Charlee Jacob’s 1998 story “The Border in Zen” is set after a nuclear war and takes place in a village named Persephone’s Pity. Here, the people lead a peaceful, ecological, egalitarian existence, eager to avoid the atrocities of the past. But this post-apocalyptic culture has a darker side: a preoccupation with the sullying of innocence.
Charlee Jacob’s 1998 story “The Border in Zen” is set after a nuclear war and takes place in a village named Persephone’s Pity. Here, the people lead a peaceful, ecological, egalitarian existence, eager to avoid the atrocities of the past. But this post-apocalyptic culture has a darker side: a preoccupation with the sullying of innocence. Every midsummer, the most sheltered and comfortable residents are subjected to a cruel, brutal initiation rite. Once this ritual is complete, the village returns to its old ways of peace and happiness – at least, until the following midsummer.
A young man named Go is forced to undertake the initiation by his own wife. He is bound and laid prone as various villagers familiar from his daily life take turns to force themselves upon him, destroying his image of Persephone’s Pity as a place of decency and enlightenment. Mutants from a radiation-scarred wasteland join in, and as Go’s experiences blur into hallucination, his descriptions draw upon classic horror iconography:
I was being groped by every legendary monster the former society had offered, fictitious but icons of gelid dust just the same. There were vampires sucking blood from the head of my swollen glans. Hairy werewolves reconstructed my sides with their talons as they pounded to find the moon up my ass. Frankenstein re-animations sought equally hideous companionship and with regenerative degenerate lightning sizzling from their connective knobs. Wicker men shot flams up the spinal column to charcoal each vertibra in turn. Mummies unwrapped themselves to show their hungry scars beneath. And every one of them from torched-up golem dicks to cat-faced harpies in heat were icy of graveyard earth. Dead in their erogenous hardness, dead inside.
As well as exemplifying her Rabelaisian fondness for lists of excess, this passage captures a major aspect of Jacob’s writing: her approach to using traditional monsters. Jacob was keen to find psychological (and psychosexual ) symbolism in the iconography of horror, and came up with inventive interpretations of the genre’s monster pantheon.
The Predator Inside
Blurring as it does the boundary between human and beast, the werewolf theme is one with obvious psychological connotations, and Jacob’s interest was strong enough for her to use a werewolf-like character as a major player in her debut novel This Symbiotic Fascination. While the rapist Arcan Tyler was not a lycanthrope in the traditional sense, the novel’s usage of an internal wolf-spirit to symbolise his sexual appetites made it clear what archetype Jacob was drawing upon. She used the werewolf theme in some of her short stories, as well, and showed herself capable of casting her lycanthropes in a more sympathetic light than she did Arcan.
“The Spirit Wolves “ (1995) is about a teenage boy, Milo, who desires to be a werewolf. He sews pieces of a bearskin rug to his skin, and later has images of teeth tattooed over his body:
“trenchant wolf sabers and yellow canine needles, bloody fangs, gleaming feral thorns, bared in snarling grimaces and in wide-open attack.” At night, Milo dreams of spirit wolves feasting on human prey; one time he wakes up to find a bloody chunk from a woman’s breast in his bed, and realises that his dreams have not been mere fantasy. He eventually meets a clan of werewolves at the local freak show, a setting that recurs in Jacob’s fiction as a haven for outcasts, The performers transform him into a full-fledged lycanthrope through sex, but not before the entire freak show descends into orgy:
They dropped their robes and stood, erect and ready in a gauntlet of anxious animals. Milo understood and sank to his knees before the first in line.
The freak women began to have sex with each other in an orgy of frustrated, voyeuristic passion. Skeletons rattled rocky pubes against the balloon faces of the fat women. Beards at both ends speckled with wet musk and occasional menstrual juices. Stumps thick as dildos vibrated with song. Lizard Lady’s gills were opening and closing in a frenzy. The fetus of an aborted hermaphrodite in a jar was jiggled from its shelf as two entwined two-faced prodigies kept bumping into the table it sat on. It smashed to the floor and the enraptured women kept right on rolling over the top of it, the baby’s elastic body pulping and the glass shards making them cry out in gurgling pleasure, embedding in their buttocks.
