Fuck Cancer: James Wan’s Malignant

I didn’t know much about James Wan’s Malignant going into the film. In fact, I wasn’t even sure I was going to view the film at all. It was really one of those situations where everyone on social media, in various horror circles, was talking about the movie — or pointedly not focusing on the details of the piece so as not to reveal spoilers, or the twist — that, eventually, with nothing further to do that Friday evening I had to check it out.

Before all of this, all I knew of Malignant was a spike to the head. Literally. The image of a blade inches away from a woman’s eyeball. Really, as you watch the film, it sums it up fairly well. So yes: this is going to be full of spoilers, a twist straightened out, and a malignancy dissected. 

I like how Wan just gives us Gabriel. He doesn’t fuck around. There is an entity in a Research Hospital back in 1993 that seems to have telekinetic abilities, or influence over electricity, and the strength to maim and slaughter full-size adults. There are also children’s toys everywhere in his room, and the hint of some malformed creature seems to be connected to a child. The doctors manage to incapacitate him, followed by the words “Time to cut out the cancer.” And then, we are in present time — perhaps 2021 — where the events of Malignant unfold: where Gabriel somehow returns, and the plot is slowly unveiled.

Wan isn’t trying to be subtle. He is practically spoon-feeding the details that you need to either figure out the twist of the entire film, or at the very least have it all make sense when the reveal occurs. I had a few ideas about what Gabriel was. Gabriel, the name, is that of an angel: the archangel who appears to the prophet Daniel to explain the nature and meaning of his visions, and also apparently the guardian angel of Israel who guards it against the angels of other nations. Angels are not attractive, or humanoid beings in ancient Judaic culture, an idea of which the Gabriel of Malignant definitely follows, but he is no celestial or infernal being, even if his sister-host Madison calls him the Devil. Yet he knows all about visions, and all about explaining or elucidating reality and events to someone else.

It’s no coincidence that Madison continues to have visions of people — and as it turns out specific people — being murdered, except instead of her seeing them before they happen, she sees them afterwards. It’s like a delayed reaction, or perception of events. Basically, when you watch the scenes melt away and Madison can only observe them helplessly, you are cinematically seeing the very definition of the term “unreliable witness.” 

For a little while, I was taken a bit off track, though mostly in the beginning. Originally, I thought Gabriel was some kind of sentient tumour like that of the creature in Clive Barker’s “Son of Celluloid” that fed off of negative emotions, and transferred between hosts. Certainly, the fact that the film begins in Simion Research Hospital made me wonder if he was some kind of research discovery or experiment that the staff there simply transferred to another child, or if he was just one example, and the rest of the film would be finding others of his kind. I guess, like a few people in other horror social scenes have already mentioned — including myself — I was applying Frank Henenlotter’s 1982 Basket Case to a lot of this, even at this point in my viewing experience.

Then I was confused for a time in that Gabriel was very clearly linked to Madison, and I thought that perhaps Gabriel was one person, and that the researchers were able to excise the Gabriel-tumour, and make his host body transgender: with Gabriel haunting, and possessing Madison as a spirit. But this didn’t add up as Madison could clearly become pregnant though, granted, it was also possible that Gabriel could have been the masculine gender he chose before the scientists and doctors lobotomized him, or something to that effect.

But it was far more streamlined than all of that, as it became more apparent what was going on. Like I said, Wan isn’t subtle. We find out Madison is adopted when she’s talking with her sister Sydney. Simion, from the Simion Research Hospital, is a Romanian spelling for Simon which is Hebrew for “listen” and “hearing,” while it is a Classical Greek adjective for “flat-nosed.” Now, look at freaking Gabriel with his vestigial lack of a nose when he and Madison are eight, and after the surgeries dealt to her when his face emerges from the back of her skull. And then consider, as well, how he communicates with her: telepathically through their shared brain in which Madison “listens” and “hears” what he has to say, and what reality he is dictating to her. 

I didn’t know about Simion at the time, but given the name of Gabriel — which is about as elusive as the name Belial with its own meaning of “without worth” and being associated with the Devil — I knew it had some significance. So speaking of Belial and going back to the comparisons between Basket Case, and Malignant, there are obvious similarities. Gabriel and Belial are teratomas — or what are theorized to be Fetus in fetu, basically parasitic twins. At least, that’s what it seems. Belial himself is flat-out considered another being, Duane Bradley’s twin, even if others think he is a monster, or a growth. Gabriel is seen by the doctors and specialists as a mutation linked to Madison Lake’s body and nervous system. Of course, there is one more obvious difference between these characters and their plot points: Duane and Belial never wanted to be separated, and even when they were and they conflicted with one another, they still loved each other in a warped and twisted manner, even if Duane tried to kill Belial in the first film. Duane often carried Belial around, after he was cut away by inexperienced surgeons and con artists, to get revenge on the people that did that to them.

