Charlee Jacob invoked atrocities from across human history in the same way that a Romantic poet might invoke the Arabian Nights. Sometimes she delved into the past and found inspiration in such familiar horror reference points as Jack the Ripper, Elizabeth Bathory and the witch-hunts; other times she ripped tales of murders and warfare from the headlines. In some cases she made only brief, carefully-placed allusions; at other times she constructed vast territories of her literary dreamscape from real-world strife.
This Symbiotic Fascination touches upon American conflicts overseas via the minor character Harry Tyler, who fought in Vietnam and Cambodia. In keeping with the novel’s themes of strange transformation, Harry returned to America a changed person in the most literal sense, having transformed into an intersex shapeshifter. He also began practising an eccentric form of Hinduism, associating the religion’s gods with his new condition: “Was Shiva the Destroyer—Lord of the dance, haunter of cremation grounds, sometimes raving mad—a god with both male and female aspects?” Harry asks his brother Arcan. “Or was Kali so bloodthirsty that the faithful couldn’t believe she didn’t have a dick?”
Charlee Jacob explored these concepts in more detail with her sequel to This Symbiotic Fascination, which was originally published by Leisure Books as Haunter in 2003; it was then picked up by Delirium Books, which reissued it the following year under the new title Soma. The novel uses Harry Tyler as one of its main characters, following the turn of events that transformed him and plunging the reader headlong into violence and degradation far from the blood-soaked American streets of This Symbiotic Fascination. Rather than the first novel’s Western Gothic imagery of vampires and werewolves, the sequel immerses itself in Hindu iconography, finding macabre fascination in the deities Shiva and Kali.
The novel portrays Cambodia as a place of violence,with the crimes of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in evidence. But it is also shown to be a land of fleshpots, as Harry finds when he sleeps with prostitute Una: “The girl was fully double-jointed, a former dancer in the Cambodian ballet before she’d been knocked up… She could spin on Harry’s dick like a right, greased hula hoop”. Furthermore, Cambodia is a land of religion, with faith in the gods of Hinduism evident despite a Buddhist majority. As per usual for Charlee Jacob’s fiction, these three elements – violence, sex and religion – blur into one another. We are told, for example, that “there were members of that pantheon as horny as they were scary, able to suck and fuck you till all your bodily appendages vortexed in a bloody cyclone up your own rectum”.
Himself embodying both sex and violence, Harry traipses through the killing fields of Cambodia in a state of permanent arousal (he is “hung like Grendel, Leviathan, Satan, Michelangelo’s David”). This offers much amusement to his army cohorts, who dare him to perform multiple debased acts for their entertainment. In one scene they provide him with a dead water buffalo to have sex with, while sexual conquests include “headless trunks and trunkless heads… and even a dead Buddhist nun who’d been boiled alive in her bath when American bombs started a fire in Kampong-Rau”. But his most bizarre victim of all is an “unearthly mutant” found hiding in an abandoned temple, “part man/part woman/part fox/part night terror” with a penis and testicles located between its yellow breasts.
After raping and murdering this mutant, Harry finds that his own body is beginning to transform in turn as he develops four breasts and a vagina. What initially seems like some sort of bizarre venereal disease turns out to be something more divine: the being was the living embodiment of the god Shiva. Now Harry has no choice but to become the replacement avatar, his body and psyche twisting to accommodate the god’s mind.
Harry is not the novel’s sole point of focus. Just as Arcan’s victims were the ultimate figures of sympathy in This Symbiotic Fascination, the sequel features a range of civilian characters, with much of the story’s horror seen through the eyes of exploited women and children. In Cambodia we meet Cheanneary Ry, who was left in a forest a scarred baby after her mother was murdered by the Khmer Rouge for the crime of literacy; she has false legs, and wishes for real limbs so that she can kneel before Shiva, the deity she loves. Meanwhile, Bankok is home to Sirikit, a child prostitute forced to pleasure European tourists; she lives in fear of being murdered like her friend Chumbhot, whose body she had found stuffed into the rubbish behind a restaurant. Rajani, an Indian girl, is the child-bride of a man named Ram; she is intrigued by the figure of Kali, “both Mother and Destroyer… given many names, including those for both virgin and whore.”
