, science fiction has a long tradition of trying on different perspectives through alien masks. It’s rooted in the desire to communicate, I think, to talk about issues in what can be a less incendiary way. To slide the conversation in sideways.

It’s this communication that comes through in “Pithing Needle” by E. Catherine Tobler. Communication through consumption again, and it’s no accident that both the stories in this column are from Clarkesworld. They’re very similar in theme, so it’s no surprise that they appeal to the same taste.

“Pithing Needle” is shorter than “Passage of Earth”. Yet the subject is the same: carnivorous aliens, crashed ships, and humans being eaten up by aliens that look like hermit crabs instead of worms. As the narrator says:

“I don’t try to talk to them—they have mouths but use them only to eat. I will not be eaten—slick trigger in slick glove, I fire the way they eat: constant. Sometimes I get there before they do; sometimes I’m firing and a soldier is already inside that shell, digesting. A thousand tongues inside one hungry, angry mouth.”

It’s an understandable fear. Invasion is taking over, and there are enough narratives in the news these days of hostile intruders to make an impression on anyone’s subconscious, not matter one’s truly held political beliefs (of which, it must be said, I know nothing of with regard to the authors featured here). And media today is so concerned with consumption, with catering to particular taste as news is packaged up, that having consumption take literal form in an actual invasion of the really foreign is unsurprising.

Again, though, the alien ship is a hive.

“You never kick a hive because of what may come boiling out, but when the troops place the explosives in an effort to bring the upper levels of the thing down, they only succeed in busting open all the levels that weren’t broken open upon landing. This ship explodes with life; aliens everywhere.”

And again, this is an understandable choice. Not only is the hive an alien construct, at least on a human level, but it has connotations of faceless masses, swarming over borders and bringing changing patterns of consumption. New foods, new languages, new ways of doing things and like locusts they eat up all that is inherently different.

When the nameless narrator of “Pithing Needle” is captured by an alien and taken into the depths of the hive, eaten up and spat back out again, it’s a digestive disgorgement that comes with language, and with the potential ability for communication, for cross-species translation.

“The alien that swallowed me perches on the rim of this room, screaming. Eventually, this alien begins to calm and the scream turns into a chitter turns into a pattern, a pattern that my brain begins to dissect.

Language is patterns, repetitions; pauses and stops and resumptions, and this, this is what the alien is doing. It’s talking to me. Trying to tell me something. I understand none of the words, but the structure becomes familiar.”

When language exchange is insufficient, the alien tries a more direct approach, forcing its needle into the base of a brain in a sort of telepathic exchange of colour and sensation. Of different stories, of confinement and space, of imprisonment and freedom. And when this suddenly dual-focused individual is ejected from the hive, carrying memories not their own, relationships with other humans begin to change.

“I cannot form the proper words to tell them, about the ship and the cells, and then you are there, cradling my head, asking if I can see you.

I see you, in more colors than ever before. The color that glosses your rain-wet face has no word; the taste of the rain that slides from your nose and into my chittering mouth has no name on this world. What world—this world, but I cannot say where I am. I could reach into the drone that passes over us, could crack open the housing and show you the spill of wires, connective pathways; I could turn these colors and tastepaths into a map, could pull you inside this space and show you, but you would only ever know a fraction–a fragment, a–”

This is consumption as transformation again, the opening up of perception, of empathy, that comes from the understanding of another thinking creature. Even if that creature is a predator, even if its primary desire is to eat, to consume – and even if you’re the dinner – this is a form of knowledge without which one is lesser. I am not, I am not, please note, arguing that diversity precludes disagreement – often fundamental and, in the case of these two stories, violent.

But this is science fiction, and I am a scientist at heart. And no knowledge is wasted. No knowledge is useless.

And no stories are either.

 

 

Short Stories and Transformation

apexmag11_largeFOOD AND HORROR, PART SIX

This is the sixth in a series of columns on Food and Horror that I’m writing for Ana and Thea over at The Book Smugglers. It first appeared on their site a few months back.

 

I’m a short fiction writer. I like the discipline of it, the concision. I like that it demands things from both readers and writers – that there’s no room to spoon-feed, that all the connections are implicit. They’re also, I think, more responsive to the world around us. There’s not the same expectation of economic return as there is in a novel, so there’s more room to experiment, to go for different setting and subjects, different cultures, different contexts. In this short stories are a very experimental form – and often a very aware one.

This awareness is present in food and horror shorts, as it is in the rest of sci-fi and fantasy. Writers know the consumption narrative, know it instinctively because food and horror has been around a long time, in any number of ways – natural and supernatural and textual, and with a history like that it’s easy to become referential.

In the first of these columns I talked about Hansel and Gretel, about the gingerbread house in the woods: dangerous temptation, peril spun about with sugar and marzipan, consumption within consumption for what is all this gingerbread for if not to plump up the witch’s next meal? Come stuffer the little children, so that the hungry owner of that house can stuff herself. It’s a well known story, and a well loved one.

What it is not is a static story. Damien Angelica Waters takes it on in her short “A Lie You Give, And Thus I Take”. Hansel doesn’t exist in this story, and the Gretel equivalent is a grown woman, the witch an abusive partner who feeds her up on sugar and marshmallow and tiramisu, measuring her hips and frowning, trying to feed up his girlfriend into the image of the house. Because the Gretel figure here is the house, in her way – tied to the domestic sphere with chores and expectation, “scrubbing meringue from the linoleum”. Taking to the house with a pastry knife, she believes it to be a reflection of her partner (“I’d know your handwriting anywhere”) but it’s not just the house he’s covering up with fondant. It’s the sugar-construction of both woman and home that links them together.

This is a story of linkages.

She thinks she’s in a different story sometimes, does this Gretel figure: Cinderella come into the house of gingerbread, but “All the stories are the same” says her feeder, when what he really means is all outcomes are predetermined, including yours. This is consumption of a different kind, a nibbling into shape, a cookie cutter gingerbread woman there to be consumed when she’s done with the scrubbing, when she’s placated the jealousy of accusations of infidelity. “You were with the dwarves, weren’t you?” he says, wanting to eat her up, and even though she wasn’t the suspicion was enough for punishment, for little bites of flesh (“…that night, you bite a little too hard, a little too many times, leaving me with a set of oddly-shaped, half-moon bruises”).

“I can’t remember ever being this hungry before”, states the Gretel figure, but what she’s really hungry for isn’t taffy or chocolate or raspberry preserves. It isn’t even chicken or soup or cubes of beef stock, the objects of her lonely fantasies. It’s the ability to break out of stories, to end the ongoing narrative of her consumption. The Gretel who shoved a witch into the stove to save her brother isn’t this aware – she’s too juvenile for awareness, for the comparisons of other stories and the undercurrents of gender and power. Her power is all on the surface, all adults and ovens. There’s little temptation there past the obvious, and certainly sex never comes into it. The witch may have bitten her all to pieces after her brother but the biting wouldn’t have been in bed, that’s for sure.

But if consumption narratives can be forcibly terminated, sometimes you’ve just got to see them through to the end. I’ve talked about Chikodili Emelumadu’s “Candy Girl” in this series before – it’s one of my absolute favourite short stories ever, so why not – and it has consumption and transformation winding round each other like a double helix. Waters has her Gretel figure putting a stop to her own consumption (to the endless swallowing of sugar, to the consumption of her sexual self) but Muna, the protagonist of “Candy Girl”, has to give herself up to consumption in order to force transformation.

Turning into chocolate at the behest of an idiot ex, who tried a love potion and got it wrong, his bastardised adoption of another culture failing under the shallowness of his understanding, Muna visits a wise woman to find out how to break the spell, to turn her from Bounty bar back into flesh. “Turns out he has to eat her,” says Ozulu. The sickly slide of flesh into sticky sugar can’t be stopped, but matter and energy both are transformative. As the act of eating recycles food into flesh, so Muna, become food, can change her state through that same consumption.

Paul, the dimwitted ex, is delighted. It’s what he’s always wanted: to eat her up, to have her culture inside him, a way to become the other, to transform himself from Whiteboy into Igbo. It was why Muna dumped him in the first place, the realisation that she’d become a fetish object to him, wanted not for herself but what she represented. “He wanted to belong and it didn’t matter whom he needed to fixate on to get in.” Then a spell goes wrong and suddenly there she is, in perfect consumable form, and he can barely contain his glee. He’s on her straight off, guzzling down every last part of her and he’s got permission to do it, no-one can blame him, it’s all so perfect!

When he reaches for my breasts Ginika wallops him but Ozulu puts a hand out to stop her.

“He must eat all of her to keep all of her. You don’t want some of her faculties gone, do you?”

Paul smiles the smile of a triumphant child that doesn’t realise it is in trouble. He suckles on a breast which stretches high, high, high before breaking off. It wobbles in his mouth, gleaming a dull red.

“Turkish delight!” Paul claps. He attacks the other one with gusto.

Paul, you might have noticed, is a fucking creep. But if modern short stories are good at anything they are good at subversion, and if Waters’ Gretel figure takes herself, with deliberation, out of the story then Muna clings onto it, shaping what she cannot stop. Because you are what you eat, and this is something else that Paul doesn’t understand, and when Muna is inside him, becoming flesh again, starting from a lump in his treacherous testicle, she can push him out of his own body, take it over as he took hers, and the only trace left of him at the end of this second transformation, of this second consumption, is a fragment of foot than can easily be hidden by a sock.

Waters looked at story and gender, but Emelumadu looks at colonialism and gender, the place and power of ownership. These are subversive stories, stories of temptation and threat and how to deal with each, but most of all they are stories of transformation. Of the assumption of personal power, of reclaiming what has been stolen.

But because consumption and transformation are so linked with the idea of power the stories of this power can also provide a mirror to subversion, as well as the potential to pull back from it. Alyssa Wong’s “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” initially presents consumption in terms of flipped gender assumptions. The Gretel figure is abused and Muna is exploited but Jen only assumes the role of victim in order to procure her own.

On a date with the obnoxious Harvey, whose thoughts “glisten with ancient grudges and carry an entitled, Ivy League stink”, Jen sifts through his thoughts and finds them full of violence, of murder and degradation – hers. For Harvey is a killer, another of the horrifying multitude that feels entitled to a woman’s body in whatever form he chooses to consume her.

She’s got perfect tits,” he thinks, “lil’ handfuls just waiting to be squeezed.”

I can’t wait to cut her up,” he thinks.

She’ll look so good spread out over the floor,” he thinks.

I’m going to take her home and split her all the way from top to bottom. Like a fucking fruit tart,” he thinks, drunk on dreams of wallowing in screams and blood.

Jen, all too aware of the entitlement behind the impulse, just smiles sweetly and goes along, all the while thinking “They’re never as strong as they think they are”. Gretel leaves the story, Muna goes along gracefully until she can use that going along to stage a take-over, but Jen fights from the get go, prowling in a way that Harvey could never dream of or even appreciate. And why not? This is the golden age of short fiction, after all, with women and minorities and the weight of diversity piling up, and the Harveys of the world (and the Pauls) had better look out.

But he doesn’t look out, does Harvey, so sure in the idea of his own consumption that he misses what’s coming at him for Jen is as hungry as he is.

I launch myself at him, fingers digging sharp into his body, and bite down hard on his mouth. He tries to shout, but I swallow the sound and shove my tongue inside. There, just behind his teeth, is what I’m looking for: ugly thoughts, viscous as boiled tendon. I suck them howling and fighting into my throat as Harvey’s body shudders, little mewling noises escaping from his nose.

The transformation from victim to predator is mirrored in the detail that, after her consumption, Jen briefly takes on the form of her victim. Harvey’s abandoned next to a dumpster, naked, in the kind of pose and setting we usually find female victims in, if every crime show I’ve ever turned into is believed, of course. And this transformation is key to the text.

