Review: Mammoth Book of Body Horror
The Mammoth Book of Body Horror
Edited by Paul Kane and Marie O’Regan
Featuring: Clive Barker, Neil Gaiman,
James Herbert, Stephen King, H. P. Lovecraft,
Mary Shelley and others
510 pgs. Trade SC.
“Body Horror,” conceptually, has been around for some time; the ancient Egyptians (not the first civilization to venerate the dead, but perhaps the most widely acknowledged for it) presented an aspect of this idea with their extreme attempts to stave off the decay of the bodily “self” by means of mummification. In another, much later example from the Middle Ages, the body was used both as a sacred object (it was forbidden to dissect a cadaver, for instance, even if it was to advance the cause of medicine) and to repulse (as in the political abuse of the criminal class by way of torture and public execution). Humans have complex relationships with the physical world they occupy (and continually wish to manipulate, including their physiques), and their corporeal selves as it relates to their internal mindscape.
Cinema has (especially in the last fifty or so years, but with ripples even further back, such as Blood of the Beasts  by Georges Franju and many others) been intrigued with the possibilities of the juxtaposition of mind/body (certainly the works of David Cronenberg [Videodrome (1983) and others], Dan O’Bannon [Alien (1979)], George Romero [Dawn of the Dead (1978) in particular], and the “Materialaktion”-ists [such as director Otto Muehl] leap to the forefront of cognizance). Films—with their marriage of sound and vision, and their unique ability to document/distort reality—reveal the filmmaker’s intentions in one of two ways—either by exaggerating the seeming “duality” of the somatic versus the mental (splitting it further, in essence), or by forcing a collision between the two in as disconcerting a way as possible, in order to stimulate thought and awareness of the brevity of existence.
Cinema is playing catch-up, as this book amply establishes. Body Horror has long been a preoccupation of literature (not only with tales from folklore, such as the werewolf, or ancient stories about mutable deities, but also more recently, as anyone who likes Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein [indeed, Shelley is herein represented with another tale, “Transformation”] or the works of Anthony Burgess [A Clockwork Orange], George Orwell , Walter M. Miller, Jr. [“Dark Benediction”], or J. G. Ballard [Crash, and others] can attest).
To that end, the editors, Paul Kane and Marie O’Regan, supply a well thought-out guided tour of the reality of our physical plasticity/extinguishment, and the myriad ways in which we attempt to cope with the inevitable loss, decline, and destruction of the aforementioned physical self. In the end, they prove with this remarkable anthology that the real horror is in the loss of the “true self,” which is our mind, our intellectual construction of the universe and our place in it, and actually the most significant loss we can face. Though this is not what horrifies us the most—that dubious honor is instead reserved for the defilement of the carriage of said mind: the loss and/or the irrevocable alteration of the body. This book underscores, albeit subtly, that we are our perceptions, our thoughts, feelings, and memories; but if those are corrupted—that is, overtaken by the weaknesses of the physical being, whether by cancer or by turning into a fungus from space—then that “true self,” too, starts to suffer, to erode, and thus our perceptual universe (the only one that truly matters to us as individuals in the final analysis) is destroyed. It is a sobering notion, and a rich substrate not only for horror fiction, but also for (pun intended) self-reflection; for the examination of our most basic motivations. It matters not about our possible descent into madness (apologies to Lovecraft, but a lunatic is not self-aware), but more so about our cleaving away from our “being” and into “non-ness,” into potential ostracism as Colin Wilson’s “Outsider,” into, at last, Sartre’s “nothingness.”
The book is rife with outstanding works old and new from a diverse swath of authors, including E. A. Poe, H. P. Lovecraft, John W. Campbell, Richard Matheson, Gemma Files, and many more. It truly lives up to the “massive” declaration of its title at over 500 pages, and the stories (most if not all reprints) are exceptional examples of the core idea of Body Horror (though I feel that Lovecraft might have been better served by the inclusion of “The Outsider” or “Cool Air” rather than “Herbert West—Reanimator”). For me, the standout pieces (other than the very interesting introduction by director Stuart Gordon [Re-Animator (1985)], a man who knows a fair amount about the topic), were from Poe (“The Tell-Tale Heart,” still chilling), Richard Matheson (the weird “‘Tis the Season to Be Jelly”), John W. Campbell (“Who Goes There?,” which—though dreadfully written—is still an important work in the fields of both horror and science fiction), and George Langelaan (the classic “The Fly”). I felt the stories from Clive Barker (“The Body Politic”), and Stephen King (“Survivor Type”), while good, were lesser efforts when compared to the rest of the anthology. Overall, I highly recommend this book, and would like to see more not only on this subject, but also from this duo of editors.
—Jason V Brock