CW// strong language, sexual imagery, violence
New year, new post, same glorious Gothic shit…
I got a copy of Body Gothic for Christmas which is another one of the University of Wales Press’s Gothic Literary Studies series. You will see from the eye-watering price that this is a Serious Academic Study on Literary Criticism, which is why it will be treasured.
The gothic, particularly in its contemporary incarnations, is often constructed around largely disembodied concepts such as spectrality or the haunted. Body Gothic offers a counter-narrative that reinstates the importance of viscerality to the gothic mode. It argues that contemporary discourses surrounding our bodies are crucial to our understanding of the social messages in fictional mutilation and of the pleasures we may derive from it. This book considers a number of literary and cinematic movements that have, over the past three decades, purposely turned the body into a meaningful gothic topos. Each chapter in Body Gothic is dedicated to a different corporeal subgenre: splatterpunk, body horror, the new avant-pulp, the slaughterhouse novel, torture porn and surgical horror are all covered in its pages. Close readings of key texts by Clive Barker, Richard Laymon, Joseph D’Lacey, Matthew Stokoe, Tony White or Stanley Manly are provided alongside in-depth analyses of landmark films such as Re-Animator (1985), The Fly (1986), Saw (2004), Hostel (2005), The Human Centipede (2011) and American Mary (2012)
My husband bought it for me because of the corporeal assimilation and body horror involved in The Crows and the wider Pagham-on-Sea-verse/Paghamverse, where one particular family of eldritch horrors undergo the Changes around ages 18-21. These Changes alter their physical appearance in impossible ways, and I’m never completely going to explain how or why or anything about it. Vague is best as far as I’m concerned. I don’t want readers to be able to wrap their heads around how a skinny 5ft 4 bloke can fit a T-Rex sized thing with coils, mouths and too many eyes inside his body, and I honestly don’t care, because for me, reducing body horror to empirical explanations or things that make any logical sense is not the point of it.
I’ve also done the spectral haunting element in The Crows, and played with a fairly major if low-key theme of disembodiment versus embodiment, but what I am mainly interested in for Thirteenth, a novel that follows on from The Crows but focuses on the eldritch abominations that are the Porter clan, is the body as a site of Gothic horror, the physicality of it, and how that plays into other fears and themes like alienation and loss of control.
I keep forgetting that Horror as a genre was born from Gothic fiction, and that you can talk about films like the Human Centipede, Saw and Hostel franchises as Gothic [filmic] texts. I hoped that reading the ideas that Reyes posits in Body Gothic would help me rethink my own writing and give me some more ideas about how to write this kind of thing. What do I want to do? What am I saying? Why have I included this sort of stuff and what is the purpose of it? Does it have one or is it… just something I like writing about?
I found it really useful and it gave me a lot of things to think about, but also it was just fun to read.
The key things that Reyes writes about are:
- Yes, hauntings are cool but the gothic is as much about the body as it is about spectres because…
- The body can be centred in the gothic experience – not just a passive observer/vehicle, or something that exists to be haunted.
- The body itself can be a site of imprisonment, disassociation and alienation.
- The body can be fragmented, permeable, objectified and reduced to its basic components.
The chapters focused on:
- Body Horror
- The New Avant-Pulp (see also: Attack! Books… their manifesto and linked interview is not for the faint of heart)
- The Slaughterhouse Novel
- Torture Porn
- Surgical Horror
Chapter 1: Splatterpunk: Splatterpunk settings are trés Gothic, as are the characters and the tropes, so it’s kind of an updated take on Gothic fiction taken to its graphic extreme. Reyes says the aim of splatterpunk and of body gothic more generally is ‘to recreate and exploit a moment of “meat meeting mind, with the soul as screaming omniscient witness”.’1
Chapter 2: Body Horror: Body horror is loosely defined and covers everything from weird fiction (my jam) to post-millennial torture porn. Reyes discusses possible definitions and how it’s related to the gothic. He covers mutation and re-animation, and classics like The Fly and its remake, and more modern classics like the Human Centipede. I generally refuse to watch these on principle because I just couldn’t cope with the imagery, but I’m interested in the commentary.
Chapter 3: The New Avant-Pulp: Oh my word, I loved this chapter. Attack! books gets a special mention for their amazing fuck you to BritLit (and sanity). Avant-pulp is meant to be a deconstruction of the novel using spare, poetic prose, but which some authors do in obscene and dramatic fashion. Attack! was set up with classic titles like Tits-Out Teenage Terror Totty by the late great Stephen Wells [Reader, I bought it] and proposed titles like HUGETITTED SPUNKSUCKING NAZISNAKE SLUTNUNS IN CYBERSPACE I mean, how could that not have been a raging success? Well, it kind of wasn’t, and Attack! folded in 2002, which I think is a huge loss just in general. Anyway, Reyes looks at avant-pulp, the similarities with the 1970s s/exploitation texts (including films) and how the body gets gothicised TO THE MAX (I guess) in this subgenre.
