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.