Visceral: Collected Flesh consists of eight stories – four by Christine Morgan and four by Patrick C. Harrison III – all themed around bodily violation or transformation of one sort or another. One of Harrison’s entries, “Full Moon Shindig”, is up for Best Short Story; that leaves us with seven more to dip into…
The collection opens with “Going Green”, which is set in a futuristic world where seemingly everybody has at least one cybernetic implant. The main character is a young woman named Zeaa who has taken extreme measures to ensure that her existence is environmentally friendly. We never learn exactly what she has pulled off until the very end of the story; before then, the main focus is on the everyday hassles caused by the new technology. Men now have a spectrum of new ways to harass women, while women have developed a number of new methods of self-defence from “bitch shields” to an online pervert directory called DixDox. There must surely be a term for this flavour of cyberpunk – cyberdouche, perhaps?
In “Vicarious” the protagonist gives blood, and then begins sharing the sensations of whoever received the transfusion (as the story points out, this is an inversion of the more common premise in which the recipient receives something of the donor). Finding the experience pleasurable, the character then goes on to donate bone marrow to a little girl, and then feels as though they are accompanying her on a subsequent trip to Disneyland. More donations follow, and the protagonist lives vicariously through still more people… until the saga reaches its inevitable conclusion.
“Little Fingers” is the story that most lives up to the collection’s title. The first half of the narrative is about a woman who can neither see nor move, and is forced to feel little hands as they touch her, prod her, and push themselves further inside her body:
Fingernails. Sharp and scratchy. Uneven, ragged, rough as if gnawed on… digging into her tongue, little fingers with little fingernails cutting little fingernail grooves into the soft and spongy meat and she couldn’t bite, couldn’t scream, couldn’t spit them out, couldn’t do anything! The little fingers caught her tongue-tip between them and waggled it. The little fingers raked along its underside. No saliva flooded her mouth, bitter and sour-metallic with that dentist’s-office twang. She tasted no blood, felt no blood well up or flow in coppery trickles.
This long, disorienting sequence turns out to be the set-up for a sick joke – one strong enough for the punchline to sustain the entire latter half of the story.
Morgan’s final story, “Bad Taste”, starts out quirky rather than horrific. The narrator can remember being a baby, and gives an account of his infantile trials and tribulations: losing breast milk for bottled milk, then milk for juice, before other mealtime changes were forced upon him (“If you don’t open up, or if you spit out whatever fetid slop they shovel on in there, they get mad at you! Like, hello, trust issues? Mixed messages?”) His life story progresses through childhood and into adulthood, where his oral fixation remains – and leads up to a graphically violent climax.
Christine Morgan’s four stories each play with perception, with the reader being shown the world through a variety of unusual perspectives from that of a cyborg to that of a baby. With Harrison’s stories, the commonality is rather different: his preferred tactic is to introduce a mundane setting, albeit typically one in which violence and degradation are commonplace, and then insert something outright bizarre. This is the structure of “Full Moon Shindig” and variations on it run through his other three stories in the collection.
“Placenta” opens with a group of medical professionals sharing the weirdest anecdotes of their careers (the first line in the story is “I’m telling you; he had a guinea pig up his ass,” to give an idea of the directions these head in). Finally, the oldest doctor in the room delivers a long account of a childbirth that went horribly wrong. “Mildred’s Garden” is a character study of an embittered elderly woman with a tendency to blame problems in her life – up to and including her accidental running-over of a 12-year-old boy – on her neighbour’s perfect garden.
The final story in the collection, “Pigs”, is a quietly surreal slice of backwoods horror about a college student who takes a part-time job on a farm, and finds that his new workplace includes a corral full of half-human, half-pig creatures.
A splatterpunk collection with the unifying theme of repulsive things being done to bodies may seem like a tautology, but the two authors behind Visceral have managed to come up with eight intelligent and effective variations on the motif. Another success for Christine Morgan, and a strong showing for rising star Patrick C. Harrison III.