Jacob goes over similar ground in “Permafrost” (1996), a story told from the perspective of Lisia, a mental patient who yearns to be a wolf, blaming her lack of a complete transformation on the medication she is forced to take. Like Milo, her night-time dream-journeys as a wolf blur into reality, so that she finds fragments of consumed prey – or, in one case, a whole dead reindeer – about her person after waking up. Once again, lycanthropy is associated with unbridled sexuality, Lisia idolising the moon as an erotic deity (“Bring on the real moon. The soft ass, shining mother. I lean toward her, beckoning with my own ass, my own swelling breasts. I want to take a bite, want to lick her, want to jump over her”). If the werewolf – like the freak show – represents the crossing of a boundary, then Jacob’s inclination appears to destroy that boundary altogether: “Permafrost” ends with the hospital collapsing under the influenced of the full moon, as Lisia’s dream-life encroaches upon reality.
Another widespread horror motif used by Jacob in This Symbiotic Fascination is the ghost, with Arcan being followed by the spirits of his victims. Given that most of these victims are still alive physically, Jacob shows a characteristic interest more in the symbolism of the ghost than in the literal matter of life after death.
The use of ghosts to explore themes of guilt and retribution turns up in a number of Jacob’s stories. “Nightberry” (1994) is about a social worker named Julie Pillet who retrieves children from abusive households – only to hand them over to different abusive households, in a twisted form of matchmaking. She is psychic, capable of feeding off fear; she actively seeks out the harshest combinations of abuser and abused in the hopes of achieving a psychic orgasm, something far preferable to base biological ecstasy (“Standard coitus lumbered along at a snail’s pace, paling beside this psychical incineration”). But Julie pays a high price for her predatory behaviour: the children she has driven to their deaths come back to haunt her, their scars and disfigurements transferred to her own body.
But Jacob shows little faith in the inevitability of cosmic punishment, and has even posited the idea that ghostly victims might become attached to the wrong person through a spiritual slip-up. “The Piper” (1996) is the story of John Piper, a man whose work as a homicide cop, ambulance driver and firefighter have confronted him with a lifetime’s worth of dead and injured children. He is disturbed to learn that a notorious child-killer looks identical to him; when the other man is killed in a shoot-out, Piper finds that he is now being trailed by the ghosts of the murderer’s victims:
The kids saw him. They screamed and jostled into one another, dangling gay red ribbons that dripped.
One cried. “The Bad Man.”
“Boogie man!” another shouted.
Then they ran to him, eyes beseeching why? why? Earnest, pinched faces with skin that once must have smelled of milk and cookies. Some had greenish grass stains on their knees from what must have been their final recess period. They reached out doll hands to gather miniature fistfuls of his clothes. They tugged relentlessly.
Piper comes to wonder if this is the typical punishment for child-murderers: “Did the beast who pulled up to the curb in the long black car to invite the little one for a trip to the ice cream store have the bleached and scratched-up faces of all the others who had taken the final ride sitting next to him?” And, sure enough, he passes a Vietnam veteran who is followed by the spectres of napalm-burned children.
Piper’s condition attracts the attention of a dark magician with the innocuous-sounding name of Mr. Milk, who draws power from the souls of murdered children. Inside Mr. Milk’s home, Piper sees shelves lined with milk cartons, bearing “so many little faces that were almost as ghostly as the ones which surrounded him in ether.” Later, Mr. Milk recites a chant consisting of the names of children murdered throughout history: Grace Budd, Gertrude Albermann, Anne Frank, even victims of Gilles de Rais in the middle ages. John Piper is pressed into a battle against Mr. Milk for the literal souls of children.