Wong subverts the typical predator/prey gender dynamic, but by clothing Jen in the appearance and power of her selected victim she also transfers the potential for relevant flaws. It’s “you are what you eat” again, and the consumption of power corrupts, turns power relationships on their edges and makes other people victims. Jen, gorged on a killer of young women, finds herself drooling over sweet friendly Aiko, a girl who’s so appealing that Jen just wants to eat her.

It makes it hard to build a relationship, but that’s what food is, and horror: temptation and the transformation of the flesh, of the connections between flesh. Even if those connections are on a small scale, and domestic.

There’s a difference in the scale of transformation, however. Gretel might transform through sugar, through gingerbread, into an independent woman, a killer of witches, but food can also be used for more obvious transformations – and for more subtle ones. Food can turn a body into a monstrous thing, can make of it a monster, can be used to feed monsters, and to breed them. But how far can this go? Can food change a universe?

Yes, if the universe is a single person. If I’m bitten by a vampire and turn into a creature who needs to drink blood to live, then my universe is certainly different. It may even be upturned entirely, if that universe is one where vampires are creatures of fiction only… until I find out the hard way that they’re not.

But can objectivity be so undermined? Does food have the power to change a universe for everyone as well as for the individual, as well as for the moment? It does in Kelly Jennings’ story “Dream House”. Here the consumption of a cake changes worlds. A demoted corporal who has lost his wife (whether to death or divorce) eats for change, but change is not limited to his body – or even his understanding of the universe. Everything changes for him, the universe reshaping around him to a better life, one with wife and daughters and an admittedly unhappy death that is at least better than it could have been.

What’s notable about this very short story is what it doesn’t say. The horror lies in the cracks, in the unanswered questions. My interpretation of it – an interpretation which could very well be wrong – is that the universal change of the dream cake is universally subjective only. I think that the new decades of his better life are a dream, and one that in real time lasts only very briefly. The Corporal leaves his credit chip behind and Ella, the baker of the dream cake, “knew from experience that for at least an hour, maybe even two, after the change, it would still be functional”. She promptly empties the balance into her own account – after all, the Corporal won’t need it where he’s going.

Is it euthanasia, is it murder? Either way it comes with pastry, with coconut milk and spices, with sweet smells that speak of a life beyond the station. A temptation, yes, and not so very different than the gingerbread house. “We can live here and be happy,” say Hansel and Gretel, not knowing that as soon as they’re start to suck on butterscotch that their lives are running out.

Does the Corporal know? I expect so, but still – one shudders to think. “Now your dream is the world,” says Ella, but the world can be a circumscribed thing and it’s no coincidence that the Captain of the post-dream, the demoted Corporal who was, dies in orbital decay, clutching to a photo of the family he wanted but never had/wanted and got.

(All the stories are the same.)

But it’s not enough in horror for food to be (potentially) deadly. It can be dehumanising as well. Often this occurs when the human element of the equation is the prey animal, but it can also be seen in stories where humans are treated the same way as food as treated, while not being food themselves. Obviously this doesn’t mean planting them in soil, or hanging from the hooks of a slaughterhouse, but comes from the changing definition of “human” to something more closely resembling “resource”. Look at, for example, Victor Fernando R. Ocampo’s story “Blessed are the Hungry”. Here, on a generational interstellar voyage where food is limited to mushroom plots and biodegradable plastics, the treatment of the colonists is creepily similar to that of their crops. Genetic diversity is key, and so reproduction is strictly regulated – and strictly encouraged, with each household expected to have a minimum of eight people.

There isn’t food enough to support this burgeoning population, however. Rations are cut and cut again, and anyone who protests against this or the reproductive strategy is shoved out an airlock. This leave a society crammed in the (frequently literal) dark, absolutely disposable and of no more individual account than the mushrooms. “Why can’t we keep them all hale and healthy?” asks a priest who’s doomed to spacing, “instead of constantly creating, discarding, and replacing?”

Because genetic control is only a part of it. Social control is the real goal, the diminution of human dignity to factory farmed spores remarkable only for their reproductive capacity. Individual elements are to be weeded out in service of the whole. In a sense, the mushrooms are afforded more consideration.

It’s the brutal overthrow of this ideology, the social desire to change human status from resource/mushroom analogue to something with a little bit of self-determination and dignity, that’s the drive of the story. Because even crammed like fungi into tiny rooms, controlled by food and especially by its absence, the people of the spaceship can see themselves becoming more than they are.

It’s a form of knowledge, this power, because transformation comes with comprehension, or at least the experience of different states, of how it feels to move between them. And sometimes that movement, when sparked by consumption, is physical and sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes what food brings is understanding. Such is the case in “Mother of Giants” by Kirsty Logan. In times of famine, infants disappear out of cradles, taken by the witch in the woods for her dinner. A little girl wakes sobbing from nightmares, and the local mothers tell their stories quietly, so as not to scare her further. But there are others stories they tell, and these the little girl does hear: The Mother of Giants, and how she takes hungry babies and fosters them, feeds them until they’re fat and happy, saves them from starvation and suffering.

The stories are images of each other (all stories are the same!) and the girl sees one younger brother born, and then another. This youngest child is taken away soon after birth, taken by the witch or rescued by the Mother, and the little girl, believing in the stories, sneaks out into the woods and brings the witch back with her:

When I shut my eyes, she was there. She had filthy matted hair and shining gold eyes and long, sharp fingers like a bird’s talons. She rushed towards me and her mouth opened so wide that it split her head open to show her black bloody teeth.

Food is transformative, and I’ve talked in previous columns about how the lack of food can also usher in transformation (it certainly does in Ocampo’s story). But lack of food can also impede transformation: it can fix a body in place and keep it tethered to childhood, to the time before understanding. But then the famine ends and the girl, growing round and full of roast pork, of milk, transforms from child to fertile woman to mother, and it’s when she has her own children and the famine comes again that she understands the true relationship between killing witch and kind Mother. The infants born into hunger, to women too starved to lactate, can die slowly of hunger… or they can be taken out into the woods and left in the snow, a quick and painless death that’s covered up with stories when stories can give no comfort. “There was a woman who loved her baby. But love is not food…”

Love is, however, knowledge – and so is lack. Hunger transforms, and the resulting horror is tinged with practicality and compassion. It doesn’t come with easy answers, though – good horror rarely does. It does come with connection.

And that’s, I think, one of the things I’m seeing from creepy, contemporary short stories themed around food and consumption. Their treatment of transformation is aware. It’s subversive and diverse. Perhaps most importantly, it doesn’t focus on the permanence or the strength of the change; it doesn’t draw a hard line between. Instead the primary concern is the similarity between pre- and post-transformative bodies: colonisation before and after chocolate, the mirror-selves of witch and mother, the dual expansion of genetics and ideology, the place of women in stories, and the eating up of dreams.

 

Gender and Consumption II: Sex and the Slow Destabilisation of the Ordinary

castleFOOD AND HORROR, PART FIVE

This is the fifth in a series of columns on Food and Horror that I’m writing for Ana and Thea over at The Book Smugglers. It first appeared on their site a few months back.

 

I’ve always thought that one of the primary characteristics of horror is destabilisation. It’s taking the ordinary and presenting it skewed, so that the normal methods of interaction, of amelioration, don’t work.

It up-ends expectation. This is not to say that horror always up-ends expectation and this is especially apparent with regard to gender. Last month I talked about how often the woman-as-object-of-consumption trope is used, and how it can mirror expected social behaviour. This month I’m looking at it from the other end: what horror has to say about women who are the consumers, who are the monsters that hunt down and devour, or who use food as a weapon to enforce their own desires.

We’ve seen inklings of this before, in such fairy tales as “The Juniper Tree”, where the stepmother serves up her stepson to his father in a stew. There are a number of ways to interpret such an act. It’s using food as a tool of vengeance, yes, but it’s also using it within the context of a power relationship, with the stepmother clearing the board in favour of her own daughter and that daughter’s future inheritance.

But there’s a third interpretation, and it’s destabilisation: the undermining of the family unit, the fracturing of cohesion. As I said above, I find destabilisation to be a frequently occurring facet of horror, and how the female-consumer can cause – or emphasise – destabilisation is the subject of this month’s piece.

This undermining of expectation can occur on a number of levels: social, familial, environmental… even scientific. What is primarily undermines, though, is worldview. As humans, we tend to organise our experiences, to catalogue them and string them together in order to find a way to make sense of the universe. This is something that helps us learn, and is a valuable tool for survival. Up-end that understanding by introducing a threat – and in horror, there’s always a threat – and the chances for survival materially diminish.

In some ways destabilisation of an existing social model can be interpreted as a subversive good. I talked about this last month, but part of the reason that women are so often dish of the day in horror is the perception of them as passive and exploitable as compared to, for instance, the male heroic figure. Perception of consumability crosses over: if your main role in a story is to wear a flimsy nightdress and have a fetching neck for sucking on, you’re well into the food-as-sex-substitute territory.

Constant portrayal of feminine victimhood gets old, however. It’s a power relationship that in today’s world becomes less and less satisfactory, and modern culture consumers (at least half of whom are women) have a vested interested in branching out. If consumption is a power relationship, and if gender is a power relationship, why not flip the two together?

Such flips don’t have to be subtle. Sometimes the appeal of a horror story doesn’t come within screaming distance of subtle. Consider the film Teeth, for instance, which updates the vagina dentata image to repeated and bloody effect. Teenage protagonist Dawn is both virginal and abstinent, but then a date goes bad and she’s raped by her boyfriend. Neither the rape nor the boyfriend last long, however, as Dawn discovers a previously unknown ability and bites down with a different set of teeth than the ones above her neck. Young Tobey subsequently bleeds to death and good riddance to him.

Unfortunately for Dawn, she lives in a world where all men are rapists. Alright, not all men, but the movie is one long repetition of sexual assault, one after the other, where other people try to take away Dawn’s right to control her own body and promptly discover she has more control than anyone ever gave her credit for.

This is an over-the-top, in-your-face revenge horror fantasy, but it means to be over-the-top. There’s no subtlety here, and no mining for hidden messages. Rapists get chewed up –or at least part of them does – and the film has no sympathy for them. This is consumption turned around and made deadly to those who thought that consumption was primarily made for them. Think women are consumable? Think again… while you can. And make sure you do your thinking with the right head, because it’s easy enough to lose the other one.

This is consumption updated, nature red in tooth and cunt but it’s not the nature that Tennyson had in mind. Horror lives on the boundary of the natural and unnatural, and destabilisation is apparent on either side. In truth, though, I’ve always thought it more apparent on the side of the unnatural.

One reason why horror is so successful in destabilisation is the increasing rationalism of daily life. A population familiar with evolution, with the science of biology, needs to rely on the suspension of disbelief when it comes to giant predatory animals that would collapse under their own weight if they actually turned up on the nearest street-corner.

Audiences are often prepared to suspend their disbelief, however, especially if they know going in that they’re entering a book set fast in unreality. It’s one thing to take Shelob seriously and shudder; I know in advance that The Lord of the Rings is a fantasy work. A spider her size turning up in a non-speculative context, however, and my tolerance comes to a screaming halt.

That being said, there are work-arounds, especially if the monstrous female consumer exists in a science fiction setting – low gravity might improve the odds of supporting that weight, for instance, or it could be a robot in the form of a spider. I’m prepared to go along with that, especially when it’s couched in somewhat familiar terms.

Just look at the Alien films. There’s a lot that’s familiar in them: eusocial creatures, the deadly maternal figure, parasitoid larvae eating up the resources of their hosts. What’s unfamiliar is the setting and the size. Even if the crew of the Nostromo were all working biologists familiar with similar traits in other organisms, they’d still be both dumbfounded and horrified at the introduction of the actual Alien. That creature is so far out of their experience that even processing its existence is a challenge, let alone cataloguing its weaknesses and looking for some way to stop the thing. The Alien is in fact so very alien that at the beginning of the first sequel, Aliens, Ripley is having some trouble convincing the Corporation of the veracity of her story – and that’s when that story is of a natural predator, being told to men from a world full of natural predators. How much more destabilising would a ghost have been for their collective worldview?

