Remembering Charlee Jacob: Dread in the Beast

Remembering Charlee Jacob: Dread in the Beast

Bodily fluids flow freely through horror fiction. Whether the substance in question is sucked out by vampires or splattered across walls by serial killers, there is a good chance that a novel of the genre will contain its share of blood, brains and viscera. In the more erotic corners of horror literature, readers are apt

Bodily fluids flow freely through horror fiction. Whether the substance in question is sucked out by vampires or splattered across walls by serial killers, there is a good chance that a novel of the genre will contain its share of blood, brains and viscera. In the more erotic corners of horror literature, readers are apt to encounter a still wider variety of fluids exiting the human form. Yet there are certain forms of bodily discharge that still tend to be discretely left out, too unsightly even for horror. This is ironic, as the relevant effluent is something that we all deal with on a daily basis, with every trip to the bathroom.

There are exceptions, of course, and certain horror authors are entirely willing to let flows of red be accompanied by sprinkles of yellow and dumps of brown. Given her penchant for taboo-breaking of the most bizarre sort, anyone even partially familiar with the work of Charlee Jacob should feel no surprise that she fits into this category. Indeed, fecal matter is a central theme of her third novel, Dread in the Beast.

The Novella

The first and second editions of the collection featuring the Dread in the Beast novella

Dread in the Beast was first published as a novella in the 1998 collection of the same name. The story begins with a woman making the enigmatic statement that she is “the gateway… The threshold to Aralu” after which the novella becomes a series of vignettes set in different time periods. First, we head back to 1965 and meet archaeologists Dr. Louis Godard and Dr. Jim Singer as they investigate a cave in Iran, where they make a weird and macabre discovery: a set of skeletons that appear to have been killed in bizarre ritualistic manners.

The first skeleton is that of a woman, with multiple clay phallus replicas jammed inside – one down the throat, two small ones in the eye sockets and a half-metre phallus in the pelvic region. Nearby is a second skeleton, that of a child, filled with fossilised seeds and cherries. A third skeleton, male, has spear points scattered around its bones and a second skull embedded in its abdomen. Godard theorises that the three people were sacrificed to respective deities of sex, harvest and war. Then, the archaeologists stumble upon a fourth skeleton:

A partially submerged skeleton was on its stomach, arms and legs evidently once bound together with a single thong: ulnas, femurs, tibias and fibulas sticking up like a fistful of breadsticks. Except this rock was a very different color from the limestone.

The researchers conclude that the woman was suffocated under a pile of excrement, which has since fossilised. This leaves them with a question to ponder: if the other three victims were sacrificed to gods of sex, harvest and war, then what deity was honoured by this sacrifice?

Jumping forwards to 1972 the story reaches the squalid home of the Cave family, which comprises three-year-old Jason and his burnt-out hippie parents (“They babbled sappy Aquarian Age endearments, Sumerian blasphemies, hippie homely idiocies as the L.S.D. rocked them through the night hours”). Ever since a traumatic incident involving his parents feeding him acid, Jason has been terrified of the household toilet, coming to see it as a portal to a dark world below. But his fecal fears turn to fascination after his parents are killed – shot dead by Mrs. Cave’s drug-dealing ex-husband – and reduced to a pile of flesh and excreta on their marital bed. Jason sinks his hands into the resulting mulch, captivated, his excitement outstripping his sense of loss.

The novella goes on to chart Jason’s life after this formative event. As an adult he fights in Desert Storm; declaring himself a Nietzschean superman he scours Egypt for an equivalent superwoman, murdering those whom he deems to fail his standards. Beneath this quest lies the anal fixations of his childhood: “Could there be a goddess of toilets? More precisely, of waste? Of defecation and micturition? Feces and pee? It amused Jason to think so.”

Back in America, Jason becomes a customer of Big Garth, a pimp who specialises in “human bonsai” — that is, girls abducted and mutilated to fit Garth’s fetishes (“he was capable of producing stumps with ends in the shapes of roses, an origami of bone splinter and folded flaps of abbreviated skin”) The pair work alongside tattoo artist Boreolo and a dominatrix named Simone, who struts about with fetal-tissue boots and a grafted-on penis. To Jason, these people are his equivalent ubermenschen, humanity of a higher plane:

Nature deplored a vacuum and this was why She created beings like him. Like Big Garth, Boreolo, Simone. Now if only She would birth out a location where their kind might haunt and explore sensation’s boundaries (of which no true limits existed)—without danger of running afoul of a legal system put together by those sheep who decide what was ‘normal’…

They were the real empty ones. Without an honest erection or juicily lubed-up pud among them. Blank groins, hollow hammers. Dreamless impotent nadas.

