AUGUST 11, 2015
“THIS IS NOT my body,” reflects Victoria, the patchwork protagonist in the title story of Damien Angelica Walters’s debut horror collection, Sing Me Your Scars. “Yes, there are the expected parts — arms, legs, hips, breasts — each in its proper place and of the proper shape.” Contemplating the mad scientist who has created her, she asks, “Is he a monster, a madman, a misguided fool? I don’t know. I don’t want to know. But this is not my body.”
It’s a perfect opening, a study in miniature of a book sure to please new fans and old-school horror aficionados. After all, the genre has long held a fascination with this particular theme. “The death […] of a beautiful woman,” claimed one of the great masters of bloody fiction, Edgar Allan Poe, in an 1846 essay, “is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world.” In 1985, the horror critic William Schoell printed a similar declaration from the Italian director Dario Argento: “I like women, especially beautiful ones. If they have a good face and figure, I would much prefer to watch them being murdered than an ugly girl or a man.”
Provocative stuff, yes, but it’s hard to dispute how closely beauty, sex, and death have been linked throughout the history of the genre. The heyday of stalker and slasher films, which began in the United States with John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and continued with Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream series, merely heightened the visibility of a set of tropes which were already firmly in place. And so the shadowy killer who tears limb from limb his fresh-faced teenaged victims, typically starting with whoever strips down first, entered the realm of urban legend. He was a sinister reminder of what happens to women who transgress, and his operations might be neatly summed up with a single rule: “Only the virgin survives.”
The last five years have ushered in what many are calling a new “golden age” of horror cinema. Its successes include Jonathan Glazer’s science fiction thriller Under the Skin (2013), starring Scarlett Johansson as an alien scouring the streets of Glasgow in search of prey. What brings this movie to life is its authenticity. Glazer stitched it together from hidden camera footage which captures an emotionally cool Johansson luring real people unaware they were being filmed into her white van. Here, the classic femme fatale becomes a full-blooded predator who needs only her red-lipsticked smile to attract the interests of her would-be victims. The result is a visually bold and formally experimental gem. In 2015, the box offices have already witnessed the triumph of another clever horror flick, It Follows. A send-off in many ways to the horror of the 1980s, which saw masked killers slashing their way through high schools, sorority houses, and all the settings of American suburbia, David Robert Mitchell’s film invests hookup culture with an aura of paranoia and genuine terror that has won over genre enthusiasts and mainstream critics alike. But although a one-night stand sets off the monster in motion, sex functions in a variety of ways that don’t map easily against the genre: as succour and release as much as transgressive, pleasure-seeking behavior in need of punishment. It’s this indeterminacy, this refusal to fall into cringingly moralistic patterns, that allows Mitchell to layer a surprising tenderness into the movie’s exploration of sexual behavior.
Although the successes of horror fiction haven’t reached the same heights as horror films in commercial terms, artistically the genre has been going through a renaissance over the last five to ten years, particularly within the small press scene where publishers such as Small Beer, Apex Books, Dark Regions Press, Night Shade Books, and ChiZine Publications have championed a new wave of writers. Among these, Damien Angelica Walters ought to be ranked very highly. Her stories are visceral and provocative, clearly steeped in the tropes and traditions of the horror genre, with its fixation upon arms, legs, hips, and breasts, yet beautifully subversive at the same time. They are stories about inhabiting the body; about what it means to be trapped inside the body, bodies that don’t work, or work differently; and about what it means to take control of the body.
Take the title story, a wily reworking of the Frankenstein trope featuring Victoria, the name given to the collective amalgam of body parts taken from a series of murdered women — a replay of Frankenstein’s monster but with more explicit sexual overtones. Walters’s story detours from the classic pattern when Victoria reveals to the reader her awareness of the personality and history of each of the girls subsumed within her:
After he leaves, I use Lillian’s finger to trace the stitches. They divide us into sections like countries on a map. The head, neck, and shoulders are mine; the upper torso, Molly’s; the lower torso, Grace’s; Diana, the arms; Lillian, the hand; Therese, the legs and feet; Sophie, the scalp and hair.
I make all the pieces of this puzzle move, I feel touches or insult upon them, but they never feel as if they belong completely to me. He may know how everything works on the outside, but he doesn’t know that they are here with me on the inside, too.
Here, Walters draws a contrast between the mad scientist’s unsettling knowledge of the mechanisms of Victoria’s body and his failure to recognise the true complexity of her interior space. Walters’s language, which fuses a poetic sensibility with a keen awareness of what makes her audience’s pulse race, transforms the story into an elegant if disconcerting meditation on the genre, asking what the body is and who ought to control it. And as Victoria wrestles for that control, she contends not only with her psychotic maker, but with her fellow victims as well, who offer their own resistances and chilling capitulations. “This is our, my, body,” she resolves after a brilliant and deeply satisfying turn of events, “I will be careful. I will keep us safe.”
