The New Flesh: A Literary Tribute to David Cronenberg is an anthology themed around (but not officially endorsed by) the director whose oeuvre includes the likes of Videodrome, Scanners, Rabid, Crash and eXistenZ. None of the stories are adaptations in the literal sense, but all draw inspiration from Cronenberg’s recurring motifs.
The first few entries do a thorough job of setting the stage. Brian Evenson’s “A Bad Patch” is about a man who finds his stomach swelling, almost as though he is pregnant. He begins wearing his dead wife’s clothes for comfort – but the faceless corporation that employs him shows little sympathy for his condition. “Red Lips in a Blue Light” by Sara Century follows the daily life of a TV presenter and bit by bit unveils the surreal, oppressive and ultimately artificial nature of her existence. C. M. Muller ‘s “Descrambler” is a Videodrome-influenced story set in the era of VHS, about a young horror fan who watches a mysterious video that subsequently allows him to see a species of strange extra-dimensional creature.
Cronenberg’s films are best known for their bizarre and horrific bodily transformations, so it should come as no surprise that this is a recurring theme in The New Flesh. In “Hekati Yoga” by Max D. Stanton a woman adopts a yoga regimen that fills her with sexual energy – although her husband is perturbed when her contortions end up giving her an amoeba-like quality. Alex Smith’s “Limbs”, set against a cultural backdrop of spiritual meditation and violent extremism, brings a new meaning to the concept of phantom limbs: a woman with a missing arm undergoes an invasive treatment that grants her an invisible, telekinetic “arm” as replacement.
“Reborn of Ash” by Sam Richard uses body horror to articulate some heavy emotions. The story involves a support group for bereaved lovers (notice that support groups and therapy sessions turn up quite a bit in the anthology) based on an unorthodox coping method with results not only psychological, but also physical. Meanwhile, “The Human Clay” by Brendan Vidito adds a Cronenbergian twist to the old image of the mad scientist and his hunchbacked assistant, the main character being a disabled man who procures organs for a shady geneticist. The story itself is a crime saga set in an underworld where guns cause cancerous tumours and brothels offer synthetic sexual organs.
Cronenberg’s films offer more than just grotesque special effects, of course, and the stories in The New Flesh also capture the more cerebral themes of his work. Leo X Robertson’s Crash-esque “Lackers” touches upon the topics of exploitation and group identity, as a journalist investigates a community of “Lackers” – people missing various body parts – who meet up at a power plant to throw off their clothes and prosthetics and take part in an orgy. Katy Michelle Quinn‘s “Genital Freak” appropriates Cronenberg’s material for an exploration of transgender identity: a woman with a penis visits “the famous crotch wizards of Price Gynecological Professionals” for surgery, and is received with a mixture of revulsion and erotic fascination. The story builds to a climax of sex and surgery. “Typhoid Ananya” by Madeleine Swann, meanwhile, confronts racism and online abuse in its narrative of a minority woman lashing back against bigots.
Characters in Cronenberg’s work are apt to experience paranoia and the loss of control, still more themes that are embraced by The New Flesh. “Seminar” by Cody Goodfellow is about a woman who takes yet another of those bizarre courses that dot the anthology, this time to learn “mindfulness techniques”. The course actually teaches mind-reading and mind-manipulation methods, all at the behest of a mysterious higher-up who manipulates the manipulators. The story posits the idea that, if corporations are people, then actual people are cells in the organism.
Some of the stories have a humorous or self-aware touch. “Elk: An Oral History of an Abandoned Film (1987)” by Jack Lothian is an epistolary piece in which group of people discuss their involvement with a proposed Cronenberg-style film, which resulted only in a disturbing chunk of found footage. In Charles Austin Muir’s “A Future of Violence” a man describes testing experimental fitness technology; his dudebro persona brings comedy, even when the inevitable body horror and mind alteration turn up. “A New Mother’s Guide to Raising an Abomination” by Gwendolyn Kiste is an unnerving but wryly humorous take on the theme of monstrous pregnancy (“Birthing monsters must be the latest trend, like helicopter parenting”) which, despite the potential for obvious gross-out comedy, has a degree of true emotional weight: the second-person protagonist comes to accept her eldritch offspring in the face of social hostility.
Out of all Cronenberg’s films to be honoured in the anthology, the most popular reference point seems to be Videodrome – and, by extension, its quasi-remake eXistenZ. “Convex” by Emma Alice Johnson opens with a direct riff on both films, as a woman demonstrating a new pair of hi-tech glasses sees a person run into the room and yell “all hail the future meat”. The intruder then explodes – but all her remains vanish when the protagonist removes her glasses. What follows is a story that updates Videodrome for augmented reality, just as eXistenZ updated it for VR. In “Orificially Compromised” Ryan Harding takes similar material and applies it to the era of social media and associated privacy violations, symbolised by a hi-tech sex toy that brings with it a nanotechnological STD. Another Videodrome-esque narrative is “The Taint is Saintly with her Welcome” by Mona Swan Lesueur and Fiona Maeve Geist, in which a transgender anime enthusiast undertakes a therapy session that involves watching weird exploitation films and results in her body mutating.
Although the Cronenbergian form lends itself to a certain in-your-face aesthetic, the anthology is also capable of a quieter form of oddness. “Emergence” by Bruno Lombardi opens with the line “There’s a hole in the sky where the Moon used to be”; we then learn that the Moon has exploded, but instead of spreading debris, it has fractured reality. This in turn has led to a surreal world in which TV networks show empty newsdesks, people turn their heads 180 degrees to look at the sky, and something terrible is poised to come out the celestial hole where the Moon once was.
As a project, The New Flesh ran the risk of either blandly transplanting Cronenberg’s greatest hits to prose, or else coming up with stories that would have fit the cinematic medium but which fall flat on the page. But the writers have avoided each pitfall, and successfully produced a collection of stories that pay homage to the feted director while showing a considerable degree of imagination in their own right.