Also playing a part in the narrative is Elliot, Harry’s twin brother. Elliot is briefly mentioned in This Symbiotic Fascination, where he is described as having been killed in action; but the sequel reveals that he survived his assumed death and, after a period in a POW camp, became a mercenary. This career took him to Laos, where he became embroiled first in a drug war and then in political strife between ethnic Hmong and the Vientiane government.
Having introduced drug wars into her story, Jacob ties this plot element to her religious themes: the most prized substance in the novel is Soma, a ritual drink mentioned in the Rigveda. Jacob portrays Soma as a fluid bestowed by the gods themselves, only to be traded by humanity as a drug; the idea of cartel violence breaking out over a divine beverage is another example of how Jacob’s stories tend to mingle carnal pleasure, physical degradation and religious ecstasy into a single heady concoction.
Jacob’s blurring of brutal reality and nightmarish surreality takes place on a global level, stretching beyond the novel’s primary locations in Southeast Asia. Elliot’s cohort Ruiz previously fought as a guerrilla in Mexico; as well as taking part in the Dirty War, he encountered a sect loyal to an androgynous Aztec god (“the one the ancients had called LordLady, the He and She of Flesh, all-begetting Father, Universal Mother”). In a flashback, the cultists are shown performing a ritual that involves cutting people down the middle with a mechanical saw, and then stitching together halves to create new combinations, part male and part female: Ruiz is forced to watch as the left half of his aunt Rosa is attached to the right half of a boy, “he emerging out her side like a shriveled twin, the edges of organs flopping out through the sloppy, ill-fitting, ruptured edges.”
Another of Elliot’s companions, Vezat, served in the Gulf War. A flashback scene shows Vezat and his cohorts being confronted by a group of mysterious temptors who emerge from the desert on the backs of camels, changing their appearances to suit each man’s sexual fantasies – no matter how warped. To one man they appear as platinum blonde bombshells who resemble Brigitte Bardot; to another they take on the forms of young men in drag; still another tries to ply them with sweets, seeing them as children. One man expresses a desire for a woman whose genitals have been mutilated, and receives his wish. Vezat, meanwhile, sees the desert sirens as mutilated, limbless male soldiers – a spectacle that, to his dismay, arouses him. He abandons his comrades and flees back to his base; he describes a “caravan of ghouls”, but the official explanation is that he was exposed to an Iraqi bio-chemical agent.
The novel’s geopolitical context is worth mentioning. Haunter was published in the year America invaded Iraq, two years after 9/11 and the start of the War on Terror; although its story deals with earlier conflicts, the original readership of the Bush era would have had more recent affairs on their minds. To an extent, the novel fits into a wide (and widely-criticised) tradition of narratives about Western soldiers fighting in non-Western countries – Americans in Vietnam being a popular variation – that spotlight the psychological states of the Westerners over the effects of conflict on the indigenous populations. However, Jacob arguably avoids the biggest pitfalls that come with telling a story of this type.
For one, her treatment of the subject matter is so utterly outrageous as to force a degree of ironic distance. This is, after all, a novel in which the central character is a nightmarish construct embodying the civilian cost of warfare, as we see when Sirikit beholds the monstrous being that Harry has become: “He opened his mouth wide and inside she saw the bodies of children, birth-defected whores, burned nuns, and other beings so mutated they were nothing but a mouth and cunt… all chewed together, tolled around the bloody gums by the lewd tongue.” Compare this to something like Dan Simmons’ award-winning Song of Kali (1985), which makes a straightforward appeal to xenophobia through its narrative of civilised Westerners visiting a barbaric, demon-haunted Calcutta, and the nuance of Jacob’s approach becomes clear.
Another, equally significant factor is the direction in which Jacob ultimately takes her story. As the novel reaches its climax, Elliot decides to atone for his involvement in atrocities overseas by returning to his home country – with his brother, the avatar of death, in tow. Aided by multiple limbless Cambodian women, the brothers masquerade as a circus as they travel through America.
