Remembering Charlee Jacob: Cities and Guises

Up, Out of Cities that Blow Hot and Cold cover

Charlee Jacob’s novella “Up, Out of Cities that Blow Hot and Cold” – which debuted in the 2000 collection of the same name before being reissued as a standalone book – is a story that takes the concept of urban decay literally. All around the world, cities are being hit by disasters: the Eiffel Tower has collapsed from metal fatigue; Big Ben has exploded; and communication breakdowns between other major cities hint at still more catastrophes. In the unnamed city where the story takes place, the problems are personified by two elemental spirits – “demons of excess and deficit” – although it is ambiguous as to whether these entities are causes or symptoms of the city’s ongoing collapse.

One of the spirits, embodying fire, possesses a schoolteacher named Mike. This dour but compassionate man, impatient with the callous attitudes of his pupils, is cursed to harm those he tries to help: when he rescues a woman named Candace from a gang, he covers her body with lethal burns. The demon of ice chooses as its host a nurse named Daria, who subsequently finds herself lacking the will to help those she has been tasked with saving — an opposite situation to that of Mike, but with equally fatal results.

“Up, Out of Cities that Blow Hot and Cold” is, by Charlee Jacob’s standards, a distinctly downbeat story. Jacob’s fiction is, for all of its degradation and depravity, coloured by an enthusiasm – an eagerness to find and explore new highs and extremes. In this story, however, there is nothing to feel enthusiastic about and no hope of a high; there is only entropy, a steady march towards the inevitable point at which the powers of fire and ice meet up and cancel one another out. That said, the novella is otherwise characteristic of Jacob’s work, filled as it is with so many of her favourite themes and motifs.

Up, Out of Cities that Blow Hot and Cold: the 2000 collection and the 2017 novella edition.

The story shows Jacob’s skill at creating worlds that are held together by dreamlike surrealism. At one point a  dog jumps into an advertising poster on a wall, transforming from flesh and blood into a two-dimensional image; elsewhere, a group of carol-singers metamorphose into figures made from construction material and scrap, looking around “furtively, suspiciously, with burning rivets for eyes.”

As is often the case with Jacob’s stories, the urban setting is a thin layer under which an intangible magic is seeping free. This aspect is embodied by Bear, a homeless army veteran prone to strange visions. Of mixed ancestry — Arab on his mother’s side, Lakota on his father’s – Bear is steeped in the folklore of two cultures:

Maybe his father would have called the visions spirit animals. His mother would likely have whispered “Ghuls” fearfully, respectfully. Bear knew they were neither. They were the dreams the city hatched out as it turned the land bad. Didn’t bother him; he’d seen manifestations all his life. He’d seen tanks grow arms and hands, stroking cannon-sized phalluses prior to firing. He’d seen rusted derelict cars and paint-peeling abandoned tenements shapeshift into the illusion of larger-than-life human outcasts, a society of lepers. He’d seen street signs transform into deformed four-pronged heads, turning and twisting in agony as they tried to decide in which of four directions to reach for help.

One of his visions puts Bear in contact with a strange being, part human and part animal. “Old ways are almost gone”, the creature tells him. “You don’t want to see what will take their place.”
But not all of Jacob’s preferred motifs are quite so esoteric. “Up, Out of Cities that Blow Hot and Cold” also reflects some of her more materialistic concerns, in particular her choice of physical setting: like many of her other stories, a significant portion of the novella occurs inside a hospital.

“A place of clean disfigurement”: hospitals in Charlee Jacob’s fiction

Whether they are depicted as sterile prisons or places of transcendent vision, hospital wards turn up time and time again in Charlee Jacob’s work. “Anna’s Thesia” (1994) is narrated by a cancer patient – the Anna of the title – who grew up in a hospital ward, her parents too indifferent to visit her. Her anaesthesia granted her visions of a serial killer, dreams that she found alluring rather than disturbing: she came to accept the killer as her princely lover, “faceless, fleshless, undeteriorated by corruptible matter”. So enraptured by this man is Anna that, after being released, she decides to injure herself so that she can return to hospital and be reunited. “Anna’s Thesia” represents Jacob at her more darkly comical, opening in medias res with Anna contemplating various cartoonish methods of self-harm (from toxic waste baths to battery acid douches) and filling its dream sequences with mordant puns:

A dream—floating in a park above the jagged chunks of a street-walking goddess, her torso missing its arms like Venus de Milo. Her killer went one better an d cut off the head from her statuesque self. Venus Defilo, then.

Anna gets her wish – temporarily, at least – when she is hit by a car.

