Borderline Transgressions: On Writing Sex and Death
By Helen Marshall
Imagine you're in a hotel room, an ocean away from home, with a man. Not just any man: he's charming, captivating, handsome, energetic, powerful. You know you shouldn't be there but you can't quite help it, there's something electric about being near him, your hair seems to stand on end like there's a current running through you. You touch. It's casual, maybe, or maybe it's not casual at all. Is anything casual with two people in a hotel room? When you know the rest of the party is going on downstairs?
And imagine he's touching you, and this time it is on purpose, you know it's on purpose, and he's peeling back the edge of the collar of your shirt, he's brushing your hair away from your neck, and it is electric, you can feel it all as if the moment is supercharged. Superheated.
And he stops.
You know something is wrong.
He's found something. A spot, maybe. A mole. Maybe. A lump. Something. And his hands are cold now. He's not saying anything. You ask him what's wrong, and he's so quiet. He's so quiet. Why is he so quiet?
And you're thinking, “Cancer.” You're thinking, “Just say something!”
And he does. But it's not at all what you could have expected…
So begins the story “Sanditon” from my debut collection of short stories, Hair Side, Flesh Side: in which a young woman, in the course of an affair, discovers a lost manuscript by none other than Jane Austen written on the inside of her skin. I'm something of an absurdist writer; a fantasist, I suppose. But what has struck me over recent months is how many people find that my writing ventures into the strange landscape of horror fiction.
Horror is a hard category to define. So many writers avoid the term absolutely because they feel it's a ghettoising label. They might not be wrong. Growing up, you couldn't have got me to crack the spine of a horror novel for love or money. I didn't like being scared. I didn't want to spend my time deliberately opening myself up to that. But the funny thing I find now is that the jolt I shied away from as a kid is exactly the kind of jolt that I find myself drawn to now. Because, as anthologist and critic Douglas Winter tells us, horror isn’t so much a genre as it is an emotion.
And because there's such a thin, thin line between sex and death.
A 2003 study published in the Annals of Neurology argued that there was a connection between the size of the amygdala, the centre of the brain which controls emotion and fear responses, and a person's sex drive. Writers have been saying that for years though. Yeats once claimed that sex and death should be the only compelling subjects to a studious mind. They are the bookends of our lives, determining behavior, the key prods of the lizard brain that seems so intent on backseat driving.
Take a look at the new subway ads put out by Penguin Canada to support their romance line, sporting slogans like “Our readers come first” and “Get off here” and “Pleasure yourshelf.”
What do you see in that facial expression? It’s terribly ambiguous. Is it surprise? Is it lust? Is this woman mid-orgasm? Or has she been caught mid-orgasm? Is that a look of shock that someone has found out her dirty secret? That someone is spying on her? That, suddenly, in the midst of reading something a bit sexy she peeks up over the top of her book to discover—what?—a camera?
How easy to mistake those wide eyes, those lifted eyebrows for some other emotion. Shock. Fear. And why not? Penguin’s campaign #50ShadesHotter sports titles like Gabriel’s Inferno and Gabriel’s Rapture. The title Reflected in You itself carries the tagline “The sweet, sharp edge of obsession…” Why? Because there’s something sexy about the line between fear and arousal, between sex and death. There’s something powerful. Something that takes readers out of their comfort zones.
In one light, romance novels are all about playing with the comfort zones of their readers. Opening up spaces for experimentation, for tiptoeing on the other side of the line while still keeping a protected space. There’s a reason that the woman in the Penguin ad is wearing a wedding ring. Penguin wants you to know that whatever is going on in this picture, it’s still a safe space, it’s just a bit of a fun, it doesn’t mean anything. The boundaries between the secret thrill of reading about someone else’s sexcapades and what happens in real life when you’ve got a flesh-and-blood partner never get stretched too far.
In Hair Side, Flesh Side I wanted to play with those boundaries: between sex and death, between horror and humour and romance, between insides and outsides—and I wanted to do it by using the body as a central metaphor. Because the body is the place where all these boundaries become confused and malleable. Where emotions slip into one another. Where the electric sense of your hair raising could be desire or fear—or both.
Where living in a character’s skin might mean the vicarious pleasure of a fictional one-night stand or the sudden discomfort of discovering something unwanted and strange: a mole, a lump, or the handwriting of a dead woman.
About Hair Side, Flesh Side
Hair Side, Flesh Side
ChiZine Publications. November 2012
Trade Paperback and eBook, 300 pages
A child receives the body of Saint Lucia of Syracuse for her seventh birthday. A rebelling angel rewrites the Book of Judgement to protect the woman he loves. A young woman discovers the lost manuscript of Jane Austen written on the inside of her skin. A 747 populated by a dying pantheon makes the extraordinary journey to the beginning of the universe. Lyrical and tender, quirky and cutting, Helen Marshall’s exceptional debut collection weaves the fantastic and the horrific alongside the touchingly human in fifteen modern parables about history, memory, and cost of creating art.
In 2011, she published a collection of poetry with Kelp Queen Press called Skeleton Leaves (http://skeleton-leaves.net/) that “[took] the children’s classic, [stripped] away the flesh, and [revealed] the dark heart of Peter Pan beating beneath.” The collection was jury-selected for the Preliminary Ballot of the Bram Stoker Award for excellence in Horror, nominated for a Rhysling Award for Science Fiction Poetry and won the Aurora Award for best Canadian speculative poem.
Her highly anticipated collection of short stories Hair Side, Flesh Side, out from ChiZine Publications, hits bookshelves this month. Visit the webpage for videos, artwork and sample stories.