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Monstrous Bodies: Sexuality and Body Horror in Charles Burns' 'Black Hole' and George Saunders' 'Sea Oak'

It will be helpful at this point to consider Bernie’s ‘condition’ as it resonates with Michael Bakhtin’s discussion of the carnivalesque. Comedy and horror, in their most exaggerated forms, are drawn together in their emphasis of the grotesque body and its degradation: “degradation [...] is [the] lowering of all that is high, spiritual, ideal, abstract” – it digs “a bodily grave for a new birth; it has not only a destructive, negative aspect, but also a regenerating one” (Bakhtin 47). This carnivalesque notion is one that suspends fixed truths and modes of existence; the abject horror that the zombie aunt represents is one that challenges and subverts routine and established order. Having returned from the grave, Bernie's corpse outlines her plan to save her family, instructing them to increase their income so that they might move into less dangerous accommodation. The unsettling presence of the decomposing, re-animated Bernie creates a cognitive dissonance felt by her horrified family: “It is her,” says the protagonist, to which Jade replies, “[i]t is and it ain’t” (114). Her abject body affirms the boundaries of the characters’ psyches, “the place where I am not and which permits me to be”. It is this confrontation with the abject that redraws the boundaries between what constitutes the human and the non-human, causing them to recognise their own mortality as well as the potential ability to avoid the same fate as her. In this way she pushes them on to something better, pushes them to see beyond the present and look to the future instead, emphasising that even if the situation seems bad nothing is worse than dying without experiences that may positively re-affirm the self: “You ever been in the grave? It sucks so bad! You regret all the things you never did. You little bitches are going to have a very bad time in the grave unless you get on the stick, believe me!” (115) However, despite the release from repression that Bernie represents, Saunders never allows her to fully subvert the capitalist bondage of freedom to labour. It is only by further debasing oneself within the existent system that one can be liberated from the constraints of poverty. The incremental repetition of Bernie’s command to the protagonist to “show your cock!” (e.g. 115) to earn more “cock money” (115) emphasises how buying into a better lifestyle may only be attained at the cost of selling one’s body; she tells Jade to get a job by “bend[ing] forward a little” to “let him see down your top” (114). Saunders shows the inevitable trap that the individual faces in contemporary capitalist society: even if it is “sleazy [and] gross” (125), the reward for selling one’s own body, and hence one’s dignity, is a transition to better neighbourhoods and better schools in which to raise children — children who would thus have better opportunities to sell their bodies in future, and so forth. In this way, Saunders posits a scathing critique of the dehumanisation and devaluation that the contemporary worker faces.


Robin Wood claims that “[a]round 1980,” the focus of the horror genre “move[d] crucially from the release of the repressed [...] energies” of conformist society to “teenagers endlessly punished for having sex” (xviii). Whereas body-horror in Saunders is exclusively concerned with this process of release, Burns is more concerned with teenage sexualities. In Black Hole he subverts the latter formula in service of the former, as his victims of monstrosity, albeit contracting the bug through sexual intercourse, communicate projections of sexual anxiety that critique cultural attempts to control the body. We may liken the infection afflicting the teenagers to the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, which was stigmatised as a homosexual disease and subsequently became a metonym for otherness, for sexual ‘deviance’. Much like AIDS, the disease in this text has no known cause and no cure. However, although this is sexually-transmitted body horror, implicitly suggested to be transferred via unprotected sex (as revealed, for instance, when Rob pulls out his condom-less penis from where “he had been inside of” his girlfriend Chris [‘Racing Towards Something’, 57]), Burns's "bug" may be interpreted not only as a metaphor for AIDS or other sexual diseases, but the ‘disease’ of sexuality itself, an issue that is still enveloped by fear and stigmatisation in the United States today.


We may trace the ways in which Burns appears to critically use the power of surrealism and shock montages in order to convey this idea. The cinematic texts of the Surrealist art movement sought to liberate the unconscious and to challenge the viewer to embrace the irrational, the abject and the dream-logic of the realities depicted in their works. Black Hole appears to share this objective in illustrating a dream-like world where violent imagery in reality and fantasy are virtually inseparable. The razor-slashed eye of Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou, for example, portrays a violent rending of human flesh which produces a gaping hole on the body’s surface. The individual’s physical form is never a unified image. As Linda Williams puts it in her analysis of Surrealist cinema, such physical ruptures “are grotesque parallels to natural body apertures marked by their dual role as loci of both biological function and erotic pleasure”, thereby positing new, unconventional figurations of desire that arise out of the physical gaps made in the unified surface of the human body (212). Similar motifs of transmogrified, mutated flesh and grotesque wounds recur in Black Hole as they take on distinctly vaginal shapes – the bottom of one page alone sees four vertical panels lined up together: a dissected frog split open, emitting a sort of viscous discharge; a cut on the bottom of a foot; skin split along the spine of a female back; a hand covering the genitals between two naked legs [fig.1]. Much like the Surrealist film imagery of Buñuel, Black Hole is littered with metaphoric images of the concave wound of the vagina and the convex protrusions of the penis. Penetration also takes place through cutting, as shown in Chris’ dream near the beginning (‘SSSSSSSSSS’ 1-8 [later revealed to be a premonition of the physical occurrence in ‘Cut’ 49]): Chris’s foot is cut by a convex-shaped piece of glass, to be extracted from the concave, bleeding, vaginal-shaped wound on her foot, mirroring the penetration that infects her, as if the penetrated flesh signifies an analogous penetration of realms of consciousness that are normally repressed. For her, and for the rest of the characters, it is the beginning of a sexual awakening. Sex, then, is illuminated as not so much a disease but as an instinct that redefines the individual’s self-definition in their transition from adolescence to adulthood.


Fig. 1

[Fig. 1] ‘Biology 101', 7-11


In terms of imagery, Burns appears to hold a similar interest to that of contemporary filmmakers such as David Cronenberg, who displays a preoccupation with the irrational logic of early Surrealist films and the images of body horror, that is to say, the abject body, that accompany it. As Barbara Creed comments in her studies on Surrealist film, Cronenberg is “drawn to the body — its vulnerability, transformations and weird assemblages” (130). The perpetrator of a flesh-eating, metaphorically venereal epidemic in Rabid (1977) grows a phallic stinger inside her armpit; in Crash (1996), a car-crash victim has a vulva-like wound on her leg that the protagonist, seduced by it, has sex with. Whilst Black Hole departs from Cronenberg’s works in that the latter offers insight into the overwhelming power of technology, often fusing it with bodily desire (as in Videodrome (1983) or Crash), it may be argued that Burns appears to hold a Cronenbergian fascination with the abject body in his own depictions of the suggestively mutated human form.


The bodily changes of this group of teenagers renders them 'other' and monstrous, to themselves as well as to others: the boundaries that constitute the human are severed, and their bodies become unknowable, unpredictable and alien to those who inhabit them. This group of teenagers, as representations of mimetic sexual desire or the consumption of mimetic pornography (images of which surround them on numerous occasions, e.g. in the bathroom in ‘Lizard Queen’ and the floor of the encampment in ‘Rick the Dick’), shift from the abject a priori to the abject a posterior, so to speak, when they come to inhabit their own fascination with the grotesque, as suggestively convex and concave shapes integrate into their selves. In the otherness of their bodies, they embody the abject, bringing to life what was once merely represented. In her critique on altered bodies, Tanya Krzywinska suggests that “[b]odies, desire and sex are ‘strange’ to us because they exceed rational control and are subject to perpetual change. The sexual body marches to the rhythm of biological drums over which we have little or no mastery. This leads to a desire for control.” (154) This relationship between body and mind illuminates the abject as an embodied subjectivity. The bodily deviation of puberty, then, is a plight that physically manifests in these characters, as the biological and social horrors they endure are surreal exaggerations of teen angst, which in turn work to inscribe wider social anxieties.


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