Let me start by saying that I don’t seek out body horror. When it comes to books, it’s not a selling point for me–being in a body all day every day is horrifying enough that I don’t necessarily need to go out of my way to add to my discomfort. But it’s also an inescapable element of the genre for that exact reason–until the day comes when we can upload ourselves to the cloud, we’re stuck in our bodies 24/7, with all the attendant discomfiting smells and sensations and maladies and traumas, many of which are completely beyond our control. It’s the single most relatable type of horror there is.
If you have a strong stomach, read on. (Big red flashing neon CW for pretty much all the books mentioned in this edition: graphic bodily harm, mutilation, mutation, violation, you name it.)
The Ruins by Scott Smith | Nightmare Scale: 9/10
If I think about this book for too long, I have to do some deep breathing exercises. It’s a great entry into the canon of “privileged white tourists get wildly out of their depth and meet satisfyingly horrible ends,” but it’s also some of the most visceral, nauseating storytelling I’ve ever read, precision-calibrated to turn your stomach with regularity. (Did I read this book right before a vacation to Mexico? Of course I did, because I’m a fucking moron.)
A group of partied-out vacationers in Mexico decide to take a trip out to a set of obscure Mayan ruins, ignoring all warnings. When they arrive, things start going wrong immediately: a dead body on a hill overgrown with vines full of acidic sap, plus a very frightened group of locals dead set on preventing the tourists from leaving said hill. Food, water, and sun poisoning are their immediate worries–until the vines start whispering.
Predatory plants are a wildly underexplored horror device, in my opinion, and the vines in this book are the gold standard. They move fast, they imitate sounds and voices, and they certainly seem to have agency. And when they start invading the tourists’ bodies, we accelerate very quickly into nightmare territory. This is a bleak book, but an incredibly memorable one–it’ll get under your skin. (I thought I was better than that joke, but I’m just not, sorry.)
“The Enigma of Amigara Fault,” published in Gyo Vol. 2 by Junji Ito | Nightmare Scale: 10/10
It would be a dereliction of duty for me to write a list of body horror and not include any Junji Ito. Ito commands the utmost respect and reverence from horror art aficionados, and for good reason–his work is vividly nightmarish, nihilistic, full of vile perversions of how a body is supposed to look and function. Humans in Ito’s imagination are perennially the victims of random, inexplicable, cosmically inevitable violence, compelled to do the unthinkable as their wills are broken and their bodies are warped.
(I thought about including a relatively mild example of his art here so you could get a sense of what his work is about, but frankly I couldn’t find anything from his oeuvre that could reasonably be considered mild, so hit that Google image search if you dare, but consider yourself warned.)
“The Enigma of Amigara Fault” is one of Ito’s best-known stories, to the point that it’s become a meme. The broad strokes are thus: after an earthquake, a series of human-shaped holes are discovered in a newly-revealed cliff face. Slowly at first, and then with rapidly increasing frequency, people find themselves drawn to specific holes, suddenly imbued with the utter conviction that this hole is theirs. People begin to enter the holes in droves, disappearing down the tunnels within, and what becomes of them isn’t clear–until, months later, a crew of workmen find the place where the tunnels end in distinctly non-human shaped holes. The final couple pages are revolting and captivating. No matter how much you might want to, you can’t look away.
Look at Ito’s face. What a nice, normal-looking guy. He’s married to a children’s picture book artist, so have fun imagining those dinner table conversations.
Note: it’s incredibly easy to find the full version of “Amigara Fault” online, as it’s been widely pirated and distributed–if you end up reading it that way, and you like it, please consider buying one of Ito’s books to support him.
“The Husband Stitch,” published in Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado | Nightmare Scale: 5/10
For a slightly cerebral value of body horror. If you’ll permit me a moment of “Webster’s Dictionary defines a wedding…,” Wikipedia’s definition of the term is as follows:
A subgenre of horror that intentionally showcases graphic or psychologically disturbing violations of the human body.
“Violations” is the key word there, a word that carries vastly different weight depending on your gender. This is a story about the violations women take in stride, and the ones we cannot tolerate.