Jacob penned a gentler – but still entirely characteristic – sort of ghost story in “Body and Shadow” (1997). Here, a woman recovers from a car accident that killed her twin sister, the ghost of whom she glimpses around the hospital ward; in one scene she engages her twin in an incestuous kiss, only to find that she is making love to her reflection in a mirror. The twist ending reveals that all of this is actually a dream experienced by the twin, who was not killed in a crash but absorbed into her sister’s body as a foetus. This story is included in the Up, Out of Cities that Blow Hot and Cold collection, where Jacob reveals that it was inspired by the child of a family friend.
“The doctor who examined her announced – to the parents’ shock – that she had been intended to be twins”, explains Jacob. “She possessed two sets of numerous internal things, her twin interred within her. I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like for her as she grew older and came to understand that she carried that sister, born but not born, inside her.” Hospitals, car crashes and birth defects, all recurring themes in Jacob’s work, are typically associated with physical trauma; Jacob uses the ghost, that most intangible of traditional monsters, to explore the emotion behind the violation.
Not all of Jacob’s ghosts can be spotted haunting urban centres. Like her fellow Texan fantasists Robert E. Howard and Joe R. Lansdale, Jacob was fond of the “weird Western” subgenre, sometimes retreating from squalid cityscapes to find high strangeness in the wilderness. She describes her relevant influences in Up, Out of Cities that Blow Hot and Cold:
I was born and raised in Texas. I spent many hours In my youth in forlorn areas, looking for dinosaur bones. You could still travel for a long time then without seeing anybody at all but – impressionable as I was – I had the indelible impression that these places were anything except empty… not as they appeared be.
In Jacob’s weird Westerns, ghosts tend to take on a more romantic quality. “Salt” (1994), a story that Jacob described as being written “out of a jumbled hash of memories of West Texas where I fancied there were ghosts everywhere”, takes place in Texas shortly after the Civil War. The main character, Hannah, is a German immigrant who yearns to escape her repressive Lutheran father and return to the country of her youth, where the forests were said to be haunted by the old gods of pre-Christian times. A passing soldier saves her from bandits (“the eyes of their horses surprisingly similar to the eyes on the demon faces that she used to glimpse in the trees”) and the two fall in love; but only after she falls pregnant does Hannah learn that the handsome soldier was a ghost, having been shot for desertion years before. Hannah is abandoned in disgrace by her family and sent to walk the sands alone; but she finds that Texas has old gods of its own, and gives birth amongst the spirits of the Native Americans.
Another weird Western with a ghostly lover is “Across the Painted Desert“ (1996), in which the main character is a hallucination-prone girl named Belle. The story follows Belle’s homestead life from her adolescence to the cusp of middle age, as she is beset by disasters: ongoing conflict between whites and Apache, marriage to an abusive husband, and the deaths of her family one by one. But she finds a degree of solace in periodic visits from a mysterious masked bandit who speaks in Percy Shelley quotations – a sort of Western Phantom of the Opera. Whether this figure is a hallucination, a physical being or one of the various spirits haunting the desert is left ambiguous.
The Great Old Ones
Like countless other horror authors, Jacob sometimes played with the nihilistic pantheon created by H. P. Lovecraft. Unlike a large number of that author’s imitators, however, she showed no particular interest in recreating his writing style or perspective: a writer who could invoke “The Big Kahuna Cthulhu”, as Jacob did in her 1996 vampire story “The Blood of the Sun”, clearly had little time for Lovecraft’s universe of cyclopean ruins and gibbous moons.
“I have long been fascinated with the mythos begun by H. P. Lovecraft and furthered by so man writers [but] I hadn’t read much that placed scenes in areas I could readily identify with”, writes Jacob in Up, Out of Cities that Blow Hot and Cold. “I wasn’t familiar with the old seaports in New England, not had I visited New Orleans. I was a girl from drier climes, more in tune with Southwestern and Spanish influences.” Because of this, she desired “to contribute to the mythos with things I knew: dust, Day of the Dead, desert demons, and disenfranchised deities across the border – where I had been told I was conceived”.