Honestly if I were brave enough I’d just re-write Thirteenth to comply with this manifesto because this is basically what bi/pan/omni/who-honestly-knows-or-cares polyamorous playboy Wes Porter wants his life to be like (except that he’s not an anarchist, he’s a grassroots Tory with a hard-on for Maggie Thatcher, which, if you’ve read Tits-Out Teenage Terror Totty, is ironically apt).
Chapter 4: The Slaughterhouse Novel: This is exactly what it sounds like. I was thinking maybe there was more to it, but the texts covered here are mainly post-apocalyptic and are primarily about cannibalism, with the body reduced to meat and the slaughterhouse as a key setting. These kinds of novels often pick up on the inhumane conditions of the meat processing line and the horrors of (usually) American food industry standards, and in reducing people to meat, the novels gothicise capitalism and consumer culture, taking it to its logical extreme.
Chapter 5: Torture Porn: Loved this chapter too: it mainly focuses on the Hostel and Saw franchises, again, none of which I’ve seen, but I love the breakdown and the commentary on what they achieve in terms of centring the body as a site of horror and suspense. Honestly thought this was really insightful and made me want to watch all the films to see how the concepts discussed are handled on screen, even though I know I couldn’t cope with the gore.
Reyes argues here that contemporary horror films, while they might look like a departure from gothic film, might instead ‘be reshaping the gothic mode to suit modern anxieties and contemporary understandings of embodiment’ (Body Gothic, p. 137). This is an insightful observation, and one which leads neatly into his deconstruction of corporeality in Surgical Horror, the final chapter.
Chapter 6: Surgical Horror: The final chapter touches on Gothic classics like Frankenstein and how the anxieties within this text translate into modern-day horror. Surgical reality shows focusing on cosmetic surgery or unusual physical problems are really popular, so it’s not surprising that fictional texts and films focus on this preoccupation and gothicise it and the culture around it. A thematic subset of mad science that particularly attacks the cult of youth and beauty, the modern practitioners of surgical horror have obvious pioneering mentors in Viktor Frankenstein, Herbert West, Dr Jekyll and Dr Moreau.
Reyes argues that these figures ‘help us negotiate a number of frustrations and anxieties about the present, as well as fears of the future, the role of technology and scientific developments and their impact on our lives, religion and many other areas of human existence’ (p. 147). The horror comes from exploiting instinctive human reactions to pain (and seeing others in pain), and by changing the human body into an unrecognisable shape or at least one that challenges ‘normative corporealities’ (p.165).
Conclusion: The conclusion of the book looks at corporeal readings more broadly, setting this study in the context of previous ones and showing how consideration of the body gothic is experiencing a resurgence within the academic discipline. Reyes contends that the subgenres discussed in the previous chapters need to be ‘read alongside shifts in popular and cultural perceptions of embodiment over the past thirty years’ (p. 169).
Reyes summarises his position on corporeality and the gothic, as laid out in each of the previous chapters, and ends by saying that this study is ‘intended as a stepping stone towards a critical future where the gothic may become inextricable from embodiment, and where a recuperation of the role and relevance of corporeal transgression might breathe new life into an excessive canon that, paradoxically, often ignores the gory and the extreme’ (p. 171).
And that’s all folks!
Since I haven’t seen the films or read the texts I’m not going to give a full chapter-by-chapter breakdown of this one in the way I did with Welsh Gothic, where I gave you additional historical context and supporting personal anecdotes/reflections on each theme covered in Aaron’s chapters, but stay tuned for me to do something similar with Reyes’ book Spanish Gothic, and a collected volume on Bram Stoker!
I’m going to leave you with part of the actual press release for Attack! Books in case you’re not prepared to scar your corneas by clicking the link to the literary interview I’ve linked to twice in this post you cowards:
“Attack! Books are gaudily painted ruffian whores blatantly flourishing the rouged lips of their distended genitalia and giving you the come on. You are aroused to passion. Feverishly fingering the cheap pages, you speed-read the sordid contents, your mind reeling under the savage mental carpet bombing of the fuck-frenzied prose. At last, satiated and weeping, you collapse in a heaving heap. Then you sit down at your computer and start to write. The world must hear of the glory, the frenzy, the dementia and—yes—the love that IS Attack! Books. The pulsating glory that you once thought could only be found in the screaming amplifiers of beautiful and tragically thin young proletarian sex-rock gods thrashing machine-gun fuck rock out of cock-level held and crude-slogan plastered electric guitars has now found its literary equivalent!”
1. John Skipp and Craig Spector, ‘On Going Too Far, or Flesh-Eating Fiction: New Hope for the Future’, in John Skipp and Craig Spector (eds), Book of the Dead (London and New York: Bantam Books, 1989), p. 10.↩