There’s much to be said on the subject of body horror, that flesh-rending subgenre of fiction which turns our own meat against us and cranks the squick factor up to 11. Curious, then, that it’s taken this long for a publisher to release a non-fiction compendium studying it.
Funded on Kickstarter (with portions of the money raised also going to Epilepsy Action Australia), The Body Horror Book is clearly something of a passion project for Australian author Claire Fitzpatrick and her newly founded Oscillate Wildly Press. It brings together essays by nearly two dozen writers—including both established names from the Aussie horror scene and relative newcomers—with engaging albeit mixed results.
In her introduction, Fitzprack writes “This book is something to be dipped in, sipped on, rather than gulped in a single sitting. Some essays are larger than others, some personal, others academic. Some essays required detailed attention, others are more conversational. Some essays rely entirely on existing political knowledge, others are meant to be feasted on, devoured, to teach, sculpt, and retain an impression or idea in your mind.” These comments accurately sum up The Body Horror Book’s greatest strengths, but also its greatest weaknesses.
To wit, there’s a tremendous diversity of perspectives on display here, with essays touching on the genre as it’s expressed in everything from classic literature and musical theater to “horrorcore” hip-hop and Reptilian conspiracy theories. Nevertheless, the bulk of the material here is dedicated to the silver screen. Hardly a surprise, as that’s arguably where body horror is most visible and intensely felt. All the usual suspects make appearances--Alien, The Thing, Hellraiser, practically everything David Cronenberg’s ever done—but there are also some less expected yet much appreciated cameos—Brian Yuzna’s Society, Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever, Marina de Van’s In My Skin.
When The Body Horror Book is on the ball, it’s invigorating. Kirsten Imani Kasai’s essay, “Eat, Drink, and Be Wary: Autosarcophagy and Autoerotism in Body Horror Cinema,” draws parallels between female self-mutilation, plastic surgery, and self-cannibalism, then recontextualizes them as assertions of feminist agency. Meanwhile, J.J Roye’s “Insertion and Transformation” asks why body horror strikes such a resonant chord with audiences in the first place, and investigates how viewers disassociate those underlying terrors from the necessary physical processes they experience in so-called “normal” life.
Ciaran Bruder’s “’It Wants to Become Like Us!’ The Dialogue of Adaptation and its Embodiments in the Body Horror Genre Through Literature and Film” is a lengthy and ambitious comparative survey of the various methods used in disparatemediums to effectively convey body horror messages. It touches on not only film theory and production history, but psychoanalysis and sociopolitical critique as well. Kaaron Warren’s “Personal Confessions” proves particularly interesting in that it’s not about interpreting the work of another creator but is instead a self-reflective meditation of the manifestations of sex, self-image, death, and disease in her own fiction.
The thing is, The Body Horror Book isn’t always on the ball. Cameron Trost’s “Hall of Mirrors: Politics Reflected in Horror” pays only lip-service to the “body” part of “body horror,” instead choosing to be a broad overview of political themes throughout the horror genre in its entirety. Similarly, Benjamin Orchard’s “The Singing Freaks of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Sondheim” briefly mentions the trope of deformity-as-metaphor in stage musicals like The Phantom of the Opera, but doesn’t expand on the idea beyond a mere two sentences. Still other essays do even less than that.
This inconsistency extends to essay formatting as well. It’s a minor gripe, but while some articles end with the requisite list of references, others embed their references within the body of the text, and still others don’t include references at all. Very few adhere to any professional style guidelines, at least in the prerelease ebook copy provided for this review. Take it with a grain of salt; considering there’s still placeholder text present on the acknowledgements page at the time of this writing, it’s likely—or so one hopes—that there will be some differences in the final product.
Regardless, the fact that The Body Horror Book casts its net so wide might be a problem for some readers. Those looking specifically for thoughtful analysis will be put off by articles more anecdotal than academic, while those looking for personal narratives with an emotional core will find the drier textbook-type material an absolute slog. Certainly the project could have benefited from the enforcement of a standardized essay format, a separation of the essays into different sections (with the academic articles segregated from the more casual ones), and the application of greater scrutiny in the final vetting process so as to keep the focus on content explicitly relevant to body horror.
Nevertheless, what it lack in cohesiveness it makes up for in variety. For all the flaws, there’s still more good here than bad. Those without a dog in the academic-vs-casual fight will find plenty of quality insights to ruminate on. Hell, even those essays whose connections to body horror appear shaky at best are still worth reading on their own merits. The equal opportunity approach ensures there’s something for everyone, and even the stuffiest analysis is unlikely to leave any reader feeling in over their heads.
Fascinating and accessible, The Body Horror Book is a strikingly diverse exploration of horror that is interested not simply in getting under your skin, but also in finding out just what you’ve got hiding under there.