There’s a lot of cross-over in horror. Fantasy and sci-fi and literary gothic all contribute, and saying that horror exists on another borderline – that of the natural and the unnatural – while marginally adequate as a descriptor, can also I think miss the point. That boundary is a particularly permeable one.

Look at Beowulf, at Grendel’s mother. When Grendel is killed, she clambers out of her pool to avenge him. It’s made clear, though, that her son came by his habits honestly, for Grendel’s mother “had scavenged and gone her gluttonous rounds for a hundred seasons”. She cuts through Hrothgar’s Hall like a knife through butter, making off with the corpse of Aeschere. “Where she is hiding, glutting on the corpse and glorying in her escape, I cannot tell” laments Hrothgar, but Beowulf tracks her down to the pool anyway and dives on down.

Now clearly Grendel’s mother (and her child, for that matter) are fantasy creatures. Horrifying creatures, to be sure, but they’re not human and they’re not animal either. One could call them unnatural, or supernatural, but they may as well not be for, as Heaney notes in the Introduction to his translation, Beowulf beats them both by sheer physical strength.

The same thing happens in Bram Stoker’s The Lair of the White Worm, where the vampiric Lady Arabella (who lunches on local children) along with the white worm, is exploded by dynamite. It’s a technological solution, and in fairness the hero has derived an ingenious method of setting off the dynamite, but what it comes down to is physical force.

In both cases the monstrous feminine is a destabilising force, and in both cases she is taken out by what are perceived as traditionally masculine qualities, at which the world returns to normal and the ground is again solid beneath the feet of Our Hero. Granted, physical force is also used against Grendel himself but it’s the maternal capacity of the women in question that elevates their monster-hood. A mother avenging her son is one thing, a noble lady showing interest in the local children another… but when they start eating them, well. We expect ladies to be nicer than that.

But this physical response to supernatural entities isn’t unknown in horror. A shotgun blast to the head can take out a zombie, no matter how much it wants to eat you, but this sort of boundary-blurring does limit classification. Does a realist response to a supernatural threat render supernaturalism moot? It’s one thing to shoot a zombie, quite another to try wrestling with a ghost. If one could kill a ghost by shooting at it, there must be something in that incorporeal, supernatural form that is anchored in the natural, in physics and mass.

Perhaps, then, a different way of looking at a horror threat derives from the response to that horror. Does one fight with strength or with symbols? It’s tempting to shove the strength solution at the natural consumers and the symbolic at the supernatural ones, but as has been shown above this is too clean a dichotomy.

What happens, then, with a type of feeding that is interpreted in both natural and symbolic ways? Does this emphasise destabilisation within a horrific narrative, or do the consumptions balance each other out?

It’s interesting to examine this possibility in a single text – We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson – but before I do this I’d like to talk more generally, as a sort of introduction, about the idea of “home” in horror.

Where destabilisation really comes into play, is (unsurprisingly) in the place often perceived as being the most stable of them all: the home. The constructed home, that is – a built home so different from the natural home in its possibilities. It’s not just nature in all its red-toothed glory; there’s storms and hail and mud to think about, the threat of hypothermia, of too-strong suns and dehydration. And a dwelling is a structured thing. It’s built on mathematics and architecture, materials science and engineering. It’s a construct of reason and sanity, the manipulative capacity put to good use for once.

It’s what’s inside the house that causes trouble. People, sure, and in the world of horror that’s often enough, but there’s also ghosts and possessions and manic echoes as the house builds up and births, well… hysteria, frankly. I don’t know what else you’d call all the panic and screaming and the sudden loss of anything remotely resembling common sense from people who should be making for the nearest door but don’t as the house eats up their fear and synthesises it into often bloody disaster.

We know when the house goes bad, it takes everything inside down with it. We know from the first paragraph that Hill House, for example, is a place where bad things happen.

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

It’s the reference to insanity that does it, the intimation that in this very rationally-built house, in the firm floors and the neat bricks, is a rottenness that undermines – that turns this place of potential home to horror.

I’m not arguing that haunted houses are part of the food and horror narrative; not in the same way as I argued for the exorcism stories last month at any rate, though there is a point of comparison that I’ll get to later. But haunted houses are a stepping stone, a signpost towards consumption if nothing else. There’s a shared foundation to the horror house and the horror meal, and it comes with the same concept of home.

Home as a place of rest, a place of nurture. As the saying goes, it’s the place where they have to take you in when you go there. It’s this nurturing capacity, the haven within the ruthless (often natural) world, that’s so often undermined and subverted by the haunted house narrative. And the kitchen, so often referred to as the heart of the home, is certainly no place of safety in a story of this type.

I’m thinking here of the first season episode of Supernatural, the one that’s usefully – and providentially! – called “Home”. (It’s a total coincidence; I remembered the scene I’m about to describe before coming back in to add the name of the episode, which I had to look up.) Creepy things are going on in Sam and Dean’s old house. Moving chairs, flying knives, a small child tempted by juice and trapped in the fridge. But however juice-obsessed little Richie is, his toddling towards the cold and open door isn’t the worst of the horror-consumption of that disturbed (and disturbing) kitchen.

No. The worst of it, the most horrifying bit, is the result every single viewer sees coming, hands tucked in close to their chests. Because the sink is blocked, the garbage disposal unit jammed, and some poor unhappy plumber dispatched to get it all going again. Now the plumber’s not a fool. He makes sure the power’s switched off before he sticks his hand down there. But the viewers aren’t fools either, and we all know that in a house where the furniture moves by itself that lack of power isn’t the problem. And so, inevitably, the kitchen appliance designed to chew up discarded food chews on something else, and the plumber gets his hand eaten up and his blood spattered over the walls.

And yeah, we all saw it coming but horror plays on expectation, on hideous anticipation. The haunted house narrative has so successfully undermined the social idea of home as a place of safety, of security, that when presented with such a house, an audience knows that safety and security is the last thing they can reasonably expect.

Homes are important. They’re meant to protect, and expulsion is damage. And because it’s women who so often get tasked with the role of home-maker over men, their relationship with the home is often of visceral importance. (Note that in the “Home” episode, it’s the ghost of Sam and Dean’s mother, Mary, who exorcises the house of the intruding evil – and she does it from the kitchen.)

If I tended towards the psychoanalytic (and I don’t, much) I’d argue that there’s something of womb-imagery about the idea of home – which is why when houses go bad, they go very bad indeed. (A bad mother tends to get more condemnation that a bad father.)

So: onto the horror narrative that combines both natural and symbolic feminine consumption. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is less overtly horrific than The Haunting of Hill House, if more thorough with it, but the castle itself – not actually a castle, but a large and imposing house – is similarly isolated. Living in this home is the remnants of the Blackwood family. Merricat, her elder sister Constance and their uncle Julian are the only survivors of a family catastrophe: a mass poisoning that took out all the rest of their relatives at dinner.

Constance is blamed by the wider community. No conviction was successfully achieved, but society tends to frown on family murders so the house and its familial residents are isolated and mocked, though that mockery is at base a fearful thing for no-one wants to get too close. A girl who could poison her parents would have little inclination to desist from doing away with lesser irritations, after all, and the Blackwood sisters are let rather severely alone. Their isolation is fertile ground for superstition and legend: witch sisters kept apart, and dangerous to know.

The house suffers by association. An Englishman’s home is his castle, and when the castle defences fail and that man and his family are poisoned to death within its walls then it can only be because the defences are undermined. That they’re undermined from within, from the decisions of a disturbed daughter, is almost irrelevant. The local community may shun and sneer at the sisters, but it’s the house they come to destroy – and not in the white heat of reaction, either. It takes years for social repulsion to reach its peak, the house looming over the countryside and infecting all those that live around it. There’s nothing quite like a symbol for provoking hatred in its failure. Symbols are supposed to be signs of other strengths, of spiritual or emotional organisation. They pin universes in place; they keep predators at bay. The right symbol can stop a monster in its tracks, can save an innocent party from consumption. Homes are part of that – a cross might stop a vampire, for instance, but so can a threshold.

Not that Merricat and her sister are vampires (or even werewolves, to Merricat’s great disappointment). It’s the symbolism of home that I’m underlining here. Crack that and everything falls down afterwards, and in short order.

There’s three different consumption narratives going on in We Have Always Lived in the Castle, laying and overlaying each other until the final picture is one of fractures and old bones, of mouths all covered up.

The first is both the simplest – and the first, brutal, fatal indication that not all was well in the House of Blackwood. The family is poisoned at the dinner table, as the disaffected distaff slips arsenic into the dessert. Blackberries and poisoned sugar, the sugar disguising the poison and the both of them mixed together in the silver sugar bowl that is the father’s particular prize, a family heirloom. All the imagery here is homely, and all of it is feminine. Constance, cooking dinner and setting the table, feeding her family as so many women have done before. Constance scrubbing out the sugar bowl afterwards, that pretty, artful sugar bowl, because, she says afterwards, spinning her tale like Arachne, there was a spider in it. The delicate sweetness of the dessert. The berries themselves: soft fleshy fruits come from the ovaries of plants. All these domestic, harmless details are subverted, made threatening, and Constance’s special domains, the kitchen and dining rooms, take on unsavoury trappings. Poison is traditionally thought of as a woman’s weapon, but couching it in such determined domesticity destabilises the idea of home, of feminine food-and-nurture.

All this is fairly obvious, but it’s not the only consumption going on. As we read through the book we discover that Constance isn’t the culprit and never has been. It’s her little sister Merricat, the narrator of the novel, who’s really the one responsible and Merricat is, for want of a better word, barking. It’s a subtle form of insanity, camouflaged by quirk and imagination and loyalty but Merricat is bone-deep crazy – within specific limits. Constance is one of those limits, for Merricat loves her deeply. The one reason she chose to poison the sugar at dessert was because she knew Constance wouldn’t eat it while everyone else would. And when, despite all the ostracising odds, a suitor comes for her sister, Merricat is even less impressed – because in the end, what Merricat mostly wants to eat is space. Constance-space: she wants her sister all to herself, wants to be the most important person in her life, to eat up everything around her until Merricat’s the only one left. It’s a selfish kind of love – if Constance had been wrongly convicted, Merricat might well have stayed silent – and it’s displayed in a twisted way, with Merricat using the things her sister loves to isolate her further in the castle. It’s notable that she chooses food to get rid of annoyances, when food is Constance’s calling card. You’d almost think she were trying to bond.

The creepiest thing about this determined consumption of another’s mental space (similar in a way to possession narratives) is that it works. Readers find, at the end of the book, that Constance has always known that her little sister murdered the family. She’s quite aware that Merricat is profoundly unbalanced – she’s just decided not to care. She loves her sister, treats her kindly, refuses to implicate her and – with one exception – prioritises their relationship. Merricat, then, has essentially succeeded: using consumption as a tool for murder has allowed her to practice a secondary, metaphorical form of consumption: essentially eating up every part of Constance’s world that doesn’t have Merricat as the foundation.

This is very much a possession narrative. Not in the spiritual sense, as perhaps happens in films like The Exorcist, but in a mental and emotional one. And as with possession narratives, the potential for exorcism exists. Merricat can indeed be ousted from her position at the centre of the world, and she nearly is. The arrival of an estranged cousin, Charles, and his subsequent courtship of Constance gives Constance the chance to have another centre, to prioritise another relationship.