One of the stories to arise from this experiment, “The Beasts of the Twilight”, begins at the time of the Aztecs and Conquistadors and depicts the former carrying out human sacrifices to keep the Lovecraftian deity Hastur at bay. This turns out to have been the vision of a fortune-teller in modern-day Mexico during the Day of the Dead, where piñata vampires exist alongside Aztec ghosts. The story mixes Jacob’s own inventions – most notably “the race of K’I’ru, birdpeople who existed before most legends were carved into stone” – with Latinised versions of Lovecraft’s entities:
She heard the churning of heavy masses of water, smelled a frozen stench, sensed nightmares in dead thoughts. Lores de los Profundo – the Lords of the Deep – who waited the proper sequence of stars to take the dominion over the earth again. Cthulhu, the Initiator of Dreams, who tormented to insanity with malas sueños, evil dreams. At the blink of a lash’s distance where space folded, she felt her soul giver up toward a gibbous light bloated on madness. The crawling Chaos – Caós Trepenado – limbered by. Close? No, light years. Lightless years. Eons of cosmic shrieks away. And in a monstrous forest behind an eye, Toci cringed and turned away so that she wouldn’t see the Cabro Negro whose black goat young ran off with children who were never seen again.
Another story along these lines is “Dust Dancer” (1997), included in the same collection. Set during the 1930s Dust Bowl, the story follows an Oklahoma family as they flee a fierce storm and bunker down in a shop. Here, supernatural forces try to lure them outside with tempting visions; these range from a deceased relative singing a hymn, to the sight of Shirley Temple’s Good Ship Lollipop blown along by its marshmallow sails. The Dust Dancer is afoot – and anyone who sees his face will wither away to nothing.
The story explicitly contrasts its arid eldritch with aquatic horrors of the sort described by Lovecraft. “Things live in the sea, too”, says one character. “Doin’ a water ballet of nightmares. I ain’t leavin’ here for someplace where I don’t understand the local demons.” On a deeper level, the story’s characters have a completely different set of cultural reference points to those of Lovecraft – despite being his contemporaries, and so interpret the cosmic horror through the prism of 1930s Hollywood musicals: the Dust Dancer is repeatedly compared to Fred Astaire.
“The Begetting” (1998) is in some ways more conventional, although it displays a warped sexuality alien to Lovecraft but typical of Jacob. After a Lovecraftian pseudo-history in which we are given tantalising glimpses of eldritch phenomena affecting a Florida town, we meet Nicole, a sex worker with substantial gifts. “Men who came into her tight womb or supple rectum or generous mouth found their orgasms increased manifold through the pores of their skin”, we learn. “They would collapse in the most profound ecstasy across her when finished, covered in sweat and blood”. But sex with Nicole has its risks, her bedroom practices having given her husband a fatal aneurism and driven two further partners insane (the unspeakable experience that drives men mad is a recurring motif in Lovecraft’s work, but it is doubtful that this scenario is quite what he had in mind).
Nicole is called to visit the mansion of a wealthy recluse, Mr. Chaldes, who turns out to be a grotesque mollusc-man: one of the half-human hybrids of the Cthulhu Mythos. Nicole has cheerfully serviced her share of disease-ridden johns, but even she is reluctant to have sex with Chaldes. Although both characters are horror figures, they are horror figures from different worlds: Chaldes is a Lovecraftian horror, a being to run from; but Nicole is a Jacobian horror, the seeker of the transgressive, one who holds the aesthetic philosophy that “[b]eauty which is perverse has a starkness as of raw corpses among dewy roses. Of dead children in the flayed arms of gods. Of white church steeples impaling the asses of virgin saints.”
Nevertheless, Chaldes impregnates Nicole, and the story concludes in that favourite Jacob setting: a hospital. “[T]here were strange paintings of children everywhere,” we learn, “the kind with the absurdly large eyes. Some people thought these were adorable but they had always rather put Nicole off, wondering what would have to father such children to give them unblinking eyes.”
Not all of horror’s iconography originates in folklore or literature. A choice portion of it comes from history, as evidenced by a certain Victorian personage who, while all too real, now exists between Count Dracula and Mr. Hyde in the popular imagination: Jack the Ripper. Charlee Jacob, showing few qualms about spinning stories from real-life atrocities, made imaginative use of the enigmatic serial killer.
