I’m a short fiction writer. I like the discipline of it, the concision. I like that it demands things from both readers and writers – that there’s no room to spoon-feed, that all the connections are implicit. They’re also, I think, more responsive to the world around us. There’s not the same expectation of economic return as there is in a novel, so there’s more room to experiment, to go for different setting and subjects, different cultures, different contexts. In this short stories are a very experimental form – and often a very aware one.
This awareness is present in food and horror shorts, as it is in the rest of sci-fi and fantasy. Writers know the consumption narrative, know it instinctively because food and horror has been around a long time, in any number of ways – natural and supernatural and textual, and with a history like that it’s easy to become referential.
In the first of these columns I talked about Hansel and Gretel, about the gingerbread house in the woods: dangerous temptation, peril spun about with sugar and marzipan, consumption within consumption for what is all this gingerbread for if not to plump up the witch’s next meal? Come stuffer the little children, so that the hungry owner of that house can stuff herself. It’s a well known story, and a well loved one.
What it is not is a static story. Damien Angelica Waters takes it on in her short “A Lie You Give, And Thus I Take”. Hansel doesn’t exist in this story, and the Gretel equivalent is a grown woman, the witch an abusive partner who feeds her up on sugar and marshmallow and tiramisu, measuring her hips and frowning, trying to feed up his girlfriend into the image of the house. Because the Gretel figure here is the house, in her way – tied to the domestic sphere with chores and expectation, “scrubbing meringue from the linoleum”. Taking to the house with a pastry knife, she believes it to be a reflection of her partner (“I’d know your handwriting anywhere”) but it’s not just the house he’s covering up with fondant. It’s the sugar-construction of both woman and home that links them together.
This is a story of linkages.
She thinks she’s in a different story sometimes, does this Gretel figure: Cinderella come into the house of gingerbread, but “All the stories are the same” says her feeder, when what he really means is all outcomes are predetermined, including yours. This is consumption of a different kind, a nibbling into shape, a cookie cutter gingerbread woman there to be consumed when she’s done with the scrubbing, when she’s placated the jealousy of accusations of infidelity. “You were with the dwarves, weren’t you?” he says, wanting to eat her up, and even though she wasn’t the suspicion was enough for punishment, for little bites of flesh (“…that night, you bite a little too hard, a little too many times, leaving me with a set of oddly-shaped, half-moon bruises”).
“I can’t remember ever being this hungry before”, states the Gretel figure, but what she’s really hungry for isn’t taffy or chocolate or raspberry preserves. It isn’t even chicken or soup or cubes of beef stock, the objects of her lonely fantasies. It’s the ability to break out of stories, to end the ongoing narrative of her consumption. The Gretel who shoved a witch into the stove to save her brother isn’t this aware – she’s too juvenile for awareness, for the comparisons of other stories and the undercurrents of gender and power. Her power is all on the surface, all adults and ovens. There’s little temptation there past the obvious, and certainly sex never comes into it. The witch may have bitten her all to pieces after her brother but the biting wouldn’t have been in bed, that’s for sure.
But if consumption narratives can be forcibly terminated, sometimes you’ve just got to see them through to the end. I’ve talked about Chikodili Emelumadu’s “Candy Girl” in this series before – it’s one of my absolute favourite short stories ever, so why not – and it has consumption and transformation winding round each other like a double helix. Waters has her Gretel figure putting a stop to her own consumption (to the endless swallowing of sugar, to the consumption of her sexual self) but Muna, the protagonist of “Candy Girl”, has to give herself up to consumption in order to force transformation.
Turning into chocolate at the behest of an idiot ex, who tried a love potion and got it wrong, his bastardised adoption of another culture failing under the shallowness of his understanding, Muna visits a wise woman to find out how to break the spell, to turn her from Bounty bar back into flesh. “Turns out he has to eat her,” says Ozulu. The sickly slide of flesh into sticky sugar can’t be stopped, but matter and energy both are transformative. As the act of eating recycles food into flesh, so Muna, become food, can change her state through that same consumption.
Paul, the dimwitted ex, is delighted. It’s what he’s always wanted: to eat her up, to have her culture inside him, a way to become the other, to transform himself from Whiteboy into Igbo. It was why Muna dumped him in the first place, the realisation that she’d become a fetish object to him, wanted not for herself but what she represented. “He wanted to belong and it didn’t matter whom he needed to fixate on to get in.” Then a spell goes wrong and suddenly there she is, in perfect consumable form, and he can barely contain his glee. He’s on her straight off, guzzling down every last part of her and he’s got permission to do it, no-one can blame him, it’s all so perfect!
When he reaches for my breasts Ginika wallops him but Ozulu puts a hand out to stop her.
“He must eat all of her to keep all of her. You don’t want some of her faculties gone, do you?”
Paul smiles the smile of a triumphant child that doesn’t realise it is in trouble. He suckles on a breast which stretches high, high, high before breaking off. It wobbles in his mouth, gleaming a dull red.
“Turkish delight!” Paul claps. He attacks the other one with gusto.
