CanLitThe Horror Show

What the body remembers: Naben Ruthnum examines corporeality and identity in his novella Helpmeet

The horror genre, argues Xavier Aldana Reyes, “is strongly associated with the short story format,” in that the effects it attempts to elicit “are, arguably, best conjured up over short and intense fictional stretches.” Two of America’s foremost progenitors of the fictional weird, Poe and Hawthorne, worked predominantly in the short form, and the pulp magazines of the 1890s through the 1950s helped spur a proliferation of brief, often nasty, works of concentrated horror and dread.

What goes for the short story also holds true for that much-maligned category of imaginative literature, the novella. One of the most striking examples in the Western canon is Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, though longer short works have also been produced by writers such as Arthur Machen, Ray Russell, Stephen King, Matthew M. Bartlett, Victor LaValle, and others.

Naben Ruthnum’s Helpmeet is a crisp, novella-length work of sustained body horror that begins as a bizarre cross between Henry James and David Cronenberg, becoming in its later stages a metaphorical examination of identity and gender fluidity.

The story begins in turn-of-the-20th-century New York, where a devoted wife, Louise Wilk, loyally attends to her husband, Edward, who is suffering from a strange kind of flesh-eating disease, a sickness both spouses realize will end in death sooner rather than later. As the book opens, Edward’s penis has already fallen off – a balefully ironic condition, given what we discover about the character as Ruthnum’s narrative unfolds – and in one gruesome scene early on, we witness him flay his nose off with a scalpel. His skin is repeatedly likened to paper and when he shifts in his sleep, he “rustl[es] against the chair’s fabric like a flattened pink husk on beach sand.”

There is no explanation for the condition Edward suffers under; he is assured by a specialist only that it is not syphilis. Edward, himself a general practitioner, disdains the conclusions of the other doctor, whom he presumes “smelled something” inexplicable in the invalid man, “something beyond the pus and rot he is paid and feted to deal with.” Edward charges that the other doctor “did not leave my case, he fled it.”

Not that anyone could reasonably blame him; the sickness to which Edward has succumbed is so lavishly and lovingly described in the first half of this brief tale that the reader is sympathetic toward anyone who might give the ailing man a wide berth. How much more sympathetic, then, are we to Louise, who stays by her husband’s side resolutely, mopping up pus and blood and other excrescences, managing his pain, and generally tending to his rapidly deteriorating well-being.

The second half of the story shifts its setting from New York to Buffalo, where Edward has a family cottage to which he has requested he be taken to die. Here we encounter a third character, named Jean (a pseudonym, for reasons that become apparent), and discover the true provenance and trajectory of the strange ailment.

Ruthnum’s novella is odd and evocative, and could not be further removed from his recent novel, A Hero of Our Time, published earlier this year. Its style is deliberately retro, channelling the recondite rhythms of not just James but fellow New York ghost story writer Edith Wharton. The house Edward and Louise inhabit has a “parlour” and a “great stone fireplace,” while Edward himself prefers to recline on a chaise longue with his “back and head … sunk into a soft pillow.” His declining body expresses “deep complaints” that serve as “an intermittent throbbing beacon calling death.”

The language is almost self-consciously elevated, making the sudden shifts into corporal descriptions of decay and dismemberment all the more disconcerting. Yet we are also cognizant of Louise’s professional detachment combined with a spousal loyalty that allows her to tend to Edward’s horrendous injuries carefully and dispassionately. When her husband sets a pot of boiling water down on a counter top, it is the burnt tile that appears malignant to her: “Edward’s face remained his face, with subtractions.”

Underneath all the body horror, Ruthnum’s story is one of love and devotion, themes that are given explicit manifestation in the novella’s second half. Having presented the situation in extremis in the opening sections of the work, Ruthnum turns his attention to the ontological implications of his scenario: how completely is it possible for one person to understand another? What constitutes consciousness? How permeable are gender binaries and how stable is individual identity? All these questions are mooted as the story unfolds, becoming progressively stranger, yet also, paradoxically, more tender as it approaches its conclusion.

To Ruthnum’s credit, it is ultimately this that we’re left with: not the pus and gore and suppurating wounds that proliferate in the early stages of the book, but a hopeful sense of transcendence and connection, a place where it really is possible to see the world through the eyes of someone else.

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