Last month I signed a contract with Undertow Publications for my novella The Talosite. There’s a lot of work still to do, but I know that in the end it will be a beautiful book because that’s what Undertow does.
The Talosite is about the First World War. It’s not like my earlier work on the subject: not academic, nor a literary novel about a vet who becomes a vaudevillian, nor a fantasy about the Belgian Mundaneum in August 1914. This time it’s unapologetic body horror.
For good reason. The First World War has been a kind of intellectual touchstone in my life for decades, but my sense of it is not intellectual. It’s visceral and impressionistic, like poetry. It’s an undifferentiated landscape: living/dead, past/future, modern/antimodern, liquid/solid, interior/exterior, subject/object are blended into a single substance, seething and amorphous. From this materiel without distinction,The Talosite arises, full of characters navigating the physical and political chaos of the western front, which consumes the bodies of the living as Saturn devoured his children. And– it’s not exactly a spoiler– regurgitates them again.
I collected a lot of images for this one. Woodcuts for a 1934 edition of Frankenstein illustrated by Lynd Ward. Images from 1983 by Barry Moser. The Gueles cassées of the western front, horrifying not only because of the pain they witness, but because the most private interiors of their bodies are visible on the outside. When a friend of mine was working on a collection about James Bond, she showed me photographs of Rodin’s walking man, who is headless and armless but still walking, the seams showing where he was re-assembled from other bodies. I looked at Otto Dix’s post-war prints, and Sargent’s horrifyingly lyrical Gassed. Fred Varley’s The Sunken Road, a landscape with little distinction between body and earth.
New year, new story, and this in a magazine I have long coveted publication. When I started reading contemporary SF/F/H again a few years ago, two of the first magazines I encountered were Shimmer and Clarkesworld and here it is–my first Shimmer story! It has the longest title I’ve so far come up with: “An Incomplete Catalogue of Miraculous Births, or, Secrets of the Uterus Abscondita.”
I wrote the story last spring, conceived and drafted during the second trimester of my pregnancy, though completed during the third.
Pregnancy is miraculous and terrifying and cool and weird. You grow a new organ. Your senses of taste and smell change. Your emotions. Your centre of gravity. I thought a lot about the peculiar subjectivity of pregnancy, in which you are once yourself and not at all yourself. In which the idea of a distinction between self, brain, body, and mind seems increasingly ridiculous, since your body undertakes actions beyond your control, and rewires your perceptions and your brain. Of course, this is always true of the mind/body relationship– but pregnancy foregrounds it.
I came across the story of Mary Toft a few years ago, and it so horrified me I couldn’t pursue it in fiction, though I wanted to. I returned to her in those strange months midway through my pregnancy, and I began to seek out other reproductive marvels: mooncalves, and headless children, and maternal impression, and hens that give birth to prophecy-eggs. Several times I encountered the image of a reversed birth, of children returned—forcibly—to their mother, and felt a deep, visceral horror at the image.
So what do I do with all those feelings? I collect them, and watch the images play against one another, and try to imagine what sort of era produces this deeply awful image of reversal, of wrongness, a disorder so profound it unsettles the forward momentum of reproduction itself. This is probably why Mary Toft’s story speaks to me so viscerally: it is unnatural in a deep way, and witnesses a stealthy, awful sort of violence that is at once intimate and public.
Finally, a note on attribution: I borrowed two lines of poetry in one of the story’s subtitles, which reads “where children thus are born with hairy coats / heaven’s wrath on the kingdom it denotes” which is, as far as I can tell, from an anonymous seventeenth-century work attributed to Aristotle.
Lackington’s published a story of mine in their last issue. It’s called “The Glad Hosts” and is one of several stories and images Ranylt Richildis selected to explore “Skins” as a theme. It is, according to readers, a piece of parasite body-horror.
I say “according to readers” because while I wrote the story because I’m curious about parasites, I did not consider it body horror until I saw the responses. Yes, it describes the transformation of a woman’s bodies in multiple ways, but horror?
After the issue went live, a friend of mine posted a link to a metafilter discussion which included a series of insightful and amusing responses that indicated yes, I had written a horror story while I thought I was writing a story about transformation and distance and family.
(I particularly liked this one: “Are there parasites around that will remove this story from my brain because it was horrifying?” from jeather)
Since then other people have responded in equally interesting ways. At Marooned Off Vesta there’s an extensive and considered discussion about free indirect narration and what it does to storytelling, as well as some good points about the challenges of authorial self-consciousness. Charlotte Ashley over at Apex makes some interesting observations about what the story says about subjectivity. There are similar points over at Susan Hated Literature, which suggest it’s a story about the limits of such subjectivity, and where (exactly) we locate the self.
This is all less about “The Glad Hosts” than it is a reminder to me that while my writing life is spent mostly alone doing work that is invisible and unread, there are actually people out there who might catch a story at the right moment and read it and respond. This makes me very happy because it makes me part of a conversation. And it leaves me feeling lucky, too, that Lackington’s exists as a place for us to meet up.