Naturally Merricat is furious, and her own relationship with the intruding cousin quickly falls into a cold war. In one sense she’s right to treat him badly, for Charles isn’t interested in her sister as much as he’s interested in her money. Constance herself means nothing to him. But Merricat’s hatred can also be explained by her accusations. “You are a ghost and a demon,” she says to him, completely convinced that he is a ghost. And why wouldn’t he be? She thought she’d gotten rid of family, fed them all to death and up one has popped again, as if the arsenic wasn’t good enough. Her consumption is failing on both levels, because she can’t feed him poison this time, and she can’t stop him feeding off Constance and her attention either. With the arrival of this blast from a blasted past, there’s less of her sister to bite on and that’s when Merricat’s attention turns from flesh and into symbol.

Simply put, she burns down the house, ushering in the last of the consumption images. Symbols are frequently more powerful than reality, and by bypassing a second murder-solution Merricat goes straight for destabilising the core of the narrative, the house-of-horrors, the-home-that-was-meant-to-be-safe. All eaten up by flame, and then by the resentment of the local people, who trash what the flames didn’t destroy, so consumed have they been by the prevailing narrative of food and the fruits of a poisoned (family) tree.

Now, had Merricat been Martin, he could have acted in the same way, could also have been a destabilising influence on the family structure. But would it have had the same effect? Part of Merricat’s horror is that she comes across as an engaging young girl. Her madness inhabits a form that society at large tends to see as inoffensive, and as carrying the potential for inoffensiveness. This last part is important. Young girls are often stereotyped, and their future potential as women is stereotyped further: mothers, nurturers, feeders. Home-makers. Such broad bases of expectation are what society as a whole rests upon, and even though women now are astronauts and brain surgeons and prime ministers, they’re still expected to fulfil all roles. You can’t fight biology. It’s as good as destiny for pinning down, so it is.

Except horror, as a genre, isn’t all that fond of destiny either. It smacks too much of stable points and too little of chaos.

This leads to an interesting juxtaposition. On the one hand, biology pushes women at the horror-consumers, as things to be eaten up. On the other it makes them those consumers – to be worse, or to fight back.

There’s the potential for subversion in each, and in the gap between. And that’s what I’ll be looking at next month: subversive stories of women and food, with an especial focus on recent short stories. Partly because shorts are my preference, and partly because we’re entering the golden age of science fiction for women now, I think, and those women have brought a plate.

 

 

Gender and Consumption I: Sex, Sacrifice, and Substitution

darkangelFOOD AND HORROR, PART FOUR

This is the fourth in a series of columns on Food and Horror that I’m writing for Ana and Thea over at The Book Smugglers. It first appeared on their site a couple of months ago.

 

Recently I was discussing with another writer the possibility of an anthology of dark fantasy and horror themed around food. I made a joke about the title. It involved “Putting the Kitchen Sink back into your Speculative Fiction”.

“I’m not sure it ever left,” was the response. Food is a big part of her stories.

It’s also frequently occurring in mine, albeit in various nasty ways usually ending up in death. But I’ve an interest in food and horror and gender, so the next three months of this column are going to be about that. This month I’ll be focusing on, well, victimhood I suppose. If someone’s going to be faced with a flesh-eating monster, they’ll have a much better chance of survival if they’re not sweet and plump and female.

Food is often associated with femininity. With mothers and grandmothers in the kitchen, with herb gardens and apple orchards and milk. A close association with food, however, doesn’t automatically mean a close association with all aspects of food preparation, of all meals and general dining experiences. But because there’s not a lot of horror in peeling potatoes or making up a ginger lemon syrup, the genre tends to look more closely at the toothy end of things.

At consumption, in other words, and what it’s a metaphor for.

The most obvious answer, especially when you factor in gender, is sex. Those gardens and apple orchards and milk come with connotations of fertility, of sexual awakening and reproduction. And food, like sex, is a sensual experience. It engages the senses: taste, smell, touch. No surprise then that in narratives where sex is, if not forbidden, then very heavily veiled, food steps in as substitute.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula, for instance, has been variously interpreted in a number of different adaptations, and it’s interesting to look at the character of Lucy Westenra. Mina Harker’s best friend, Lucy is young and beautiful and has a number of suitors when she’s attacked and fed on by Dracula. Ultimately she dies (at least the first time) from blood loss.

In Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 version of Dracula, Lucy is highly eroticised – much more so than in the book – even before she meets the vampire. She’s a flirty, seductive figure and when the title character has her by the throat, or when she’s writhing on the bed awaiting his presence, the sexual element of their relationship is brought to the forefront. In possibly one of the least subtle choices in the film, Lucy is actually raped by Dracula in the garden. It’s sexuality and death, a prelude to consumption. He feels entitled to her body on a number of levels; she is there purely to sate appetites – implicitly with the multitude of suitors awaiting acceptance and explicitly with the vampire.

Earlier versions of Lucy were not so obvious. In the 1931 film version starring Bela Lugosi, the portrayal of Lucy was much more restrained. She’s still attacked in her bedroom, a passive, pretty creature as the bat at the window transforms into a dark figure looming over the bed – but the message is the same, even if the wrapping is less gaudy.

Although really, what else can you expect from a monster that only comes out at night? If there’s ever an excuse to sidle into a young woman’s bedroom – preferably a young woman who’s wrapped in a pale thin nightdress, all ready to be opened up – then this is it. These women are young, on the brink of active sexuality because there’s that underlying association with food, with having liquid sucked out of their bodies as a consequence penetration.

This element of romance tends to be heightened when it takes place with an attractive, or at least magnetic, vampire. The bald, long-nailed horror of Count Orlok may be able to mesmerise his victim but no-one can blame Ellen for fainting, not really. Orlok’s hideous in a way to make the skin crawl, but at least he doesn’t overpower horror so much as to make Ellen complicit in her own consumption. She invites him in, plans to use her own body to distract him until sunrise but there’s agency in that, no matter how badly it turns out for her. It’s the vampires who eat up your sense of self as much as your haemoglobin that are the worst.

In contrast, from the moment the Coppola-Lucy feels fangs sink into her flesh it’s only a matter of time – not just until her body fails, but until her own volition does. There aren’t many vampires following Count Orlok who share his repulsive exterior – or who aren’t able to hide their own ugliness in order to better pass for a romantic, compelling figure: one that’s at home in bedrooms, one that could pass for a lover instead of a monster.

The most successful vampires are lovers as well as monsters. It is, and has always been, a question of appetite – and one that shares the small unsavoury notion of blame. (Did you invite him in? Wearing that? Couldn’t you have covered up a bit more… all that exposed flesh, the long column of throat. How can he resist, when you have what he needs? Such an attractive creature, all dark and dangerous and you did invite him in, to your bedroom without a chaperone. What did you expect would happen? He’ll ruin you, don’t you know. Make you unfit for polite company, the big bad wolf come to eat you up, come to lick your neck, come to kiss and bite and feed…)

Horror frequently comes wrapped in temptation, because temptation comes with choices and the possibility of bad ones. And women are frequently associated with temptation, their bodies causing men to lose control and act like monsters.

No wonder they’re so often eaten up.

But if sex is related to consumption, it’s a relationship that can be implicit, or subsequently taken to extremes. Meredith Ann Pierce’s The Darkangel is a good illustration here, for the vampiric title creature consumes not with sex, but with the sex-proxy of marriage.

Granted, Pierce’s novel (the first in a trilogy of the same name) is directed at young adults, so the connections between sex and horror, between sex and consumption, are perhaps a little more downplayed than they might be in an adult treatment of the same. Yet in The Darkangel, it’s marriage that’s the death-knell for over a dozen young women, and for each of them the marriage is essentially asexual.

The darkangel, previously human, requires 14 brides before his transformation into monstrosity becomes permanent. (This is food as transformative tool again.) The girls are kidnapped at the rate of one per year, and taken to the remote and forbidding castle of the vampyre where a marriage ceremony is performed. Upon the completion of that ceremony, each girl is consumed in three different ways. The vampyre drinks their blood, tears out their hearts to feed to his gargoyle pets, and removes their souls.

The souls are kept in little vials on a necklace. When all 14 vials are filled, the darkangel is to take the souls to his adopted mother, the one who turned him from human to (temporary) monster in the first place. When she drinks the souls as he has drunk the blood, his transformation becomes permanent.

Each of the three consumptions is significant. The vampyre himself has no blood (it was drunk by his witch-mother when she began his transformation) and so he seeks to replenish what he lost through the drinking his wives’ blood in turn. One of the wives comments that “he drinks blood trying to replenish his bloodlessness”, but it’s not any old blood that the darkangel is guzzling down. Marriage has connotations of unity, of separate individuals coming together as one, and so his consumption of their blood can be interpreted as the reclamation of his own, through bodily resources that have become, through marriage, his own flesh. It’s notable that this single act of consumption is the only one the darkangel performs in a year: draining one body of blood is enough to sustain him until his next wedding.

But Aerial, his final wife, concludes that “without blood, nothing heals”. Blood, in The Darkangel, both encourages transformation and arrests it. Blood is used both to transform a child into a darkangel, to maintain that transformation – and it’s hard to consider the brief fluttering of humanity present in the darkangel without wondering if the child-part of him, in its way, is trying to heal what the transformation has made of him.

The tearing out of the hearts is equally significant. The darkangel is heartless himself, at least metaphorically – his own heart remains in his chest, coated with inedible and poisonous lead – for compassion is not one of his characteristics. The torn out hearts are fed to the gargoyles. These creatures keep watch on the castle, and warn of any attempts by the brides or their servant-women to escape, as well as any potential intrusion.

But the gargoyles are trapped themselves, and not truly gargoyles. Rather, they are transformed warden-creatures, originally designed to protect their own countries and act as kindly guardians of the people that live therein. Captured, transformed, and ignorant of their prior state they not only help to keep captive the young girls it would have been their remit to protect – they also eat their hearts. If food has the power to transform, it can also be an instrument of vengeance. Remember the story of The Juniper Tree, where a jealous stepmother fed her stepson to his father in a stew? A malicious, spiteful act – one carried out by a heartless creature. The warden-animals, implacable enemies of the darkangel and his kind, are forced to collude in the consumption of his victims… in the consumption of their wards. No wonder they cannot remember. As the father in The Juniper Tree is transformed through vengeance into a cannibal, so the wardens are transformed into gargoyles, into a nastily subversive rewrite of their former role. They keep their purpose – watchers and protectors – but the subject of their watchfulness and protection has changed. It’s difficult to imagine, for them, a more horrifying fate.

The final consumption, that of the soul, recalls another fairy tale. “Bring me her lungs and liver,” says the Evil Queen of Snow White fame, wanting to wipe her rival off the map completely by consuming her soul along with her flesh. The destruction of souls in The Darkangel signifies the same: the complete absence of life, the impossibility of resurrection. “Our souls will not ascend as others’ do,” says one of the wives, anticipating their consumption. “They will sink into the witch’s dark and be nothing.”

Perhaps the most horrifying part of The Darkangel is those wives. Their souls, ripped out on their wedding night and stored in the darkangel’s necklace, keep them tethered to their ruined bodies. Without blood or heart, each of them becomes a wraith… a thin and desiccated monstrosity, unable to die and unable to heal. Aerial’s first confrontation with these once-women shows how pathetic and hideous their marriage has made them:

“Some stood in corners or crouched, leaning back against the walls. Some crawled slowly on hands and knees; one sat and tore her hair and sobbed. Another paced, paced along a little of the far wall. All screamed and cowered at the entrance of the vampyre. …. The women looked at Aerial with caverns where their eyes should have been. Their starved cheeks were translucent in the lamplight, the skin of their faces pulled so tight Aerial could see the imprint of their teeth through their lips. Their arms looked like bird’s legs – skin on bones with no flesh in between. They cringed; they trembled. One of them moaned: her voice was hollow. Their hair was all coarse and dry as blighted marshgrass.”

