Having spent years charting a landscape of atrocity, degradation and twisted ecstasy across her short fiction, as discussed in the previous post in this series, Charlee Jacob made her debut as a novelist in 1997 with This Symbiotic Fascination. This novel tells the story of two employees at an electronics shop, Tawne Delaney and Arcan Tyler; they share a close relationship with mortality, albeit in two very different ways: Tawne is contemplating suicide, while Arcan is a sexual predator with murderous desires.
Like the reflections in a shattered mirror, the novel displays its characters across a series of stark, fragmented glimpses. Many of these glimpses are symbolic, using supernatural concepts to explore the human psyche. Arcan’s mind is inhabited by three animalistic spirits — a cat, a wolf and a ghoul — that represent different aspects of his carnal impulses. The cat is curious, stealthy, and coldly playful; the wolf driven by brutal appetites; the ghoul sadistic and morbid. As well as holding these spirits within him, Arcan is followed by the ghosts of his victims – like memories, or hallucinations. One is the ghost of Carmel Gaine, a former partner whom he drove to suicide. The others are the spirits of still-living women, “only dead-in-part”. These souls, the novel tells us, are martyrs: “[t]here wasn’t a rape victim anywhere who wasn’t a martyr, first to the crime and then to the world.”
The 1997, 2002 and 2011 editions of This Symbiotic Fascination.
We are introduced to Arcan’s animals before we are introduced to his backstory, which is divulged in a bizarrely fractured manner that suggests a half-remembered nightmare. Arcan is revealed to be the product of an abusive household, his mother having molested him after his father abandoned the family. His two brothers fought in Vietnam, but only one — Harry – returned; the conflict left Harry a changed man, and not merely in the psychological sense. While in Cambodia, Harry’s fellow soldiers cajoled him into raping a demihuman being — described as “part man/part woman/part fox/part night terror” — that they had found hiding in a temple. This act caused Harry to himself transform into an entity simultaneously male, female and monstrous; upon returning to America, the mutated Harry raped his father and forced young Arcan to watch.
The novel does not consign the demonic to war-torn Cambodia. The monstrous also stalks the streets of America in the form of a shape-changing man: his default appearance is deeply ugly, but he can transform into an irresistibly handsome guise whenever he desires. Using this gift, the ugly man is able to lure women to their deaths. He is a vampire, or a werewolf, or the devil — or even all three, as the novel is interested more in symbolic overlap than in arbitrary pop-cultural divisions.
Upon learning of this man’s existence, the two main characters have different responses. Arcan sees him as a rival to the lives and bodies of the town’s women; but to Tawne, the ugly man represents something positive. If he can change from repulsive to beautiful, then perhaps she could, as well, if she were to learn his secret. After an encounter with the ugly man, Tawne undergoes a death and rebirth in a vampiric sharing of bodily fluids — yet, her new guise is not all that she had hoped. In a deeply ironic scene Tawne visits a Goth nightclub, only to find that the punters are unimpressed by the sight of a real vampire:
“If a vampire isn’t welcome at a vampire club, then don’t you think you’re hypocrites?” Tawne snapped.
The man spread his hands palms down, his fingernails painted scarlet and filed to delicate points. “We apologize for this exclusion. But I’m afraid you have to leave. You are shattering the illusion.”
Tawne took in the darkness, the velvet drapes with satin tassels, the incense burner leaking ephemeral trails of smoke. A cross between medieval, Egyptian, and sumptuous Oriental. Carved granite grotesques pilfered from tombs leaned from the tops of walls, standing sentinel against…
Against interlopers like Tawne.
Now not even the beastly were welcome. And if horror and hell wouldn’t take monsters, where would they go?
Already, This Symbiotic Fascination has explored a dense layering of themes. Arcan’s abusive family history, with its Vietnam War backdrop, could easily have come from a different novel entirely to Tawne’s frustrations with the vampire subculture. And, indeed, Jacob would explore Arcan’s family in her second novel, Haunter (2003).
The mirror continues to shatter throughout This Symbiotic Fascination as the novel introduces more characters, again linked by an affinity for death. One is Alan Moravec, a reporter and presenter on exploitative TV shows; to him every lost life represents a potential paycheck — the more brutal, the better. Alan’s idea of escaping the rat-race involves getting the opportunity to present higher-profile, still trashier TV. “Should he have beautiful broads as video hostesses?” he wonders to himself. “It would be a good way to meet sharp-looking trophies to hang off his famous arm.”
