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Tabula Rasa

The Body Horror Book – Essays of the Macabre

edited by C. J. Fitzpatrick, Oscillate Wildly Press, 2017

A review by Kyla Lee Ward

A copy of this book was received by the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.

Do you like your horror stories with a healthy dose of violated taboos, grotesque bodily transformations and images that shock you out of complacency? Claire Fitzpatrick (author of Only The Dead) does and, in her introduction to this non-fiction collection, shares her urge to understand why. But first must come the question, what constitutes Body Horror? The answers provided by the writers, editors and critics herein include "...a method of us confronting disease, disability and disfigurement in a safe way..." (Peter Sutton), "...a fundamental violation of what we know about matter and energy..." (Andrea Dean Van Scoyoc), and "All horror is Body Horror." (Dmetri Kakmi). There may not be a consensus, but there is plenty of lively debate.

Although the entries include essays, articles, memoirs, poetry and rants, they tend overall to focus on film rather than literature and on the classic works of the 80s and 90s, with much attention given to the first Alien movie, Hellraiser and David Cronenberg's The Fly. But the lead essay, "Eat, Drink and be Wary: Autosarcophagy and Autoeroticism in Body Horror Cinema" by Kirsten Imani Kasai, is also one of the most contemporary, dealing with depictions of cannibalism in such recent films as Raw and Neon Demon, and how the trope dramatises the conflicted attitudes of women towards their own bodies. And what is probably my favourite piece in the whole collection, Anthony Ferguson's "Exposing the Ideological Monster Beneath the Skin: the Reptilians and Other Demons", charts the development of this trope into a full-fledged conspiracy theory that is thriving in the world of Brexit and Trump.

If there is an overall theme to the book, it is that to those who produce it and those who consume it, Body Horror is a very personal thing. As Kakmi points out in "A History of Violence", its effect is immediately inscribed upon the body of the viewer/reader, by way of gut reactions and involuntary shudders. But in "Skin Deep", Sutton writes movingly of his experience of psioriasis and uses this to reflect on skin, as the specific boundary which Body Horror flouts. In her essay, J. J. Roye wonders "...how humanity manages to perpetuate itself without succumbing to crippling fear with each pregnancy", given how this process mirrors the genre's obsession with "Insertion and Transformation".

Kakmi's memoir is a stand-out. A horror story in its own right, it charts how horror films enabled a young man to deal with the trauma of childhood persecution and displacement as a refugee, and subsequent demands that he assimilate a foreign culture. Rich, sensitive and truly shocking, it deserves to be read.

Maree Kimberly and Kaaron Warren ensure that literature is not entirely overlooked. Kimberly's "The Rise of Posthumanism" compares the depiction of mutation in Olaf Stapleton's Last and First Men with Katherine Dunn's Geek Love. Warren provides a retrospective of the most visceral moments from her own work, placing them in the context of her philosophy of evil. Even music gets a look in, with Benjamin Orchard's "The Singing Freaks of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Sondheim", which points out that many people who would never watch a Body Horror film will happily accept its tropes in other forms.

This kind of hypocrisy and the spectre of censorship are further explored in Fitzpatrick's own essay. "Video Nasties" meticulously charts the home video panic in 1980s Britain and places the question of who is permitted to watch what within the context of ongoing class war. The parallel she draws between self-appointed moral guardian Mary Whitehouse and the figure of Jason in the Friday the Thirteenth movies, is cheeky indeed. But Tracie Fahey's examination of the performance art of Bob Flanagan and Maria Abramovic charts their attempts to push the boundary "…of what bodily limits are and of what is acceptable in contemporary art practice", and the subsequent attempts to fortify it in the name, once again, of public safety. Over and above the supposed snuff film, Cannibal Holocaust, or the crimes potentially inspired by Driller Killer, it is here that art bleeds (literally) into reality and entertainment into human lives. And there is much, much more to explore, between these covers so carefully stitched together by designer Greg Chapman.

So why do people enjoy Body Horror, even or especially when it is so personal? The key would seem to be its power to engage, to punch through the numbness of everyday life and elicit real feeling. And this is perhaps the explanation for the spread of definitions, as precisely what achieves this will differ for each individual. The collection embraces this fact and a straight read-through has a pleasing texture. I suspect the response of each reader will likewise be individual, but overall this is a solid and thought-provoking production. And although it does not possess quite the academic rigour of a text like Monsters and Monstrosity from the Fin de Siècle to the Millennium (McFarland, 2015), it still contains much of use to the student of horror.

 

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