Reyes, Xavier Aldana. Body Gothic: Corporeal Transgression in Contemporary Literature and Horror Film.
Xavier Aldana Reyes's Body Gothic: Corporeal Transgression in Contemporary Literature and Horror Film begins by noting that critical treatments of the Gothic often prioritize the genre's "uncanny and psychological aspects" (2). However, as Reyes argues, the Gothic is also "inherently somatic and corporeal" (2), aspects that have been either largely ignored or viewed as inferior to the genre's more psychological investments. Reyes's book, then, offers an intervention into Gothic studies that emphasizes the genre's more visceral themes. Central to Reyes's argument is an identification of two methods through which "body gothic" texts and films implicate the body: the visceral impact that these works have on their readers and viewers, and the way they "openly play with the body at thematic and imaginary levels" (7). His study of Body Gothic draws on the recent "bodily turn" in academic scholarship to demonstrate the inherent corporeality of the Gothic mode, rigorously analyzing the ways Body Gothic pushes the limits of human corporeality through depictions of the body "exceeding itself or falling apart, either opening up or being altered past the point where it would be recognized by normative understandings of human corporeality" (11).
To this end, Reyes focuses on Anglo-American works produced between 1984 and 2014 (with occasional glances back to earlier Gothic texts) that take corporeal excess to the extreme, engaging largely with texts and films whose investment in bodily themes has precluded critical analysis by Gothic studies scholars. As Reyes argues, a serious, sustained examination of the genre's corporeal elements "opens up the gothic to an area little visited and removed from the spiritual, the suggestive or the repressed, namely, the empiricist and phenomenological nightmare of the inescapability of corporeality" (18). Reyes locates the most intensive treatment of these corporeal themes in six Gothic sub-genres, which in turn inform the book's overall structure, with Reyes devoting six chapters to unpacking the corporeally transgressive aspects of specific Gothic sub-genres. By using key texts and films to illustrate how each sub-genre at times challenges, at times recuperates, and ultimately always turns on the horror of human embodiment, Reyes provides a map of the corporeal transgressions inherent to the Gothic mode. These chapters are followed by a very helpful conclusion, in which Reyes situates his work within the larger contexts of Gothic and body studies, arguing for the importance of broadening both the Gothic canon and the definition of the Gothic itself.
Reyes begins his first chapter, "Splatterpunk," with an historical overview of the sub-genre's roots and with a discussion of the guiding ethos of splatterpunk literature and cinema: the objective "to shock, generally through displays of corporeal transgression encompassing anything from extreme mutilation and transformation to mutation or severe body modification and graphic sex" (28). As Reyes argues, splatterpunk revels in the excesses of corporeality, often foregrounding these bodily extremes both narratively and graphically. Reyes notes that splatterpunk actively involves the reader/spectator in a "fictional transaction" (32) by affectively appealing to carnality as a shared terrain among readers, spectators, and characters; readings of Richard Laymon's Flesh (1988) and Resurrection Dreams (1988) and Clive Barker's "The Body Politic" (1985) and "The Book of Blood" (1984) are then offered to explore how this corporeal exchange operates in specific splatterpunk texts. Reyes's second chapter, "Body Horror," explores this excessive carnality further by tackling a sub-genre commonly recognized as one of Gothic's most visceral. Opening with a discussion of the contested boundaries of body horror itself, Reyes defines this sub-genre as "a celebration of corporeal instability, mutability or capacity for transformation" (56) that engages "the innovative possibilities to be found in [the body's] explosion" (56). Reyes reads body horror as a potentially liberating sub-genre dealing in "corporeal transcendence" (56), drawing on David Cronenberg's The Fly (1986) and Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator (1985) to illustrate his points.