The introduction of this carnivalesque plot point allows the story to more directly analyse the role of horror as a form of escapism. As the travelling circus heads through through the ghost town of Machenville (an homage toward fiction pioneer Arthur Machen?) it comes across across Leah Limerick, a victim of Harry and Elliot’s rapacious brother Arcan. Leah, it turns out, has masturbatory fantasies of sexual violence, which leave her with a sense of guilt:
She shuddered violently, to the point where euphoria and nausea were a single unit in transcendence. And then she hated herself, the tingling rapture fading, the sickened feeling persistent. She despised herself for indulging in such bizarre, wanton rape-fantasy.
How non-feminist, how politically incorrect to allow her anxieties and loneliness to drag her into such debased imaginings. That women had rape fantasies at all was supposed to be a male-generated myth. But especially that a rape victim would permit herself such a vulgar, self-degrading reverie was even more appalling.
But when she meets Harry/Shiva, Leah embraces this avatar as the embodiment of her fantasies — “the horror that brings us joy. The never-solemn rites of jubilant demolition” — and decides to join the dark carnival. Halloween in Machenville blurs into the Mexican Day of the Dead as Harry and his cohorts set up the circus, the mutilated Cambodian women finding empowerment and Americans flocking in droves to witness the spectacle. But Harry – or Shiva – has one more trick: the milkshake on sale to visitors is spiked with the divine drug Soma. As the carnival collapses into a scene equal parts Woodstock and Jonestown, Shiva dances.
The novel published in paperback as Haunter in 2003 is not quite the same as the ebook presently available as Soma: the latter is an extended version, with chapters 5, 8 and 11 being later additions. The first of the new chapters examines Harry’s initial transformation in Vietnam, as he ponders the implication of growing female genitals (“Were these the wages of sin? Or some peculiar prize for having been the meanest som-bitch in the valley of the shadow of death?”) This is followed by his comrades massacring a group of civilians, including children, an event directly compared to the My Lai massacre; Harry, his transformation granting him newfound compassion, leaves his money with the survivors. The chapter serves as a scattershot commentary on war crimes, the narrative voice offering statistics on the subject near the start (immediately after a quotation from the Hatha Yoga Pradipika):
Fact: Forty-two members of the United States Marine Corps were tried and convicted between the years of 1965 and 1971 of committing murder and other deadly violence on Vietnamese civilians in incidents not having to do with necessity in combat. As for the United States Army, ninety-five soldiers were convicted for crimes of murder and manslaughter under the same criteria.
The next additional chapter takes the fringe Buddhist concept of Sokushinbutsu, in which monks undergo mummification while alive, and turns it into a grotesque satire of commodification. The chapter sees a group of high-class “collectors” – a British lord, an American congresswoman, a rock star, a noted heart surgeon and others – visiting an art gallery of human beings, simultaneously dolled-up and disfigured. One woman, the owner of a cosmetics empire, has trouble believing that the exhibits are genuine: “They’ve been made up to look like people, but I’ve been to those wax places where they do Madonna and Jeffrey Dahmer.” But the proprietor assures his guests that the seemingly lifeless figures are alive and on their way to achieving Nirvana. The cosmetics magnate pays for one of the exhibits – a one-eyed woman in a Hindu wedding dress – to be burnt in front of her; only then is she convinced that the figures are flesh and blood, and agrees to purchase one of them (“the pretty boy with the dreadlocks and the hard-on”). Finally, the last of the three new chapters adds Rwanda to the novel’s catalogue of atrocity, with Elliot having a flashback to the genocide of the Tutsis – and his encounter with a supernatural woman named Embe, prefiguring Jacob’s final novel Containment: The Death of Earth (2017).
With or without these three chapters, Haunter – or Soma, to use the later title – is a sequel that does a thorough job of expanding upon its predecessor. This Symbiotic Fascination used a relatively confined urban fantasy milieu, but in her second novel, Charlee Jacob applied her psychosexual themes to a much broader landscape of settings. She also updated her saga to suit changing times: This Symbiotic Fascination was published in a decade when the exploits of vampires and the mentalities of serial killers were among the favoured flavours of horror; Haunter, meanwhile, reflects an era when foreign military intervention loomed large on the American psyche.
For her third novel, Jacob would continue her explorations. Having taken her readers on a tour of the world, her following move was to travel back into ancient history — as shall be seen in the next post in this series.