Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

17.46: Monstrous Awakening

Your Hosts: Mary Robinette, C.L. Polk, Fran Wilde, and Howard Tayler 

Okay, before we start, you have homework: Please take a few minutes to read this essay by Fran Wilde entitled “You Wake Up Monstrous.

That will give you context for our discussion, which is about how body horror and other monstrous-ness is a tool we should be employing with great care.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Daniel Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Rewrite a scene containing body horror or body humor so that the character with the  disability/deformity is neither the source of the horror nor the butt of the joke.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: What does it mean to wake up monstrous? Body horror and body humor play with our fears of losing ability, of losing agency. That could be me? To be scared, to be horrified at helplessness, rope and duct tape could do it, too. Watch out for the sideswipe at disability. Think about ripple effects. Consider the metaphor of apartment life as a disaster! Pay attention to the point of view, and authorial empathy. Make sure your character keeps their humanity and agency. Don’t grab that wheelchair, don’t just help without asking.

[Season 17, Episode 46]

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses, Monstrous Awakening.

[Chelsea] 15 minutes long.

[Fran] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Fran] I’m Fran.

[Chelsea] I’m Chelsea.

[Howard] And I’m Howard.

[Mary Robinette] We are here to talk about this idea of monstrous awakening. One of the things that I’m going to ask you all to do before you listen to this episode is actually to pause and to go read an essay that Fran wrote that’s called You Wake Up Monstrous. We will be here, and it’s fine if you don’t have time to listen to… to read that before you listen to the episode. Totally fine, you won’t be lost, but if you have time, it will give you some important framing, I think. So, let’s dive in and talk about this idea of body horror and body issues. Fran, and you kind of sort of for those who have not had time to listen, sort of sum up what we’re talking about with body horror and body issues, using some of the metaphors that you use in your wonderful essay?

[Fran] Um… Yes. I can. I… So, body horror and body humor as well, and even a little bit of inspiration for it, all use these sort of there but for the grace of whatever universal entity is out there, that that happens to me. You see that in movies like The Fly, you see that in Kafka’s Metamorphosis where the character wakes up and they are transformed into a bug. Or they are… They lose their… Not just their ability to speak, but their mouth disappears. In The Matrix, for instance. Those are all forms of body horror that play with and on sort of vestigal fears of losing ability, agency. They also play with the discomfort that we see each other go through when we become either ill or disabled.

[Mary Robinette] So when we’re thinking about these things, a lot of times, we see authors reach for disability as shorthand for evil or helplessness. But it doesn’t have to be that way. What are some other choices that a writer could make?

[Chelsea] I have a slightly different angle for how to get ahead in advertising. I’m thinking about like the body thing. I was kind of just forming a thing in my head about Neil waking up with no mouth and that helplessness. Like, I was trying to connect it with something else. I was trying to connect it to, like, you can wake up and you can have no mouth and stuff, and all of a sudden, everything is very different and there’s a bug on you, and all those other horrible things. It’s like you’re doing this because you want people to be scared and you want people to kind of be horrified at the helplessness. But I’m also thinking about like… If you want people to be horrified by the helplessness, that’s fine. There’s always like rope and duct tape. Then nobody is like missing a mouth. There isn’t like this kind of this weird symbolism about other disabilities going on. But they are helpless, and it is scary, and that maybe thinking, “Do I need to do this in this way specifically or can I do this and not kind of take a sideswipe at disability?”

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. What you’re talking about there is thinking about the area of intention, like, why are you making this choice? It’s not that these choices are always forbidden and you can never make one of these choices. Because there are times and places where it’s appropriate. But you have to think about it and not just default to it because it’s something that you’ve seen in media, because you’re not thinking about the larger ramifications of it. That’s usually where people run into problems, is that they don’t think about the ripple effects, and they don’t think about those areas of intention.

[Chelsea] I honestly believe that if you take something like that, and you’re like, “Okay, I saw it on TV,” and you think about the stuff that is lying underneath it, and if that causes you to go, “Mm, no. I need to do this because this has entirely different things lying underneath it,” you’re actually going to end up with a story that you actually want instead of one that winds up going astray because you didn’t think about, like, three layers of implications about a device that you’re using.

