Body Shocks, ed. Ellen Datlow (2022 Splatterpunk Awards)


Anyone who follows the Splatterpunk Awards will have come to expect a certain stable of writers to turn up year after year: a band of rough-and-ready, small-press horror authors generally neglected by big publishers and big awards alike. With Body Shocks, however, we have an anomaly. This is an anthology assembled by Hugo/Stoker/World Fantasy Award-winning editor Ellen Datlow and featuring a line-up of genre heavyweights – the kind with prominent publishing credits and assortments of shiny trophies. In fact, the book even includes a story that won a 2010 Nebula Award. Also involved are some horror talents involved with the early days of splatterpunk. So, allow us to see what happens when the respectable and disreputable areas of SF/F/H comingle…

As the title suggests, various forms of bodily violation are the foremost theme. Kaaron Warren’s “A Positive” is a twisted family saga narrated by a man who was forced to give blood to his father. “A True Friend” by Brian Evenson is a short but impactful depiction of fratricide. Priya Sharma’s “Fabulous Beasts” is centred on a girl whose affinity for snakes helps her to survive her abusive circumstances. “I’m Always Here” by Richard Christian Matheson is the story of an Elivis and Priscilla-like duo named Baby and Daddy; when Daddy ails, Baby resorts to desperate measures to sustain him.

Given the literary-minded slant of the anthology, the reader should expect stories that play with the formal aspects of their craft. Richard Kadrey’s “Black Neurology–A Love Story” is a description of an autopsy where the examiner finds some very strange and deeply personal items inside the corpse; the twist is that the story is written in second person, with the narrator addressing the cadaver. “The Transfer” by Edward Bryant takes a non-linear approach, its protagonist recounting various periods in her life – her time as a weather girl in the 60s, a suicide attempt, her relationship with her husband – all of which are haunted by a memory of a bodily violation, something not divulged in detail until the very end.

Tthe central theme of bodily violation has a variety of manifestations which can be grouped into a few categories. One such category deals with crime and punishment – albeit often in ways rather different from what somebody might expect from tales of lawgivers and lawbreakers.

Terry Dowling’s “Toother” follows a group of investigators – one of them with psychic talents – as they try to solve a series of murders in which women have had their teeth removed. In “Painlessness” by Kirstyn McDermott, a woman finds that her new neighbour is a sex worker. The latter claims to have a rare medical condition: she feels no pain, and her injuries tend to heal very fast, making her a prized commodity amongst clients with violent fetishes. The protagonist reaches deeper into her neighbour’s life, which turns out to have still stranger aspects. “You Go Where It Takes You” by Nathan Ballingrud deals with the uneasy friendship between a single woman and a car thief. The thief reveals that the vehicle he stole has some macabre luggage: a set of tanned human skins (“I call this one Willie, ‘cause he’s so well hung”). The story derives its appeal from the supporting cast that it builds up at least as much as its actual plot

A number of the most memorable stories in the anthology use the theme of bodily transformation to satirise how physical appearance – particularly that of women – is perceived by society. “Welcome to Mengele’s” by Simon Bestwick depicts an underground club, founded by Josef Mengele himself, where wealthy clients pay for the privilege of sex with corpses surgically moulded into their dream partners. “The Old Women Who Were Skinned” by Carmen Maria Machado is a twisted fairy tale about two elderly sisters who find drastically different ways to deal with their old, sagging skins. Christopher Fowler’s “The Look” is the story of a celebrity fashion designer with a reputation for the shocking:

Once he showed his fashion designs on this video installation in New Jersey, setting monitors all around a morgue, where he ran footage of his clothes dressed on real corpses, teenagers who had died in car crashes. Then his model of the season came out from between the monitors with her masked team, all in blood-spattered surgical gowns, which they tore open to reveal the new season’s outfits. It was so cool, dealing with social issues through fashion like that.

A young woman tries to get close to this guru, only to find a world of disillusionment – and learn what happens to models who have made great sacrifices only to be later deemed out of season.

Another pointed satire is “La beauté sans vertu” by Genevieve Valentine. This follows teenage models whose lives are micromanaged by her agency (we read that their choreographer “has a name, but no one dares use it when speaking of him, lest he appear before they’ve corrected their posture”). The models’ elaborate performances are protested by a group that initially called itself Mothers Against Objectification until it realised the acronym. The detail that justifies the story’s inclusion in a body horror anthology – the fact that the models are given the arm-bones of dead children – turns out to be a minor one, but the story is strong enough for this to be forgiven.

“It Was the Heat” by Pat Cadigan is a searing portrait of gender politics in corporate culture, as seen by a 35-year-old woman who is hyper-aware of how she is perceived by family, strangers and co-workers, all against the backdrop of New Orleans nightlife. The body horror element – namely, the supernatural draining of bodily heat – is unusually subjective and non-visual in nature.

This last detail shows how, in a number of the anthology’s stories, the emotions of the characters experiencing or witnessing the bodily trauma are explored in at least as much detail as the physical violations. Seanan McGuire’s “Spores”, about a family home being infected by fungus from a laboratory, turns out to be psychological as well as physical: the protagonist’s OCD does much to shape the story’s tone. “The Travellers Stay” by Ray Cluley sees washed-up musician visit a run-down motel with his wife and teenage stepson; there, some decidedly Kafkaesque transformations begin taking place, but the man is too ground-down to pay much heed.

“Elegy for a Suicide” by Caitlín R. Kiernan offers a description of a sapphic relationship in which one member pantomimes self-harm; this evolves into a poetic exploration of physical, psychological and interpersonal decay. Meanwhile, Gemma Files’ “Skin City” is a story set in the world of sex work: a murderer is afoot and his victims are turning up as flayed corpses. The narrative – told through a dreamlike shifting of perspectives – ensures that the focus is less on the mutilations themselves and more on the responses of the characters to the unfolding (unpeeling?) horror.

The anthology contains a few science fiction entries. Alyssa Wong’s “Natural Skin” is a cyberpunk story set in a future where data can be stored in the blood: it is even possible to purchase black market injections of synthetic blood containing untraceable, DRM-free documents. Cosmetic surgery thrives as people sell their body parts to those who want to improve their looks; and the protagonist, knee-deep in sibling rivalry with her younger sister, takes drastic measures to get ahead.

“Subsumption” by Lucy Taylor is an apocalyptic narrative. After a shower of bolide plummets to Earth, plant life becomes behaving strangely – as do human bodies that get caught up in the weird goings-on. Still another SF tale is Kij Johnson’s “Spar” (the aforementioned Nebula-winner), a story about a woman who has sex with a non-humanoid alien after a chance collision in space. Running beneath the girl-on-ET action is an offbeat meditation on love-hate relationships: “She cannot remember Gary’s voice. Fuck Gary, anyway. He is dead and she is here with an alien pressed against her cervix.”

“Cinereous” by Livia Llewellyn is set in Paris at the end of the eighteenth century and deals with scientific experiments on the heads of guillotine victims. A female scientist caught up in the gender politics of the time witnesses as these experiments spread from severed heads to zombies. This is not the only story in the book to deal with classic monsters. “The Truth that Lies Under Skin and Meat” by Cassandra Khaw is a psychologically raw story about a werewolf who transforms when she strays from her devout vegetarian diet. Then we have “Cuckoo” by Angela Slatter, the saga of a demon that steals people’s bodies, and witnesses an array of human death and desperation:

The child was dead by the time I found her, but she suited my purposes perfectly. Tiny delicate skin suit, meat sack, air thief. The flesh was still warm, which is best – too hard to shrug on something in full rigor – and I crammed my bulk into the small body much as one might climb into a box or trunk to hide. A fold here, a dislocation there, a twinge of discomfort and curses when something tore, stretched just too far.

Continuing our trip through the monster pantheon, we find Tananarive Due’s “The Lake”, which riffs on Black Lagoon/mermaid imagery. The story concerns an English teacher who moves to Florida and begins having dreams that beckon her to the water. The dreams are accompanied by an appropriately amphibious change in her body – which becomes hard to hide once she starts a questionable relationship with a teenage pupil.

This leads us to the stories that go well beyond the familiar subject matter of science fiction and fantasy and plunge into weirdness and surrealism. Lisa L. Hannett’s “Sweet Subtleties” is a queasy fantasy about a woman made of confectionery, who was built for the express purpose of performing before a lip-smacking audience. In “What I Found in the Shed” by Tom Johnstone, a boy digs up a strange sort of 3D printer: when a photo of a deceased person is inserted, they will be resurrected (in a fashion, at least). Cody Goodfellow’s “Atwater” is a long yet breathlessly fast-paced story about a man who takes a detour into a strange part of town where all manner of surreal sights await him:

Another man, short, with a head like a claw hammer, and snarls of piano wire running from his arms and legs and torso to a jumbled mound of marionettes in the street behind him, like the sole survivor of some sort of street mime’s massacre. A little girl stood beside them, sucking her thumb and holding a length of an impossibly long albino python, which wrapped around her so many times, showing neither head nor tail, that she might have been made out of snakes.

The anthology concludes with “Tissue Ablation and Variant Regeneration: A Case Report” by Michael Blumlein. Presented as an account written by a physician, the story is a long, detailed description of a surgical procedure, the intention of which is not clear until the reader comes to a table at the very end.

Reading Body Shocks feels like experiencing the Splatterpunk Awards by way of the Hugo Awards. Compared to most of the books on the ballot, the writing is polished with more care, the narrative styling more pronounced, and the satirical elements given a stronger feminist slant. Yet the macabre weirdness that we have come to expect from the Splatterpunk Awards is present and correct.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: