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

Black Hole opens with Keith, a principal character, passing out during a frog dissection in biology class. Describing his blackout, he says: “I was looking at a hole… a black hole and as I looked, the hole opened up… and I could feel myself falling forward, tumbling down into nothingness” (‘Biology 101’, 7-17). Just as the concave wound, the ‘black hole’ of the vagina can be seen as an absence, a ‘nothingness’ in the text, the convex penis becomes a signal of presence. In the chapter titled ‘Window Pane’, Keith is intensely disturbed, and transfixed, during the middle of an acid trip by his discovery of a severed human arm (100) — a cut-off organ, which perhaps relates to castration, as its presence insidiously evokes an absence. The cognitive dissonance that arises from this synecdoche is one that relates back to Kristeva’s abject, as abject bodily organs threaten the male with castration and instils a fear of emasculation. The fascination and horror that Keith reacts with, however, implies a metaphorical recognition, if not quite yet an embracing, of this ‘displacement’ of male ‘dominance’, as he opts for the “nice and safe” absence (‘Biology 101’, 7-17) over presence. If we draw from Kristeva’s theory, the abject marks a “primal repression” as the boundaries of the body repress and contain the abject, outlining the dialectical relationship between repulsion and attraction (11). A fundamental aspect of this is that of ‘jouissance’: “One does not know it, one does not desire it, one joys in it [...] [v]iolently and painfully[,] [as] a passion”, a sensation that carries a certain amount of pleasure (9). Allowing the simultaneously wonderful and terrible ‘jouissance’ of abjection to pervade subjectivity does not necessarily denote a descent into madness: rather, it allows the expression of dissatisfaction with the concept of a psyche of integrated subjectivity, which, as it has already been suggested, must be monitored and kept stable. “[S]o many victims of the abject are its fascinated victims,” comments Kristeva, “if not its submissive and willing ones.” (9) The characters seem to mirror this idea, simultaneously fascinated and horrified by their experiences — Keith most of all, who albeit horrified by the appearances of those worst affected and the potential symbolism of the severed arm, appears to flirt with the ‘bug’ (in its potential interpretations of [‘deviant’] sex or AIDS) as much as he can, hardly caring when blood from Chris’ wound stains his hands or when he has sex with Eliza: an impulse that he can neither repress nor deny himself. Here is a character who feels alienated by his suburban surroundings, who constantly dreams of ‘elsewhere’ (“No matter where I was, I always wanted to be somewhere else” [‘Bag Action’ 26]), who seems to purposefully ‘other’ himself, to willingly situate himself in the ‘elsewhere’ of the sexually and culturally marginalised.

This affinity with the marginalized is perhaps best expressed through an exploration of Burns’s representation of certain bodies as holding both male and female signifiers that plausibly represent transgender identities and same-sex attraction. Whilst Rob has a vagina-like mouth on his neck, which Chris enjoys kissing [in ‘Seeing Double’], Eliza has a phallic tail that Keith is aroused by, seeing himself penetrated by her tail in his dream sequences. Body horror is thus entwined with a polymorphous, androgenized ecstasy.[i] The three panels of Figure 2 see the increasing distance of the image of Chris naked on the grass blend with the increasing prominence of Eliza’s tail at the top of each panel. The grass, meanwhile, has morphed into pubic hair, and the view of the trees above Chris’s head has now switched from her perspective to his (‘Bag Action’ 106-8) The monstrous is thus closely related to the collapse of traditional gender roles. It may be argued that gender destabilisation is the ‘cause’ of monstrosity, and is therefore seen as negative, and that alternative types of sexuality bear the stigma of the monster; however, this argument may be countered by the fact that, in blurring gendered anatomical understanding, Burns produces a critique of the institution of heterosexuality as an integral component of a fixed psychological or identity formation. Even if social and parental authorities are only on the periphery of the experiences of the teenage characters, these absent presences rule their actions and ideas of self-definition and may contribute to their self-destruction. Indeed, this critique is vividly captured in the character Dave, who, in the final section of the narrative (‘The End’), finds his answers by murdering those afflicted with the worst mutations and ultimately by committing suicide, his self-exile and death indicating his complicity with the very laws that proscribe him.

Fig. 2

[Fig. 2] ‘Bag Action’ 106-8

The mutations can thus be seen to represent the emotional and physical changes of adolescence. Chris’s monstrous affliction of skin-shedding, for example, is a metaphor for menstruation that accompanies the instability of puberty. One moment of the narrative sees Chris standing in the dark outside the home of her friend Marci, whom she had fallen out with: “I stood in the dark and watched for a long time. I knew I’d never see her again” (‘Summer Vacation’ 111). Her own home, too, a representation of the ideals that have socialized her, ceases to be a refuge. The final chapter of the novel portrays the aftermath of a sexual awakening that denotes a transition into adulthood. Chris casts off her clothes and metaphorically sheds her skin. The ways in which she relates to the world have changed as she looks up at the sky and reflects on “my end ... A sparkling ceiling ... Some cheap, glittery shit,” as earlier she struggles amidst nightmarish surroundings of broken glass, corpses, bones and snakes and other symbolic detritus (‘Summer Vacation’, 131); her actual experience sees her floating on the sea, attaining a unity with her environment as the waves become indistinguishable from her the wash of her hair, as she regards the expansive, starry skies above her, reflecting that “the sky is amazing. A deep, dark blue” (‘The End’, penultimate panel). The former bad dream, then, becomes her metaphoric sexual awakening. It is a symbolic baptism, the promise of a new life, as Chris comes to terms with who she is.

It may be argued that Burns’s teenagers are thrown into turmoil as the abject, supposedly rejected by the ‘I’ in order to validate its own existence, is returned to the self as wounds that cannot be expelled, forcing them to re-evaluate the boundaries that their own psyches have drawn. They are forced to confront the abject which they had previously suppressed and to reconcile with it. They must formulate new borders of self-definition in order to achieve a unified self. However, just as Saunders does not allow Bernie’s abject body to fully disrupt the social positioning of his characters, so Burns’s ‘bug’ seems to emphasise pre-existing hierarchy, inscribing it into the flesh, even as it induces a more pronounced segregation between the ‘clean’ and the infected. Those who develop the most visible mutations, it turns out, were objects of ostracism or ridicule in their former lives. Ultimately, however, if read as a psychoanalytic allegory along the lines of Kristeva’s theory of the abject, Black Hole stages a redistribution of social power between the geeks, slackers, jocks and ‘good girls’ of the high school hierarchy, as all the characters infected are equally abject, and gain new insight from the experience. “I was one of them,” recalls Chris at one point, “it just didn’t show as much” [‘Seeing Double’, 49]. Meanwhile, the nature of the body, shown in Cronenbergian images, is illuminated as both a messy physical object and a theoretical battlefield. It is apparent that the egos and sexualities of the beautiful, popular characters do not produce more beautiful selves — instead, a horrific body is produced, one out of control, just like those of the unpopular geeks, and is increasingly isolated from meaningful correspondences to the social mainstream over which the popular set once ruled. Only Eliza, bohemian and damaged, seems to be made more attractive by her mutation, which is visible, but strangely erotic, perhaps because, unlike those still trapped in the relative values of the high-school environment, she has always gracefully occupied a marginalized role. Thus the characters arrive at a recognition of existential loneliness and distress as they grow to realise the inherent abject otherness that inheres in being human; at the same time, however, they discover their common vulnerability as human beings, just as the reader does when confronting the abject images of this exceptionally graphic graphic novel.