[Howard] Let me approach this real quick from a different angle. If you totally un-ironically tell a story about a disaster in someone’s life where they can no longer afford their mortgage and they have to move into an apartment and that is just a terrible disaster. You’re playing it not for humor, absolutely un-ironically. Everybody in the world who already lives in an apartment and gets by just fine looks at this story and says, “Why is my way of life horrible or evil or whatever?” You’ve othered an enormous portion of your audience. I bring this up not to say that we should all live in apartments or we should all live in houses. I bring it up to say that this is how you need to think about these things so that you don’t come across as age-ist or ablest, when you are trying to accomplish something else with your story.

[Fran] I think what Chelsea was talking about, too, about that implied helplessness, the lack of mouth, the lack of things, it does depend, in the story, on (a) the point of view, and also a certain level of authorial empathy. Not sympathy, but empathy. Because what a lot of horror tropes rely on is a sense of that other is not part of the human pattern anymore. They’ve lost their humanity, because they’ve lost their mouth or, to go back to a previous episode of Writing Excuses, they’ve lost their hand, and it’s been replaced by another body part. But we have this opportunity to explore the fact that in… And this is something that actually Kafka does pretty well, is that because the point of view is internal, you don’t see that character as, Gregor Samsa, as helpless. He’s rationalizing how to get through this situation and just to have… Take a moment to think… When you’re writing body horror or body humor, and think about what it feels like to be that other person and acknowledge their personhood, acknowledge their humanity, and the fact that they have agency in the situation as well, whatever the horrific situation is, they still have choice. They still have the ability to maneuver in different ways. And so does the audience who’s reading this. Just like, to go back to Howard’s apartment metaphor, in the essay I wrote a little bit about what it felt like to be wearing a back brace that was exactly the same as the back brace that was being joked about in the movie that I was watching. There’s a character in Say Anything who’s trying to get a drink of water out of a water fountain while wearing a Milwaukee-based brace with a neck support. I didn’t have a neck support, but it’s impossible. It becomes this long-running joke in the middle of the movie. I just sat there and felt like, “Wow. This… I was enjoying this movie until just this moment.” Just like the apartment metaphor that Howard gave us, it really does not necessarily do service to your story to have a whole bunch of your audience suddenly feel like you’re operating against them.

[Howard] Done well, it’s R-rated for language and so much language, I Spy with Melissa McCarthy… I think. Maybe it’s just called Spy. But Melissa McCarthy plays the chair guy, the chairperson, for a spy who is suddenly pushed out in the field. She is very competent, but she is very inexperienced. At no point in the show do we make fat jokes about Melissa McCarthy.

[Fran] I love that [garbled]

[Howard] People make fun of her clothing sometimes, because maybe the clothing choices are weird. But it is never about her being overweight. It is daring. It is a daring movie to make that choice. I love it because of how well it does it.

[Fran] Also, she’s a fantastic actress.

[Howard] Oh, my goodness.

[Fran] Her entire use of every inch of that screen is amazing.

[Howard] Yes.

[Mary Robinette] Well, why don’t we pause for our book of the week. That book is Screams from the Dark: 29 Stories of Monstrous… Monsters and the Monstrous. Fran, you want to tell us a little bit about that?

[Fran] Sure. This is a collection of horror stories edited by Ellen Datlow. It came out in the late spring of 2022. It came out from Tor night… Nightfire. It contains a whole range of ways in which monsters, both familiar and new, interact with the world. A lot of them are intentionally horror stories, because that was the purview of the book. But some of them actually do some really interesting examinations of what it means to be monstrous in a human world. I really like that as well.

[Mary Robinette] All right. So that book is Screams from the Dark: 29 Stories of Monsters and the Monstrous, edited by Ellen Datlow.

[Mary Robinette] Okay. So, as we come back in, let’s talk about some things to do that are a little bit more interesting. One of the things that I have noted in stories where I feel like it’s done a little better is that the person’s disabilities are not the source of the horror, it’s the people around them and the environment that they find themselves in. So it is someone else grabbing the wheelchair. That’s the removal of the agency, it’s not the chair itself, it’s someone else trying to take control.

[Fran] Helping.

[Mary Robinette] Helping.