This formulation — “our, my, body” — is indicative of the kind of identity play which Walters revels in throughout her collection, as its characters are invested with new and horrific personalities (“All the Pieces We Leave Behind”) or reconstructed as half-human, half-machine monsters (“Glass Boxes and Clockwork Gods”). This kind of playfulness is the hallmark of a genre that has long been regarded as a machine for meaning-making. In this sense, then, Walters’s collection offers metaphors which reflect very real anxieties about modern sexual politics, reproductive rights, and body shaming. But as philosophical as the subtext of these stories can get, they’ve still got enough gory carnage to satisfy the most carnal of tastes.
So what then about the pleasures of this sort of fiction? Is it spectacle or merely sadism? In 1981, Roger Ebert argued that slasher films invited viewers to identify with the maniacal male killers, and that the pleasure they offered was one which glorified male violence towards women. But horror has always been more complicated than that, and Walters’s stories demonstrate these perfectly: what happens, they ask, when a single woman is both slasher and victim? In “Girl, With Coin,” Olivia uses her inability to feel bodily pain to enact vivid examples of performance art. She whips, stabs, and slices into her skin for shows with titles such as “A Study in Crucifixion” and “Stigmata in Repose.” With these performances, Olivia — and Walters — interrogates the fundamental attraction of horror:
She gives the crowd a wide smile as she draws the blade across her forearm. Several people gasp. The wound curves, another smile, and the red it reveals matches her lipstick. […]
She watches their eyes. Even when their mouths twist in revulsion or disbelief, their eyes reveal the truth. A glint here, a shimmer there. Hunger. They’re waiting for her to slip and open a vein. They come for the shock factor, but it’s not what they really want to see. They’re vultures, waiting for her to fall so they can pick at her bones.
The scene throws the relationship between reader and spectator into disarray as she forces us to see ourselves reflected in the hungering eyes of a callous, consuming audience. We want to watch Olivia bleed even as we know the performance will scar her. More than this: we want her to enjoy what she’s doing to herself; we want her to smile as she draws the blade across her skin. And although the process of self-flagellation allows Olivia to reclaim a kind of power of choice over herself, the story still casts horror audiences in a rather unflattering light. Much as Joss Whedon’s satiric The Cabin in the Woods (2012) troubled the voyeurism of bloodthirsty moviegoers, Walters’s stories question again and again what it means to take pleasure in another’s suffering.
It’s only in “The Taste of Tears in a Raindrop” that she offers her own solution to the problem of why we need horror. Alec is trapped in a kind of stasis after the breakup of his marriage, protesting the constrictive terms of a custody arrangement that limits his time with his daughter and unable to move on emotionally. As he struggles with his loneliness and despair, he catches glimpses of a bruised and bleeding woman. At last, when he manages to question her, she reveals herself as the embodiment of the multipartite Algea, the spirits of pain and suffering in Greek mythology. “I know no torment though I carry it in my veins,” she whispers to him as she shows him her scars, “I know no heartache though I taste it in my tears.” Like Olivia, the Algea cannot feel the bruises on her arm, her blackened left eye, her scarred and scratched body; she is completely numb. And yet it’s Alec’s apparent numbness that she ultimately rails against. “You have to feel,” she tells him, triggering a tsunami of repressed anger, hurt, and loss. But rather than shattering him, this ecstatic wave of emotions provides a kind of release. Perhaps, then, this is the purpose of horror fiction in Walters’s eyes: it allows us to experience thrillingly raw emotions and to purge ourselves of them. Tellingly, however, Walters offers no relief for the Algea herself who dissolves before Alec’s eyes into “shimmering darkness in the shape of a woman.” The audience’s purgation, we see, comes at a cost: the ultimate disintegration of the victim, whether she can feel it or not.
Sing Me Your Scars is not always a pleasant read. It’s hard not to squirm as the women in these stories are crucified, stabbed, beaten, bruised, surgically altered, and incised. But Walters gives her blend of body horror and splatterpunk a poetic treatment that elevates it from grindhouse to arthouse. Like the best horror fiction, this collection is at once subversive and invested in the peculiar delights of the genre. The result is a full-body experience, packed with gasps and shivers, pulse-pounding jolts and moments of intense instinctive recoil — shocking, yes, but completely enthralling and oddly uplifting as well.