So it’s bad enough on a physical level: these young beautiful girls (because it’s only the most beautiful girls who get chosen as brides, naturally) eaten at until they’re withered old hags. But having their souls taken away for provender has also done something to their minds. The wraith-wives only have the tiniest fraction of brain-power left to them. All they really know is what’s been done to them, and that fraction of knowledge eats away at them so that all they can do is relive the horror, over and over.

None of them remember how long they’ve been in the castle, although they know that it’s been less than 14 years. They don’t remember which of them was first: “Our memories fade, then come back again. None of us can now remember back much farther than a day-month, and there were always many of us a day-month ago”.

They don’t even remember their names.

It’s at this last point that The Darkangel really skews the connection between sex and food so often illustrated by many of the vampire narratives. The wraiths aren’t shy when it comes to complaining about what’s been done to them – but there’s never any mention of rape. All their food-horror is related to marriage itself, and not the marriage bed. (Even though the marriage takes place in the bedchamber, the imagery Pierce focuses on are the children’s toys at the foot of the bed.)

It’s not sex that’s the prelude to being eaten up here, it’s marriage. It’s losing your name and your identity along with the right to control your own body. The wraiths have no names. When others refer to them, it’s in the form of their relationships: the darkangel’s brides, the darkangel’s wives. Their identity has been subsumed by his. They are entirely a reflection of their husband. It’s a narrative born out of expected gender roles, as well as expected sexual ones.

Vampires may eat humans as a substitute for sex, but consumption in horror can come from other substitutions, and other expected roles.

One obvious alternative is the human sacrifice. If you want to bring sex back into it (or not, as the case may be) then it’s news to no-one that virgin sacrifices often appear to have a higher value. And these, note, are rarely the sacrifice of some awkward, adolescent boy with a face full of pimples. They’re far more likely to be a young woman, preferably beautiful, preferably well-brought up. I don’t know why dragons give extra points for noble birth (perhaps they’re looking for high calcium content in the bones, and milk is expensive?) but when they’re about to flame their sacrificial dinner, they seem to like it looking fetching. Even in cases like that of the Minotaur, allowed seven young men and seven young maidens to devour every year, it’s youth and nobility that are offered up.

One assumes it’s because of value. Not just value to the dragon, but value to those doing the sacrificing. Or, I should more accurately say, it’s a question of limited value.

Consider: if you’ve a monstrous creature ravaging your borders, and said creature can be kept within clearly defined limits (geographic or otherwise) by giving it someone to chomp on, what do you do? It’s a terrible death – burning first, perhaps, or just being ripped apart limb by limb – but the anticipation is the worst of it. The sacrificed party knows what lies ahead and it’s sharp-toothed and smells of rotting meat. The breath of carnivores, and the whole community behind – parents, friends… – pushing them into the jaws of doom.

Yes, it’s pretty terrible for that poor person. But it’s also a terrible choice for those who have to decide which lucky person gets to be eaten. One can do it by lot, as with the Minotaur… but even lotteries have standards of eligibility and reasons why not.

Consider the very dark choices faced by the British government in the series Torchwood: Children of Earth. To prevent total destruction, they must give up 10% of the nation’s children to alien invaders. These children are to undergo what amounts to endless torture in order that their bodies produce a chemical that acts as a recreational drug for said aliens. The procedures that allow the children to be fed off turn them into withered husks not very much different from that of the darkangel’s wives.

A lottery is considered. It would be the fairest way – but good luck convincing the people in power to risk their own children. The solution comes down to choice – to the bottom 10% of the school league tables. The children most likely to grow up poor and uneducated; the children most likely to be social misfits. Stone cold logic has its own horror, and in this case the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, so off to misery those little failures will go because horror is choice as much as it is inevitability. Having your children taken from you is tragedy. Making them go yourself is a far darker thing.

Especially as these choices can be a pretty balancing act. Send a victim that’s too low-value and there’s a risk of upsetting the monster by not showing it sufficient respect. (The Torchwood aliens don’t care. A dragon might.) Keep sacrificing your most valuable individuals and you materially damage the well-being of the community you’re trying to protect. So what’s left?

The young and pure and pretty, that’s who. The ones who don’t have enough knowledge or experience or talent (or power) to be materially useful. Pretty isn’t useful. Virginal isn’t useful. They are socially well thought of, however, and that’s the main thing. It’s easy to shed tears over the pretty young thing chained to a rock. Those tears signify value, of a sort.

They don’t signify respect.

And that’s really the most horrifying thing about the offering up of flesh to monsters. It’s not the being eaten that’s the scary part. It’s knowing that you’re only being eaten because you’re minimally relevant. If you’re really lucky, the prospect of your passive, dreadful death might motivate someone with power to come along and either save or avenge you (see: fridging) but really, disposability wins the day.

It’s this sort of half-arsed valuation that turns up so often in possession narratives – and if you think that possession stories aren’t a form of consumption, then think again.

Picture your garden variety possession story, whether it’s ghost or demon or what-have-you. It’s body horror of a singular type, when conscious control over your own body is given over to something other than you. This isn’t the result of viruses or flesh-eating bacteria. There’s sentience at work here, and what it eats is space. Mental space, emotional space, spiritual if you believe in that sort of thing, and it’s fairly hard to take possession narratives seriously without some suspension in that area.

Consider how Regan is presented in William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist. When Father Karras first comes to see her, the little girl (or what is passing for her) is deep in the grip of possession, strapped to a bed. There are still fragments of Regan, of the Regan-personality able to be shown, but her physical state shows her as both consumer and consumed. Her “wasted arms and legs”, her “hollow sockets”, her “face shaped into a skeletal, hideous mask” – Regan’s body is losing substantial amounts of weight. She’s being eaten up from the inside, her fleshy, puppy-fat body whittled down in order to sustain the demonic personality inside her. This is very well depicted in the film, although it prioritises the imagery of decay, of rotting. In the film Regan’s wounds are unhealthy-looking, as if she has already begun to decompose – to be digested by the demon.

That demon feeds on her body as well as her mind – in all respects but one. For the Regan strapped to the bed is the demon-personality even more than the little girl, and the physical manifestation of this is apparent in a single area: Regan’s stomach.

For all that Karras can see the rest of her body wasting away he can also see the “distended stomach jutting up so grotesquely”. This clearly isn’t a literal interpretation of the possession – the demon hasn’t actually swallowed Regan, hasn’t eaten her up and stored her in her own stomach in a horrid play against her own emaciation. It is however indicative of the devouring relationship between demon and girl: the physical body contains both the girl being eaten away by the demon, and the demon who is eating up the girl.

This last devouring imagery is reinforced later in the book (and the film) by the appearance of writing on Regan’s torso – on the chest just above her stomach. “Help me”, Karras observes, the “bas-relief script rising up in clear letters of blood-red skin”. And it’s Regan’s handwriting, pressing up against her own flesh as if she was locked inside, swallowed by a larger entity and pressing to get out, a little freckled Jonah swallowed up by the whale.

The Exorcist is fairly psychoanalytic – if deliberately so – in its gender roles. The little girl is still a female presence, still paired with monstrosity, and there are undertones that she is as troubled as she is because of the breakdown of her family – especially the presence of a career-minded, not very domestic mother. I have to admit I don’t have a whole lot of sympathy with this approach, but the contrast with the paternal figures, the rescuing Fathers of the church, is clear. On one side the monstrous (eaten up, eating up) feminine, on the other order in the shape of ordinated men.

The text flat out states that this is the most common gender narrative in exorcism: Karras “believed the majority of cases he had studied had been caused by precisely those two factors [suggestion and hysteria]. Sure. For one thing, it mostly hits women.

While I haven’t seen every exorcism horror film ever made, I’ve seen a damn lot of them and, from a horror narrative perspective at least, Karras isn’t wrong. It’s nearly always women who are the victims of horror possession – women or children, anyway. The point is that neither of them are men. At least, as victims they’re not associated with active masculinity in the same way as the various exorcists of these narratives are.

Why is this? When it’s time to pick a character to be eaten up, to be swallowed up by a demon, why is that character so often a woman?

Perhaps it’s the influence of The Exorcist. It’s the giant in the genre, the one all other horror possessions are compared to. And Hollywood is known for regurgitation, of more than just the pea-soup kind.

But it’s hard not to look at the overall pattern and draw another conclusion. The same conclusion that one draws when they look at who the vampire tends to bite, and who gets sacrificed to the monsters and why. If horror uses food as a substitute for sex, it also uses it as a substitute for power.

It’s alright for women (and children) to get eaten up by the demon possessor. They’re passive characters anyway – and besides, it’s heroic to rescue them, to save them from the jaws of a monster. Women are there to be overpowered, to be consumed, and they’re consistently emotional – a perfect body for a demon to slip into. Watching little Regan McNeil fuck herself with a crucifix under the influence is horrible. Replay that scene in any cinema, with, for example, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau in the same role and I’m prepared to bet money that there’d be as much smirking in the audience as there would be shivers.

That says something about the expectations of horror and power and eating up your victim’s meat suit, and I’m not sure that what it says is good.

But, in fairness, women aren’t only for eating in food and horror. They are also horrifying consumers, which is what I’ll be looking at next month with Grendel’s mother and The Lair of the White Worm and more…

Being Toothsome

rogueFOOD AND HORROR, PART THREE

This is the third in a series of columns on Food and Horror that I’m writing for Ana and Thea over at The Book Smugglers. It first appeared on their site a couple of months ago.

 

It’s the problem of the other gullet. The not-ours gullet, the one that comes with giant teeth that also aren’t ours. You’ve seen the worst of them, no doubt: those jagged-edged pictures of great white triangles, the fossils from Megalodon that cover a palm.

In comparison, our teeth aren’t all that great. Let’s be realistic here: when it comes to food and horror, size matters. It it’s not the size of the teeth themselves, it’s size of the jaw… or the size it can be, having unhinged itself and gaping-ready to engulf the next victim.

We can’t do any of that. Our jaws remain stubbornly tethered; our teeth are small and have a multitude of purposes. Canines for carnivorism, molars for vegetation. Even pulled out of the gum with the roots exposed, they’re not something that reeks of threat. They don’t drip with poison. They don’t regrow but once – there’s no conveyor belt constantly pushing forward new teeth because the old ones got wrenched out with biting on bone.

We don’t have a carnivore’s mouth.

There are other things that do.

Sharks, Tyrannosuarus, salt-water crocodiles…

A few years back I was on internship in Sydney, gone to write science news articles for Cosmos. I spent my off-time sightseeing, and in one museum was preserved, behind glass, a stuffed saltie. It was 7 meters long. Believe me, it was: I paced it out. (From the back, so it wouldn’t see me coming. Even dead, I didn’t trust that thing.)

I gazed at that monster for a very long time, and as I watched it I could practically feel myself being booted a few rungs down the food chain. Had it come to life, in some grotesque parody of every mummy film ever made, I would have run for mine. Had I met something like that in the water, I would have been dead.

There’s not a lot you can do against a predator like that. I’m thinking here of the 2007 case of a Taiwanese vet who got his arm bitten off while examining a crocodile. (For loss of appetite, if you can believe it). Keepers tried to distract the animal from eating the arm. Bullets were fired at its head. They bounced off.

They bounced off. This is the type of creature the term “apex predator” was coined for. We like to think that’s us.

In horror, it’s never us.

The most apt term for this kind of horror – the one that deals with alligators in the New York sewer system, with flesh-eating insects and raptors conspiring to rip you to shreds, with the need for bigger boats and black water – is natural horror. Horror come from nature, that is – the thing we so often insulate ourselves from, carefully cordoned off in national parks and places of interest.

In fairness, the horror isn’t only natural. There’s a supernatural subgenre, where, for instance, werewolves feast on your poor quivering flesh and vamps come through the window at night to drink and gorge and make sure you understand exactly what side of the predator-prey equation you’re actually on.