All of this is interspersed with scenes set throughout history, detailing the exploits of various mysterious women — or perhaps a single immortal woman. In ancient Mohenjo-daro, a religious orgy involving animal sacrifice, necrophilia in kingly tombs and, above all, vast amounts of excrement (“The celebrants smeared themselves with every grease known to inhabit biology’s interior scapes”) is centred on a woman who claims to offer a gateway to Aralu. In plague-ridden medieval Paris, a woman dressed as a nun appears to the peasants, likewise promising them a gateway to Aralu. In these enigmatic sequences, Aralu — the name of a herb with laxative properties — is used to denote some sort of heaven or nirvana.

Meanwhile, a woman in an uncertain time period walks the sewers beneath the city, surrounded by the bodies of missing children. The corpses are mutilated by a depraved sanitary worker, cast as a parody of the Nietzschean Superman so beloved by Jason Cave: “He assassinated not God but only the notion of a being of Light who could let Darkness happen. It was a foolish conceit, the idea that makers of shit could question the motives of deities.”

Finally, the two principle characters meet one another. Jason Cave, in the middle of a murderous rampage, encounters the woman who has existed throughout history — the superwoman, the gateway of Aralu, the goddess of waste. Entranced, he pulls off her sunglasses: “Her eyes were liquid, clockwise spinning, like water rushing down twin drains. Except it was dark water, black, thick, pulpy.” Jason is reminded of Nietzsche’s famous line about gazing into the abyss that gazes back. Alongside the woman are the mutilated remains of Big Garth, Boreolo and Simone, who evidently got a little too close to the void. Before long, Jason is likewise flushed.

The novella has obvious similarities to Jacob’s second novel, Haunter/Soma, which was published five years later. In each story, a US soldier fighting abroad is portrayed as an insatiable rapist seeking increasingly exotic and sadistic sexual thrills, who eventually encounters a bizarre deity. But the two works have distinct cultural backdrops: where Soma takes its inspiration from Hindu cosmology, Dread in the Beast is more Western in its outlook. Its religious perspective is broadly Judea-Christian — even the non-Western settings of Iran and Egypt have Biblical connotations – and it draws inspiration from a number of European philosophers, with Nietzsche, Camus, Berdyaev and Kierkegaard all namechecked. Indeed, the novella’s title alludes to a passage from Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Anxiety (1844): “One does not…find dread in the beast, precisely for the reason that by nature the beast is not qualified by spirit.”

Like Soma, Dread in the Beast depicts a carnivalesque battle between materialism and religion. The former is represented by existentialism and nihilism; the latter by an ancient pagan poo goddess. This is patently absurd; but then, the question of the Absurd — and how humanity should confront it — is a vital component of existentialist philosophy.

The Novel

The first and second editions of Dread in the Beast’s full-length version

The philosophical aspects of the story are heady stuff for what is, ostensibly, a short-form gross-out horror yarn. But Charlee Jacob had ample room to elaborate upon her musings when she expanded Dread in the Beast into a novel, published in 2005.

In the original novella, the exact identity of the female lead – who appears to have existed throughout history – is left a mystery. The novel fleshes her into a character named Dorien Warmer, a modern teenager who finds that she is an avatar of a goddess, and has recurring dreams of the deity’s past incarnations. In this extended version, the story begins with Dorien losing her virginity to her boyfriend Gavin – who promptly dumps her in a calculated act of humiliation: “She supposed she oughtn’t be surprised she was suffering nightmares. After all, what Gavin had done to her had been akin to rape… manipulating her into a position where she couldn’t have gone to the authorities that night to file a complaint.” She is left feeling “as if she’d been of no more substance or feeling than a tissue he’d jerked off into and then tossed into the toilet.”

These themes of violence, degradation and toilets extend to Dorien’s wider milieu. She inhabits a city terrorised by a gang called Shit Detail, known for its brutal and bizarre murders: “All their victims had been killed in a variety of ways which employed the excreta of the gang’s members. And something was always written on the victim or nearby in shit.” Visiting the scene of a Shit Detail crime, Dorien finds a baby’s pram filled with congealed feces – the suffocated baby partly visible over the surface.