“Darktouch” (1996) is set in 1889 and sees the London police investigating what may be yet another Ripper murder. But while there is a lot of blood at the scene, no corpse can be found, and the only possible witness – a woman named Jenny – is too traumatised to testify. Jenny is taken to a madhouse, where she is molested by an employee named Dawkin. When the doctor arrives on the scene, Dawkin is dead, his body mutilated and disembowelled: Jenny is not a witness to Jack the Ripper, she is Jack the Ripper, and she will soon give birth to a still greater horror. In this fundamentally feminine exploration of body horror, Jacob allows the grisly details of the Ripper’s crimes to blur together with imagery of menstruation and pregnancy.
In “Specimens” (1999) Jacob tells the story of two ghosts, one male and one female, who haunt a museum. By day they sleep, but by night they engage in romantic play, borrowing history from the museum around them to enter different times and take on different personas. Here, they join a macabre carnival in a plague-ridden medieval town; there, they enter an Orientalist fantasy of old China. But the very first of the vignettes takes place at Whitechapel in 1888, the male ghost becoming Jack the Ripper as he hands his lover – Lizzie Borden – a kidney wrapped in a love-letter.
The “Specimens” structure of macabre love across different eras, and the “Darktouch” idea of Jack the Ripper as a woman, turn up again in Jacob’s novelette “Four Elements and an Emphatic Moon” (2002). The story follows a woman as she is reincarnated time and again throughout the ages, pursuing a lesbian relationship with a vampire named Atroce. This love occurs across such backdrops as the Black Death, Tamerlane’s sacking of Delhi, the Spanish invasion of Teotihuacan, an asylum in eighteenth-century Romania, and eventually France in 1888, during which year the narrator travels to England and casually mentions that she “might have killed some other women in the violent slums there in London.”
That Charlee Jacob wrote multiple stories depicting a female Jack the Ripper showed that she was willing to play with gender conventions: her fiction abounds with images of the monstrous feminine, portrayed in terms both analytical and confrontational. In horror, the most traditional role for a female monster is that of the temptress, an archetype exemplified by the countless folktales of sirens and mermaids luring male sailors to watery graves. Naturally, this was still another motif that Jacob adapted to her own ends.
“The Current” (1994) is about a man named Will, who has an abiding love of the water and was an avid swimmer until he became paralysed from the neck down. Now, he is cared for by his brother and sister-in-law (and tormented by their sadistic daughter). His only experience with water occurs in dreams, where the sea is gendered and sexualised, the ocean wrapping him in its womanly embrace.
Three sirens arrive on the scene in the form of Will’s new neighbour Oanna and her sisters, Scylla and Lorelei. These odd-looking women are very different in physical appearance to the traditional siren or mermaid, but Will finds them fascinating:
She’s no Aphrodite, believe me. Like her sisters, her eyes are too far apart, too large, her mouth too thin. Her hair is long but always looks wet. But when she moved she seems to be coming to the shore while walking upon waves.
The three sisters begin flirting with local men, and those men start going missing – or else turning up on the beach, drowned. Will nonetheless remains obsessed with Oanna, who finally comes for him, treating him to the mixed blessing of a return to the sea and its feminine mysteries.
In “The Ophelias” (1991) Jacob turns the siren motif on its head by examining it from the perspective of a female character. The narrator is a woman who, like so many of Jacob’s female protagonists, has issues with her self-image: “It’s hard to be unworkably plain in today’s world”, she says at the start. “People resent you for it. Figure it’s somehow your own fault. You become a drab, a drudge, an obvious dyke, a basket case, a bag lady and a troll.” Later, she goes to investigate a nearby river with a sinister aspect: men who go there turn up dead and withered, while women never return at all.
It turns out that the river is home to the “wither women”, deathly but alluring beings who emerge from the water at night to prey upon men. The protagonist sees one of these figures, at first drifting towards her like a drowned corpse:
I was afraid she’d turn in the water until I got a shot of her face. It would have been eaten by fish, the eyes gone and the flesh pitted. I didn’t want to see this. She rolled lazily and the garlanded hair billowed away from her features, surprising me because it was lovely and untouched. She opened her eyes and smiled.
