Food, Horror, Novellas

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!

Food, Horror, SFF, Short stories

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 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.


Food, Horror

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


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.



Food, Horror, Pop culture, SFF

Gender and Consumption I: Sex, Sacrifice, and Substitution


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…

Food, Horror, Pop culture, SFF

Being Toothsome


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.