Horror

The Better Part of Drowning

I’ve a new story out!

The Better Part of Drowning” is free to read in this month’s issue of The Dark Magazine. It’s been a while since I’ve had a story in The Dark (back in 2014, with “Tommy Flowers and the Glass Bells of Bletchley”) so it’s great to be back in there again.

“The Better Part of Drowning” is all giant, creepy, child-eating crabs, and what it’s like to have to live with them – to prey on them, and to be preyed on by them. Believe it or not, it’s set in the same world (on the same street!) as my recent story “The Ouroboros Bakery”, for all that they’re very different stories. It’s a world I plan to spend a lot more time in, with a series of interlinking shorts. Two more of these stories are in the pipeline – the crabs make a reappearance in my upcoming story “Sugar Ricochets to Other Forms” (in the Mother of Invention anthology), and the Lady of Scales is the subject of “The Temporary Suicides of Goldfish”, soon to appear in Kaleidotrope.

But, to the crabs…

Alix was never sure what kept the groaning rickety-spider of a dock up, unless it was the mussels that swarmed over the piles, turning them to hazards that could slice a swimmer open. The divers were all over scars from waves and mussels, always being pushed into shell sharp as knives and leaving their blood to scent the water.

“You kids be careful you don’t draw the crabs!” If she heard that once a day she heard it fifty times, and each time she had to smile over the slicing pain and wave up, because coins weren’t thrown to kids who wailed. Wailing made her choke if she tried to dive anyway, and there were always kids enough to squabble over coins so tears did nothing but anchor her to surface and starvation and blind her to the sudden scuttle of predation.

Don’t draw the crabs, they always said, and smiled as they said it, because it was entertaining to see kids dive in crab beds, and entertaining to see the bloodshed when they were slow enough for catching. Alix didn’t blame them for that. She’d never been able to look away either, no matter how much bile rose in her throat, the metal taste of panic.

Crabmeat, crabmeat. It was their own little circle of carnivorism, the smallest crabs providing one and the smaller kids the other. Not that the biggest of the scuttlers couldn’t take a man full-grown, but usually the bigger you got the more sense you had, and the more the habit of watching claws kept them away from bone…

Advertisements

The Ouroboros Bakery

I’ve a new story out!

The Ouroboros Bakery” can be read for free in this month’s issues of Kaleidotrope.

Whenever I’m not writing about science I seem to be writing about food – particularly about food and horror, and “The Ouroboros Bakery” is a dark fantasy story about pie and immortality. There’s a fair bit of cake in there as well, and while writing this story I came across a cake that was entirely new to me. Baumkuchen, which is basically cake on a spit. Layers and layers are brushed on as the spit turns, and when the whole thing is finished and you cut into it there’s the effect of tree rings. Naturally this is something I have to try!

It’s certainly more likely to be tasty than the blood pie of the magic bakery here, which – if you’re lucky (or unlucky) enough to get it – grants eternal life. But it seems that no matter how willing the customers are to guzzle down longevity, the reality of it never quite lives up to expectations…

“Please take it back,” he says. “Please.”

It’s not the most urgent plea Oksana has ever heard. This one is still mostly sane. He can still look her in the eye, and if his hands are tight-clasped together so that the knuckles show white, his voice has very little waver in it.

A strong man, then, but even strong men cannot fight on two fronts.

He does not touch his tea. Oksana serves it steaming hot, dark and tannic in the pot and her tea cups are the finest porcelain, translucent in afternoon sun. She has always been able to tell a lot from how her visitors drink her tea. Some sip as she does, their mouths unscalded and their cup dainty in their hands. Others are clumsier, aware of the cost of breakage, and these hold their cup in both hands. The polite do it before the tea cools, preferring to be burnt upon their palms than to risk cracks and recompense. And some refuse to drink altogether, whether out of preference or distraction, for Oksana serves her tea with sweet shortbread, with sponges and cream and tuile biscuits still warm from the oven.

Her visitor does not drink. It is not out of rudeness, and he would not eat again from her bakery unless it cost him his life, and there is nothing about Oksana’s afternoon tea that could do that. She finishes her slice of sponge, scrapes the last of the strawberry jam from her plate, the sweet tartness of it vivid against a background of tannin. His knuckles are paler than cream – they are as pale as icing sugar, and were he to try and take her cup in his hands, then all the tea would spill out…

You can read the rest over at Kaleidotrope!

RITUAL MEALS 1: FOOD AS ANCHOR, FOOD AS HARBOUR

FOOD AND HORROR, PART EIGHT

This is the eighth in a series of columns on Food and Horror that I wrote for Ana and Thea over at The Book Smugglers. It first appeared on their site last year.

It’s pretty undeniable that food has ritualistic elements. Of course some days you’re lucky to be able to more than eat and run, or eat on the run, and there are some who don’t get to eat at all. But most of us have our traditions, come from family or people or nation, from religion or history.