“Scalpel Mouth” (1995), another of Jacob’s hospital-set stories, goes over similar ground. The protagonist, who has the provocative name of Lolita, was found in a ditch following a car accident: “Upside down. Pinned inside feeling tight, claustrophobic. Steering column an unwanted lover squeezed into her pelvis.” She is taken to hospital and, like Anna, undergoes anaesthesia-induced hallucinations. This time the visitor is not an alluring dark prince but the nightmarish Scalpel Mouth, a predatory assemblage of man and metal: “What was he? Doctor or tray of instruments? Some strange hybrid made during one of the morgue orgies when the staff had too much ether and Jack Daniels and was feeling grotesquely godlike?”

“Shining” (1995) is another story along these lines, although its protagonist Chris is caught in a housefire rather than a car accident. Her body is taken to hospital while her spirit watches from afar, seeing her disfigured frame – so unrecognisable that the staff are unsure of her gender, and refer to her simply as “it”. As Chris’ astral body walks the burn ward, flesh melts into flesh and images melt into images: the firemen who retrieve burnt bodies are conflated with angelic horsemen who retrieve lost souls.

In Jacob’s fiction, the hospital often comes across as a place of spirituality, even of worship. This is particularly clear in “Mercy” (1998), which opens with a description of the hospital inhabited by protagonist Clemencia:

The hospital was a place of clean disfigurement, scrubbed spotless, sterilized with the talismans of disinfectant until it strung the nostrils, given non-secular ablutions that washed away any hint of septicism without removing the scars. And no matter how many grumy gray yet-twitching tumors, blue-headed still-born babies complete with the umbilical cords they’d strangled on, draino-eaten esophaguses, colander-swissed cirrhosis livers, third-stage syphilis rock-atrophied brain lumps, stray pieces left unaccounted for during the last nearby major plane crash, and other assorted deformities went into the surgical trash compactor and then dumpster to make it gone, Clemencia knew it could never be immaculate. It was only a pesthouse.

But it was also her church. Where she—more than any other—resided as patron saint.

The story goes on to divulge Clemencia’s history, revealing her to have had an extremely troubled childhood. She grew up in a household where nobody talked; even her alphabet blocks contain only letters S and H, one of the cartoonish touches often found in Jacob’s fiction. Both of her parents committed suicide, her mother by stitching her own eyes and mouth shut, her father by walking out into the freezing cold never to be seen again.

All of this turns out to have been the work of the household maid, who was a member of the Legion of Deaths – a group of psychopomps, each member representing a different form of mortality, the maid being Death by Apathy. Now, Clemencia exists as Mercy Death, a ghostly (or angelic?) figure who walks the hospital, handing out swift deaths like benedictions to the terminal patients.

“Escapades with amputees”: mutilation and disfigurement

Jacob appears to have found hospital settings appealing for a number of reasons. One was doubtless the simple potential for tales about disfigurement, mutilation and violation – the stock-in-trade of so many horror writers. On a more subtle level, locating a story in a hospital ward is a good way of exploring another of Jacob’s favourite themes: the shut-in character who is barred from the outside world but who compensates with building a vivid internal world.

There are many examples of this motif in Jacob’s fiction, from the hospital stories discussed above through to Dread in the Beast’s portrayal of Jason Cave, whose childhood was spent divided between his stultifying home and a tempting new world accessed through a hole in his bedroom wall. The motif of the recluse, like the motif of disfigurement, allows Jacob to explore the wider topic of people on the margins of polite society.

“Through Venetian Blinds” (1998) is the tale of Lora, a disfigured woman who spends her days at home peering at the outside world through her Venetian blinds. The narrative is framed as a series of vignettes of her life; it follows her from her childhood as the daughter of an abusive father, through her shut-in adolescence, to the agoraphobic adult existence she has led since the death of her mother. Jacob uses an oddly garbled writing style (“A dreadful backhurting, necksore job—cleaning the blinds was”) and gives the impression that Lora’s reclusive tendencies offer her the only semblance of order in a chaotic world.

Jacob does not necessarily cast her disfigured characters as pariahs. Indeed, they are often the objects of erotic desire, fetishism being yet another of her recurring themes. One of Jacob’s authorial notes in her Up, Out of Cities that Blow Hot and Cold collection mentions reading a section in the 1979 book The Sexual State of the Union: Letters to Penthouse Magazine “about fantasies and purported escapades with amputees”, which offered theories as to why certain individuals might be sexually aroused by stumps left from amputated limbs. “I wondered if in at least one case, the fetishist had vision problems – say with depth perception?”

The result of these musings was her 1994 story “Apodomania”, about a teenager named Jason whose astigmatism has led to him being sexually aroused by the sight of women with amputations. Jason’s fetish is awoken when he sees a car accident in which one woman – armless – ends up slumped through the windscreen, while another – legless – sits crushed but conscious in the driver’s seat. This scene takes on the atmosphere of a twisted erotic fantasy come to life:

Even with his prescription glasses the red at the edges was misty. But he could see her blouse had torn. Her right side was lost behind the dashboard and steering column. There was one unwounded breast. It was beautiful amid the carnage, an untouched icon. It quivered, a bird trapped in a cage of torn steel and plastic. He could see the heart beating under it.

