The Horror of Embodiment
Review ~ I Spit Myself Out by Tracy Fahey
I’m not comfortable in me anymore.
Much as Tracy Fahey’s earlier (second) collection The Unheimlich Manoeuvre and its later expansion (Unheimlich Manoeuvre in the Dark) drew on the uncanny in Freud to develop a modern domestic horror, her newest venture—I Spit Myself Out—interrogates ‘what happens when our bodies and minds betray us’. Mutation, trauma and disease, but also agency, self-creation, identity, are mediated by metamorphosis in a set of body horror.
This transition is no simple departure. In the questions being asked, the horror provides a way of looking at the very real experiences of women through the lens of fantastical nightmares and liminal spaces. And a particular kind of nightmare is the throughline in Fahey’s work: namely, a gothic one of ‘the overwhelming pervasiveness of the past in the present.’ The traumas so easily held by bodies, especially bodies that are infringed and invaded by social convention and dictat.
‘My blood is tainted’, opens the story entitled ‘Love Like Blood’. A girl, Oran, has diabetes, ‘Honey blood.’ Home-educated until social services order her to school, she falls for the goth, Isabelle, a fellow outcast. What unfolds is a restrained subversion of the coming-of-age, emphasising the competing forces of fear and liberation, loyalty and lust. Oran is at once adaptive and naïve, a limited narrator and heroic. Her horror is superficially tragic, as not only circumstances but her embodied vulnerability conspires against her wishes, but there is always more going on in these pages.
At the start of the book, in ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’, we meet a museum curator asked to check for damage an Anatomical Venus (a dissectible wax woman). She does so through a dissection that proceeds, methodically, urged-on not only by the task but by strange compulsions that are simultaneously peeled back to reveal the character’s own hidden, psychic wounds that also play out on her body. It’s suspenseful, uncomfortable, full of echoes and refrains, and an awareness of the blur between artifice and reality, flesh and simulacra.
The ordering of the collection is aptly deliberate, and as that first story sets out many of the problematics, the subsequent ’The Wrong Ones’ establishes a gothic tone that reaffirms Fahey’s focus on the ways in which the body (coupled with the social) can go awry. Alongside ’Noli Me Tangere’ (translating as Touch Me Not) this piece introduces pregnancy as horror: ‘skin stretched like a frail umbrella over the knot of you.’ There is a willingness to give vent to the repressed that makes these pieces as difficult as they are vital.
Much of the book is firmly backdropped by Ireland, its geography and history. ‘Ghost in the Machine’ for example, is set during Halloween; or rather, ’the time of the dead,’ Samhain, ‘an in-between time’. It focuses on a woman living with the ‘ghosts of too many arguments’ and is suffused with eerie suggestions. The paganism here can be contrasted with ‘I Kiss the Wounds’; where a traditionalist Catholicism frames the arguments between a child and her parents, with disturbing elements left lingering until the culmination.
Children are often the focus of these tales. In ’Sin Deep’, for example, young sisters suffer skin conditions, one the extreme degos disease (causing lesions, rashes, bumps, papules), the other painful eczema. What begins as an unequal bond, becomes gradually a frightening descent into pain and a strange release. Pieces like this are as much about family as they are about formative development; a motif whereby generational expectations, cruelly imposed, malform the lives of the women at the heart of Fahey’s work.
Both ‘I Write Your Name’ and ‘The Cure’ are apocalypses, situated together. In the former an atomic bomb survivor reflects on her lost lover Valerie so that the terrifying fact of mass death becomes slowly less important than the erosion of love and meaning. The sense of history at an end, and the significance of relationships, centres momentous events on the personal tragedies that comprise them. These stories each make great use of prolepsis, ‘I don’t realise it then, but this will be the last normal day of my life.’ In the latter, a disease ravishes the world, heralded by ‘a heat rash; a raised clump of tiny bubbles blotched red on your torso.’ From a Coronavirus lockdown, the account is striking.
Fahey uses the familiar as well as the unfamiliar to deconstruct how traumatic changes to bodies are made falsely pedestrian; the changes in ‘Metamorphosis’ creep on the reader, they take place in the context of the most disturbing violences, but because the pacing is excellent, the sense of threat can percolate; ‘just on the edge of my hearing there’s that sound of fluttering.’ This story features a mesmeric encapsulation of shapeshifting against the backdrop of destruction, adaptation and survival:
Caterpillars eat themselves, you know. They secrete juices that break down their soft bodies into elemental soup full of mysterious cell clusters that simply know how to coalesce and re-form into new structures. They break themselves down and build themselves up.
Most reminiscent of The Unheimlich Manoeuvre, ’The House Under the House’ has Fahey address notions of inner and outer space, microcosm and macrocosm, which in itself have allegorical resonances to body horror as much as the domestic. This addition also has a wonderful opening, ‘It’s been seven hundred and forty-nine days since I saw the sun. There are no windows here in the house under the house.’ It encapsulates the ways in which the book seeks accounts of neglected experiences, to be given a unique voice through the horror genre.
The concluding two stories are ‘The Woman in the Moon’ and the titular piece. The former is the story of a Goddess, a personification of lunar power, conveyed to the story’s narrator by her mother in flashbacks. Meanwhile, the narrator’s ability to cope with life, the intrusions made on her carefully crafted solitude, steadily erodes. The latter story begins with something in contrast to the unwanted pregnancies of earlier stories; it looks to the experience of miscarriage: ‘How can the disappearance of something so tiny leave me so empty?’ But again, Fahey is not going to be satisfied with cliché, and the conclusion is a twist on expectations.
From the domestic horrors of Fahey’s earlier work, to the body horror of this book, continuity is found in an acute attention to the experiences of women whose possibilities are so casually stymied and crushed, but who can—if not always successfully—insist on more than is allotted.
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