One of the reasons that short stories are so good at exploring horror through ritualistic food elements is that shorts are, by necessity, condensed information. Novels that focus heavily on the practise of rituals can seem leaden and repetitive, whilst a short can focus on a single element without beating that element into the ground. Furthermore, when that ritualism focuses on something as common as food, as laden with association as food, it does not need to spend too long underlining the effect. Readers recognise, from their own experiences, the meaning and importance of food rituals in general, and they can translate that into the story environment. Food can then be used as a sort of ritual pivot around which the story rotates.

This gives an author extraordinary freedom to use ritual in a number of ways. Used as many of us are to traditional, often historic food rituals, there is still place for those that are more modern than others. Naomi Kritzer’s “So Much Cooking” isn’t a horror story on the face of it (the ending’s a little too happy for horror) but it’s certainly the story of a woman in a horrific situation and trying to carry on as best as normal. Natalie is quarantined with her husband and an increasing number of children as a bird flu epidemic sweeps the country. With a 32% mortality rate the disease is a real threat, and Natalie’s nurse sister-in-law is one of the dead, infected as she tries to provide medical care for others.

Despite the growing death toll, however, Natalie’s food blog continues unabated. She continues to share the recipes from her increasingly bizarre meals – supplies become ever more limited, and substitutions have to be made. (As someone who bakes a lot myself, I’ve never considered using mayonnaise as a substitute for eggs before, and frankly I never want to again. I clearly don’t have what it takes to survive pandemic via experimental gastronomy.) But no matter how restricted the meals, their preparation and sharing (both in person and online) is a point of continuity.

“I don’t know about you, but I deal with anxiety by cooking,” says Natalie. I’ve talked before in these columns about how horror is primarily a genre of destabilisation, of taking the things that we’re sure of and inverting them for hideous effect. One way of doing this is by turning food itself into an expression of horror – for example chopping up a stepchild for stew, as in The Juniper Tree fairy tale. But if food can be weaponised in service of instability, it can also be used as a weapon against instability. Natalie, trapped in an increasingly claustrophobic environment in the middle of pandemic, uses food as a normalising influence. The world might be falling apart around her, but if she can put food on the table and conjure up a child’s birthday cake from pancake mix and butterscotch pudding then all is not lost. “This is no longer a food blog,” she says, reaching out for the connections of a life before. “This is a boredom and isolation blog. Also a stress management blog.” Hobby has become ritual, a way of holding steady in a stressful environment. The desire to cook – and to then describe that cooking – is a desire that, when expressed, anchors Natalie to her new and unpleasant reality. Grieving children, their mother lost to plague, abandoned children, a husband sinking into illness himself… these can all be contained with (and within) a food blog, the unstable world being reshaped into manageable, recognisable frames of reference.

But to whom do those frames of reference belong?

Natalie’s trying to keep things normal for the kids, or at least as normal as they can be. But the blog posts, the recording and reaching out and experimentation, the interaction with her readers… these little ritual processes are for her benefit alone. As she comments, her food blog is there for stress relief, to help keep herself collected and sane in the midst of infection. It is, primarily, a way to stabilise her world.

Yet what happens when the world that needs stabilising belongs to someone else? The birthday cake manoeuvre, as it were. Cooking a special treat for someone else, something that grounds them instead of yourself, is generally easy enough. Almost too easy for horror, even if there are challenges of substitution and sourcing.

Horror is a balancing act of stabilisation. Most characters try to deal with the undermining of their world view by trying to find a place of sense in madness, somewhere to stand where meaning can start to be rebuilt. But meaning changes from person to person. For instance, my own worldview is based very heavily in science. If I were confronted with a frightening instance of the paranormal, say a malevolent ghost, my reaction would be very different to that of a person who accepted the existence of ghosts as a normal part of existence. We might both be terrified, but our strategies for dealing with the subsequent upheaval would be different.

Such is the case with food. Natalie comes from an environment where birthday cakes are normal, expected items. It might give her some trouble to come up with one in a world of limited resources, but she doesn’t further destabilise her own worldview by trying to do so. What happens when one can only combat another’s destabilisation by undermining one’s own sane perspectives? How much of another’s horror can reasonably be taken on?

Caroline M. Yoachim explores this idea in her story “The Carnival Was Eaten, All Except the Clown”. The carnival in this story is a candy creation for children’s parties, and all the little figurines – the gingerbread daredevil, the juggler – are sentient. At the centre of the carnival is the clown, a perfect three inch sugar structure who, like Cinderella, is kept back from the party but for reasons more sinister than housework. The clown is the seed of the carnival, and after all her companions are sent off to be eaten by (comparatively) giant kiddies, the clown is melted down in a cauldron and, from her diluted remains, the carnival is reformed by the magician in charge of all this near-cannibalism. The daredevil and juggler and monkey, all the little sheep of the carnival, never remember from one incarnation to the other. They’re reborn as total innocents, and only the clown remembers all of her lives, all of her meltings down.