Reyes's third and fourth chapters, "The New Avant-pulp" and "The Slaughterhouse Novel," are noteworthy attempts to expand the boundaries of the Gothic canon by unpacking the Gothic overtones and visceral themes of sub-genres not often considered to be part of the Gothic tradition. As Reyes convincingly demonstrates, "[t]he new avant-pulp, as a staple of body gothic, abused the body creatively and imaginatively through a line of enquiry that was a direct heir to the fantastic transformations of body horror" (75). Reyes considers the connections between the pulp and Gothic traditions in order to demonstrate how the new avant-pulp self-consciously collapsed "illicit carnality and viscerality into gothic transgression" (77), creating a unique sub-genre opposed to the intellectualism of the English novel and poised at the boundaries between counterculture and mainstream. Tony White's Satan! Satan! Satan! (1999) and Stanley Manly's Raiders of the Low Forehead (1999) are discussed as exemplars of this sub-genre, which seeks to affectively impact its readers not only through its hyperbolic imagery, but also through its narrative strategies. In contrast to the above sub-genres, however, Reyes notes that the slaughterhouse novel marks a turn toward depictions of the body as a prison; in this fourth chapter, Reyes argues that this sub-genre trades in "the futility and vulnerability of the flesh, as well as in the expendability of bodies" (100), emphasizing the position of the body within larger power structures, the bodily exploitation at the heart of the meat industry, and the blurring of boundaries between animals and humans in the late-twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Reyes examines Matthew Stokoe's Cows (1998) and Joseph D'Lacey's Meat (2008) to demonstrate how these themes operate in specific works.
Reyes's fifth and sixth chapters, "Torture Porn" and "Surgical Horror," mark a transition to more contemporary developments in Body Gothic. As Reyes argues, "Torture porn deals openly with the mutilation and annihilation of the human body, and it filters these modern preoccupations through a lens that is inherently gothic" (123), taking torture itself as the main spectacle. Like the other sub-genres discussed in this volume, Reyes demonstrates that torture porn operates affectively, "appeal[ing] directly to the bodies of spectators, that is, to their capacity to generate somatic empathy through pain or disgust" (125). Discussions of the controversial Hostel and Saw franchises close this chapter. "Surgical Horror" also focuses on the popularity of torture in contemporary Gothic works, opening with a discussion of horror's long-standing fascination with medical technology and the "repulsion inherent to the messy nature of our biology" (150). Like other examples of Body Gothic, the surgical horror sub-genre highlights the vulnerability of the body, and Reyes provides readings of Tom Six's The Human Centipede (2010) and Jen and Sylvia Soska's American Mary (2012) to illustrate how this vulnerability is foregrounded.
As Reyes argues throughout, the potential gains involved in a reformulation of the Gothic genre as corporeal are numerous. Centering on the genre's more carnal aspects allows for a "reification of texts which have been unduly left out by narrow conceptions of the gothic mode" (171), in addition to enabling "a debunking of the high-brow/low-brow divide that still seems to haunt it and thus facilitate[s] new critical avenues of thought that, like body studies, will be able to celebrate engagements with the lower orders of the body as a legitimate artistic pursuit" (171). Thus, Reyes's reformulation of the Gothic as somatic invites Gothic studies to supplement the psychological (and very often psychoanalytic) frameworks through which Gothic texts and films have often been analyzed by considering the genre's pronounced investment in corporeal transgression. Additionally, by focusing on works and sub-genres not often discussed in Gothic criticism, Reyes's impressive and wide-ranging study brings many neglected texts into the Gothic canon, allowing for a broader conception of the genre overall. Reyes's book, then, provides an admirable and at times brilliant examination of corporeal themes in contemporary Gothic works while simultaneously presenting a model for future Gothic scholarship.
Reyes's book, however, is not without its limitations. While Reyes does offer an historical contextualization of the sub-genres under discussion at the start of each chapter, more extensive treatment of the sub-genres as a whole would broaden the scope of Body Gothic and provide a more useful framework for future research into the genre's corporeality. In addition, as Reyes notes in the introduction, spatial constraints necessitated a restriction of the texts under consideration to Anglo-American texts produced between 1984 and 2014. These limitations are, however, minor in comparison to the book's most serious drawback, which is its hefty price. However, as a study whose broad inquiries are of interest not only to those working in Gothic studies, but also to those whose research encompasses body studies, film and literary studies, and twentieth-century popular culture, Reyes's work is essential reading for scholars in a wide field of disciplines, and should therefore find a diverse readership not only within academia, but also among fans of Gothic literature and cinema generally. I therefore believe Reyes's work deserves to be made available to the larger Gothic studies community by being incorporated into major library collections (and perhaps through an eventual paperback edition). Its scope, ambition, and originality should secure the book's place in Gothic studies collections across the English-speaking world.
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|Publication:||Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2016|
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