What is body horror? In the introduction to Body Shocks, her newest anthology, Ellen Datlow writes:
“It might be the most disturbing type of horror because it deals with the intimacy of the body’s integrity being breached by intentional mutilation, accidental infestations by parasites, invasion by alien forces, degeneration, transformation, grotesquery, and pain.”
The table of contents boasts twenty-nine violations of the human body told by a diverse array of talented voices in a variety of genres, skillfully curated and edited by Datlow.
Instead of cherry-picking stories from the book, this anthology can be enjoyed cover-to-cover, back-to-back like a favorite record. Every song is a hit single; no skips. Of special interest are the provocative cover artwork and interior illustrations, which add to this whole aesthetic and mood while you read.
Because Body Shocks delivers so epically on its promise to deliver “extreme tales of body horror,” I wanted to give each story a moment in the limelight:
“The Travellers Stay,” Ray Cluley: The perfect way to kick off a body horror anthology. Think of the worst thing you could find in a motel room and then imagine not being able to leave the offending motel because… well, you’ve changed.
“Toother,” Terry Dowling: One of the scariest stories in the whole lot. Dowling manages to squeeze so much into this short piece about the hunt for a serial killer as it tightens the circle around the perpetrator, thanks to a patient at a psychiatric hospital who’s plagued with visions.
“Painlessness,” Kirstyn McDermott: A woman incapable of feeling physical pain sells her body to the highest bidders. This story is so utterly disturbing; it filled my head with myriad fears. How far will some go to fulfill their basic instincts?
“You Go Where It Takes You,” Nathan Ballingrud: One of my favorite stories from Ballingrud’s collection North American Lake Monsters presents one of the most subtle, gruesome killers I’ve ever read about. Preying on the desperation of a worn-out single mother, the stalker in this story makes a startling discovery.
“A Positive,” Kaaron Warren: Parents are meant to love their children unconditionally, providing them with a nurturing and safe environment in which to grow and thrive. “A Positive” imagines a scenario where the child is raised by other means and meant to serve the parents. It’s effective and repulsive.
“La beauté sans vertu,” Genevieve Valentine: Strong social commentary about the extreme nature of the couture fashion industry, which is its own brand of body horror. The world-building in this story is constructed in a way that feels all too real, with vibrant imagery lingers in the reader’s mind long after.
“Subsumption,” Lucy Taylor: In the aftermath of some serious environmental warfare, a group of people navigate a hostile landscape in order to survive. A woman discovers new, microscopic life forms that exist for the sole purpose of conquering their hosts. This is a story that felt like the beginning of something epic. I wanted more.
“Spar,” Kij Johnson: This story shook me to my core. After I finished reading it, I could not stop thinking about it. A collision in space leaves a woman stranded with an alien life form that will not stop violating her in every orifice. A brutal depiction of an unrelenting hell of having your body assaulted a thousand different ways with no way to escape. Utterly terrifying.
“It Was the Heat,” Pat Cadigan: I enjoyed the way this story began with the protagonist on a business trip, feeling a certain way about the climate in New Orleans as it relates to women being away from home and their domestic partners. A slow burn that ultimately plunges both the main character and the reader into an inferno before the cool-down at the end.
“Atwater,” Cody Goodfellow: Goodfellow flexes those bizarro author wings in this strange tale about a businessman who finds that he can easily lose himself in a place called ATWATER–home to orgies, battles, murder, and any number of other deranged activities committed by the citizens of this mysterious parallel universe. Just one wrong turn and he will leave the natural law and order of earth and descend into the madness of ATWATER.
“The Transfer,” Edward Bryant: A middle-aged housewife begins to question her sanity when her proximity to her husband begins to instigate a transference or shift in her identity. She wonders if she’s losing herself as she starts to resemble someone else. I enjoyed all the subtext and symbolism.
“Welcome to Mengele’s,” Simon Bestwick: You are not ready for this story. Nobody is ready for this story. It’s best to just walk in blind and let Bestwick blindside your sensibilities in the best possible way. I’ll just tease you with this line, “You don’t always want your fantasies to come true.”
“Black Neurology: A Love Story,” Richard Kadrey: This story was also featured in Nightfire’s Come Join Us by the Fire audio anthology, so you can listen to this dark, creepy tale as well as read it. It has one of the best opening lines: “Using my pull with an acquaintance at the city morgue, I convince the attending medical examiner to let me watch your autopsy.”