Madison and Gabriel are still connected. The doctors weren’t able to fully remove ‘the tumour” that is Gabriel, not without damaging Madison’s brain, or making her comatose for the rest of her life. There is no love between Madison and Gabriel whatsoever. Gabriel terrorizes her, taking over her body and functions, and making their body do whatever he wants. Any attempt at love or affection from Gabriel’s part is always a deception to attempt to kill or destroy someone else. Gabriel takes away, or deeply compromises, Madison’s agency whereas Belial resents not having Duane’s life, and Duane is angry at having to take care of Belial while also furious at the world for thinking the latter is a monster. Both sets of siblings in their films do have a telepathic link with their counterpart, though Duane’s is when he sleeps, and Madison’s state of consciousness is always pliable to Gabriel’s manipulations. And although they don’t go into it with Duane and Belial, in order to keep himself alive, Gabriel needs to absorb nutrients from Madison’s body as a child and, when she is an adult, from the fetuses in her womb: using them as batteries that he drains to keep himself alive in the background when she’d unconsciously repressed him after her time in the hospital.

But with these pleasant comparisons aside, there is one other thing Gabriel can do differently from Belial aside from hijacking his, and his sister’s body, which is electronic manipulation. It is basically psychokinetic in origin. He uses radio waves, or electricity to speak to anyone that isn’t Madison. It’s fairly clear that the reason he can do this is due to all the electro-shock therapy — or torture, if you’d prefer — that he received from the Simion Hospital when the doctors were forced to pacify him when he became violent with Madison’s body: on her, and others. Eventually, even electricity doesn’t hurt him anymore in 1993, to the point where he has influence over it, and can cause disruptions in devices powered by that energy.

It is a little clunky, but this power doesn’t come from nowhere, and as a creator myself I was more than a little disappointed that Gabriel doesn’t use this power more often when he commits to his assaults. No. Gabriel is an up-close and personal slasher-killer. I don’t know how he does it, or did it, but perhaps due to his access to Madison’s limbic system, he can control that body’s pain and damage threshold. And, more than that, he alters their reflexes in inhuman ways. Perhaps he has control of their adrenal glands, and can increase their physical strength, endurance, stamina, and their reflexes. At first, I thought — and I already knew he was taking her body, or their body — that Gabriel wasn’t used to controlling an adult Madison’s body with how awkward he was moving. But then it occurred to me as I watched the film, that he bent her joints backwards to match where his face emerges from behind her skull. He isn’t able to do much about her feet, but he seems to adapt to that with crawling, and a lot of jumping. Human beings can adapt to various environments, and disabilities, and as such Gabriel in this fictional world is no different. 

Now, as for how Gabriel has his knowledge of the secret levels of Seattle, that is fascinating. You see, I think that both he and Madison had this knowledge. They were given to the Simion Research Hospital by their fifteen year old mother Serena May. Madison’s original name was Emily, before it was changed by her adoptive family. She and Gabriel were both eight when they were given away because Serena’s religious mother refused to take care of them, regardless of the fact that they were the result of rape. Serena’s mother blamed her, and the Devil for what happened, and the abomination that her children are: to the point where even Serena calls Gabriel that. Fascinatingly enough, Serena actually named Gabriel as we find out towards the end of the film where she calls him by that name and apologizes to him for how she abandoned them. Serena May is a tour guide through the lower levels of Seattle: the Underground that the original city of Seattle became in the mid-nineteenth century when it was burned, and the people decided to rebuild around, and over it: much like how Gabriel’s limbs had been cut off, and buried inside of the former Emily turned Madison.

All of these Jungian parallels, including Gabriel capturing Serena in Madison’s attic aside, Serena May seems to have a tremendous enthusiasm for the Seattle Underground. Perhaps she even had it when she was fifteen, and spent that time telling her children about it. This could be where Gabriel’s knowledge, along with his sense of vengeance for his mother abandoning him, came from.

At this point, we are past talking about the clues that lead to the twist which anyone who has seen many horror films or read such stories, can predict. I’m mostly talking about how it all comes together. From the videotapes Sydney retrieves from the abandoned hospital that shows the former Emily being able to see everything that Gabriel does in one of his uncharacteristic moments of cooperation with the doctors, to the family tapes where Madison is talking to Gabriel who wants to kill Sydney in her mother’s womb, and the revelation that Madison’s attic may well connect to the Seattle Underground in a large bit of metaphor. Hell, even Gabriel’s blade is made from the Award he stole from Dr. Florence Weaver: the emblematic blade of the whole film.

I want to write about Gabriel’s downfall. He is malicious as all get out. You can understand it to an extent. Imagine being born attached to someone else’s body. You can’t leave them, even if you want to, no matter how badly you want to be somewhere else. Your mother abandons you, and considers you a monster because of the way you look, even though she named you after an angel. She hands you over to doctors who routinely drug you, and torment you with electricity. You know that everyone thinks that, at best, you are a tumour or a deformity of your sister’s, and at worse you are a monstrosity they want to either curb, sublimate, or destroy. And then, when your rage gets too much, they’ve had it with you. These intrusive people your mother handed you over to essentially murder you. They cut off your arms, your legs, they take off your head such as it is, and they push the destroyed, ruined remnants of you deep into your sister’s skull, and bury you alive. Never mind the fact that you tried to kill them: that was just revenge, perhaps even self-defense, or you just didn’t like them.

