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Body Horror, Part Three: Literature of the Flesh

David Cronenberg is one of the defining visionaries of body horror. His remake of the Fly is a masterpiece of both practical special effects and the exploration (in themes and in concrete terms) of biology and dehumanization. One of Cronenberg’s movies, however, is often overlooked in a consideration of his “body horror” canon; his adaptation of William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. Naked Lunch itself is a difficult book to describe. It is hallucinatory, absurd, obscene, terrifying, and absolutely unique – completely unlike anything that came before or since. And amidst the drugs, weird sex, science fiction concepts, and gibberish is a fair amount of what I would describe as good old-fashioned body horror; explorations of addiction, disease, disfigurement, and mutation.

Cronenberg’s adaptation of the source material is just that: an adaptation, and more of an original story about the life of William S. Burroughs and the writing of Naked Lunch than a film version of what is – without any doubt – a completely unfilmable book. Aspects of Lunch’s kaleidoscopic fugue did make it into the film version, however; the giant aquatic centipedes, the interdimensional monsters and secret agents, even a “bit” (as Burroughs described discrete chunks of Naked Lunch) about “the man who taught his asshole to talk” – a body horror concept if I’ve ever heard one.

Stephen King famously provided the following taxonomy of horror fiction in his 1979 treatise on horror, Danse Macabre:

“The 3 types of terror: The Gross-out: the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs, it’s when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm. The Horror: the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around, it’s when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm. And the last and worse one: Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It’s when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there’s nothing there…”

In the case of William S. Burroughs’ whirlwind nightmare of incomprehensible conspiracies, bodily deformity, addiction, sex, and madness, all three criteria are met. I would argue, in fact, that good body horror, the canons of your Cronenberg or your Junji Ito, hit on all three of these horror notes at once without diminishing one for the sake of another.

There are other authors not traditionally considered part of the horror canon who are indebted to Burroughs’ vision – Will Self and Robert Anton Wilson come immediately to mind – but the body horror aspects of their work is often secondary or tertiary to other threads that put their work more at home beneath the tents of other genres. Chuck Palahniuk, however, is a writer whose work reflects on many of the same themes as Burroughs’. Addiction, bodily deformity, mutilation, and transgressive, visceral sex acts are central themes.

It has always been interesting to me that Palahniuk isn’t considered at least a syncretic deity related to the pantheon of body horror greats. Take “Guts,” the short story first published in Playboy in 2004 and then in his 2005 novel-short-story-collection Haunted. It’s a challenging read, not so much for gore (although there is some of that) as for visceral discomfort of a more decidedly NSFW variety. Go ahead and enjoy it – I’ll wait – but be aware that when Palahniuk initially read it in public, people fainted. Specifically-sexual body horror is something that Palahniuk can paint in Day-Glo horror colors as vividly as Poppy Z. Brite when he wants; just read Rant (with its fetishization of disease) or Choke (with its sex addiction and BDSM-gone-wrong) if you want proof of that.

Part of the appeal of Palahniuk’s prose is that while his stories veer into the satirical, the absurd, and the surreal, they are grounded in reality: real phenomena, real people with real shortcomings and the concrete absurdity of a reality often stranger than anything contained in speculative fiction. But not all literary body horror confines itself in such a fashion. One of my favorite novels of all time is Katherine Dunn’s 1989 masterpiece, Geek Love. Geek Love is thoroughgoing body horror; a tale of mutation, mutilation, the perils of both beauty and ugliness, and the violent ends that such stories must always culminate in. While I would agree that Dunn is not a horror writer, per se, her best-known and most fiercely-loved novel is (among other things) undoubtedly a horror story.

Cronenberg’s contributions to the body horror canon rest on foundations driven into the stony soil of uncanny and absurd visions of bodily distortion (as do all body horror tales), so I would be remiss in writing any meditation on literary body horror that didn’t include an acknowledgement of the contribution made to that particular tradition by Frank Kafka – specifically, by his tale of alienation and dysmorphia, The Metamorphosis.

In Metamorphosis, we see both the location of King’s “Gross-Out” in the protagonist / victim’s own fleshy incarnation – something that I would argue is a consistent theme of body horror as opposed to horror that might locate physical ugliness or menace in a monstrous antagonist. We likewise see the existential horror of the uncanny; a scene of tranquil domesticity turned sinister by the treachery of the mundane. Likewise, this is a consistent theme of both literary and popular body horror, from the otherworldly courthouses and alien cityscapes of Naked Lunch to the (literal) nuclear family of Geek Love.

Of course, were one so inclined, one might trace the origins further back through folklore all the way to the Minotaur or other ancient conceptions of chimeric human-other-than-human hybrids. The history of the monster is closely related to the history of body horror (as is the very concept of ugliness itself). Perhaps that’s why body horror is reflected in the world of literature; we are all blessed and cursed to inhabit flesh, and we all must come to terms – sooner or later – with how violable that flesh is.

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