Paul, you might have noticed, is a fucking creep. But if modern short stories are good at anything they are good at subversion, and if Waters’ Gretel figure takes herself, with deliberation, out of the story then Muna clings onto it, shaping what she cannot stop. Because you are what you eat, and this is something else that Paul doesn’t understand, and when Muna is inside him, becoming flesh again, starting from a lump in his treacherous testicle, she can push him out of his own body, take it over as he took hers, and the only trace left of him at the end of this second transformation, of this second consumption, is a fragment of foot than can easily be hidden by a sock.
Waters looked at story and gender, but Emelumadu looks at colonialism and gender, the place and power of ownership. These are subversive stories, stories of temptation and threat and how to deal with each, but most of all they are stories of transformation. Of the assumption of personal power, of reclaiming what has been stolen.
But because consumption and transformation are so linked with the idea of power the stories of this power can also provide a mirror to subversion, as well as the potential to pull back from it. Alyssa Wong’s “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” initially presents consumption in terms of flipped gender assumptions. The Gretel figure is abused and Muna is exploited but Jen only assumes the role of victim in order to procure her own.
On a date with the obnoxious Harvey, whose thoughts “glisten with ancient grudges and carry an entitled, Ivy League stink”, Jen sifts through his thoughts and finds them full of violence, of murder and degradation – hers. For Harvey is a killer, another of the horrifying multitude that feels entitled to a woman’s body in whatever form he chooses to consume her.
“She’s got perfect tits,” he thinks, “lil’ handfuls just waiting to be squeezed.”
“I can’t wait to cut her up,” he thinks.
“She’ll look so good spread out over the floor,” he thinks.
“I’m going to take her home and split her all the way from top to bottom. Like a fucking fruit tart,” he thinks, drunk on dreams of wallowing in screams and blood.
Jen, all too aware of the entitlement behind the impulse, just smiles sweetly and goes along, all the while thinking “They’re never as strong as they think they are”. Gretel leaves the story, Muna goes along gracefully until she can use that going along to stage a take-over, but Jen fights from the get go, prowling in a way that Harvey could never dream of or even appreciate. And why not? This is the golden age of short fiction, after all, with women and minorities and the weight of diversity piling up, and the Harveys of the world (and the Pauls) had better look out.
But he doesn’t look out, does Harvey, so sure in the idea of his own consumption that he misses what’s coming at him for Jen is as hungry as he is.
I launch myself at him, fingers digging sharp into his body, and bite down hard on his mouth. He tries to shout, but I swallow the sound and shove my tongue inside. There, just behind his teeth, is what I’m looking for: ugly thoughts, viscous as boiled tendon. I suck them howling and fighting into my throat as Harvey’s body shudders, little mewling noises escaping from his nose.
The transformation from victim to predator is mirrored in the detail that, after her consumption, Jen briefly takes on the form of her victim. Harvey’s abandoned next to a dumpster, naked, in the kind of pose and setting we usually find female victims in, if every crime show I’ve ever turned into is believed, of course. And this transformation is key to the text.
Wong subverts the typical predator/prey gender dynamic, but by clothing Jen in the appearance and power of her selected victim she also transfers the potential for relevant flaws. It’s “you are what you eat” again, and the consumption of power corrupts, turns power relationships on their edges and makes other people victims. Jen, gorged on a killer of young women, finds herself drooling over sweet friendly Aiko, a girl who’s so appealing that Jen just wants to eat her.
It makes it hard to build a relationship, but that’s what food is, and horror: temptation and the transformation of the flesh, of the connections between flesh. Even if those connections are on a small scale, and domestic.
There’s a difference in the scale of transformation, however. Gretel might transform through sugar, through gingerbread, into an independent woman, a killer of witches, but food can also be used for more obvious transformations – and for more subtle ones. Food can turn a body into a monstrous thing, can make of it a monster, can be used to feed monsters, and to breed them. But how far can this go? Can food change a universe?
Yes, if the universe is a single person. If I’m bitten by a vampire and turn into a creature who needs to drink blood to live, then my universe is certainly different. It may even be upturned entirely, if that universe is one where vampires are creatures of fiction only… until I find out the hard way that they’re not.
But can objectivity be so undermined? Does food have the power to change a universe for everyone as well as for the individual, as well as for the moment? It does in Kelly Jennings’ story “Dream Cakes”. Here the consumption of a cake changes worlds. A demoted corporal who has lost his wife (whether to death or divorce) eats for change, but change is not limited to his body – or even his understanding of the universe. Everything changes for him, the universe reshaping around him to a better life, one with wife and daughters and an admittedly unhappy death that is at least better than it could have been.
What’s notable about this very short story is what it doesn’t say. The horror lies in the cracks, in the unanswered questions. My interpretation of it – an interpretation which could very well be wrong – is that the universal change of the dream cake is universally subjective only. I think that the new decades of his better life are a dream, and one that in real time lasts only very briefly. The Corporal leaves his credit chip behind and Ella, the baker of the dream cake, “knew from experience that for at least an hour, maybe even two, after the change, it would still be functional”. She promptly empties the balance into her own account – after all, the Corporal won’t need it where he’s going.