The narrator tells the story of her life among men, primarily focusing on her relationships with her husband and her son. She has a green ribbon around her neck, which draws her husband’s curiosity, and though she asks him repeatedly not to touch it, he’s drawn to it again and again, sometimes benevolently, sometimes violently. Interspersed in this tale are her recollections of folk tales and urban legends alike, used to explicate and shade her experience of being a woman, the way women communicate information, and the ways in which we are disbelieved.
The titular “husband stitch” is a (possibly apocryphal) extra stitch made during the repair of an episiotomy, meant to make a woman tighter and more pleasing to her husband after childbirth. The narrator undergoes this, or doesn’t, after delivering her son–but throughout this story Machado asks us to weight emotional truth more heavily than objective truth in the equation of our understanding (if I were in grad school I’d be writing a dissertation on this story in conversation with Tim O’Brien’s “How to Tell a True War Story,” but instead I have a newsletter, so.)
This is a story about boundaries, a story about how a man who loves you can still take everything from you, a story told through other stories. The most quietly heartbreaking moment in these scant 30 pages, to me, is when the narrator’s son, who has never once questioned his mother’s ribbon, sees his father push her down and try to untie it–the next day, the son starts tugging at the ribbon himself, an object lesson in the kinds of behaviors sons learn from their fathers.
If I’m being honest, this story is so expert and so devastating that even trying to describe it to you makes me feel about as articulate as a cat walking across a keyboard, so please just go read it. I leave you with this snippet of dialogue:
“Why do you want to hide it from me?”
“I’m not hiding it. It just isn’t yours."
The Troop by Nick Cutter | Nightmare Scale: 8/10
Easily the goriest book on this list. A scoutmaster and his troop are camping on a remote island when a gaunt, ill stranger stumbles into their campsite. The strange man is frighteningly thin, and hungry–he doesn’t live long, but ultimately that doesn’t matter, because he was never the threat. The biologically-engineered parasite inside him, however, is another matter.
This book is disgusting–I mean truly flat-out revolting, the author is remarkably imaginative with his sensory descriptions–but it’s also a compelling page-turner. It’s a peek-through-your-fingers survival story with more blood and worms and wasted flesh and lost teeth than you can shake a femur at, but the scariest part of it is the deep psychic and emotional toll of knowing that your death could be inside you already and that there’s not a goddamn thing you can do about it. Isolated from help and quarantined by the military, the scouts succumb to their hunger and turn on each other one by one.
CW for this book: serious animal harm/death, child harm/death
A few more things you might like…
Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer: I have a lot more to say about the Southern Reach trilogy that I’ll save for another post, but I’d be remiss not to mention it in the body horror edition. The entire thrust of the series is about physical and personal transformation brought on by outside forces, and how much a person can change before they’re no longer themselves.
The Murders of Molly Southbourne by Tade Thompson: Slightly less gruesome than many of the books on this list, but still quite tense and bloody. Every time Molly Southbourne bleeds, a duplicate Molly is created - and these other Mollys want nothing more than to kill the original. This is both a horror story and a novella-length examination of the way blood and femininity can intertwine.
The Cipher by Kathe Koja: This cult classic is out of print in any physical edition, but extremely worth tracking down used if it’s your jam (it IS, however, available in digital formats from all major ebook retailers). Two malingerers discover a hole in the floor of their derelict building. Anything they lower into the hole comes back wrong–and, of course, it’s only a matter of time before someone puts a body part in there. They’re only human, after all. For now.
This is NOT a Review of Hell’s Shadows by Dean Klein [Sci-Fi and Scary]: An object lesson in how not to behave. (The part where he claims that being shelved next to Stephen King is somehow a marker of the quality of his writing and not a result of the alphabet being in the order it is just sent me fully over the edge.)
What I Don’t Tell My Students About ‘The Husband Stitch’ [Electric Lit]: My favorite piece of writing about Carmen Maria Machado’s short story.
Double Take: On Carmen Maria Machado [LARB]: Another great piece on “The Husband Stitch,” this time from Sofia Samatar, featuring this incisive phrasing: “Machado represents heterosexual marriage as a horror story whose ending we all pretend we don’t know.”
Speaking of body horror, please join me in gazing upon the glorious cover art for this book, the likes of which I’ve never seen and may never see again: