A Darker Shade of Noir
New Stories of Body Horror by Women Writers
Edited and arranged by Robert Friedman
Of mythological figures of antiquity none are more monstrous than harpies, furies, gorgons—Scylla and Charybdis, Lamia, Chimera, Sphinx—nightmare creatures representing, to the affronted male gaze, the perversion of “femininity”: the female who in her physical being repulses sexual desire, rather than arousing it; the female who has repudiated the traditional role of submission, subordination, maternal nurturing. Since these fantasy figures have been created by men we can assume that the female monster is a crude projection of male fears; she is the embodiment of female power uncontrolled by the male, who has most perversely taken on some of the qualities of the male hero—physical prowess, bellicosity and cunning, an appetite for vengeance and cruelty. As in the most lurid male fantasies of sadism and masochism, the female monster threatens castration and something even more primeval: humiliation.
Consider Medusa, the quintessential emblem of female body horror. We all know who Medusa was, yes?—a demonic female figure, a gorgon, with writhing venomous serpents springing from her head, and a face of surpassing ugliness; a bestial creature so horrific to behold that anyone who gazed upon her turned to stone.
Since Medusa was also a mortal woman, meaning that she could be killed, the “hero” Perseus succeeded in beheading her, by observing her not directly but through a shield; as a favorite of the goddess Athena Perseus then used Medusa’s severed head as a weapon of his own, turning enemies to stone.
Less generally known is that, in some variants of the Medusa legend, Medusa was originally an exceptionally beautiful young woman, with particularly beautiful hair; like many another mortal woman in classical mythology, Medusa was raped by a god, in this case Neptune, king of the sea; because the rape occurred in the temple of Athena the goddess was outraged, and with the cruel illogic of the patriarchy—(Athena, born out of the head of Zeus, with no mother, was a male cohort)—punished the rape victim, not the rapist: transforming the beautiful Medusa into the horrific gorgon, with snakes springing from her head, and a very ugly face.
A cautionary tale: women should be beautiful and desirable even as women will be punished for being beautiful and desirable, at least outside the protective perimeters of marriage.
Should we know nothing of the female monsters of antiquity, still we would know that body horror in its myriad manifestations speaks most powerfully to women and girls. To be female is to inhabit a body that is by nature vulnerable to forcible invasion, susceptible to impregnation and repeated pregnancies, condemned to suffer childbirth, often in the past early deaths in childbirth and in the aftermath of childbirth. Fairy tales abound in stepmothers precisely because so many young wives died in childbirth; men naturally remarried as many times as their resources allowed. Even in civilized Western nations to be female has been to be a kind of chattel, in lifetime thrall to the patriarchy; women could not own property, divorce, vote, take out mortgages, even acquire credit cards until relatively recently. Throughout history the female body has been condemned as the occasion for sin, for arousing sexual desire in the male. Strict dress codes for women are a characteristic of patriarchal religions in which female physicality is considered repugnant while male physicality—virility—is revered. The punishment of Medusa is in line with age-old punishments for women and girls who have the bad luck to attract unwanted sexual attention from men; but to spurn such a role, refusing to marry, to procreate, to acquiesce to the model of meek, subservient femininity symbolized, for instance, by the Virgin Mary, has been to risk being declared unnatural—“bitch,” “witch.” The ultimate punishment of the female who resists femininity was to be burnt at the stake, condemned to death by religious patriarchs for the good of the commonweal.
In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (1818), a fever-dream of an epistolary novel, the most powerful passages spring from dreamlike, surreal sources of anxiety: the Creature assembled by Dr. Frankenstein is the very embodiment of a freakish birth, oversized, with ill-matching parts taken from a graveyard and a yellowish, parchment-like skin.
We know that Mary Shelley was only eighteen at the time she began composing Frankenstein; she was unmarried and pregnant, living with the Romantic poet Percy Shelley with whom she had eloped to Italy, in unstable circumstances; Percy Shelley had left behind a teenaged wife in England, the mother of his child, who would soon commit suicide. Amid such turmoil and uncertainty Mary Shelley created one of the most horrific of literary monsters, as if fantasizing the worst possibilities of the impending birth; it’s likely too that Mary Shelley identified with the Creature, in his feelings of isolation and exile. (As it happened, the baby Mary Shelley was carrying during the composition of Frankenstein would die at birth; she would have three other babies who also died, and only one who survived. Until the sudden death of Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley was almost continuously pregnant or nursing for eight years.)
In recent decades body horror has been established as a literary subgenre of horror and dark fantasy. Monsters and freaks of all kinds have always abounded in popular fiction and movies, and in such cult classics as Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932)—a graphic film more disturbing in our time than it was decades ago when the casting of grotesquely disabled persons as “freaks” was not viewed as morally repugnant.
The director generally recognized as a master of high-quality body horror is David Cronenberg, whose films (The Brood, Dead Ringers, Crash, Crimes of the Future), contain visceral, visual shocks that function as both literal and psychological horror. (The sight of the naked body of the estranged wife and mother of The Brood, whose hatred of her ex-husband has hideously deformed her body, is one of the most memorable.) Nor is anyone who has read Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love likely to forget the carnival family whose grotesque brood has been deliberately created by their parents with the aid of amphetamines, arsenic, and radioscopes—a Dickensian tale in which the surreal and the “real” collide in an exploration of a capitalist-consumer society from the perspective of self-defined “freaks” who are not ashamed but proud of their lineage.
The body horror of A Darker Shade of Noir is as varied and unpredictable as the writers exploring the genre, and as unclassifiable as the hauntingly surreal illustrations by Laurel Hausler that accompany them.