Is it euthanasia, is it murder? Either way it comes with pastry, with coconut milk and spices, with sweet smells that speak of a life beyond the station. A temptation, yes, and not so very different than the gingerbread house. “We can live here and be happy,” say Hansel and Gretel, not knowing that as soon as they’re start to suck on butterscotch that their lives are running out.
Does the Corporal know? I expect so, but still – one shudders to think. “Now your dream is the world,” says Ella, but the world can be a circumscribed thing and it’s no coincidence that the Captain of the post-dream, the demoted Corporal who was, dies in orbital decay, clutching to a photo of the family he wanted but never had/wanted and got.
(All the stories are the same.)
But it’s not enough in horror for food to be (potentially) deadly. It can be dehumanising as well. Often this occurs when the human element of the equation is the prey animal, but it can also be seen in stories where humans are treated the same way as food as treated, while not being food themselves. Obviously this doesn’t mean planting them in soil, or hanging from the hooks of a slaughterhouse, but comes from the changing definition of “human” to something more closely resembling “resource”.
Look at, for example, Victor Fernando R. Ocampo’s story “Blessed are the Hungry”. Here, on a generational interstellar voyage where food is limited to mushroom plots and biodegradable plastics, the treatment of the colonists is creepily similar to that of their crops. Genetic diversity is key, and so reproduction is strictly regulated – and strictly encouraged, with each household expected to have a minimum of eight people.
There isn’t food enough to support this burgeoning population, however. Rations are cut and cut again, and anyone who protests against this or the reproductive strategy is shoved out an airlock. This leave a society crammed in the (frequently literal) dark, absolutely disposable and of no more individual account than the mushrooms. “Why can’t we keep them all hale and healthy?” asks a priest who’s doomed to spacing, “instead of constantly creating, discarding, and replacing?”
Because genetic control is only a part of it. Social control is the real goal, the diminution of human dignity to factory farmed spores remarkable only for their reproductive capacity. Individual elements are to be weeded out in service of the whole. In a sense, the mushrooms are afforded more consideration.
It’s the brutal overthrow of this ideology, the social desire to change human status from resource/mushroom analogue to something with a little bit of self-determination and dignity, that’s the drive of the story. Because even crammed like fungi into tiny rooms, controlled by food and especially by its absence, the people of the spaceship can see themselves becoming more than they are.
It’s a form of knowledge, this power, because transformation comes with comprehension, or at least the experience of different states, of how it feels to move between them. And sometimes that movement, when sparked by consumption, is physical and sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes what food brings is understanding. Such is the case in “Mother of Giants” by Kirsty Logan. In times of famine, infants disappear out of cradles, taken by the witch in the woods for her dinner. A little girl wakes sobbing from nightmares, and the local mothers tell their stories quietly, so as not to scare her further. But there are others stories they tell, and these the little girl does hear: The Mother of Giants, and how she takes hungry babies and fosters them, feeds them until they’re fat and happy, saves them from starvation and suffering.
The stories are images of each other (all stories are the same!) and the girl sees one younger brother born, and then another. This youngest child is taken away soon after birth, taken by the witch or rescued by the Mother, and the little girl, believing in the stories, sneaks out into the woods and brings the witch back with her:
When I shut my eyes, she was there. She had filthy matted hair and shining gold eyes and long, sharp fingers like a bird’s talons. She rushed towards me and her mouth opened so wide that it split her head open to show her black bloody teeth.
Food is transformative, and I’ve talked in previous columns about how the lack of food can also usher in transformation (it certainly does in Ocampo’s story). But lack of food can also impede transformation: it can fix a body in place and keep it tethered to childhood, to the time before understanding. But then the famine ends and the girl, growing round and full of roast pork, of milk, transforms from child to fertile woman to mother, and it’s when she has her own children and the famine comes again that she understands the true relationship between killing witch and kind Mother. The infants born into hunger, to women too starved to lactate, can die slowly of hunger… or they can be taken out into the woods and left in the snow, a quick and painless death that’s covered up with stories when stories can give no comfort. “There was a woman who loved her baby. But love is not food…”
Love is, however, knowledge – and so is lack. Hunger transforms, and the resulting horror is tinged with practicality and compassion. It doesn’t come with easy answers, though – good horror rarely does. It does come with connection.
And that’s, I think, one of the things I’m seeing from creepy, contemporary short stories themed around food and consumption. Their treatment of transformation is aware. It’s subversive and diverse. Perhaps most importantly, it doesn’t focus on the permanence or the strength of the change; it doesn’t draw a hard line between. Instead the primary concern is the similarity between pre- and post-transformative bodies: colonisation before and after chocolate, the mirror-selves of witch and mother, the dual expansion of genetics and ideology, the place of women in stories, and the eating up of dreams.
Tune in next month for more on food and horror in modern shorts. There’s too many good and relevant stories to fit them all into a single column!