Then they take your sister to another family, where she slowly forgets about you, to the point of pushing the phantom of you down into your body: not just her body, but yours. You know that once she sees her adopted sister, once she is exposed to Sydney, she will completely drown you out, and you will exist in a living death in a body turned into a prison that you can’t control. So you bide your time. You consume those “parasites” in your body to regain strength. It’s just as well, as you know if she didn’t get pregnant you would feed off of her too much, and potentially kill yourself as you share the same body. But then your sister’s abusive husband slams the back of her head — namely you — into the wall. And you. Will. Not. Have. It.

It’s been thirty years later, practically, as scientists and doctors attempted to mutilate, and bury you alive. All that’s left of you are vague memories of a traumatic imaginary friend, some family tapes of your sister “talking to herself,” the tapes and folders left in a rotting, abandoned hospital, and the bad memories of doctors. You remember everything. And you take your body, because you are the only one who really knows how to use it, to the nth degree. And it is all because Emily — or Madison — is too weak-willed to do what must be done.

And this is where Gabriel fucks up.

You see, Gabriel forgets that he shares a body. It isn’t his body, but also Madison’s, and it has been hers for years. Madison has had years of love. Her pain still affects her, the trauma is still there, and perhaps it affects her life’s decisions. Or maybe assholes came in, and took advantage of her kind nature. She is a nurse, and tries to help people.

There is a lack inside of her psyche, however. She wants someone she’s blood-related to in order to fill that void. Unfortunately, she doesn’t remember until much later that she already had that, and it was hell. She is all too ready to leave her abusive husband, she wants to have one of her children survive, and she loves her adopted family and her sister. But Gabriel threatens all of that, but it’s not until she’s in a holding cell that she finally begins to understand that Gabriel’s gotten even more adept at altering her memories: that he is holding her in the prison of their body now.

What happens is something beautiful. One thing I absolutely adore about Malignant is the unapologetic mass-murder. It’s true. Gabriel could probably destroy people with electricity, or short out more technology as he does in the hospital at the end. But he goes in, up close and personal, and slaughters every prisoner and police officer in his way. Hell, he doesn’t even have to kill everyone in that precinct. He just … enjoys it. It’s this ugly catharsis after seeing Madison get imprisoned, and tormented by the other inmates, and disbelieved by police who even saw a phone activate and the power go out thanks to Gabriel: and he likes to do that, cutting the power out of a place, and going to town on it as he tried to do back in 1993 when he was much younger.

Yet this fucks him. Because Madison is older, and she has something to fight for. The film could have been so easy. Gabriel’s defeat could have been Madison committing suicide, or letting someone else kill her. But Madison has had enough. This is especially true when, as Gabriel tries to murder Sydney, when she tells Madison to wake up and realize what Gabriel did to her unborn children: how he devoured them to keep himself alive. And just as he is going to kill Sydney and their birth mother, Madison traps Gabriel in the same prison he always put her in: altering his memories, and stopping him.

He claims that he will return, of course. This doesn’t surprise Madison. But she claims that when he does return, she will be ready for him. And this is one of the strengths of this film. Not only do we get the chance for a sequel, but we realize that the power in this film isn’t knowing the twist. It’s seeing the characters come to that realization, to all the discoveries, and overcoming the challenges that come to this point. Madison’s mother finds out the truth, along with Sydney, and and instead of leaving her to Gabriel’s devices, they still love her. Sydney goes out of her way to know more about her sister, and save her. It gets to the point where she won’t shoot Gabriel because she knows it will kill Madison.

And Madison ends up achieving self-agency. Her abusive husband is dead. She remembers Gabriel, and what the doctors did to her as well as him. And she stops him from hurting the family she loves, and even the woman that abandoned them. She thinks to herself “Never again.” She takes control of her body, which is still altered because it isn’t just Gabriel’s body and physiology but hers. She still has that incredible strength. She can control it, and the speed, and possibly more. Hell, and I am saying that a lot since we are talking about defeating a Devil, Madison could simply deprive Gabriel of sustenance: slowly shrinking him over time, perhaps if she still wants a child and keeps him locked away, into nothing.

Gabriel is rage and hatred and fear of abandonment. Even internal misogyny. He is a parasite that threatens to make her wither away while he grows malignant, and strong. Madison uses the tools of her oppressor to defeat him, and whittle him away. As was said at the beginning of the film, he is the cancer — the word and breath of him threatening to grow, and spread — and while he will never necessarily be gone, Madison has put him, and everything he stands for, into remission.

