Xavier Aldana Reyes, Body Gothic: Corporeal Transgression in Contemporary Literature and Horrror Film (Cardiff: University of Wales Press). 272 pp. £95 hb, £95 ebook. ISBN 978-1-78316-1, e-ISSBN 978-1-78316-093-8.
Xavier Aldana Reyes' Body Gothic aims to reclaim the somatic experience of Gothic texts and consider how the body is figured, disfigured and dismantled in horror. "Body gothic" is defined in the introduction as ‘gothic fiction that specifically places the body at the centre of the reading or viewing experience’ (p. 17). Concentrating on film and literature from the 1980s to the present day in which the body is subjected to ‘dismemberment, mutilation, mutation, extreme disease or transformative surgery’ (p. 11), the chapters cover splatterpunk, body horror, the new avant-pulp, slaughterhouse novels, torture porn, and surgical horror, and attempt o claim these texts as part of the Gothic rather than the more denigrated category of horror. The introduction convincingly situates the human body as central to the Gothic from its outset using examples from canonical texts such as Matthew Lewis’ The Monk (1796) and H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896). The book also includes close readings of works by Clive Barker, Richard Laymon, Joseph D'Lacey, and Matthew Stokoe as well as the films Saw (2004), Hostel (2005), and The Human Centipede (2011).
Reyes argues that the more visceral quality of the Gothic has often been overlooked, with critics preferring psychological, spiritual or, inevitably, psychoanalytical readings. Such approaches attempt to redeem Gothic studies by suggesting that the horror the texts contain allows the human subject to transcend bodily limitations or is indicative of complex repressed emotions. This need to legitimise Gothic studies stems from the terror/ horror debate that has divided the Gothic ever since Ann Radcliffe's essay ‘On the Supernatural in Poetry’ (1826). Radcliffe prioritises terror over horror by suggesting that the sublime aspects of terror provide a moral compass for Gothic texts. Body Gothic makes the connection between Radcliffe and Stephen King, noting that in Danse Macabre (1981) King states that he aims to terrify first and, failing that, to horrify, but if nothing else works will ‘gross you out’. As Aldana-Reyes suggests, this categorisation invokes notions of superior versus inferior quality in Gothic texts: texts that are horrifying, gory or visceral are deemed to be low-brow in comparison to those that offer a psychological or symbolic reading.
In his textual analyses, Reyes is careful to consider the bodies that are mutilated, tortured, transformed and destroyed, simply as bodies rather than symbols - albeit bodies that transgress notions of normativity. An analysis of ‘The Body Politic’, a short story from Clive Barker’s anthology Books of Blood (1984-1985), acknowledges the political metaphor that is inherent in this narrative of man whose hands revolt and remove themselves from his body as sovereign entity. However the reading returns to considering the piece not as metaphorical but as an examination of our understanding of the human body under strange, inhuman conditions. Moments which shock or horrify, affective moments to use the vocabulary of Body Gothic, draw the viewer or the reader to the concept of ‘corporeal transgression’. For the purposes of this study corporeal transgression is defined as ‘a fictional representation of the body exceeding itself or falling apart, either opening up or being altered past the point where it would be recognised by normative understandings of human corporeality’ (p. 11). Corporeal transgression, as defined by Reyes, allows the political, social and cultural forces which maintain a ‘normative understanding’ of the human body to be broken. By starting the study from the end of the twentieth century, secularisation and changing concepts of the ‘norm’ are highlighted as means by which the body is no longer sacred and, to take the title of one of the slaughterhouse novels covered by the study, has become Meat.
The chapter on the slaughterhouse novels is the most compelling. The two texts that are specifically analysed, Matthew Stokoe’s Cows (1998) and Joseph D’Lacey’s Meat (2008), are not viewed as metaphors for how humans treat animals in factory farming but as showing the vulnerable nature of the sanctified human body. By historicising the novels through concerns regarding the treatment of animals, the readings are given a resonance beyond the pages. Whilst the analysis of the Saw, Hostel and Human Centipede sequences was equally intriguing, the nihilism inherent within the texts themselves became difficult to stomach. The correlation between the first Human Centipede, as surgical horror, and Frankenstein (1818) added weight to the Gothic nature of the film and effectively built upon Kelly Hurley’s analysis of the representation of science as Gothic in fin-de-siècle Gothic literature. Reyes' reading explores the human subject’s imprisonment in embodied consciousness. It is only with the analysis of American Mary (2012), the final text, that science is partially redeemed as offering a possible escape from the nightmare of the body. The book's weakest section (because the genre itself seems limited and redundant) covers avant-pulp texts from the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. It would have been preferable to spend less time on these texts and expand the later sections, especially those that offered some hope for escaping the prison of the body.
Body Gothic is an engaging and readable study, which presents a convincing argument that the visceral horror texts it discusses are in fact Gothic, albeit a Gothic which takes a jarring form. What made the study refreshing was its originality and sustained analysis of the texts. Perhaps as a consequence of the lack of previous critical work on the area of body gothic, it did not feel weighed down by theory nor was it rendered opaque by the overuse of jargon. The arguments and concepts were so accessible that this critic ended up discussing interpretations of The Human Centipede over dinner, (something not necessarily to be recommended!). Reyes states in the introduction that Body Gothic is not a ‘toolkit’, but rather that its purpose in engaging with critically neglected texts is to provide a ‘blueprint’ for further study. Ideally, his next monograph would be such a ‘toolkit’. Body Gothic dissects a rich corpus of texts but leaves a sense of incompletion, and although the book offers a useful starting point for further scholarly work on the subject , it would be good to see more publications from the same author on this subject.
Kaja Franck, University of Hertfordshire