She noticed where he was looking.

“Go ahead and touch it,” she said huskily.

Jason fulfils the dying wishes of the two women by kissing them, only to be caught in the act. He and his mother relocate to a coastal town to avoid stigma, but Jason finds the tourists on the beaches disturbing: they appear too large to him, their limbs seeming to him “Cthulhu tentacles flashing out, awry and all wrong”. He even resorts to placing cardboard mattes over his glasses to reduce his field of vision. But then he finds a private beach, populated entirely by naked women with limbs missing who meet up at night to cavort in moonlight orgies. It turns out that the women belong to a sect of shark-worshippers, who sacrifice their limbs to their flesh-eating goddess; one full-bodied woman, who strikes Jason as “a veritable giantess of useless parts”, descends beneath the waves and returns with her arms and legs removed: “She was made beautiful!” The story is another striking example of the dream-logic so often used by Charlee Jacob, its entire world seemingly built from the (deeply unorthodox) fears and desires of the protagonist.

In “R.T.M.” (1997) protagonist Daniel fantasies about his neighbour, a woman who lost her legs in a car accident; by day he spies on her through the window, but night he has erotic dreams in which he licks her truncated body (the story’s title stands for “rapid tongue movement”). The story’s surreal ending has Daniel’s tongue and teeth leave his mouth and sneak into the neighbour’s house to have their way with her.

“Round Moon” (2000) depicts the effects that an unusually large moon has on the earth, altering both media broadcasts (radios play only songs about the moon, televisions show only films with “moon” in the title) and human psychology. Sexually-repressed college teacher Joel forms a relationship with Tercy, a homeless girl who survived a bus accident with a mutilated arm and – she claims – a glow-in-the-dark scar shaped like the Cheshire Cat’s grin. The story climaxes with another pagan orgy on a moonlit beach, Joel and Tercy joining a man without legs, a woman without ears and others in a sacrificial rite to the moon.

Certain forms of disfigurement turn up more frequently than others in Jacob’s fiction. Third-degree burns are one of her recurring motifs, as seen in “Up, Out of Cities that Blow Hot and Cold” and “Shining” amongst other stories. “Legion” (1998), about a psychically-sensitive woman working in an unemployment office, has a scene in which the protagonist remembers having a vision of people who were killed or injured in a gas explosion – including a child “[s]carred until the small face was nothing but a mass of melted doll features, fingers melded together to make two flippers.” The psychic woman is so appalled that she inadvertently wishes the child out of existence.

Like limb loss, serous burns are sometimes viewed as fetish material by Jacob’s psychologically unbalanced characters. In “R.T.M.” Daniel fantasies about burnt victims as well as amputees: “Just at the end of the block was the burn center where who knew what beauties lay on beds of ice water and morphine, with blackened stumps of incinerated divinity… Who didn’t love a tender babe?” “Grafts of Delicate Lace” (1998) details the relationship between sado-masochistic Lena and her lover Rico, who does not share Lena’s physical kinks. Instead, he merely observes a she tortures herself with fire by placing a candle-flame against her skin or lying on the grate of a floor furnace. While Lena seeks ever-greater thrills, Rico watches with a mixture of fascination and anguish. She finally succeeds in throwing her lover into a state of erotic ecstasy by dousing her own face with acid: “The putrescent stench of the auto-vandalized layers of her formerly porcelain complexion roiled up his nostrils like the sweetest perfume… his balls felt like twin Hindenbergs”.

“Fire” (1998) goes over similar ground, telling the story of a woman named Delia who finds the corpse of a man who died in a garage accident, his remains so badly burnt that he no longer has facial features. Delia’s initial shock gives way to erotic pleasure (“She was as wet as if she’d been basted”) as she makes love to the corpse, which she likens to both her first cigar and to a good piece of cooked meat. The story is structured as a sick joke, complete with a punchline involving mistaken identity – and Delia deciding to cook herself another lover.

“The goddess of guises”: the theme of self-image

Guises, in its 2002 and 2017 editions.

“Guises”, published in the 2002 collection of the same name, revolves around a woman named Tombi who had been born with “a nothing face, sans definitive curves and hollows. Flat. Merely mathematical, the square root of minus character, as a likeness stamped on a coin.” Growing up, she attributes this to having been kissed as a baby by her grandfather – a war veteran who received skin grafts to his face, leaving him looking incomplete. As a teenager Tombi paints mirrors black to avoid seeing her reflection and tries to modify her face with everything from pens and paint to blades, to no satisfaction. She visits a psychiatrist, who advises her to look at her dreams for answers:

“It’s the dream mirror that reveals what the psyche is. Don’t you see? The mirrors on this side of reality display what gives us pain, because here in the conscious realm beauty is the logic of an ordered universe; ugliness is chaos. But in dreams it is the reflection which offers us freedom.”