She Will Always Be There: Travis Stevens’ Girl On the Third Floor

A long time ago, I was at a man’s place that had seen a great many wild and passionate parties. At the same time, I also knew that there were some … less than savoury, sometimes even gross things that happened beneath the surface. Lingering hugs on women, someone watching people and being surreptitious about their activities, and a great deal of emphasis on a whole lot of feminine art throughout the entire place along with a great deal of … moisture that you could slip on, and break your neck. I always wondered, if places can record memories — or if people and actions can imprint energy into spaces — just what a building haunted by erotic energy, and intrusive or even predatory behaviour, would look like.

These weren’t just all negative thoughts, of course. At another time, after reading references to Wilhelm Reich’s concept of orgone energy — of a hypothetical universal life force generally generated or manifested by sex and erotic actions — I’d often muse about how that affected another favourite establishment: one that used to be a nineteenth century mansion before it was changed to an adult entertainment hub and night club. What would such a manifestation look like, especially when you consider how it would ride the gamut between lust, love, joy, despair, anger, anxiety, fear, excitement, and all the rest of it? And this was a place focusing specifically on making a comfortable space for women and LGBTQ+ individuals to explore while also making a profit, and still navigating a lot of the patriarchal land and social scape — with men’s desires and expectations — around it.

And this place also had a third floor. And there was always a girl on the third floor.

I was utterly fascinated when I found out about Travis Stevens’ Girl on the Third Floor, and its premise. The Girl on the Third Floor, directed by Travis Steven, and written by Stevens, Paul Johnstone and Ben Parker, is about less about a morally flawed man attempting to renovate an old house for him and his pregnant wife, and more about the house itself, what it has come to be, the forces that shape it, and the girl within it. At least, these last facts are what interest me more than anything else. I recall, when Fangoria #3 came out and I was greedily looking any information on this film before it had come out, wondering where I was going to see it at the time, with only little trails of marbles through an old house and the specifics of cinematography and filmmaking to tide me over before finding … the Girl.

I mean, a horror story that takes place in a house that used to be a brothel. Not only is that an awesome premise, but indeed: what could possibly go wrong?

Well, a lot goes wrong for our initial protagonist Don Koch (played by Phil “CM Punk” Brooks) — whose last name is more than suggestive about his personal traits and failings — and all of it is pretty much his own fault. It isn’t just the terrible things he did in his past, how he put his own personal advancement and desires ahead of the lives of others, and the constant transgressions against his long-suffering wife under the guise of claim to change, but what he does to the house. He comes into this place, with its pastels and pink interior, noticing the black secretions coming out of the wall and instead of asking around about its history, or talking with Ellie Mueller the pastor who actually seems to know more about this situation, he pounds holes and nails into the walls, not paying attention to all indicators that something is different about this place. Essentially, Koch doesn’t ask for help, his pride keeping him from even telling his wife what’s going on, and this toxic masculine attitude — of wanting to make a feminine place his own instead of recognizing it as something that is not what it seems — tells you everything you need to know about where this is going to end. .

Certainly, the house isn’t healthy of course. Aside from its black discharge, its marbles appearing like mobile little growths, this house used to be a high-class brothel for some upper-class society men that viewed women like their playthings. On the third floor, bricked up and concealed, is a viewing platform looking into what is now the bedroom. But it wasn’t always a bedroom. Instead, it used to overlook a platform or a stage where the sex workers involved — all young women — were used in kink and BDSM scenes where an bird-headed man would sadistically whip them, among other things, for the viewing pleasure of other men. It is heavily implied that these women, from the nineteenth or turn of the century, are there under duress or were trafficked as well, and the presence of a little girl there who constantly draws pictures, and plays with marbles — that the bird man gave her — is not reassuring in the slightest as to what this place had been really like. Eventually, at least one sex worker is murdered there, followed by a missing body, and the place is closed down, and passed on to several different generations of families with varying results.

Koch is warned, by some men at the bar he’s not supposed to be at as he is an alcoholic, that the house despises “straight men” and will actively attempt to do terrible things to them. And when you look at the history of the house, you can probably see why that might be the case. Koch is a man who has an affair with a woman named Sarah Yates (played by Sarah Brooks) and then coldly attempts to brush her off and pretend it never happened. He also drinks when he’s not supposed to do so, and when all else fails he will resort to violence to get his way. He is pretty much a spiritual descendant of the men that ruled this town and society, and an extension of patriarchy. It’s not going to end well for him.

But strangely enough, as far as malicious female ghosts go, these are surprisingly fair in that they only react to what is brought to them. They’re not fair to his dog, of course, who did nothing wrong but there is a point where any empathy or discernment is erased by the pure rage that is left behind. But it’s more complicated than that, as it always is. We find out that Sarah is actually the ghost of the woman that was killed in the brothel, and that she reacts to people — as an extension of the house — depending on how they treat it, and anyone in it. Sarah kills Koch’s dog to hurt him for rejecting her and treating her like an object. She kills Koch’s former coworker and friend Milo because despite the fact that he is the friend of both Koch and his wife Liz (played by Trieste Kelly Dunn), he goes along with hiding the affair the other man had due to some sense of reluctant homosociality, essentially being complicit in all men’s behaviour.