The story ends with the main character deciding to join the ranks of the wither women, partaking of their dark beauty and finally gaining acceptance.
Gods and Devils
Charlee Jacob’s fiction plunders the world’s religions and mythological systems to create everything from the Hindu-influenced fantasmagoria of Soma to the Judeo-Christian heresies of Dread in the Beast. At first glance, the gods and devils in Jacob’s stories are not always easy to distinguish from one another. But then, as her protagonists tend to have a quasi-religious desire for horrific transgressions, it is entirely appropriate that the divine blends with the monstrous.
“Mother of Sorrows” (1995) introduces us to Tolly, a US soldier fighting in Mexico’s drug wars, and accompanies her as she visits one of those macabre carnivals that occur so frequently in Jacob’s stories. There, she witnesses what the carnival barker presents as an authentic Aztec goddess, the titular Mother of Sorrows. A winged, reptilian, saggy-breasted creature, the goddess gives birth to half-formed, jelly-like offspring, creatures compared by the narrative to animated gummy bears. The crowd shouts and jeers, but Tolly – who has witnessed her father’s suicide, who once saw a still-living foetus removed from her body as part of a botched abortion, who was recently hailed a war hero for crawling through animal guts – feels an affinity for the gruesome deity before her. The soldier and the goddess finally merge together, monster and woman becoming two aspects of the whole.
“Golem Girl and the Crypt of Space” (1995) similarly combines the monstrous divine with the protective divine, underlining Jacob’s tendency to use horror and monsters as sources of comfort or even salvation. The story is inspired by the Hebrew tradition that a golem can be brought to life with the inscription emeth (“truth”) and turned back to lifeless clay by removing the first letter, rendering the inscribed word meth (“death”). The protagonist is a woman named Elaine who has been maltreated throughout her life by predatory men; their lusts are described as “the wound-up clocks of wolves, ticking off their hunger toward the smell of pussy”. Her abuse goes back to her childhood, when her father tried to carve the word meth into her forehead “as if she were a golem he could erase life from”. While she is being pursued by a stalker, Elaine takes control of this magic for herself, inscribing the word emeth into her tongue-ring. In doing so she gaining command of the cosmic horrors lurking below the city – embodied as a terrifying godlike being – and finally striking back against her oppressors.
Gods in Charlee Jacob’s fiction tend not to be masculine. Many are female; others might be gender-bent (like the intersex Shiva in Soma) or genderless (like the cosmic entity in “Golem Girl and the Crypt of Space). Jacob’s devils, on the other hand, are often male. Whether this is intended as a comment on men is debatable, however, as Jacob’s Devils tend to be – in comparison to her bizarre depictions of the divine – comparatively conventional. Drawing upon traditional depictions of the manipulative, gloating Mephistopheles, Jacob came up with such characters as the “ugly man” in This Symbiotic Fascination: initially Arcan’s rival rapist, he is ultimately cast as a Mephisto-like tempter, a male counterpart to the female sirens seen elsewhere in Jacob’s fiction.
Another story about a masculine demon is “Drunken Devils, Sainted Wives” (1995) which revolves around a violently abusive man and his suicidal wife. At one point the male character compares himself to a demon in love with a saint – and this turns out to be more than a metaphor. Wherever he goes in the house the husband stumbles across his wife’s corpse, relocated in some sort of twisted miracle; each time she appears to have committed suicide in a different manner. In an echo of Jacob’s Jack the Ripper stories we learn that this couple has existed at least as far back as ancient Rome, the husband always indulging his brutal lust, the wife always submitting to penitence and martyrdom. “Marriages from such diversely mixed religions can be dangerous”, remarks the demon. “We drop our spirituality when we fuck.”