Tombi dismisses the shrink as “Barbi-lon, blonde whore of Revelations”. But nonetheless, it is dream-logic that finally alters Tombi’s visage. One day, while looking at herself in a mirror she manages to peel off her entire face, like a mask or a reptile’s skin; the reflection that looks back at her is “a mass of glistening sinew with stringy, bloodied hair falling back from it”. She passes out at the sight; after recovering, she finds that she has a new face – one that is beautiful and complete.

Slipping into her mother’s make-up and her sister’s revealing clothes, Tombi heads out and experiences the mixed blessing of male attention. Awakening after a one-night stand, she is aghast to find her new face falling away and another one growing in its place.

She then learns that her mother and sister have been murdered, and – in another example of dream-logic – seems to blame their deaths on the fact that she had borrowed their attire, as though taking a person’s appearance is the same as taking their life. As a result, Tombi views her latest face with hatred and disgust. The years pass, with Tombi growing another new face every night. She finds work making latex masks, the most popular designs depicting beautiful celebrities and hideous monsters.

“Guises” is a story that – like “Up, Out of Cities that Blow Hot and Cold” – encapsulates a variety of Jacob’s recurring themes. It includes still another scene taking place in a hospital, with Tombi giving one of her masks to a boy with a badly-burnt face and feeling guilt as to whether this was was appropriate. In the climax, Tombi meets the man who murdered her family; he turns out to be a fanatic who reveres her as the “goddess of guises” – like so much of Jacob’s fiction, the story views the horrific in terms of deities and acolytes. But above all, it is a story about self-image.

Self-image is a subject that turns up in many Jacob’s stories. We see it in “The Woman in Red”, with Grace’s attempts to reinvent herself through elaborate tattoos. We see it in This Symbiotic Fascination, where Tawne tries to transform herself into a vampire temptress. The motif of self-image also turns up in “Behold” (1998), a short story which, uncharacteristically for Jacob, is science fiction. The narrative depicts a cyberpunk future in which people wear contact lenses bearing elaborate hologram images; particularly advanced models are able to display images from the wearer’s mind. Some lenses are dangerous, as gangs wear contacts with their insignia and will kill those bearing the lenses of rival mobs. But more often they are associated with beauty, desire, and physical perfection: protagonist Lina Hidalgo is an actress with dreams of stardom, who obtains gorgeous blue lenses in an effort to make herself irresistible

Then we have “Sow” (2000), the story of an orphaned girl who takes to comfort-eating any edible substance that she can get her hands on. The other children taunt her by feeding her disgusting food, and she puts on weight so rapidly that when she watches The Blob, she finds herself relating to the title character. Growing to one ton in weight as an adult, she becomes a carnival fat lady. Even more relevant than the story itself is the introduction that Jacob gives it in her Up, Out of Cities collection:

I used to be very thin, wearing a size 3 to 5. After several auto accidents and, therefore, a great change in lifestyle from active to mostly sedentary, I gained a substantial amount of weight, going to a large size. It was not lost on me that people now treated me very differently. I also began to view myself with a more critical eye. Nothing I tried made a difference; t seemed as if this were a Fate owing to some other intelligence. I was perusing objects in an antique store when I ran across an old photograph of a circus fat lady circa about 1920 or so. It got me to wondering what her life must have been like, trapped in a body with a will of its own.

Suddenly, an autobiographical streak is revealed to be running through Jacob’s stories: those tales of hospital wards, those themes of self-image angst, the recurring motif of the car accident that turns up in “Anna’s Thesia”, “Scalpel Mouth”, “Apodomania” and “R.T.M.” amongst others, all appear to have arisen in part from her own personal experience.

Horror fiction has a long and not entirely noble history with the themes of disfigurement and disability. The genre’s engagement with such matters has often been xenophobic and exploitative, with deformed bodies or scarred faces acting as short-hand for evil. Charlee Jacob’s fiction, however, is different. While she uses disfigurement and amputation in tales of horror and taboo-breaking exploration of fetishism, she does so from a position of lived experience, encouraging empathy amidst the excess.

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Doris V. Sutherland

Doris V. Sutherland

Horror historian, animation addict and tubular transdudette. Catch me on Twitter @dorvsutherland, or view my site at dorisvsutherland.com. If you like my writing enough to fling money my way, then please visit patreon.com/dorvsutherland or ko-fi.com/dorvsutherland.
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