And then there is the spectre of what is called, outside the film, the Nymph (played by Tonya Kay): a being that resembles a deformed blond-haired woman with a ruined face that is constantly leaving, and shooting marbles throughout the house. At one point, towards the end of the first part of the film, she manages to insert marbles under Koch’s skin that writhe around and, ultimately, seem to possess and kill him.

I’ve thought about Sarah and the Nymph a great deal since I watched this film a while ago. I also read an article that I can only barely recall was on Fangoria’s online site, when it was owned by Cinestate, that focused on the critique of the patriarchal elements of this film, and the nature of the Nymph herself. Unfortunately, I can’t find the article now but I do have my own conclusions and elements that I want to focus on which might not have been completely discussed to death by many other pre-existing reviews.

It is fascinating that Sarah can manifest physically, and be seen by those she chooses. Her being able to manipulate people’s perceptions isn’t as surprisingly, but being capable of materially interacting with the living is impressive, and quite possibly the result of all that tormented, oppressed, sexual energy and anger inside the house itself giving her that strength. Sarah is a result of what happens to a woman used by men, degraded, and killed by men. What’s worse is that she seems to have been the mother of that little girl, Sadie, who had been making all of the drawings throughout the house. So it’s possible that something happened to her daughter, or herself by the brothel owner.

But it’s the Nymph that gets to me. It isn’t clear what she is. I think I read somewhere that she’s essentially the spirit of the house itself: of all those broken desires, and brutalized women by the brothel-owners, and society manifested into some kind of composite entity. Think of her as some kind of twisted genius loci that guards the place where she was generated by the sexual energy of exploited women, and twisted men’s fantasies. I originally pondered over her being a brutalized sexual sacrifice or experiment of a lodge or cabal of male magicians and occultists — especially with the almost ritualistic practices in that place, and the bird-masked man — but I think it is more effective that she and Sarah have become manifestations of rich men’s debased desires of women.

Of course, there is another interpretation of the Nymph that is equally horrifying, if not more so. While Sarah does utilize the marbles as well to lure the dog and distract Koch and his friend, it’s the Nymph that uses them more. She acts skittish, awkward, and almost childlike: like the effigy of a person, or a doll. Victorians used to call a woman the “angel in the house:” like they are some kind of delicate ornament, or a pretty toy. But angels can fall, along with pedestals, in the dichotomy of female virgin-whore. It is as though she is, or was, almost innocent until something changed her into a parody of what men want. If you watch the film, her body is that of an young adult woman, but her face is warped: as though it had suffered repeated blunt trauma … or it had been drawn by a child.

Think about a little girl being in a place built to contain women for rich society men’s pleasure. Perhaps she died in there, or maybe it was just a part of her soul that died when her mother didn’t come back, and the bird man who gave her the marble bag. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to consider that she was being groomed, or that the loss of her innocence created this apparition. Maybe it is Sadie’s spirit, or Sarah’s lost innocence made incarnate and corrupted over time, or just an entity that represents a woman abused to the point of inhumanity, not allowed to grow or rest, and wanting to play in the horrible ways she’d seen in that place, and in how she sees the world around her.

And it all comes back to those marbles, doesn’t it. Not only do they have a phallic resonance, in terms of gonads, but there is the idea of them being pretty little baubles: just like women, and women’s bodies. In some aspects of Islamic culture, feathers left behind in a space denotes a haunting by restless spirits or demons. But I think that the marbles go well with the imagery of the house being the interior of a vagina: made unhealthy by sexual abuse. Maybe they are like ovum, especially in how they implant themselves into Koch, but they can also be seen as lesions or lumps: as disease. Something natural can also become sick. I can definitely see a sexually-transmitted disease metaphor in there, but also I think what’s important to consider beyond the literal is that Koch sees the house as a distortion of how patriarchy views female sexuality: as something dirty, unclean, even disgusting. It is his perspective that determines the house and how it treats him. Of course, there is also the fact that marbles — as small reflective spheres — can stand-ins for eyes, for intrusive looks that can be anywhere, where not even the sanctity of personal space or the body is safe.

They are like extensions of the mirrors with their over-ornate frames in the house, making Virginia Woolf come to mind when she mentions that to men women are mirrors that show themselves written large. Yet the house’s mirrors turns the male gaze against itself, and shows it what it really is: a wall with a dark hole stuffed with paper.

