A lot of horror works go for an external threat, something like a vast cosmic horror that will inevitably crush us all, or some twisted abomination on the prowl for humans they can subject to death or worse. Something outside our understanding. But body horror puts that “thing outside our understanding” on a more personal level. Bodies, even if not all of us understand exactly how they work, are something personal. Something understood, even if they can be gross and confusing at times. And body horror happens when that thing we understand goes horribly wrong in a way we don’t. It’s personal. Intimate. Something deeply wrong. To help introduce you to the subgenre, here are six works that get into all the personal, gross, and strange ways that bodies can go wrong in horror. And since Valentine’s Day is right around the corner, these works also feature intimacy, romance, and a whole lot of people getting physical with each other, sometimes with horrifying consequences.
“Jacqueline Ess: Her Will and Testament,” Clive Barker
A standout from Barker’s seminal horror work The Books of Blood, “Jacqueline Ess” is about a woman who, after an attempt to take her own life, ends up with a bizarre and terrifying power to reshape flesh. Barker’s known for his horrifying flesh creations, and the story definitely delivers, with people getting folded in on themselves or losing large numbers of internal organs because it turns out that it’s really difficult to reshape a person into something else when you don’t have a working knowledge of anatomy, but the story’s far beyond the typical shock show. Instead, Barker meticulously weaves Jacqueline’s power around her autonomy, her encounters with men, and a fear of intimacy due to the sickening way she deals with her trauma. While it’s not a particularly bright story, there’s a certain triumph in Jacqueline being her own person and finding her own uses for her horrifying “gift.”
The Beauty, Aliya Whiteley
Sometime after an apocalyptic event leaves Earth populated only by men, a small colony of men and boys finds a strange fungus growing over the burial sites of the women. At first, it’s merely a curiosity, an odd form of yellow mushroom, but doesn’t stay that way for long. Very soon the story spirals into a twisted form of venereal horror, as the mushrooms take on the shape of women and the intimacy-starved men decide to take advantage of their new pliable companions as much as they possibly can. Whiteley makes the fungus and their unusual needs seem suitably alien, and ramps up the horror as, inevitably, humping giant mushroom women has some unusual side effects. But where a number of body horror works stop at the visual, Whiteley lets loose with full sensation for the sex scenes, creating some of the most upsetting, spongy, and downright bizarre moments in horror fiction.
Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado
Machado’s debut collection mixes fabulism, horror, and numerous cultural touchstones, putting together a dark but infinitely inviting group of stories involving women and their bodies, be they an absolutely unnerving use for green ribbon in “The Husband Stitch,” missing women being sewn into dresses, or girls with bells pinned to their eyes. But through it all, Machado also discusses women, sexuality, the horrible losses of autonomy inflicted on women and their bodies, and the roles of women in the stories we tell. It’s a tight group of shorter works, one that’s guaranteed to captivate even as it challenges the reader and other authors to do better in their treatment of women, and while unnerving in many places, is an excellent read.
Shiver, Junji Ito
No body horror list would really be complete without a mention of Ito, whose painstaking linework and obsession with the downright sickening ways he can distort the human form have led to some of the most infamous and enduring horror manga of our time. Shiver collects nine of his best works, from a parasitic family and their upsetting secret to an apocalyptic plague of balloons that seek out their owners to strangle them. The short form also allows the works to get a lot nastier and more unnerving than his larger works like Gyo and Uzumaki, which have to keep a more consistent form for their entire length. It’s a wonderful sampler of his work, blending the darkly comic with the horrifyingly surreal and everywhere in between, even if it’s not the sort of thing you can easily read if you’re planning on eating sometime in the next, erm, century.
Private Midnight, Kris Saknussemm
Private Midnight‘s inclusion on the list might give part of the book away, but there’s enough in this James Ellroy-meets-David Lynch-meets-erotic thriller that having a small portion of the plot spoiled isn’t enough to ruin the whole thing. Corrupt hardboiled detective Birch Ritter is given the name of Genevieve Wyvern, a kind of therapist/dominatrix, by a partner of his. After a strange first session, he keeps coming back, obsessed with her seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of his life and the odd effect she has on him. At the same time, a series of mysterious deaths connected to Wyvern begin to pop up all over the city, and she appears to have some ties to vanishing mobsters and other strange events. Ritter also begins to notice small physical changes about himself the more he goes to Genevieve’s parlor. As the book is a mystery novel as well as a horror one, it wouldn’t do to give the entire plot away, but rest assured Saknussemm takes themes of love, obsession, gender, sex, power dynamics, and even the myths and legends we have about monsters to some very strange places.
Let the Right One In, John Ajvide Lindqvist
Lindqvist’s rather gruesome take on the vampire “romance” practically begins by describing one of its main characters’ (I’d use the word “hero,” but no one in this book really deserves that title) more embarrassing and tragic bodily functions and only gets darker from there. The book follows Oskar, a bullied, serial killer-obsessed, and somewhat nihilistic young man, as he meets and befriends Eli, the young woman who moves into his apartment complex. Their friendship just has one tiny snag: Eli drinks blood procured for her by her serial-murdering guardian. Oskar’s presence in Eli’s life only serves to strain that relationship considerably, leading to people accidentally getting turned into vampires, gruesome bodily mutilations, and a completely unprintable scene involving a zombie. It’s a chamber of horrors, to be certain, but Lindqvist manages to humanize his characters despite all that, turning what would be a bleak shockfest into a downbeat story about obsession and toxic relationships.
The Cipher, Kathe Koja
In the rundown storage room in Nick and Nakota’s crumbling apartment building lies “the Funhole,” a dark hole in the floor that emits ominous odors. Naturally, being bored starving artists with a disaffected view of the world, the two of them (mostly Nakota) decide to stick things into it, including mice and a jar full of bugs. Whatever force the hole contains, it kills and then tries to change the things inside, whether it’s mutating bugs into two-headed monstrosities, or eventually Nick’s hand when he ends up shoving it into the Funhole and gaining his own mutation. It’s not a particularly light work — its characters come off as detached, the environments are grimy, and the Funhole itself is almost brain-twistingly ominous — but Koja’s oblique language and the way she depicts the strange and alien power the Funhole has over her protagonists renders the whole thing weirdly hypnotic. It’s also easier than ever to get your hands on a copy, as it’s being reissued later this year in a new edition.