The most important thing about this type of creature horror is, I think, how very thoroughly it subverts all our expectations. I’m not talking about the expectations of horror consumers here: confronted with a cast of characters in a creature horror story, we know that most of them will be dead before credits, and that they’ll be eaten in a number of increasingly gory ways. I’m talking about the expectations we have based on our relationship with nature.

Naturally this relationship will be different for everyone. A London stockbroker who barely leaves the city mile will have very different natural relationships than a Japanese fisherwoman or a San bushman. I tend to think there’s less romanticism about nature the closer you are to it but I also think that humanity in general has three primary routes of relating to nature, and these are all emphasised or subverted in natural horror.

The first is the desire to organise, to classify. One common motivator throughout culture or setting is the desire to learn, to increase in knowledge and information. We can’t do this without relating an object – or subject – to everything about it. (This is a canine; it’s sharp and used for tearing. This is a molar; it’s flat and used for grinding. What do these teeth tell you about the animal that has them?)

We do this with all the time with animals. My personal organisation system tends to the scientific, the Linnaean. If, in a free-associating exercise someone says to me “saltwater crocodile” my first thought isn’t evil man-eating beast from the pits of hell (Australia), it’s reptile. It’s reptile, then crocodilian, then evil man-eating beast and so forth. And even as I say the last I don’t think of it as a true classification. I’m aware that instinctive emotion is over-ruling the logic behind my organisational impulse.

(It works the other way as well. Once, after a late night viewing of Jaws, I was in that sort of half-asleep state, the one where your feet jerk away from the side of the bed in case of sharks. I was awake enough to know I was on a bed, not a boat, and no shark was going to breach the carpet and start chomping, but still. I was jerking. And then I was dreaming, and I was on a boat and, like Quint, my legs were halfway down the chewing, churning mouth of a great white. In the dream I was shrieking and shrieking and beating the shark around the head with a boathook, aiming for its eyes, trying to make it let go. It was what I was shrieking that was the funny thing. Still half-awake, my mostly-rational mind, the one that knew this was all a dream and that I wasn’t really fighting for my life, was screaming at the top of its lungs: Don’t hurt it, don’t hurt it! Not in the eye, Octavia, it’s an endangered species!!!

Such is the strength of organisation, of classification. Even when your legs are being eaten off there’s an angel on your shoulder and its name is David Attenborough.)

The point is: I have a system.

It’s not the only system. We’ve all got one. Try the salt-water croc exercise on someone along the north coast of Australia and their first response might be don’t swim in the river rather than reptile. It’s a geographical classification (safe river/unsafe river) and a situational one. Try the same question on an Australian Aboriginal person and the automatic response might be mythological.

We cut the world up into pieces, is what I’m saying. The type of blade we use to do the cutting isn’t particularly relevant here. It’s the mental structure we build to reflect the world around us that’s the issue.

Horror upends structure. It makes a total mess of organisation. It primes for a different response, and through narrative it pushes and pushes until, through the experience of horror, that system of organisation is thoroughly (if temporarily) subverted. It changes our relationship with nature – or at least what we perceive that relationship to be.

There can’t be a crocodile in Lake Placid. It’s too far north, too cold. It’s Maine. A crocodile living there goes against all the information collected so far. It goes against everything we know.

Giant anacondas don’t exist. They’ve been confused with other species, eyewitness accounts are unreliable, and if they ever were there they’re extinct now.

Great whites don’t behave that way. There’s no sign of it… probably gone back to deep waters, there’s no silence along the coast, no stillness to indicate a shark that size is still about.

It’s no accident that authority figures are often found at the beginning of killer creature stories. They’re there to tell you why-not. It’s practically an invitation for the monster to come to dinner, and of course it does. The paradigm gets shifted and we have to re-orient our perception of what we expect from the natural world.

In practical terms: if a horror film like Rogue or Black Water wants to scare me, to make me jump and watch through my fingers, it’s got to interrupt that mental connection of mine, the one that when exposed to saltwater crocodile spits out reptile. It’s got to bypass reptile and go straight to danger, get the hell out. It’s got to immerse me enough in fear for the characters that my organisational system is disrupted, swapping Linnaean certainty for the squeaky terror of the mammalian brain (it’s behind you!), the brain that survived in large part due to scuttling and blind terror under the feet of dinosaurs, due to the ability to run and hide and slide under the notice of the things that would make it dinner.

That’s the first step in creature horror, in remaking the horror consumer into something conscious – even by proxy – of its ability to be consumed. It’s the dislocation of normal that’s the worst. You can classify rats as pests and set out traps. You can make them friends, give them a name and slot them onto the safe list, the one reserved for pets, but if the rats start swarming, boiling up the stairs and chewing down the attic door to get to your warm beating body, Willard, then the neat little categories you’ve made for them mean nothing at all.

If you want to eat someone in horror, first you set them adrift in their universe.

Then you look at their ability to exploit things.

That’s the second means that humans have to engage with the natural universe. There’s organisational, the mental perspective, and then there’s the tangible counterpoint: the ability to manipulate. Every capable human from every society does this. Whether they make shelter out of bricks or snow or yak-hide, whether they build tools from bone or stone or petrochemicals, the manipulative principle is fundamental to the species.

It’s a principle that helps to reinforce the organisational, even. If you classify yourself, for instance, as a hunter-gatherer, then pretty much by definition there are things to be hunted and gathered, and tools to help you do so. A spear reinforces your identity as a hunter, an identity predicated on the organisational idea that you are a creature that hunts.

Until you’re not.

The ability to manipulate the natural environment and its inhabitants gives a sense of control. More than a sense, actually – it can give our species a legitimate, verifiable control over our natural surroundings and how they affect us. This control is necessarily limited – it’s one thing to experiment on mako sharks, as in Deep Blue Sea, making them more intelligent and monitoring their progress; it’s quite another to keep them contained and harmless – but the control is there, and it helps to reinforce a sense of order.

Until it doesn’t.

It’s extraordinary how easily, as a species, we designate areas as safe, like the seaside resort town of Amity in Jaws. In the minds of the summer flux of tourists, the lifeblood of the little town, Amity is categorised as holiday, as leisure and relaxation (in much the same way as Rogue and Black Water tourists treat their environments – it no coincidence that authority figures in creature horror are often supplemented with tourists, with people so disengaged from the natural world that they even package up and sell the experience of it, as if the ability to package makes it safe to do so).

Go to any beach like Amity and you’ll see the environment manipulated to match the belief. Lifeguard towers on the beaches, buoys and flags… as if sharks care about flags. As if swimming between them will keep you safe from those ever-replenishing teeth.

The manipulative is a wide-ranging means of engagement. It’s careless and careful, positive and exploitative and utterly fucking dreadful. It’s factory farming (come back from the flipside when humans are the ones being farmed, as in Soylent Green or Daybreakers). It’s nuclear waste, creatures turned mutant from radiation and out to get their own back. It’s engineered viruses that turn people into flesh-eating zombies. It’s tools to make monsters, and tools to keep monsters away.

We put a lot of faith in tools. They’re the high point of the manipulative principle, the things that allow us to crack open our own abilities, to exploit the world around us. We’re so used to them that when they fail it’s as if the ground’s fallen out beneath us.

Remember that Taiwanese vet? Imagine you’re him. Hoping to get your arm back from the crocodile that’s taken it before it’s eaten, or too mangled for reattachment. And someone shoots a gun at the croc and the bullets bounce back.

Now wouldn’t you feel just a bit let down? What’s the point of a gun, if not to successfully shoot things?

Without tools – or without adequate tools – we’re vulnerable. It’s one thing to dive in shark-infested tropical waters, as that poor unfortunate couple did in Open Water, but there’s a place of safety on the boat, that built construct that’s taken them safely out onto the reef and can take them safely off it again. When it sails merrily away, however, and they’re forgotten in the water with nothing to keep them afloat but their own tasty body fat, it’s immediately clear how inadequate the two of them are in the water, how incapable they are of ensuring their own survival.

If you want to eat someone in horror, first you set them adrift in their universe. Then you compromise their tools; their ability to make tools.

You level them down on the food chain, in other words. You remind them that, for all their accomplishments as individuals, as the representation of the most advanced species on the planet, when those accomplishments are taken away they’re nothing but a not-very-fast conglomeration of poorly protected meat.

Once you’ve done that, you drop them into a relationship. Not with one of their fellow victims, no. That’s not the primary relationship in a creature horror. The primary relationship is between the creature and the person (or people) it wants to eat. This overshadows everything else, and in doing so it subverts the final means that people have of engaging with the natural world: through their experiences of immensity.

Everyone’s done it, in every culture. They’ve looked up at the sky and felt small, looked at the world around them and felt dwarfed. There’s just so much of it. And especially for people living today, that awareness is supplemented by that of other species (the millions we share a planet with) and of our own (the billions we share a planet with). It becomes easy to think of things in aggregate.

Objectively, we know we’re part of the food web.

That knowledge becomes rather more immediate, however, when you’re being hunted by something that wants to eat you. The natural world narrows very quickly then. It becomes very personal. Natural immensity essentially stops existing, and everything is pared down to that one essential relationship. Nothing else counts. It barely exists. What good are billions of stars or three hundred thousand different types of beetle when you’re crouching in a mangrove forest scanning the water below your tree for movement? How can you really be terrified by a sense of the cosmic unknowable when a fin surfaces in front of your face? (You know what that fin means.) How can you feel any sense of awe at the immensity of space when an alien’s acid blood is eating through the hull?

You can’t, that’s how.

That’s what being food does to you. It makes you small. It cuts you off, first from what you think, then from what you can do. Then it starts to cut off the natural world itself, because there’s only so much stage set necessary for a sticky end, only so much blood that can possibly be spilled.

If you want to look at just how crucial organisation, manipulation and immensity are in creature horror, look no further than creatures of the supernatural. Look, for example, at vampires. No, not the sparkly ones. This isn’t that kind of horror.

I’m talking about the horror vampires. The ones who are meant to be frightening, who feed because they’re monsters and that’s what monsters do, and they don’t feel even the slightest bit bad about it.

Now, look at how characters respond to these vampires.

They respond with abstract thought. They respond with tools. Those tools are so glorified they essentially become fetish objects: the stake, the garlic, holy water. The cross. Oh, the cross. I’ll get back to that in a minute.

In a brief aside, though, there’s a difference between character reaction in natural and supernatural creature horror. It’s subtle and often inconsistent, but it’s there. In creature horror, when it’s the snake or the shark or the raptors that are after you, the typical fetish tool of other genres, the gun, is only moderately useful. More often than not it has little effect, or it jams or runs out of bullets at the crucial moment. Natural creature horror reduces the human to the mammal: characters must run and hide, must realise the uselessness of their tools, their new position on the food chain. Sometimes they come back with bigger tools, with better weapons (“We need a bigger boat”), but for the majority of the story they are reduced to mobile meat. With a natural predator, they tend to react as natural prey. There’s abstract thought and tools, yes, but these aren’t emphasised the way they are during supernatural horror.

In classic vampire stories, the tool is the whole point. It’s the linchpin of the story, and the characters know nearly from the get-go what they need to survive. What they need are the reminders of their pre-horror state.

Remember: everyone has a system. Everyone has a way that they organise the universe, and presented with something supernatural, that organisation disintegrates. Can this really be happening? the characters ask. Do vampires actually exist? Are they going to eat us? Oh my God! They’re going to eat us!

The role of the vampire is to reduce the human to meat.

The role of the cross is to allow the human to say I am not meat.

How does it do this? It does it in three ways.

First, the cross is a tool. There are precious few tool-users in the animal kingdom, and humans are the tool-makers par excellence. It comes from having big brains and an opposable thumb, from being able to manipulate matter, but it is also delineation. It’s that organisational impetus again: human are on the list of tool-users. They are not on the list of not-tool-users, and it’s widely accepted that being on the former gives a genuine claim to a certain level of superiority.