Indeed, Ellie Mueller — who Liz actually talks with when Koch disappears in the second half of the film — tells her that the house isn’t always malicious. Sometimes it just tests someone, or it doesn’t bother them at all. Couples had lived there, even straight ones, their entire lives without incident. It’s only when someone brings with them these power imbalances and hypocrisies, self-entitlement and forcefulness without facing them, that the house seems to react badly. Of course, it also challenges Liz. But Liz pays attention to details. Liz sees the newspaper article — from the scrunched up papers in the wall socket behind the central mirror no less — about the origins of the house, and she consults with the pastor about it. She knows Koch’s toxic masculine behaviour all too well and is, frankly, tired of his macho and emotionally-stunted excuses. But she is not intimidated by Sarah’s presence, and the ghost and the house seem to want to show her what happened: while testing her the entire time. It gets into her head, or tries to, while it succeeds with Koch: who is just a skin-suit for Sarah now. He got inside of her, and she — and the house — are now in him, as he is also trapped in it. Liz doesn’t forgive him, or his actions that have endangered her and their unborn child. Like a man having an affair and potentially getting his spouse infected by something he caught, Koch has brought Liz to this point but she confronts this distortion of the feminine on her terms.

Liz ends up being let go by Sarah, told she passed the test for not forgiving her cheating and terrible husband again, rejecting a man’s control over her with his false promises, saving herself and her child. But she does more than that. She ends up confronting, and killing, the Nymph. This act actually hurts Sarah. It hurts Sarah more than seemingly being killed by Koch. She ends up holding the Nymph’s broken body, this being that could have been her daughter, or part of the person she used to be, or a representation of Woman twisted and used by men to point of being unrecognizable, or even as a symbol of the house’s hate: of a form of internalized misogyny. And she’s genuinely crying over it: this thing that she loved, that she despised, that was her friend, and her jailor. And now, she’s gone.

Perhaps both Sarah and the Nymph began from a tremendous sense of injustice, but eventually this anger — however justified — turned into something that caused pain for not only those related to their tormentors and murderers, but became collateral damage for everything else in their way. In the end, Liz — after being told by the pastor that each person that enters the house needs to choose to go in and face their own actions — goes further. She ends up going back into the house, finding Sarah’s body, and giving it a proper burial. Liz claims the house for her and her daughter. It is now a place without Koch, and has seemingly made into her own space. And yet … at the end, Koch is still there. Or the house now uses Koch as its new host. It is offering their daughter a marble, a beautiful promise, a terrible lie, a thing to ensnare, a toy to play with, a lesson perhaps to learn, or the hint of the cycle of exploitation and recrimination happening all over again for the next generation.

Like I said, I think about Sarah. I think about the Nymph. I consider the women, and girls, damaged by society around them, its microaggressions, and the weight of a history of trauma influencing who and what they are. I remember that some ghosts are seen in the places they’ve been long after they’ve died. Sometimes you know it. Sometimes, you don’t. So many forces shape them. And sometimes, they come to you. They approach you, and take you to the third floor, like the one at the club I loved. Sometimes, they will offer you something. And you should always pay attention to what is offered, how you accept it, and where you stand.

Society Lives

Dedicated to Brian Yuzna and John Carpenter. Contains vulgarity and body horror. Reader’s discretion is advised. 

“Huh.” Judge Carter rolls the cigar in between his index finger and this thumb. “You really do look pretty strange without your satellite. Doesn’t he, Jim? Nana?”

“Yes.” Jim shakes his golden-haired head slowly.

“He looks … fascinating.” Nana trails a finger down the sharp angles and cratered contours of the other’s cheek.

“Hm.” Judge Carter settles back into the chair. “What do the rest of you think?”

He stirs on the bed. He finds himself tied to it. Where did that girl go? He was going take her asshole. Or maybe he did? She just screamed at him. Fuck. They do that sometimes. But why … he can’t move. Are these his handcuffs? But then he begins to register their words. He recognizes them. Judge Carter. Jim and Nana Whitney of the Beverly Hills Whitneys. The whole social circle.

“Judge Carter.” He tests the bonds, experimentally. “There seems to have been a hiccup.”

“I’ll say.” The old man chuckles. “Wow. You’re really not much without those disguises. are you? What do you think, Dr. Cleveland.”

“Oh I don’t know.” The heavy-set, balding older man looks down at the figure like he is a strange specimen. “Body language and facial tics are in line with … human psychological behaviour.”

“Blue skin.” Judge Carter whistles. “Large cartoon eyes. No nose. That’s what folks look like from Andromeda? Huh. Can any of you make yourselves look like this way?” He shakes his head, smiling. “I know I sure can’t.”

“We … we had an arrangement.” He tells them, trying to remain firm, to remember his place in all this, to keep control. “You have your territories. We have ours.”

“And you keep all the good toys to yourselves.” The Judge says. “Except for the tech that we use to make sure our territories aren’t … disturbed. And we can eat in peace. But you weren’t watching the news, were you my friend?”

He looks around, hoping to find …

“Looking for this?” A smiling woman, much like the one he’d been fucking in the ass, holds up his wristwatch. “These give you quite the trip, don’t they?”

“We had an agreement!” He tries again, a little more concerned as the women begin caressing him, stroking him. He’s still naked. And he realizes they can see him. They can see everything.

“Yes yes.” The Judge waves his cigar with one hand, absently. “Goodness. We had to use all the tech you gave us to cover our territories from your blunder. Otherwise, we’d have lost everything. Our circuses. Our bread. Everyone knows about you, man! Well, they almost did.”

