Body horror is in the eye of the beholder. One person’s eating disorder is another person’s wedding feast; this person’s nightmare about life-stealing parasites is that person’s pregnancy. Using the body to make a reader squirm is almost a cheap device, but managing the opposite takes a writer of unusual empathy.
“The Glad Hosts” by Rebecca Campbell (Lackington’s #7) approaches the alien parasite trope from the point of view of a host, Mai, who finds herself becoming a better person as the “little dear ones” incubating inside of her consume more and more of her former, human, self. Cut off from the rest of the people in her colony, she waits out the incubation period reflecting on old Mai’s relationship with her mother.
Mai is infected and quarantined immediately at the outset of the story. For a few weeks she is angry and scared, but soon, the little beings inside of her start drugging her up with the chemicals and hormones of love. Now “not quite Mai,” she is relaxed and happy. Mai is aware that she is compromised and knows her body is being changed – consumed – in order to provide life to the aliens inside of her, but she doesn’t mind.
The chemicals making her complacent not only keep her contented, but increase her empathy and consideration as well. She looks back on her correspondence with her family and wonders why she was so angry and selfish, before. Mai may not have come by these new viewpoints honestly, but her affections and reflections are so genuinely kind that she has us ask why it matters that they are the product of alien interference. It’s the kind of question that could be applied to mental health, motherhood, cyborgs. What is the self and what is a fulfilled life? The story’s ending could be taken as grotesque or beautiful, depending on your thoughts on these issues. A wonderfully personal take on the complexity of life.
“A House of Anxious Spiders” by JY Yang (The Dark #9) is another very human story based on a creep-tastic concept. Tensions are running high at the funeral of Sook Yee’s mother-in-law, especially between her husband and her sister-in-law, Kathy. Everybody is taking pains not to met family squabbles boil to the surface, not just out of propriety, but because arguments are settled in bloody battles between the spiders living under their tongues.
You might imagine that having a living, restless spider tucked under your tongue would be the most awful feeling ever, but as a metaphor for the restless, bitter feeling of the kind of anger that makes you want to lash out at people verbally, it is entirely appropriate. The people in Yang’s world take good care of their spiders, often cultivating them, as Sook Yee has, to become great fighters. Losing a fight means losing, at least temporarily, your ability to speak. There is much at stake if you cannot defend yourself, or if you speak out of turn against someone with a stronger spider. Rendered flesh, we see the power of verbal abuse.
Out of respect for the recently deceased, Sook Yee does her best to hold her tongue, but nobody knows how to press your buttons like your family. The spiders give the people of Yang’s story an extra measure of caution when speaking out against others, but ultimately, the harm done by defeating another person’s spider is as bad as the hurt we cause each other in the real world – especially to family. A spider in the mouth might be repulsive, but so is hurtful language. Silencing others is the true violence, not the creepy critter.
“Eddy” by Kyle E. Miller (Betwixt #8) is the story of Eddy, the multi-self’ed sibling of the nameless narrator. Eddy started “budding” at birth and never really stopped, becoming a person described as a “big ugly bug monster” made up of human parts. Nevertheless, Eddy is deeply loved by their family.
“Eddy” can be read as a meditation on how an “other” is sometimes unfathomable to an observer, but that difference or lack of understanding doesn’t need to impede empathy. Eddy’s family first suspects they are the product of a “birth defect,” but soon decides they are something entirely different, not at all defective. Eddy functions just fine, even if they are a little cumbersome in human-size dwellings. Whatever Eddy is, they too complex to decode or, apparently, even describe.
The narrator never really understands Eddy, though the siblings have a close, happy relationship. Eddy experiences life differently and as readers, we only ever see moments key to their life from the outside. Eddy has a traumatic experience in the farmlands as a child: we never learn what it is. Eddy has a rotten time at his one and only job, but we see instead their family’s frustration. It is as if we, the readers, aren’t meant to understand Eddy either. They are strange, grotesque, and unprecedented, but our task is to love them anyway. We don’t have to have them made “like us” to accept them. We talk a lot in fiction about “humanizing” monsters, but the real utopia ought to be in respecting even those beings furthest from our understanding, even when they creep us out a little.
Charlotte Ashley is a writer, editor, and independent bookseller from Toronto, Canada. She has reviewed short stories for ChiZine.com and The Quill and Quire, and writes short fiction. She keeps a bookish blog at http://once-and-future.com/.