And the clown is perfectly happy, because she is perfectly ignorant. More used to sentience than her reborn companions, she helps to orient them, telling them of the wonderful future ahead of them.

As each of the sugar creations woke, the clown was there to welcome them to the world and tell them of their destiny.  “You will be adored by children,” she told the cotton candy sheep, stroking the wisps of their baby blue wool.  “You will delight them with your tumbling,” she told the flexible bubblegum acrobats.   And, “You will amaze them with your daring stunts,” she told the gingerbread daredevil.  She smiled at everyone, but she smiled her prettiest smile for the daredevil, because she was a little bit in love with him.

As she woke the carnival, and told them tales of children with bright smiling faces, she always added, “in the end you will be eaten, for that is your destiny.”

The clown doesn’t know what being eaten means, but thinks it full of positive connotations. Until the day she decides to sneak along to the party herself, and witnesses everyone she loves being consumed in great, greedy bites.

Newly awakened to a reality of more than sugar, the clown objects – understandably and strenuously – to being used as seed again, but sentient or not, she is three bare inches of sugar and is forcibly melted down in order to provide the next generation of candy victims. The whole horrible charade keeps going, over and over, the spells and the sugar spinning, the indoctrination, and nothing the clown says – to the magician, to his creations – makes any difference. Their destination is to be eaten, and they are. Repeatedly.

The whole magician’s process of saccharine castings is not only ritualized creation and consumption, the sacrifice of sentience in the rebirth of (doomed) innocence, but it is all the clown knows. It’s normal for her, accepted, until she finds out the horrifying truth and that normality destabilizes around her, reforms in different and threatening ways. And the clown is faced with a choice: she can continue as seed, stabilizing the world that everyone else is used to instead of causing trouble and conflict, or she can run away and refuse to be party to it. What she can’t do is simultaneously support both worlds. Ritual isn’t sufficient to bridge the gap between them, and the break between the magician’s carnival and the clown has to be absolute. It’s significant that the clown doesn’t reject ritual altogether, though. She goes on to create her own carnival, using the same magical process of regeneration. Instead of clinging to ritual, as Natalie does, the clown first rejects and then subverts it, mirroring the original stabilising force in order to stabilize a new world of her own creation.

If ritual is meant to preserve some semblance of the normal order of things, there are necessarily times that these rituals fail, or succeed in unexpected ways. The subversion of, and often-ambiguity of, ritual is illustrated in “Soup of Soul Bones” by Crystal Lynn Hilbert. The story begins with ritual, with the finding of bones and the resurrection of the related sprit. Adrienne, sacrificing a goose to tether the ghostly soul of Jacoben Stoyan to her kitchen, is in search of information only the dead can provide. Jacoben, however, is decidedly not cooperative, so the story begins with failed ritual and continues in the same vein.

Jacoben’s only interest appears to be cooking. He takes over the kitchen: baking, roasting, making sausage, and very nearly entirely ignoring Adrienne. She tries to catch his attention with bits and pieces that usually work well with summoned spirits – mirrors, bronze, lamb’s wool – but nothing works… at least not until she starts with another goose, and goes on sacrificing. The interaction between necromancer and ghost starts small, and it’s all culinary-based. The rituals Adrienne tries have magic in them, spells and enchantments and history, but it’s the food element that brings them together, that gives her the opportunity to try tease out what’s gone wrong with this very unusual resurrection.

Adrienne sacrificed a pig. Jacoben braised ribs.

She mixed honey-wine and milk—an offering of melikraton the old Greek ghosts preferred. Jacoben browned sugar in a copper pot.

She offered him fresh sturgeon, glossy-eyed, still dreaming of oceans. She offered him rabbits, snared in a new moon. She draped her table in grape-leaves, in radishes, in carrots. She left him wine and beer, champagne and mead.

Adrienne offered him entire markets. Jacoben baked peaches.

The house smelt of caramel and onion, garlic and spent-spells.

And Adrienne watched. She studied every pan, every plate. She filled notebooks counting spoon-strokes and knife-falls, but nothing made sense. She gained five pounds trying to discern what he meant by this parade of roasts and sweets, but in the end, what could be learned from fennel pie, from truffles soaked in wine?

Opportunity doesn’t always equal victory, though. Adrienne’s continued failure, her inability to learn from previously successful rituals, only stops when the ghost starts cooking himself. Adrienne raised him from his bones so there they are, “butcher-bare”, and he’s hacking up his own femurs for the cooking pot.