“Cuckoo,” Angela Slatter: The first line indicates that this story is told from an unflinching, dangerous POV: a being that can cram itself into any “meat suit” so that it can exist undetected. Motivated by a strong sense of justice and vengeance, our main character takes the reader on a journey into ruined lives and the depths of fear.
“Cinereous,” Livia Llewellyn: You can listen to this story on Pseudopod episode 585, which is where I first encountered it. In a building with no name in Paris, 1799, our protagonist, Olympe, is an assistant in training. She works at the base of the guillotine where she collects blood from decapitated bodies, a macabre employment that has catastrophic hazards. I loved all the world-building and backstory Llewellyn manages in just a few pages.
“The Truth That Lies Under Skin and Meat,” Cassandra Khaw: Add this story to my all-time favorite werewolf tales. Khaw introduces new aspects to legendary lupine lore. The sub-headings within the story are sharp and effective.
“Natural Skin,” Alyssa Wong: Liin goes to great lengths to convince herself (and others) that her beauty is natural in a world where women can easily fake it. The whole idea of “I woke up like this”: instant, effortless perfection and success. Ultimately only one person sees Liin for who she is and this is determined to be a threat. I loved this story!
“The Lake,” Tananarive Due: This was one of my favorite stories from Due’s collection Ghost Summer. It’s about a teacher relocating and having to adapt to her new surroundings and school. Some of her new students are eager to make her feel comfortable and she takes advantage of this gesture by inviting them to swim at the lake behind her house, predatory on the inside and the outside.
“I’m Always Here,” Richard Christian Matheson: This story feels like an urban legend, almost like it could be grounded in some kind of freaky truth ripped from the pages of Nashville newspapers. An unnatural familial bond between a father and his daughter results in a sensational and peculiar partnership between them. This one will give you the cringies.
“The Look,” Christopher Fowler: A young girl is convinced she has that “it” factor, the “look” to catch the eye of the world’s most infamous clothing designer. The girl and her friend devise a plan to show up at the hotel where the designer is staying so that they can cross paths. The result is not exactly what anyone had hoped for. I could have stayed in this story all day.
“The Old Women Who Were Skinned,” Carmen Maria Machado: This is a dark folktale about old witches who manage to attract the king’s attention from behind a wall. In a cruel twist of fate, one sister can look younger, while the other one succumbs to jealousy. The message Machado infuses into the plight of these sisters is a cautionary tale for all of us who find ourselves tempted to give in to societal standards for age, beauty, and sexual desirability.
“Spores,” Seanan McGuire: Don’t read this if you don’t want to have fever dreams about bread mold, fungi, and evil spores! But if that sounds like a fun time to you, by all means, indulge. I enjoyed the relationship between Megan and her wife as they go through a strange event at home concerning some quickly-rotting fruit. As the end draws near and the tension is high, I found myself not wanting this story to end.
“Sweet Subtleties,” Lisa L. Hannett: I believe I first read this story in 2018’s The Five Senses of Horror, edited by Eric Guignard (it’s a great anthology). It’s about a group of people so enraptured with food that they play games of dress-up and adornment, using food, candy, and other edibles. A dark fetish.
“Elegy for a Suicide,” Caitlín R. Kiernan: Bleak and haunting. This is the first time I’ve read any of Kiernan’s work. I’m impressed and in want of more. I love that this story features the real-world phenomenon of ants in the rainforest invaded by a lethal spore (Ophiocordyceps unilateralis) which turns them into, functionally, zombie ants. I’ve long hoped for horror writers to take inspiration from this curiosity.
“Skin City,” Gemma Files: A gritty, dark, noir-style story about a woman who prowls the streets in borrowed skin. I was enraptured by this narrative, with the tapes and the seedy underbelly of the cityscape. Gemma Files had me in a tight grip.
“A True Friend,” Brian Evenson: Succinct. Scary. This one gave me goosebumps!
“What I Found in the Shed,” Tom Johnstone: “Sometimes, dead is better” says Jud in Stephen King’s Pet Sematary. I thought of this quote often while reading this story about a boy who discovers a machine in the shed and the way his father has been putting it to use. Very unsettling.
“Fabulous Beasts,” Priya Sharma: A brilliant, visceral, and disgusting horror tale about sacrifice, trauma, resilience, love, and loss.
“Tissue Ablation and Variant Regeneration: A Case Report,” Michael Blumlein: A clinical, detached surgical report describing the live harvesting of body parts for cloning. After finishing, I sat back and wondered why this was the closer–and then I realized that it’s the most realistic note to end on, leaving a lingering bad taste in the reader’s mouth.