From Dead North: Canadian Zombie Fiction
In 1954, Richard Matheson published a story called “Dance of the Dead.” A post-apocalyptic vision set after a devastating Third World War, the story involves four teenagers taking a road trip to St. Louis to see a very special live cabaret. The main attraction is a “loopy” show, a colloquialism based on the acronym “LUP” – “lifeless undead phenomenon” – which refers to the spasmodic gyrations performed by corpses that had been subjected to a particular strain of nerve gas in the war. The chemical agent has since been refined and is used to create zombies that appear on stage in a horrific burlesque show for awestruck audiences.
It is hard to imagine that Canadian horror and dark fantasy author Gemma Files is unfamiliar with Matheson’s story; there are strong echoes of the American writer’s tale throughout “Kissing Carrion,” a lurid and perverse twist on the standard zombie story.
Here again, the central focus is on a stage performance involving a corpse, in this case the first-person narrator. The protagonist has been plucked from the morgue by Pat Calavera, an avant-garde artist responsible for mounting a bizarre show called Bone Machine. This work of “underground performance art” involves “getting black market-fresh cadavers to parade back and forth on strings for the edification of bored ultra-fetishists.” Pat, the narrator informs us, is a devoted puppeteer, an artist who “always liked being able to move things around to her own satisfaction, to make things jump – or not – with a flick of her finger … even if it’s just a dead man with bolts screwed into his bones and wires fed along his tendons.”
However exciting the prospect of animating corpses on stage may be (the narrator calls Pat’s human puppets “carrionettes”), it proves insufficient to assuage the artist’s boredom or the demands of her jaded audience, so she enlists the help of Ray, an ex-porn star who agrees to participate in a “live” sex show with the reanimated corpse.
At its core, “Kissing Carrion” is about necrophilia. This does not make it unique in the realm of Canadian short fiction: Barbara Gowdy’s “We So Seldom Look on Love” also told the story of a necrophile. But where Gowdy’s story was a sensitive and sympathetic examination of loneliness and female desire, Files’s tale is a straight-ahead horror piece. It’s a frankly transgressive work that has the good sense to be self-aware about what it’s doing; at one point, the narrator muses, “Transgression a-comin’. That all purpose po-mo word poseurs of every description love so well. But there are all kinds of transgressions, aren’t there? Transgressions against society’s standards, the laws of God and man, against others, against yourself.”
Files seems to enjoy pushing her reader’s buttons, but she is equally interested in subverting the clichés of traditional zombie stories and forcing Matheson’s twisted premise even farther than he might ever have imagined it could go. The author displays a heightened linguistic flair (“Decay’s his groom, and he doesn’t want even the shadow of anything else getting in the way of this so-devoutly desired consummation, this last great graveyard gasp”) and an appreciation of the implications beyond and beneath the story’s linguistic surface (note, for example, the close correlation between the words “zombie” and “puppet”). Her undead narrator is not simply a mindless automaton; he speaks eloquently and occasionally drifts into language that is almost poetic. And he is not immune to irony: he died of heart failure at the age of 29, but before that he was a failed suicide. “I simply came home knowing I didn’t ever want to wake up the next morning, to have to go to work, and talk to people, and do my job, and act as though nothing were wrong – to see, or know, or worry about anything, ever again.”
And as his corpse degrades to the point that it becomes unusable for Pat’s purposes, he wants out of his role as live-action sex toy, notwithstanding the fact that Ray has apparently fallen in love with him. A further irony accrues to the moment in their final performance together when the narrator, against all odds and with no precedent in his time as a reanimated corpse, begins to physically feel the sensations of the onstage sex act.
“Kissing Carrion” stretches the boundaries of its horror premise and tests the limits of its readers’ sensibilities, but at its heart it is something more ambitious than any of its surface outrageousness would suggest. Files’s story is at once a satire about the human appetite for ever more extreme diversions and the concomitant deadening of sensibility, as well as an ontological fable about the nature of existence. It’s a Goth fetishist’s dreamscape and an examination of the nexus where sex and art and horror coalesce. And it’s a love story, to boot.