If you have a cross when you’re facing down a vampire, you’re more than prey, because tool-users are predators too – and thus the individual universe begins to right itself. Identity stops shifting, relationships settle back. If you hold up a cross to a genetically-engineered mako shark it will still eat you, because the natural world isn’t shuffled back into position by supernatural intrusion. If you hold it up to a vampire with mako teeth, though, you’ve got a chance.

Why is this?

It’s the organisational principle again, the one the manipulated object supports. Beating off a vampire with a cross is an obvious relic of Christian mythology – and that mythology has at its base the idea that humans are different from all other animals. It’s abstract thought: the ability to form links and religions and philosophies, to think beyond being red in tooth and claw. You think tool-users make a short list? Take a look at what’s on that one.

There’s us and then there are the rest of them – all of them – and the dividing line is harsh. Humans are superior, the only ones with an understanding of good and evil. Vampires don’t have that. They are purely evil, and so they stay moral inferiors. They might be stronger, they might be faster. They might be able to change shape, but on an underpinning, irrevocable level they lie beneath on the hierarchy of creatures inhabiting God’s earth.

This doesn’t work in natural horror, which tends to owe more to science and science fiction than to fantasy. A Jurassic Park T. rex with a clear opportunity for lunch isn’t going to pass up a tasty human morsel, because the natural world has no sense of moral or religious authority. It’s Darwinism all the way, the survival of the fittest. It’s the fundamental, individual relationship between a single predator and a single prey animal, the shrinking immensity of the universe to one life and the ending of that life.

In the supernatural, fantasy-based horror universe, the predator-prey relationship is never so isolated. The cross works because immensity exists, because there’s something to back up the idea that humans do stand apart, that they are not just meat, not just warm little packages for those who fly or slink or stalk about them, looking for a way in. The human relationship with immensity then overwhelms that with a single predator and that predator is subsequently diminished.

Except when it isn’t.

Horror, always a genre for exacting prices, has one for this. If a character wants to take advantage of being superior they have to really believe that they are. That’s an ever more difficult thing to do as science shines a light in shadowed places and we wake from long dark dreams to rationalism. I’m an atheist, myself. If a vampire jumped out at me and by a truly remarkable chance there was a cross to hand… well. I’ve seen Fright Night (the original, that is, not the remake). I know how well a cross you don’t believe in works, and the answer is not at all. I’ve seen 30 Days of Night, too. “Please, God,” weeps Kirsten, face to face with the worst of the lot, the head vampire Marlow. “God?” he says, looking up and then down again, shaking his head. “No God.”

Without belief, nothing works. Without belief, you really are just meat.

(I think you can guess what happened to Kirsten.)

I wrote a vampire horror story myself once, on this very topic: the power of symbols, the power of belief. It was really more about symbols than it was vampires. “Cuckoo” was published in a fairly obscure print mag and promptly sank from sight, but it did what I wanted it to. It layered mythologies over each other, Christian and pagan, Scandinavian and Transylvanian and Maori in the gum fields of 19th century New Zealand, and when the main character faced down the vampire, it was with weapons from a belief system not her own. She made them her own, however, through metaphor, through analogy, through the mutability of symbols.

She kept her universe organised about her, expressed that organisation through tool use, and through both accessed a wider universe, one built from ideologies not her own.

Meat doesn’t do that. She survived because she could do it when the vampire couldn’t. My sister laughed when she read it. “Only you would beat vampires by looking down on them,” she said. But fuck it, we are social animals. We understand power relationships and hierarchy. So do vamps.

There was a price to her winning, of course. In horror you never get away scot-free. But you can get away. You can avoid being eaten, if only you know what you are, where you are. If you know whether you’re an animal or not.

Sometimes being an animal will save you. Sometimes it won’t. That’s horror. It degrades unsteadily. It cuts down position and perception and the ability to find a place to stand upon, the stability of the world before. Before you were meat.

Tools of Nurture, Tools of Torture

Snow_white_huntsman_(2012)FOOD AND HORROR, PART TWO

This is the second in a series of columns on Food & Horror that I’m writing for Ana and Thea over at The Book Smugglers. It first appeared on their site a month ago.

 

Food is regenerative, and transformative. It’s the energy source, the fuel for our cells. What we eat turns into flesh, replacing the matter we lose every day… skin cells sloughing off, hair falling out, mucus and bile and the soft sinking calcium of aging bones. The meats and milks and meals we eat are transformed, through our digestive systems, into flesh and blood, into muscle and bone and brain matter. This is biological transformation, biological regeneration – but there’s metaphorical regeneration as well, passed off for fantastic biology as it often is – and it’s this regeneration that turns up so often in horror.

Oftentimes the regeneration is specific. The mutant serial killer Virgil Incanto, who appears in The X-Files episode “2Shy”, is absent of body fats. Without them his skin degrades, inelastic and coming off almost in chunks. In order to remedy this deficit he targets overweight women, luring them on dates, opening them up in more ways than one, for when Incanto seduces them enough for kisses he vomits digestive fluid into their mouths. This viscous stomach acid first suffocates his victims and then breaks down their fatty tissue, allowing him to suck it into his own body, to regenerate his appearance. “2Shy” is a study in appearances, in sexuality. This serial killer’s after the fat of breast and belly and soft, wobbling bottoms, for if his victims don’t share the confidence of Rubens’ painted women, they definitely share the stature – and it’s only after taking the external characteristics of their sexuality into his own body that Incanto is attractive enough to successfully stalk his next meal. “The dead are no longer lonely,” he says, after he’s finally been captured, and part of the reason for that is that they’re with him always, lubricating his cells, keeping his gullet moist and smooth, unshredded. No wonder he woos those soon-to-be dead women with honey-words, with flowers and ancient Italian love poetry. Dining out is, after all, a sensual experience.

The X-Files has a particularly successful history of body horror and cannibalism, the most effective example of which is probably Eugene Victor Tooms. This monster antagonist of “Squeeze” and “Tooms” needs livers rather than body fat, and in a hibernation cycle that rouses him every thirty years he eats five livers before sinking back into sleep. These livers are ripped, bare-handed, from their still-living hosts, who promptly die from shock and blood loss.

They also die because they lack the regenerative capacity; it’s been taken from them. Agent Scully states, in her report of the investigation, that “The liver possesses regenerative qualities. It cleanses the blood”. She posits that the killer takes the liver in order to cleanse himself of his own impurities – and if The X-Files dealt in anything but monsters and metaphor, she might well be correct. But metaphor is the life-blood of the show, and Tooms gobbles down his organs body-fresh because of biological necessity – or I should say apparent biological necessity, for in his case the livers cleanse not sins or mental breakdown or the demented biology of monsters, but the natural, human threats of mortality and age. They are metaphorically regenerative, and Tooms survives hibernation after hibernation, never aging, a mutant in a nest held together by bile, waiting to wake and gorge again.

But for all Tooms’ ruthless efficiency, I never got the impression that he was particularly bright. Canny, yes. Instinctual in his movements, in his ability to blend in and pass beneath. But he wasn’t feeding for eternal life – how much life is there in decades of sleep punctuated with brief moments of manual labour cut with murder? Unless there’s a particularly active dream-life we never get a hint of, his natural state is unconscious.

Contrasted with this is the very directed, intelligent community portrayed in the second season episode “Our Town”, where cannibalism is practiced primarily as a means of getting – if not eternal – then certainly a substantially elongated life. Local residents disappear to the cooking pot, a communal meal that only comes to light when one of the victims, infected with Creutzeldt-Jakob disease, manages to infect everyone who stuffed down his boiled-up carcass. In this community, cannibalism may have prolonged life and youth but it does so at the cost of insanity and dementia – not to mention the chicken factory at the centre of it all, where the remains of the founder end up being fed to a different and wider population, another rung on the food chain… The regenerative has become degenerative, the infected brains disintegrating into a spongy texture full of holes, a mimicry of the community that feeds on itself – and indeed the happy family workforce of Chaco Chickens has started eating its own members instead of the neighbouring outgroups.

Yet consumption for the purposes of regeneration need not be total. It’s almost more horrifying when it isn’t. The Countess Bathory, staple or bit-player in so many horror stories, may bathe in the blood of virgins to regenerate her own appearance, to keep her skin young and smooth and supple, but once a virgin has been emptied into her bathtub then that’s the end for the virgin. The horror’s over, there’s nothing more that can be done to her. It’s a horrid ending but at least it’s a quick one, and quite different from that other bathtub conclusion wherein a hapless victim wakes in an icy tub, stitches all up their side and with their organs gone to nourish another body. That ending is also a beginning – the start of the rest of life, the months and years the hollow host has to suffer, full of trauma and limitation and scarring.

Those years can be short. There’s a variant on the Bathory type of regeneration where it’s not blood that’s the catalyst for eternal life but youth itself. In these stories, the consumer sucks life and strength from the victim, leaving a formally young and healthy individual a withered shell of their former self, doomed to skip from adolescence straight to old age. That’s a really horror-filled fate, if you ask me. Not the being old (a state I hope to achieve myself one day) but the knowledge of what’s been taken from you, the sense of dislocation. It’s the death of dreams, of potential, the sudden entrapment in a body that’s almost nothing like the one you had. The awful consciousness of survival.

In the film Snow White and the Huntsman, Queen Ravenna keeps her youth and beauty by sucking life from the young women of the kingdom. We see a particular example with Greta, a pretty girl who is almost instantaneously transformed into a bent, grey creature clinging onto life. Her potential future is eaten up by the Queen, and the signs of age present in the latter disappear. It’s an almost vampiric relationship, except the victim of a vampire either transforms or dies, whereas Greta and her fellow morsels transform and then die. One can hardly call it an improvement, from the point of view of the person being consumed – but the popularity of this horror trope remains. Ravenna is only one of the later examples of such.

It’s not really accurate to call this facet of horror consumption an inversion of the original act. Food is so closely linked with regeneration – with the ability to regenerate – that the darker side of this ability is less the mirror surface of a bloody bowl than an extension of such. The horror here is what the desire to regenerate can be pushed to: how food can be used as a tool for not just bodily integrity but the survival of the ego-self. Virgil Incanto isn’t an ambush predator. He prefers to form romantic relationships with the women he’ll later digest, to give them something (confidence, the potential of attraction and the illusion of a love-relationship) in return for the nourishment he’ll get from their fat-stripped corpses. Ravenna has been so exploited as a result of her own personal beauty that she sees other women as something to be consumed as well. Neither of them lives by food alone. The methodology of their kills, the personal emotional resonance of feeding maintains self-image as well as bodily integrity. Each time Ravenna strips another woman of their future in order to reinforce her own she’s reliving her identity as abuse survivor, using her body to ensure her own future. Each time Incanto shares poetry with another doomed date, he’s reinforcing his perception of himself as something other than monster; as a man involved in some kind of mutually beneficial transaction. More beneficial for him, of course, but he doesn’t like to take without some form of relationship-payment. It’s the regeneration of self-illusion as much as anything else that keeps these two monsters slavering for more: he is not just a cruel man on the hunt for fresh meat; she has not turned into the abusers that made her to begin with. In this they justify their consumption, and the regeneration goes on.

But if food in horror can bring with it regeneration, it can also mean extinction – and not just the simple piece of poison, the easy death. Let’s look back at the “Snow White” fairy tale for a moment. The apple given to the exiled princess is transformative in that it causes her death and sends her coffin-wards, but the Evil Queen is interested in more than the death of her step-daughter’s body, and the clue comes much earlier in the piece.