[Chelsea] Oh, it just gives me the shivers. The angry shivers.

[Fran] I had somebody without asking help me off of I believe it was a bus. I was just… I was moving slower than they thought I should be, and that I needed help. They pulled me by my arm and dislocated my shoulder. Which I then popped back in right in front of them to the most disgusting degree I could, because I wanted to let them know that they had not in actuality helped me at all.

[Howard] See, if you had a sword cane, you could have just [garbled] at them.


[Mary Robinette] Right.

[Fran] [garbled] say, why does no one let me have a sword cane?

[Howard] The drubbing.

[Fran] But it really does… People think of themselves as providing assistance without asking. The grabbing of the wheelchair… The maneuvering of someone… It is a lack of agency is horrific. In… Again, in the point of view of someone who is experiencing a lack of agency, whether it is through cosmic horror or the deep and abiding horror of someone like Steven Graham Jones’s stories where every house sort of seems to build out horror around his characters. I think that there are distinctive shifts in point of view and authorial empathy that can avoid some of the pitfalls and really build some… Like Chelsea was saying before, really interesting layers and depth in there. That’s only going to make your story better and scarier, or, if you’re doing body humor, funnier.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Howard] A lesson I learned from Mary Robinette, gosh, eight years ago. It’s one of the best ways to introduce that horror is not to make the removal of agency related to someone’s weakness, you make it related to their strength. Their strength can serve them… It can do nothing for them in this scenario. The wheelchair is not a weakness, the wheelchair is a perfectly good mobility device. In fact, you’re a Paralympic basketball player in that wheelchair. Then you are in a situation where that agency is removed.

[Mary Robinette] The… In The Spare Man, my main character’s a cane user. She has chronic pain from an old injury. One of the scenes that I am… The day where she’s like, “Oh, this is definitely a cane day,” and she has to grab that, that’s just part of her life. She grabs it, it’s no big deal. When she gets to the set of stairs that is built to go up a centrifugal well, so they change angle every single step, and she has to climb them, that’s when she’s like, “Oh. No.” That is the problem. It’s not… It is coming from the environment and her need to interact with that environment.

[Howard] That is one spoon per stair. That’s a…


[Fran] One of the things that I think about is… This is sort of elevating out of body horror a little bit, is something like Pat Cadigan’s The Girl Thing That Went out for Sushi, which has body augmentation which we talked about last time and a little bit of body horror in it, in that these are people who are working in space and have augmentations done so that they can better work in space, so they become starfish and they become… They have… Different ways of gripping or different ways of appreciating which way is up that is really phenomenal. So I think that’s an interesting thing to look at. Horror, especially, tends to end up with the characters and the reader trapped in a situation or trapped in that like depth of imagination where you’re not sure if they’re ever going to get out. Whereas sci-fi and fantasy find a way out quite often. Howard, you were going to say something there?

[Howard] Oh. Yeah. It’s just I… For those of you not benefiting from the video feed, sometimes I raise my hand to let people know that I’m ready to talk when they’re done.


[Howard] I was not trying to interrupt. Lois McMaster Bujold, I mentioned her in a previous episode, the novel Freefall. In which there is a whole race of people who have been engineered so that their lower legs are arms and so that their hearts and metabolisms and everything function really well, just fine, in zero gravity. This group of people, genetically engineered, and they have their own little space station and everything’s cool. Then, artificial gravity, energetic artificial gravity is introduced, and they are sort of this little evolutionary dead end. They’re still perfectly awesome in their own little world. When, in one point of the story, a couple of them end up on a planetary surface, yes, there is our lack of agency, there is our body horror, and it is from people who… Or it is experienced by people who, in their own environment, are perfectly suited and beautiful and wonderful and awesome. I like the way… I really love the way Bujold handles that.

[Mary Robinette] This has been a great discussion. Let’s go ahead and talk about our homework. Chelsea, do you have our homework?

[Chelsea] I do. Your homework, if you should choose to accept it, is to rewrite a scene with body humor or body horror. It can be one of yours or it can be somebody else’s. So that the character with the disability is not the butt of the joke or the source of the horror.

[Mary Robinette] That’s a great homework assignment. This has been Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go write.