The figure struggles against the touches of the women. Of the men. They are all holding him, stroking him. He begins to feel hot.

“We had to cover for you. You left a vacuum when your satellite got blown to Kingdom Come.” The Judge grins, and the others laugh with him. “And nature abhors a vacuum. There is a child I know, he has great promise.”

“Listen.” The figure says, his skin feeling clammy, soaked in sweat, in slick with liquid. How did he get so warm so fast? What is this? “My people, we can fix this, and everything will …”

“Be back to normal? No. No, friend. I’m afraid it’s too late for that.” The Judge gets up, putting the cigar in his mouth, resembling nothing less than a distinguished caricature of Pop-Eye the Sailorman, Around him, the Whitneys and the others begin stripping off their clothing. “The boy I’m talking about, he is still in secondary school, mind. But he likes to say that the rich suck off the poor. That, in itself is a terrible choice of words. It’s actually always been the other way around. You’d think, by now, that we and you would both understand that fact of life.”

“We will regain control!” The figure says, feeling his mattress grind down under the weight of so many hands and … arms and legs … and … genitalia … and …

“Hm.” The Judge brings a rolled up magazine to his face, letting the figure see it. “Miss June.” He grins, chewing on the black cigar. “Usually my favourite. At least I don’t need those new-fangled 3D glasses that were going around to read it now.” He unrolls it. “Hmm. Marry and Reproduce. Obey. Well.” He puts the slick papers down, creased and greasy with sweat or something else entirely as he begins take off his own clothes. “You don’t have to tell us twice.”

“No …” The figure’s gaunt, bony face slackens in the non-human equivalent expression of horror.

“Oh yes.” The Judge croons, stretching, continuing to stretch, rising up almost to the ceiling, parts of him. “Maybe you could do this, once. On other worlds. After other hostile takeovers. But you forget. Old money always trumps new. Land rights over Industry. And you never endanger the flesh market.” He growls. “A true blue-blood would know that.”

“No … oh no …” He writhes as their limbs cover him, flesh and pink and expansive.

“Hey honey.” Nana Whitney looks to her husband as she also puts a hand around the Judge’s shoulders. “He looks like a blue skeleton.”

“Still has a cock though.” Jim Whitney tilts his head around. “The more you know.”

“Marry and Reproduce.” Judge Carter has a drink in his hand, that he raises and sips at, another limb sprouting from him to take his cigar. “Obey. We have our own imperatives, as well.”

The figure moans in fear and agony as limbs begin to not so much meld into his blue flesh and protruding bones, but creep into them, sink into them, exploring cavities that were hidden by ligaments, making others that didn’t exist before.

“First we dine,” The Judge grins, putting down the glass. Then he puts the cigar back into his mouth, “then we copulate.”

Mouths bite and lick at the figure’s skin, kissing, sucking, suckling  … attaching. Beige grafting into indigo. The figure screams, but limbs wetly cover his mouth. The Whitneys both kiss the Judge on either side of his face as they go onto the massive bed with the others.

“Usually, it’s a hunt of our own choosing.” Judge Carter tells the engulfed figure, grinning voraciously at his kicking, and his body distending under the touch of the others. “We’ve done some of our homework. You are called Fascinators sometimes. I’m sure I speak on behalf of the entire Society here, when I say: we’ve always been curious to know just what a Fascinator tastes like.”

There is only muffed gurgles, and whimpering as the Judge descends on what is left of the being, looking more like a mass of cheap pink blue-berry bubble gum than anything close to humanoid.

“Hey …” The Judge burbles to no one in particular, to everyone as he joins the rest in their feast. “Please remind me that we now have one more vacancy to fill in Washington.”

Family

Dedicated to Brian Yuzna and Society.

It’s been four decades since the Party at the Whitneys. No one touched us after that.

I’d say we’d been on the run, and sometimes the others tried to get us, but it’s all been pretty half-hearted. It’s just more of their games. A lot of the time, it isn’t even them, just everyone else — ordinary people — sent out after us: to deal with our terrorism.

Our fun.

It was so great, getting in Billy’s car, the wind in our hair, speeding away at the dawn. That fool, Teddy, got what was coming to him. I always knew there was something special about Billy. He was just so … intense, you know? It was more than just a drive to succeed, and the petty politics of popularity in the gymnasium that day when he put Petrie in his place. It’d been a game. Even though he didn’t know the rules, or the why of the game, he always knew that none of it was real. You don’t breed that kind of passion. That kind of awareness.

I knew then that I wanted him. And I showed him exactly what I wanted.

Just sophomore games. Teddy the Tycoon. He didn’t take any of it seriously, even by the standards of the Society. And he paid for it. It got old fast. The coming out, and then just sagging flesh, old man skin, elastic girl parts, boy bits that like to show just how big they are, and a massive sunken pit of gross ennui, of pure boredom that can only stimulate itself by playing with other people’s lives. It was all just masturbation after a while.