In her dreams, Dorien relives the experiences of female victims from various times and places: a nun raped by church-looters in fourteenth century France; a sex slave in the court of Vlad the Impaler; a black girl persecuted in South Africa’s Soweto uprising. The last of these turns out to be particularly significant to Dorien, as she learns from the dreams that her father – who dies of cancer shortly into the novel – was complicit in Apartheid at its most brutal, Dorien’s mother being aware of this and helping him to start a new life in America. Contemplating religion, Dorien is forced to conclude that she was “raised a good Christian by a racist child-murderer and his loving, complicit wife.”

Meanwhile, the saga of Gavin continues. Gavin (“good-looking like a biohazard Ted Bundy”) is put on trial for wilfully infecting a woman with AIDS, and Dorien attends the trial as a witness. As the trial runs in Gavin’s favour Dorien delivers a speech of forthright passion, the clarity of which stands apart from the story’s dreamlike tone:

I wish… that I were still a virgin, not some misguided child who thinks the pretty girls on TV who fuck everything in pants are cool, that it’s expected of them and that if they haven’t spread their cheeks for every sweet-talking, prancy, boy’s band, soul-patched cock, it’s because nobody in their fucking mind could possibly want them, even if there are some men out there that’ll nail down anyone who isn’t steel, and they have to accept it because everybody else appears to accept that the only thing worth being in this world is desirable… And if you can’t be that, you might as well get cut and twisted and sell peeps under a blanket for two bucks a look.

Her speech is interrupted by the judge’s gavel, and the case is dismissed on a technicality. Dorien is so repulsed that she begins vomiting scarab beetles – returning the novel to its typical state of nightmarish strangeness.

Dorien turns out to be one of the seekers of atrocity who tend to turn up as protagonists in Charlee Jacob’s fiction, although she takes time to throw off her inhibitions. We are told that Dorien “felt an almost religious need to get to where she could read” the latest piece of Shit Detail graffiti (the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls, as Simon and Garfunkel informed us). During her brief fling with Gavin, her sexual arousal at the sight of her partner’s body coincides with the aftermath of a Shit Detail murder, mingling sex with death:

It made her feel guilty, noticing how muscular he was, broad-shouldered, narrow-waisted, washboard abs. This was inappropriately arousing, moistening her between the thighs as an emergency crew loaded the old woman’s corpse into the back of an ambulance. Shame on me, shame shame. How can I allow myself to feel steamy? Guess I‘m no better than a jungle creature myself.

The character of Dorien serves as a counterpoint to Jason Cave, contrasting with him just as Tawne contrasted with Arcan in This Symbiotic Fascination. If Jason is an apex predator, Dorien can be seen as a sort of apex victim: she is faced with both the violation committed by Gavin and her heavy self-esteem issues (“She looked into the mirror and saw something ancient peering back”) but has no rescuer to rely upon. Instead, she follows her own idiosyncratic path to salvation.

As well as giving Jason a counterweight in the form of Dorien, the novel also goes into more detail about his childhood. We see how, following the deaths of his parents, Jason goes to live with his great aunt and uncle, and his macabre streak begins to manifest:

He found one older issue of Time, cover with children who had accidentally been napalmed in Vietnam running in agony up a road. It caused a peculiar tingle in him, so he stripped off the cover as quietly and unobtrusively as he could and ate it.

Stuck in his bedroom, Jason finds that he is able to visit a neighbouring apartment through a hole in the closet and spend time with its owner, Big Garth. Initially a sort of imaginary friend made flesh, this neighbour comes to act as a guru for the boy: it is from Garth that Jason learns about Nietzsche and the existentialists, about Charles Fort and Aleister Crowley. Garth also shows Jason how to maintain bonsai trees, which he frames as a master-slave relationship — the tree being the passive but cherished sub to the gardener’s dom.

From here he introduces Jason to nineteenth-century Japanese artists Ochia Yoshiiku and Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, known for their muzan-e: that is, woodblock prints depicting torture and mutilation. “He takes what might ordinarily be considered an outrage and deftly converts it into an art form” says Big Garth of Yoshitoshi, neatly encapsulating something of Jacob’s own literary ethos. Next comes the extreme cinema of Japanese director Koji Wakamatsu, which Big Garth watches while wearing a kimono. More than an outside admirer of Japanese culture in its more violent manifestations, Garth claims to have actually been a soldier of Imperial Japan in a past life, even taking part in the Nanking atrocities.