“Bring me her lungs and liver,” she says the Huntsman, and when he does – or appears to do so – she has them cooked up and eaten. It’s here that the principle of inversion, of inverted regeneration, is particularly well illustrated. The detail of the liver is especially interesting. Dana Scully isn’t around to lecture the Queen on the regenerative ability of the organ, apt as it may be (the Queen is looking to regenerate her own appearance after all, to reclaim the title of most beautiful in the land), but the liver here represents more than regeneration. The liver was also seen by the ancient Greeks as the seat of the soul, and if that belief waned over the millennia it survives in odd places, in stories and fairy tales and the dinner plates of jealous queens. Snow White’s stepmother isn’t just interested in devouring her daughter’s body. She wants to eat her soul as well, to truly wipe her off the map in all possible ways; to consume her spiritually as well as physically.

Let’s also remember that the princess is her father’s only child, his one true heir. In eating her, the Evil Queen destroys not only body and spirit but bloodline. There is to be nothing left of Snow White, no potential for resurrection in her daughters and grand-daughters. Everything about her is to be eaten up, to be remade in the Queen’s own image, transformed as her offal-flesh is intended to be, into the Queen’s own body. If Snow White is food, she’s also the death of potential, of the regeneration of children. Her death is the extinction of an entire line.

The Evil Queen is not the only horrifying mother of this type to chomp her way through children. One of the typical prototypes here is the mythological Procne, whose husband Tereus rapes her sister and rips out her tongue. The women kill Procne’s son Itys and serve him up to daddy for dinner. On discovering what he’s just eaten (being presented with the severed head of his young son is a dead giveaway) Tereus chases after the women but is transformed into a hoopoe bird, so there’s no more kiddies for him. Poor little Itys is of course as innocent as Snow White ever was, but it’s hard to argue that his father at least didn’t deserve it. Still, how many people have read this rather horrifying story and wondered how Procne could do this to herself, let alone her son?

Perhaps some people just aren’t cut out to be parents.

“You’re so cute, I want to eat you up!” or so many doting mothers have said to their own babies, but not nearly so literally. Horror, however, pushes past the bonds of family and infant devotion. Parental bonds are severed, and the kid’s for the cauldron.

It’s the deliberation that’s the worst part of it; the most horrifying of what is a very nasty story on a multitude of levels. How does Procne do it, if she’s even the one hacking up the child in the first place? You can just imagine her standing there, over the cooking pot, stirring away while a tiny little foot boils to the surface and then sinks again. The different cooking times of his offal, all the little bony joints. And still there she stands, stirring away – when not alternating with her sister, for one of them’s got to set the table, to chop up onion and herbs and make the gravy, something to disguise the flavour of flesh, to give it the tinge of pork or beef or veal so that no questions are asked before it’s all eaten up.

Does she sit that little severed head on the pantry shelf while she’s cooking? Does she turn the face away, or set it so it’s watching the pot?

How much, how much does that child look like his father? Quite a bit, I reckon. There’s a family tie that’s being underlined here, and it’s not that between mother and child. She’s picked her family, has Procne, and it consists of sisters instead of sons.

As far as Procne’s concerned, all sons are good for is food and vengeance. In her case, that vengeance is inspired by a deliberate act, although in the fairy tale “The Juniper Tree” the offense is far more passive in nature. There, the little victim is beheaded by his stepmother, who wishes her daughter to inherit the father’s estate. His body is turned into sausages, or sometimes stew, and he’s fed to his oblivious parent while the little girl, weeping, is left to bury her brother’s bones.

All the victim has done in this case is to exist; to be the elder and the boy and the son of a dead and early wife. The stepmother acts against not what he does but what he is, and the feeding of the child to his father is actually unnecessary in the greater scheme of things. She could have buried him in a distant field or left the body out for wolves and discovery – easy enough to blame bandits, one presumes, or a passing lunatic. Instead she turns him into food. Why? Is it a good way of getting rid of the body, or is she just very practically-minded and prefers to save the housekeeping money for other things instead of giving it over to the local butcher? Does she want to make sure that this particular bloodline is ended for good, fed back into its maker so that the supplemented father can provide more efficiently for his daughter? Does she blame her husband for having a life – and a wife – before her?

Maybe it’s a little bit of all of them, but it’s hard to think that vengeance isn’t in there. Feeding someone a stew made from their own child? That’s personal. That’s hate. That is grossly over-the-top malicious, and it doesn’t come out of indifference.

It comes from the desire to get your own back, as underhandedly and destructively as possible. That’s another of the ways that food can be made into a tool in horror: a tool for vengeance – but vengeance doesn’t have to be centred about bloodlines and extinction, the consumption of regeneration.

We’ve all heard the urban legends, the nasty little tricks that have reached mythic status. Ground glass in hamburger, razor blades in candy bars, the kicking back of a sick mind against a society that’s somehow wronged them. These are stories that run deep. They seem harmless enough in the midday sun, but come Halloween night there’s no end of parents carefully sorting through their kiddies’ stash, absolutely certain that their infant trick or treaters are at risk from doctored chocolate, from pins and needles in their marzipan. Psychopaths are everywhere and terrorists have been buying sweets in bulk, determined to promote ideology through butterfingers and liquorice, through little poisoned sugar mice.

It’s ridiculous. How often do these things actually happen? This wary vigilance, out of all proportion to realistic risk, but there are these stories… and we know that horror comes through our stomachs, through food, because we live in a world with an expectation of subversion, now, and food is something we can’t live without. It’s crucial, and it’s an avenue of access – a way for horror to slide inside us, to transform from living to dead, or living to merely-wishing-for-death, or living to fate-worse-than-death.

This is a world with Rohypnol in it, after all. We’re taught to be wary of what we ingest, right from when we’re young. “Let Mummy check your candy for you, or you might get sick. Don’t lose sight of your drink, or the bogeyman will get you.” And that’s not even counting the grim little stories of our cradle years. Even fruit isn’t safe! If it’s not taking poisoned apples from strange old ladies, it’s worrying about genetically modified horticulture and how it’ll bring on the apocalypse.

Because the thing about horror is, so often, that you do it to yourself. Sure, you could be innocently passing through some ancient Carpathian village, totally ignorant of local folklore and with your garlic left safely at home where it should be, unused and sprouting in the larder. You could be targeted by an unknown mutant (although there’s often blame to be shared in some way – he wouldn’t come after you if you weren’t fat or female or possessed of a working liver). These things are scary because we can’t predict them, but also scary is what we walk right into, eyes open, because a lot of horror comes with a cosmic, screw-eyed sense of justice that doesn’t have a lot of time for varying levels of innocence.

Or not-innocence, as the case may be. Consider Stephen King’s (writing as Richard Bachman) novel Thinner. The protagonist, Billy Halleck, distracted while driving (his wife’s giving him a handjob at the time, because sex and death go hand-in-hand with food and the imagery of consumption) runs over an old gypsy woman. But Billy’s well-known, well-liked, and he has connections so he gets off – or so he thinks. Leaving the courthouse a fat, free man, he’s cursed with a single word: “Thinner”. And does Billy ever get thin. The weight drops off, and off, and off, and the one thing he finally plumps on to stop his starvation only makes it all immeasurably worse, as he manages to spread the curse to his wife and innocent daughter. You want to over-indulge, the curse says, well then you just try it now, buddy.

Food is such a useful tool for vengeance, because that tool can be used in two ways: through presence and absence. Each way is transformative. Eat enough of the right thing (the wrong thing) and you can be transformed into a bleeding, pox-filled, ulcerated mimicry of man – if indeed that transformation allows you to stay human in the first place. Eat enough and you’ll be transformed into ill-health and deformation, from life to death to undeath. Don’t eat enough and you still transform, into starvation personified, into skeleton and bone, the absence of flesh.

The food-tool is very often degenerative, although in rare cases it can be regenerative as well – for instance, forcing eternal life on someone who doesn’t want it, when eternal life becomes misery and madness. Think of little Claudia from Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire. She’s not transformed out of vengeance, but she might as well be. Feeding a little girl vampire blood in order to turn her creates a monster of in-betweens, an adult mind in a child’s body, a sterile and a blunted sexuality.

The stepmother of “The Juniper Tree” feeds her stepson to his father to get some (unexplored) revenge on her husband. The child is unwelcome but largely irrelevant from a personal, vengeful point of view – had she wanted to use food as a tool to hurt him, rather than to hurt his progenitor, she would have used it to keep him alive as Claudia is alive. There’s no greater torture than that.

It’s a torture that has its roots in temptation. Food rates pretty high on the desire scale – think of truffles and chocolate mousse and lobster with butter; there’s a reason they call it food porn. Some cookbooks have the sensuality of an erotica manual (even the language is the same). It’s no surprise then that horror is one of the many, many genres that use food as a tool for temptation.

Sometimes it’s flatly obvious: last month I talked about the gingerbread house, purpose-built to lure children into the service and stuffing of ovens. Similarly Edmund Pevensie, bribed into betraying his family with Turkish Delight, the sweets opening the door for magic and belonging and pride; and Snow White abandoning all good sense (and the memory of previous disasters) for an apple.

It’s food as a bribe – and food is a good bribe, especially for those – like children, for instance, or non-human creatures – who can’t be bribed with sex. (“Please, dragon, take this virgin for your supper and don’t burn down our town!”) It’s a bribe that comes with the promise of transformation, but because we’re looking at horror, that food-transformation comes in a variety of nasty permutations. It can be used to transform others or to transform the self (both these come with the possibility of unexpected results, of the be-careful-what-you-wish-for type). Even the prospect of regeneration is double-edged – and so is the use of food-as-tool. It’s temptation for the poor sucker on the end of the tasty offer (“You eat the windowpane, Gretel, I want to try the roof tiles!”) but it’s also temptation for the person offering the food to begin with. If you can get your heart’s desire by dipping half an apple into poison and stuffing it down the throat of some pretty, greedy brat then why the hell not! It’s not as if you’re a nice person to begin with, that fruit’s just taking you a little bit further down the road of rotten-fucking-appledom.

That’s horror alright, turning you into something worse no matter what side of the fence you’re on.

Food is a good lure because it matters. Every community bonds over it. Food is family and friends, kinship and ritual. It binds people together. It feels good, tastes good, smells good. It often has religious connotations of transformation – bread masquerading as flesh, wine as blood and they call it communion, for bringing together. It’s nurturing. Through ritual and transformation it keeps society and biology intact.

Horror destroys; it does not nurture. It breaks down bodies and communities, transforms and builds them up (or down) into new and freakish forms.

Food is one of the fundamental shared experiences of humanity, and that’s what makes it so ripe for horror, because all these good shared things are capable of subversion. Poor monstrous little Claudia isn’t fed into vampdom as a means of punishment: her vampiric father is tempted into forming a family, to bond through blood and food and kind, and he never stops to think about how it will all turn inevitably to torment and hell. Even Edmund, dazed by Turkish Delight as much as his own (unjustified) sense of self-importance is lured, by food, into the desire to form a family with the White Witch. Virgil Incanto takes his victims on romantic dinner dates; the gingerbread witch feeds Hansel and Gretel well before tucking them into little white beds like a parent and telling them to sleep well, my dears, I’ll see you in the morning. We’re so lucky to have found a new mother, they whisper to each other, full as ticks, transformed into complacency and, frankly, ingredients.

Food, such a humanising influence in reality (the festival rituals of feasts, the family dinners, the generational teaching of traditional and beloved recipes), is a dehumanising tool in horror. Sometimes literally, sometimes just by the transformation of a human being into a prey animal – a creature undeserving of empathy or consideration. Which is, coincidentally, what this column’s going to be about next month: Jaws and Jurassic Park and giant saltwater crocodiles… creature horror and food, the dehumanisation of ourselves in horror, nature red with our too-easy blood in tooth and claw.

But until then, consider the uses of food as a tool in horror: transformative, regenerative, tempting and deathly.

The Consequences of Consumption

The Mussel EaterWHEN WHAT WE EAT COMES BACK TO BITE US

This is the first in a series of columns on Food & Horror that I’m writing for Ana and Thea over at The Book Smugglers. It first appeared a month ago, in their 2015 Halloween week.

 

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.