Until I met Billy.

Maybe the Whitneys thought he was something like their pet. I remember Dad doing something like that, even though we were … well, not the highest in the Society. But Daddy got old and Mom … Mom was always hungry. She came after us, after the Party. When you get old enough, and you shunt so many times, when you overeat, it gets harder to maintain that mask of humanity, and Mom already had so many problems doing that at her best, may she rest in peace. It was only because of the virtue of our birth that Mom even survived that long, and I had to keep eye on her when her faculties … changed. Just think about cannibalism and prion disease taken to its end result, but in a body that constantly grows like cancer.

Like …

It’s hard to think about now. She had always been trying to eat Milo’s hair. For some reason she had a thing for hair in her last days. I think it was the Keratin, even though it was so bad for her. But she guarded our lives. She was fond of Milo, or his hair. And I made it clear that Billy was mine. And god help me, for all her faults, my Mom loved me, and I loved my Mom. She remained strong and she could sure shunt towards the end.

Even though we had Mom in tow, it was mainly just the three of us: me, Billy, and Milo. We still had property in the suburbs, something the Society finds more gross than any of the parties. Billy adapted quick. He was always trying to expose them, the others. He learned how to moderate BBSes, then the Net, and then chat forums.

Forty years of running to different properties, and organizing rebellions that pretty much got squashed, though we took a few of them with us. The Whitneys really underestimated Billy. But I don’t know. They bred him to be the apex of what they think a human should be. like a well-groomed pet, or a pig made to slaughter. I guess he was more of a boar? But like I said, Billy had always been too smart. I watched him in school, and knowing he was almost eighteen — which is when the shunting would start — I made my move. I wasn’t even thinking. I just wanted to have my fun. I just wanted to see how he ticked.

If only Shauna knew. That bitch wanted into the Society. You know, to this day, I almost regret interfering — though I definitely rocked his world and I will never take that back — if only to see the look on that blonde bimbo’s face when she saw what high society is really about. I’m not sure even they could digest all that silicon though.

Billy was just a tool to her. He was prime food to the Whitneys. And what was a diversion for me … That will. That gall. That ambition. They thought it was cute. I think, sometimes, maybe when we had sex that night at my house a part of me went into him. Maybe that’s how he split Teddy from the inside out. Teddy thought to shunt Billy, but Billy ended up shanking him. To this day, I’m not sure anyone has killed one of us mid-shunting. I didn’t even know it was possible. I don’t think the others did either. That’s why they keep their distance, and come at us through their proxies, through their up and comers promised a place in Society. A whole lot of wannabe slaves. A whole lot of Shaunas.

But I think, looking back, it’s less what I did with Billy. I remember when he and Milo suggested that maybe we had been a parallel evolution — one step from the primordial ooze that kept closer to where life came from — while the rest of life became more solidified. Maybe in making love to Billy, I woke up a part of that shared beginning, and Teddy’s end … and that of a few others. Or perhaps Billy was just that strong.

It was an adjustment. We found others. People that discovered the Society. And others that used to be a part of the Society, kissing cousins that got tired of being disrespected, and didn’t really care for playing with their food. Humans are mostly dessert anyway. We can easily live off of our leeches. But the most challenging adaptations came from just the three of us.  I remember, in the beginning, that anger and hostility. Milo didn’t just love Billy. He was in love with him. I mean, seriously: the shrunken voodoo head, the naked action figures, and the dolls were much more than a subordinate jealous of his social superior. And his real hate of me was pretty clear at Teddy’s party.

Obviously I had no issues with it, given where I came from. And Billy and me … well, we shunted, in a way. It’s not something I have to do, but it’s enjoyable. But what few know is that while we devour enzymes and nutrients from a person, we can also give some back.

I never forced it. It was Billy who wanted to see what I could do. I guess that quip about my piss made him curious. But I saw what the Party had done to him, after the years of gaslighting by the Society, making him watch Blanchard die, nearly killing him too. He was the one that asked, and we explored that. I remember, like it was yesterday, the feeling of him being inside of me, and me being in him — really in him — like we had never been before. Sometimes, Milo even joined in, and it almost … it almost felt like what family used to feel like for me. It was different. There was something reaffirming about it. Something vital — even alive — warm and gentle and vibrant in ways that no mountains of greedy flesh could ever really feel, or emulate.

Billy lived longer than he would have. It turns out, he did have a mutation after all. In my darkest days, I think maybe that’s how he resisted Teddy’s shunting.

It was cancer.

Billy … Billy made me promise that we would be together. I didn’t care about the mess, or the sickness. Or appearances. I took care of him until I couldn’t. And then we shunted — we truly shunted — that one last time. And he went inside me, and I went inside him. We ate, and we copulated. And a part of him is, and will be with me, me. Forever.

As for the other part … Sometimes, I think I can still feel him. Sometimes I see him in Dave, our son. I wonder: just what kind of world are we still going to make together?