Jason wonders if his new grown-up friend is a paedophile, but comes to dismiss this notion (“The man apparently preferred women—just not quite in the traditional sense”). Instead, the boy becomes captivated by Garth’s extreme philosophy:

It was almost amazing, being exposed to this viewpoint from an obviously intelligent adult: could this be evil? Was there a third category outside of good and bad where you could be exempt from the usual moral dictates, based on education and a higher esthetic competence? Sure, that’s why wealthy people and movie stars so often got away with things the law threw lesser mortals in jail for.

Like Dorien, Jason is plagued by (or gifted with?) bizarre dreams. The television in his aunt and uncle’s apartment the television ordinarily broadcasts only material from the 1950s, so that even the news is devoted to stories about Eisenhower, Sputnik and the McCarthy hearings – itself a distinctly surreal notion. But one morning, Jason dozes off and dreams that the TV has begun screening something different, something more representative of the transgressive culture embodied by Big Garth. On the screen is a game show in which four contestants each purport to be Charles Fort; only one is the genuine article, the other three being Nietzsche, General Tojo and a giant, Kafkaesque cockroach. This is followed by a commercial featuring a car crash and a quotation from Aleister Crowley.

Another character granted a larger role in the novel is Dr. Jim Singer, the younger of the two archaeologists who find the sacrificial victims in 1965. Singer is shown to have hit upon hard times since then: a promising new voice in the field of archaeology, the scatalogical nature of his main discovery led to his being unjustly ridiculed and sidelined. A chapter set in 1975 shows him teaching his topic to inattentive proto-Goths preoccupied with mummy movies (“Classrooms were full of girls in black silk and leather, dreamy eyed over the concept of dead mean returning with undying love to rescue their equally-dead damsels”).

Ten years later an aeroplane crash near Rome uncovers the entrance to a catacomb. Investigating, Godard and Singer find frescoes of traditional Christian scenes adorning the walls. But deeper down, these give way to more disturbing sights including human skeletons, twisted as though writhing in pain, near dog bones placed on serving dishes. Nearby is a fresco with religious imagery of a rather less orthodox stripe:

Repeated appearances were made by a radiant skeleton of a girl (named St. Aureola in a history which had been inscribed beneath the artwork). She had long yellow hair and an exquisite/prerequisite halo. A little dog yapped at her feet. She was shown in positions of prayer, of crouching to shit light into a bucket.

Charlee Jacob lets loose in devising the history of St. Aureola, which is detailed in one of Dorien’s dreams. In this grotesque parody of a saint’s life, we are shown how Aureola lived during the Synod of Hippo and Council of Carthage that established the Biblical canon, but herself belonged to an heretical sect preaching that animals had souls. Imprisoned, Aureola was aided by a pack of wild dogs, her favourite of which was killed and fed to her by a sadistic guard; Aureola then performed her first miracle by resurrecting the dog in a holy bowel movement. The guard ended up torn to pieces by Aureola’s reverent dogs, while the miracle-worker achieved a beauty in her emaciation: “The more she starved, the more ethereal she seemed in martyrdom. Even though she was a grown woman, she appeared childlike, returning to innocence without the curves which belonged to the mature lady.”

Aureola’s association with scatological miracles continued. Her own excrement “had a golden color, the hue for the holy”, we are told, and members of the public took a nearby sewer leakage as a sign from God (“In the stink from the miasms of sewage, dizzy people spied shapes in the steam and gases, glimpsed images of martyrs and apostles.”) Finally, Aureola’s death was accompanied by an apparition of her emerging from prison as a perverse Christ-figure (“Sores ringed her skull like a crown of thorns. She smiled wide and floated out, walking upon the feculent waters”) before bursting apart in a flurry of cassia blossoms – the plant that she had previously eaten when forcing herself to defecate the dog’s remains.

Her mortal husk turned out to be still inside the prison, hair matted with golden feces, and promptly slashed by a Roman soldier in an echo of Longinus. And so, St. Aureola became the centre of a heretical sect, one built upon the sacrements of dog meat and cassia wine and the veneration of holy diarrhoea: “The waste was never discarded but kept as relics, yea every bucketful until the reek in Aureola’s catacombs could be detected above ground.”

After this point in the narrative, the novel’s plot threads start to entwine. Dorien’s dreams begin depicting events still closer to the present, until she starts having visions of Jason’s exploits in Cairo. Jason does not return to America with the end of the Gulf War but instead embarks on a ten-year tour of international drug-dealing, slave-trafficking and assassinations (shades of Harry Tyler’s career as a mercenary after Vietnam in Soma). He continues his occult experiments, and yearns for the supernatural woman – or superwoman – that he encountered in Egypt.