Black Hole and ‘Sea Oak’ are both indicators of how attitudes to sexuality have developed over the past few decades — and the ways in which they have not. Both reveal the ideological and cultural imperatives that dictate conventional modes of desire. In their use of body horror, these works construct intriguing studies of the mechanisms of desire, and the opposing elements that structure it, within the subject. Sexual desire, and the fears it gives rise to, visually manifest as an energy that transforms bodies and, in doing so, transgresses constituted forms of social life. Marginalised sexual identities, even sex itself, can be seen as bearing the stigma of the monster, physically marked as an ‘other’; however, Burns makes clear in his metaphor that such ‘otherness’ is universal and could manifest in anyone, from geeks to jocks, who must come to terms with and embrace the ‘abject’ within the self. The characters, then, seem to bear the symptoms of a disease that is larger than it appears, that of discrimination, instituted by a conventionalised morality that both marginalises others and denies accurate knowledge to young people. Through the identification that the reader establishes with Burns’s characters on their psychological journeys (as instigated by their sexual awakenings), and the abject images that the reader is subjected to, Burns implicitly issues a call for flexibility, tolerance and acceptance in understanding shifts in gender relations, sexuality and sexual preferences, especially in light of how the heterosexual mainstream works to stigmatize and marginalize groups considered deviant. Saunders makes a similar call for a redress in social balance, as conflicting values in the social and economic mainstream lead to two unhealthy polar extremes (embodied, respectively, in Aunt Bernie’s life and grotesquely undead afterlife) that monstrously undermine the individual, emotionally and physically. Both novels thus promote a certain form of sexual literacy, indicating by their opposites the possibility of emotionally healthy sexual expression and an expanded understanding of sexuality beyond its commodifed form.



Figure 1. Charles Burns. ‘Biology 101’, panels 7-11. 2005. Black Hole. London: Jonathan Cape. Print.

Figure 2. Charles Burns. ‘Bag Action’, panels 106-8, 2005. Black Hole. London: Jonathan Cape. Print.

Works cited

Baudrillard, Jean. The Spirit of Terrorism, tr. Chris Turner, London: Verso, 2002.

Burns, Charles. Black Hole. London: Jonathan Cape, 2005.

Crash. Dir. David Cronenberg, perf. James Spader, Holly Hunter, Elias Koteas. Alliance Communications Corporation, 1996.

Harper, Graham, and Rob Stone. Unsilvered Screen: Surrealism on Film. London: Wallflower, 2007.

Herdt, Gilbert, and Cymene Howe. 21st Century Sexualities: Contemporary Issues in Health, Education, and Rights. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2007.

Kaplan, Amy. “Manifest Domesticity.” American Literature 70.3, No More Separate Spheres! (September 1998): 581-606. JSTOR. Warwick University Library, accessed 07/01/2011.

Kristeva, Julie. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Trans. L. S. Raudiez. New York: Columbia UP, 1982.

Krzywinska, Tanya. Sex and the Cinema. London: Wallflower Press, 2006.

Magistrale, Tony. Abject Terrors: Surveying the Modern and Postmodern Horror Film. New York: Peter Lang, 2005.

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Rivkin, Julie, and Michael Ryan. Literary Theory: An Anthology. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1998.

Royle, Nicholas, The Uncanny, Manchester: Manchester UP, 2003.

Saunders, George. Pastoralia. London: Bloomsbury, 2000.

Schneider, Steven Jay. Horror Film and Psychoanalysis: Freud’s Worst Nightmare. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004.

Sterling, Bruce. ‘Slipstream.’ SF Eye #5 (July 1989).; accessed 24/07/11.

The Fly. Dir. Kurt Neumann, perf. David Hedison, Patricia Owens, Vincent Price. Twentieth Century Fox, 1958.

The Exorcist. Dir. William Friedkin, perf. Linda Blair, Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow. Hoya Productions/Warner Bros. Pictures, 1973.

Un Chien Andalou. Dir. Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel, perf. Pierre Batcheff and Simone Mareuil. BFI, 1929.

Williams, Linda. Figures of Desire: A Theory and Analysis of Surrealist Film. California: U of California P, 1981.

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[i] In many ways the characters’ attraction to these features disrupts the dominant representation of the abject in popular culture, which problematises the simultaneous presence of the sapphic and phallic in one body. A key example could be drawn from Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), which portrays men being forcibly impregnated by the phallic offspring of a nonetheless decidedly feminine alien. (For more on this phenomenon see Barbara Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis, Routledge, 1993.)