Narratives of gods and devils lead naturally into the theme of apocalypse, something explored by Jacob in “Window for Anon” (2002). Here, the Earth is threatened by a dust cloud from space; this had occurred before throughout human history, the cloud’s departure being credited – according to apocryphal accounts invented by Jacob – to the efforts of Jesus, Mohammed and Buddha. We see the early stages of the apocalypse through the eyes of a boy named Anon (so called because his mother believed that this was the name of a prolific poet). He peers into windows, and witnesses people committing suicide one after another; he watches television, and sees films, sitcoms and adverts about the end times.
Then, aerial phenomena begin occurring. Those who look up and witness it become frozen, standing stock-still as they stare into the sky. Authorities warn the population not to look upwards, and acts of brutality are carried out upon people who violate this command:
In efforts to control mass hysteria in Tehran, soldiers machine-gunned anyone in statue-pose staring at the sky: men, women, children. About eight thousand were listed as dead so far. Rumors were that the bodies didn’t collapse. This couldn’t be substantiated since no one was able to smuggle film of the atrocity out if the country.
Tens of thousands of helpless citizens in Kuala Lumpur were hacked to pieces by frightened neighbors wielding machetes. Severed limbs were reputed not to fall but apparently remained up in the air in the pattern of human bodies. Terrified, many killers ran off into jungles or threw themselves into the ocean. The single video obtained of this event was grainy, obviously held by a badly shaken cameraman. One channel showed it in a special. The eerie—grisly—sight of dismembered and disembodied human remains suspended in red, steaming tropical air was questioned by most experts, who thought it about as valid as the so-called alien autopsy of years back.
The strange happenings turn out to be the work of an extra-dimensional being, and Jacob – atypically – attempts to explain the phenomena in science fictional terms (“Semantically, the paralysis is the brain’s attempt to explain the terror which has shut down the spirit”). The religious overtones remain hard to miss, however.
The same year that Jacob offered her vision of the end times in “Window for Anon” also saw the publication of “The Plague Species”, a finalist for the 2002 Bram Stoker Award for Best Short Fiction. In this story Jacob turns to Genesis and its heady imagery of unsullied innocence and the sons of God lusting after daughters of men.
The plot deals with the Eden-like island of Timnah, the inhabitants of which claim to be descendants of angels. Across the Aegean sea is a land stricken with pollution, and its population plead for the Timnians to assist in curing their sickness; but the islanders, who refuse contact with the outside world, decline this request. The story’s narrator, Zethám, responds by leading a brutal invasion of Timnah, citing Old Testament genocide as justification.
All of this occurred in the story’s past; during its present, the invaders endure a nightly ordeal as punishment. As the people lie in their beds, they awake to find body parts somehow severing themselves and floating away through the dark. Each night, a different part of the anatomy is lost: one time it is the hands, another time the feet, and in the story’s most graphic passage, it is the sex organs that go astray:
Floating in the air through walls, doors, and windows were genitals: cocks with testicle sacs sagging below… triangular gouges of uteruses, framed with ragged clitoral folds, and trailing scrappy ovaries like the optic-nerve stalks of eyes. Some of these wombs were visibly occupied with fetuses, floating like half-formed dolls inside water balloons. In a few they hung out, as if half-born or half-aborted, or crucified upside-down like St. Peter. Many of the genitals—both male and female—were clearly diseased. And again, as with the feet, they were of all sizes, the most graphic proof that none were spared.
A singularly long protracted moment and my own organs were removed, leaving me flopping on the bed, convulsing as I howled.
It transpires that the Timnians are indeed the descendants of angels – fallen angels – and have the hooves and tails to show for it. And so they are able to exact a supernatural vengeance upon the attackers, who are robbed off their invading feet, their stealing hands, their raping organs and, finally, their eyes, so that they may never see heaven.
Monsters Within, Monsters Without
Throughout Jacob’s stories monsters tend to be presented as things to run towards, not away from. If a monstrous figure is presented in a negative light, it will typically be offset with an opposing, more sympathetic sort of monster. So, This Symbiotic Fascination pits the werewolf-like Arcan against the vampire-like Tawne, while “Drunken Devils, Sainted Wives” contrasts the demonic husband with the zombie-like woman he abuses. Outright fear of the unknown is a trait generally associated with reactionary ignorance, as with the mobs massacring the enigmatic watchers in “Window for Anon”.