The theme of the intangible woman runs through Dread in the Beast. We see it in Dorien’s dreams of her alter egos, and the archaeologists’ brief glimpse of the ghostly St. Aureola when they visit her catacomb; we perhaps see it in a less literal sense in the character of Myrtle Ave, a homeless woman who appears in a series of brief chapters, her identity and significance a mystery for much of the story (even her name was something she borrowed from a street sign). In Jason’s plot thread, the motif is embodied by the supernatural Egyptian woman, whom he initially takes to be a djinn. When he is finally reunited with her, however, Jason concludes that the woman is not a djinn but a ghoul. Her adopts the ghoul as his lover, dubbing her Rose (after Crowley’s first wife) and taking her back to America to meet his old mentor, Big Garth.

Towards the end of the story, Dr. Jim Singer’s storyline merges with those of the other characters. Dorien comes across Singer’s book Sacred Sepsis, about the role of fecal matter in belief systems throughout the ages, and finds new direction in her life. She connects Singer’s thesis to both her weird dreams and to the crimes committed by the Shit Detail gang – indeed, the enigmatic slogans daubed on walls by the gang turn out to be excerpts from Singer’s text. Dorien comes to meet with Singer, becoming yet another intangible woman (when seen by a student at Singer’s college, “she seemed to flutter at the edges, like very old film some cinematic preservation society was trying desperately to reclaim”). Meanwhile, her arrival coincides with sewage flooding the college’s science building.

The climax to the novella is greatly expanded in the novel-length version of Dread in the Beast, with Dorien in her “gateway to Aralu” manifestation being given another opponent besides Jason. The novel ultimately comes to include not one but two personifications of scatological divinity: it is Myrtle, the homeless woman who has since found employment as Dr. Singer’s secretary, who turns out to be the second coming of St. Aureola; Dorien, meanwhile, embodies something older, a pre-Christian deity. “Goddess of shit or Saint of Crapulence—who is the stronger?” asks Myrtle.
While the novella contrasted religion with nihilism, the latter tended to overshadow the former. In the novel, Jacob takes time to elaborate upon her story’s religious themes, the divine avatars Dorien and Myrtle being the most obvious but not the sole examples of this.

Jason’s exploits abroad read like a twisted parody of the Biblical apocalypse. He develops the habit of eating a page from the Koran every day while in Egypt, “to give him dreams of seventh heavens and battling infidels and demons”, in an echo the book-eating scene in Revelation 10:10. Later. Jason finds that his old army comrade Roheim has gone mad and now believes himself to be an incarnation of the Archangel Michael. Wielding a chainsaw rather than a sword, Roheim takes it upon himself to slay the ghoul-woman, calling her Babylon, Ashtoreth, Lilith, Jezebel, Rahab and Sheba; but the demonic woman comes out on top, slaying the “angel” in a deliberate Biblical inversion.

Some of the novel’s religious commentary is more direct. Dr. Singer is shown to have a conflicted relationship with the church, being a lapsed Catholic and a survivor of clerical abuse as a child. During the story Singer is repeatedly visited by a priest named Malvezzi who attempts to intimidate him into silence, sometimes alongside fellow men of the cloth acting like mafia heavies — – the sect of St. Aureola being something that the Vatican would like kept from the public.

Dread in the Beast, in both its incarnations, received acclaim from the horror community. At the Bram Stoker Awards the original novella was a runner-up in the 1999 long fiction category, while the full-length version earned the 2005 novel award (tying with David Morrell’s Creepers). Reviewing the 1998 collection in Midnight Hour magazine, extreme horror poster-boy Edward Lee praised the shorter edition of the story as being “probably the very best horror novella I’ve ever read in my life.” In the same review, he summarised the plot – in a single sentence – as being about “[a] deity revered by human waste”.

Lee’s comments do much to underline just what Charlee Jacob achieved with Dread in the Beast. Starting with the basic concept of a horror story about excrement, she was able to craft first a novella and then an entire novel about a confrontation between religion and nihilism. She used this as a means to explore the themes of desire and degradation, heaven and hell, male violence and female victimhood – conveyed through a vivid and nuanced set of characters, and wrapped up in a nightmare of the most delicious transgression.

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