The murders committed by the ugly man are so hideous that even Alan is repulsed — but he is also fascinated. He captures one of the supernatural homicides on video and repeatedly watches the clip, finding that the ugly man undergoes a different transformation with each replay. Recalling Koji Suzuki’s novel Ring — which would not be translated into English until years later — the weird video is passed from hand to hand and eventually falls into the possession of Denise Cross, a police detective with a thick streak of brutality. When Denise watches the tape, she sees the ugly man transform into a cartoonish portrayal of herself:
The ugly man sat up, snapped the woman’s legs, and looked then into the camera. His eyes bolted right to Denise Cross.
He became Denise. With grenades for breasts, the rings piercing the nipples with brass. Her hair streamed away from her face and her mouth filled with rubies. […] The video Denise leaned back and yanked out the rings. There was a gray explosion, harmonizing with her red howl. And then—like the old song sang—it was raining men. Hallelujah.
(Denise watched and began to smile. She ran it again, smiling slyly.)
In This Symbiotic Fascination, the mundane world of trash TV and minimum wage employment is but a thin veneer: underneath lies sundry rich and sometimes disturbing imagery from ancient myths and half-remembered rites. Arcan is compared to the Fenris Wolf of Norse lore; his relationship with his abusive mother is associated with that of Grendel and its monstrous matriarch; the young mistress to Arcan’s absent father is repeatedly compared to Lilith. When a woman is killed by the ugly man, her body is described as spasming “as if she were doing some bizarre victim’s dance meant as a seductive to savage gods… the sort of dance that little girls might have been taught in Neolithic kindergartens.” Running with this analogy, the novel adds that in such a school, “[t]he teaches wore vulture masks and had had their own vaginas sewn shut with the severed penises of their fathers imprisoned within.”
Yet, the novel is also fascinated with the imagery of popular culture. When Tawne first confronts the ugly man, she sees him – simultaneously – as Dracula actors Max Schreck, Christopher Lee and Frank Langella. When sadistic Denise shows the cursed video to her colleagues in the police force, it causes their inner demons to manifest in forms that draw on horror fiction: Cthulhu turns up, and Denise is amused by the notion that creatures from The Evil Dead or Hellraiser might join him. Jacob draws no boundary between age-old myths and modern horror fiction, instead allowing them to melt together in the same symbolic stockpot.
Jacob’s skill for using her macabre motifs to articulate a range of themes is evident across This Symbiotic Fascination. Through the character of Tawne the novel explores insecurities over physical appearance, its usage of vampire imagery capturing the appeal that subcultures have for misfits. Tawne hopes that her transformation will turn her into an irresistible temptress and picks out attire appropriate for a sexy vampires, but her desire is thwarted when she examines herself in the mirror after donning this outfit (“The boots at least covered her thick calves but they made her knees look like grindstones”). Her ability to change her appearance does not develop until later, when she builds up confidence, and manifests through mimicry: she can take on the form of her deceased friend, Delia, who confirmed more closely to standards of beauty (“Normal men wanted Kate Moss, Cindy Crawford, Claudia Schiffer. Delia.”)
Arcan, meanwhile, embodies a more masculine set of insecurities. He harbours a fear and mistrust of women, rooted in his childhood experiences of being abused by his mother and witnessing his father Lucas abandon the family for a younger lover. It is Arcan’s interpretation of the latter relationship that provides the novel’s title:
[Arcan] could see the death in his father’s eyes, as the female took parts of him even as they stood there. The most disgusting thing was how much Lucas enjoyed being enthralled by this symbiotic fascination.
As an adult, Arcan’s misogyny leaves him reluctant to even watch television, as “[t]oo much of it was devoted to medusas with cleavage”, whose “indecent jokes and matriarchal propaganda brought out either his rage or the fever.” Much of the novel is spent examining male desire for women, be it through Arcan’s predatory habits or Tawne’s quest to attract men; the former’s descent into self-loathing comes to compliment the latter’s embrace of her darker impulses.
The reader is allowed to feel pity for Tawne, even as she comes to enable Arcan, but the novel’s sympathy lies ultimately with Arcan’s victims. If the two protagonists are modern manifestations of the vampire and werewolf archetypes, the women wronged by Arcan eventually come to embody the opposite: the heroic monster-slayers, armed with stakes, crosses and righteousness, ready to deliver the punishment that predators deserve. At the same time, the ugly man — the urban Mephistopheles — comes to collect his due, and the novel’s intricate threads of modern Gothic are finally tied together.
This Symbiotic Fascination was nominated for the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a First Novel, and the International Horror Guild Award for Best First Novel. As her debut novel, the book demonstrates that Charlee Jacob was able to adapt the themes and motifs of her short fiction to a long-form work, with none of the idiosyncrasies sacrificed to the demands of genre formula. It would be another six years before her second novel was published, but when it arrived, it showed that Jacob’s horrific world still had plenty of space to explore…