One story that does a neat job of laying out Jacob’s approach is “The Moon’s Carnival“ (2000), her treatment of the witch motif. This story was partly influenced by Jacob’s own childhood experiences, as she explains in Up, Out of Cities that Blow Hot and Cold:
I saw a CNN story about a mother arrested for chaining her daughter to a bed from the time the child was little until she was a teenager. The mother had said, “I did it to protect her.” It brought back a memory of my own worrisome teen years when my parents threatened to lock me in a closet for the rest of my life rather than have it known in the neighbourhood that they had a troubled child. This story isn’t about misdirected love, but the devastation on a life when the question is nurture or nescience.
“The Moon’s Carnival“ follows the life of a little girl after she is born to her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Bell. It is not long before the Bells realise that their daughter has peculiar abilities:
There was a mobile of cartoon characters that spun above her crib. One night the cartoon creatures vanished, replaced by wires bearing real acorns, shiny holly berries, rowan twigs, vervain flowers. And that very evening she spoke her first words. She was only a few months old – nowhere near the age when even a precocious child will utter her first coherent syllables. She said, quite distinctly but with a bit of burble, “Earth, air, fire, water.”
Oh, my Lord, she’s a throwback,” said Mr. Bell.
Mr. Bell’s family tree has seen its share of witches, and traditionally dealt with them by leaving witch-babies out in the moor to die. Being products of modern civilisation, these parents instead resort to keeping their daughter imprisoned in her bedroom; they do not even give her a name – instead referring to her as Two, as she is their second child. During February 2, the date of a pagan festival, they cover her eyes, mouth and ears with tape to prevent any corrupting influence from reaching her.
The story recognises that the object of one person’s horror can be the source of another’s enchantment, and succeeds in portraying both the positive and negative poles of the witch theme. Despite her abusive circumstances, Two is able to experience excitement and delight thanks to the magical world that – for all her parent’s efforts – still manages to seep into her prison. Although she is visited by ghosts, learning magic from “a woman who sifted through the walls a few times, sitting on the floor beside her cot” and later seeing the shades of deceased family members, these figures are comforting to her rather than disturbing. Her brother Cecil, on the other hand, lives in a state of fear: Mr. and Mrs. Bell have familiarised him with horrific folklore of witches who kill babies to use their fat as a flying ointment.
“The Moon’s Carnival” encapsulates Jacob’s approach to the monstrous. An established monster archetype – in this case, the witch – is feared by unsympathetic characters, but eagerly pursued by the protagonist. The story concludes with the main character embracing the monster, obtaining self-understanding in the process. Two is eventually spirited away from prison by the ghosts of dead witches – adults with necks broken by hanging, children frost-flecked from exposure – and the character’s joy and discovery merges with imagery that, to the reader, will be the stuff of horror.
All of this is contrary to earlier, more conventional horror fiction, of course. There, a monster will typically be destroyed so that normalcy can be restored, as in Dracula, while seekers after the forbidden will be punished, as in the stories of M. R. James and H. P. Lovecraft (or, indeed, both might happen, as in Frankenstein).
But Jacob was writing at a time in which the traditional monsters were being rehabilitated, and were popularly cast as antiheroes rather than villains. With her interest in psychological themes, she was able to use horror archetypes to tell stories about sexual longing and strange desires; abuse and victimhood; twisted childhoods and warped relationships; self-discovery and spiritual re-invention. All of this she conveyed through dreamlike surrealism, ensuring that the old monsters were genuinely weird once more.
As we have seen, Jacob put her personal stamp upon such horror standards as the werewolf, the ghost, the Devil, the siren, the golem, Cthulhu and even Jack the Ripper. But there is another classic monster that she explored in her fiction, one that inspired enough of her stories to fill an entire collection.
The next post in this series will look at the vampire literature of Charlee Jacob.