Body horror is a relatively new horror sub-genre to me, but it has quickly become one of my favorites. That being said, it needs to be done right, so when I heard about a short story collection called Body Shocks: Extreme Tales of Body Horror edited by the great Ellen Datlow, the queen herself, I knew I had to read it.
When I received the book, the first thing that caught my eye were the illustrations by John Coulhart. The cover art and interior illustrations perfectly complement the stories inside. The veiny eyeball on the cover is mesmerizing, as I found myself going back just to stare at it. The table of contents is an écorché of the human head, similar to those that you would find in Gray’s Anatomy. The entire aesthetic of the book is just so cool!
Ellen Datlow read through countless stories to curate this quintessential collection of body horror, and the authors she chose are a lineup of heavy hitters. With seasoned writers such as Nathan Ballingrud, Caitlín R. Kiernan, Cassandra Khaw, Tananarive Due, Seanan McGuire, and Carmen Maria Machado, it was bound to be amazing. But there are also writers I have never had the pleasure of reading, like Cody Fellow, Terry Dowling, Christopher Fowler, Alyssa Wong, and Genevieve Valentine, and that just put the cherry on top of my body horror sundae. The stories in the collection have all been printed previously, and go back as far as Michael Blumlein’s first published story in 1984.
The stories in Body Shocks cover a wide spectrum of body horror and are quite unsettling. In Datlow’s thoughtful introduction, she explains the difference between horror that happens to a body versus body horror. She quotes a wonderful writer by the name of Gabino Iglesias, who explained it well in an article on LitReactor.com in 2017. He roughly states that body horror is biological or organic horror; it is horror that originates from or is based on the body. I have to agree with Datlow on this — Iglesias says it perfectly. Datlow also touches on the history of body horror, which is a tale as old as time.
The stories presented here run the gamut of body horror: from back alley eyeball mods to corpse possession, fungal infestations to skinless women. Science fiction, dark fantasy, good old-fashioned horror—all present and accounted for. Not for the squeamish or faint of heart, but oh, so cathartic. A bit like picking at a healing scab; we know it should be left alone, but it’s just so satisfying to peel back those layers and see what’s hiding underneath.
Now let’s get to the vital part, the heart of the matter. I read this collection twice, cover to cover, and every one of these beauties is incredible. Each in their own way brings something different to this cohesive collection. I read stories that slapped me in the face like Priya Sharma’s “Fabulous Beasts,” Gemma Files’ “Skin City,” Cassandra Khaw’s “The Truth that Lies Under Skin and Meat,” and “Painlessness” by Kirstyn McDermott.
Others were more atmospheric, and devilishly snuck up on me. Nathan Ballingrud’s “You Go Where It Takes You” is thought-provoking, and “The Lake” by Tananarive Due had me grinning long after I finished. “Spores” by Seanan McGuire has an uncomfortable feel, right along with “The Transfer by Edward Bryant, and “Black Neurology” by Richard Kadrey. “The Spar” by Kij Johnson is gasp-worthy and “Welcome to Mengelés” by Simon Bestwick will make you shift in your seat.
He heard things cracking in her chest. Her stomach swelled then flattened and split into sections and her newly segmented body fell forward, face down to the floor. The glossy shield she wore on her back separated for a moment and shook thin wings before settling back into place. Her hair fell away as two protrusions sprouted from her head, dancing back and forth erratically as they grew.
Bottom line is, there isn’t a bad bone in the body of this glorious collection. I never felt this collection was “too extreme,” but remember I am a seasoned horror and extreme horror reader. It’s a perfect introduction for horror fans looking to try body horror. Veteran extreme horror readers might not feel it is shocking enough, but I believe these readers will still find much to love in Body Shocks. There are a few disturbing images and eye-popping scenes! However, sometimes it’s the more subtle, multilayered short fiction that keeps you thinking into the wee hours of the night.