That’s how she gets her information, in the end. Through food and ritual and a type of bare resurrection as Jacoben subverts her spells by inserting himself into the ingredient list. Adrienne eats him up in any number of ways – she was on the right track, after all, using goose and incantation and sacrifice to draw him back to her. The ritual only needed tweaking – tweaking by its subject/object – in order to restore order to the world that was so disarranged when the necromancer’s original ritual spell didn’t work correctly.

But if ritual provides a way to cling to perceived normality through practical action in a world suddenly become abnormal, it can also provide touchstones by evoking memory. And that’s what I’ll be looking at next month: memory-meals, and how rituals use them to underline and subvert horror.

 

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.

 

The Little Beast

I have a new story out!

“The Little Beast” has just been published in Respectable Horror, the new anthology from Fox Spirit Books. Now I love pretty much all types of horror, but this anthology focuses on stories that try to horrify you without gore or explicitness. Inside you’ll find more Shirley Jackson than Saw.

“The Little Beast” is based around my least favourite fairy tale. I’ve always side-eyed Beauty and the Beast, and it was always Beauty that got my back up. There’s something so untrustworthy about how saccharine she is. I’m not even talking about her willingness to be sold to the Beast as some sort of family sacrifice. In itself that might be understandable – it’s when it follows the whole disgusting rose episode that sacrifice starts to take on more sinister undertones. If I can pinpoint the one moment when I finally realised that I just don’t like Beauty – and why – it’s that bloody bit with the rose; her desperate, needy desire to take up every last bit of her father’s mental space.

A rose is the worst of long-distance presents. It’s a cut flower, it wilts. He’ll have to wrap the stem in wet tissue, to watch it every second so that it doesn’t fall off the cart or get run over, so that it isn’t bumped and bruised by packages or the careless elbows of passers-by. He’ll end up carrying it himself, the whole of the trip home. It’s such a simple request, that made by his youngest daughter. Such a modest desire.

And every night, when he stops at an inn, he’ll have to ask for a vase and fresh water and before he gets it he’ll have to explain why he wants it. He’ll have to tell about his daughter, about her rose. And they’ll coo and congratulate him on having such a loving girl, and none of them will stop to think that she’s asked for a gift that’ll take more time and trouble than her more conventional sisters. No. They’ll be too busy making a fuss for that.

(None of the fuss will be about him.)

But cut flowers die, and no matter what he does, no matter the trouble he’ll go to, by the time he gets back home the thing’s going to be half-dead anyway, all wilted and with the petals falling off.

And the little beast… the little beast will look at her sisters with their expensive, easy requests and her bottom lip will quiver, just minutely, and then she’ll smile anyway and thank him for the present and say that his coming back safe was all she really needed. And all this ridiculous sequence of events will have been set up, by her, for his next line, because there’s only one thing he’ll be able to say at that point, confronted with that brave, martyred little face and that sad little flower.

“You’re such a good girl, Beauty.” (So much better than your sisters.)

Awful girl. Awful. To read the rest, check out the anthology…

The Convergence of Fairy Tales

convergence2I have a new novella out!

The Convergence of Fairy Tales is a horror story published by The Book Smugglers as the first in their new novella series. It’s really a mash-up of sorts, where five different fairy tale princesses – Sleeping Beauty, the Snow Queen, Snow White, the Frog Princess, and Rapunzel – are facets of the same person. That person wakes, as the original Sleeping Beauty does, with a baby sucking the needle from her finger. How the princesses deal with their rape and forced motherhood – and how they wreak bloody vengeance within the confines of their own stories, aided by poison apples and mirror fragments, by long hair and glass coffins and golden balls – is something I really wanted to explore.

The Sleeping Beauty woke with a heartbeat between her legs. That was what dragged her out of the sticky swamp of enchantment, of curses and nightmare dreams – a red beat, one centred in her cunt and pulsing. It anchored her as fishing line, hooked into her flesh and hauling upwards until she broke the surface of her sleep and woke to a world so much different than before.

Her eyes were sticky-shut, the lashes glued together. It took work to open them and then the sun was so bright, shining through her tower window, that the Sleepy Beauty promptly closed them again to let herself adjust to the light glowing pink through her lids. It was in that moment, floating just above unconsciousness, that she began to feel more than flares and fish-lines.

The sheets were wet. Damp, really, with the sour odour of sweat, especially in the space around her hips where she could feel the liquid pooling, feel the heaviness of the sheets against her skin. She tried to move, to shift out of the damp spot – had she wet herself, had her bleeding come early? – but it hurt to move and there was something between her legs, something soft and wet and spongy. Her lower back felt as if she had been beaten, and there was a tugging at one finger.

And really, look at that cover. It’s by the fabulously talented Kristina Tsenova (who also did the cover for my short story “The Mussel Eater”). How can you not want a book with that cover?

The Convergence of Fairy Tales is available at Amazon and Smashwords.

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.