Over on my personal website I’ve been looking at writing tha explores the darkest parts of the human psyche. Carrying on that theme, it’s a pleasure to spend some quality time discussing why writers – and readers – feel this strange pull with Joanna Penn, author of the gloriously macabre Desecration. The book follows the investigation into the murder of a pharmaceuticals heiress who has been investigating her parents’ practices. The scene of the crime is the wonderfully suggestive Hunterian Museum with its collection of surgical specimens and anatomical anomalies. The rest of the book takes us on a tour of body modification, from plastination and corpse art through the world of fetish and body mod to genetics.
As well as being a fascinating journey into a number of different underworlds – and asking some very interesting questions about consent and how we differentiate between bodily interferences of different kinds – this is a book that poses very interesting questions about western modernity’s relationship with the body. What emerges is what seems to me a very strange – but accurate – modern form of dualism that accets a scientific reduction of “life” to the “natural” but nonetheless, in its view of death and the corpse as a vacated shell seems to want to retain the notion that something, the crucial thing, has fled teh scene. Which, of course, raises all kinds of questions about why the body matters to us whilst we are alive.
That’s enough from me, though. Here’s what we talked about.
DH: There’s a wonderful scene in Hannibal where Thomas Harris describes Dr Lecter standing amongst the exhibits of a collection called Atrocious Torture Instruments. The real horror, he says, is to be found not in the exhibits but in the gawping fascination on the faces of the crowds. I wonder if something similar could be said about the Hunterian Museum.
JP: When I first visited the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, I felt physically sick as I studied the medical specimens in their jars, and I try to capture that revulsion in Desecration. The display of historical medical instruments could certainly be categorized alongside torture, used as they were before anesthetic and before antibiotics. It’s true that visitors stare into the cases with fascination, but I think it is more about looking within ourselves, than some kind of schadenfreude at someone else’s pain, as the Lecter example.
I felt the same way at the Von Hagens’ Bodies exhibition, where corpses are plastinated, partially dissected and posed in various tableaus to illustrate aspects of life. The descriptions of the corpse art within Rowan Day-Conti’s studio in Desecration are straight out of that exhibition. As I looked at the figures, examining the muscles and veins, the displayed organs, it was both obscene and fascinating. The most disturbing thing was a room full of foetuses, of all ages right up to full-term still-born with its eyes open. Those images haunt me and that definitely comes through in the book.
DH: I’m fascinated by body modification. It has a long history in horror. It seems to me that its use falls into three categories – there’s arrogance, humanity playing God and paying the price, as in The Fly; there’s allure, turning oneself into something beyond human, as in the whole shifter thing; and there’s plain disgust, exemplified by the likes of Tetsuo or Videodrome. Why do you think writers have stuck to such tropes, and have you tried to, er, modify them?
JP: I haven’t actually read any specific fiction about body modification, and the desire to write about it came from my original title ‘Use of the Body’. Based on my visit to the Hunterian, I started off with a story about the use of corpses in surgical research as well as by artists like Von Hagens. Most people would agree that what makes a person ‘real’ is gone after death, and their physical body is just a shell. But if that’s true, why do we get so squeamish around the use of the physical body in these so-called disturbing ways?
As I researched the use of the body after death, I found myself exploring how we use our bodies while we are still alive. Tattooing is pretty mainstream now but body modification takes that form of expression to a whole new level. I discovered the Torture Garden, books and websites around body mod and wanted to include that as one layer in the book. There’s one character, O, an exotic dancer at Torture Garden, and I want to explore her back story in another book. It’s too fascinating a subject to leave behind!
DH: I’ve been fascinated following your pinterest boards for Desecration. Do you want to say something about the role they play in your research?
JP: I’m a visual writer and research trips play a big part in my writing process. I have actually visited most of the places in my books – so for Desecration that included multiple Hunterian trips, the Bodies exhibition in New York and the Hellfire Caves at West Wycombe. During the research process, I used Pinterest as a way to track what I was thinking about and also ground the story in real, descriptive detail. Some people may think that body modification or medical specimens are grotesque, but there is a strange beauty to many of the photos I’ve collected. http://www.pinterest.com/jfpenn/desecration/
DH: genetic science and body modification…
JP: As the human genome is completely mapped, and scientists understand how physical features can be modified, I think we’ll see the congruence of these fields. For example, there are people who will fork their tongues, or implant horns in their heads. Why couldn’t this be done with some kind of gene manipulation, turning on some ancient ancestral switch that actually causes these things to grow. What we consider science fiction now is likely to be science fact within our lifetimes.
Transhumanism is a movement that aims to fundamentally change the human condition through enhancement and technology. That’s a broad remit, and perhaps biohacking is the more cutting edge playground for these ideas. Hackerspaces are springing up in cities all over the world, emphasizing DIY genetic experiments, open source technologies and playing with human possibility. The tagline of Biohack.me says it all: “We hack our bodies with artifacts from the future-present.”
I wrote about genetic modification in my novel Prophecy, more from the angle of eugenics, and I return to a related theme in Desecration. I’d also like to write a technothriller about a biohacker group because it’s such a fascinating area. That’s on my story list!
DH: This is a break from your ARKANE series. What’s it like for you breaking from that series, and will the two series run side by side?
JP: I just think of myself as an author, as a storyteller, and I want to write in multiple genres and explore lots of different ideas. The ARKANE books are kick-ass action-adventures with underlying themes of religion and psychology – so they have series aspects but they can still be read stand-alone. I think there may only be two books with Jamie Brooke in, and Delirium will be coming in 2014 as the sequel to Desecration. But I’ll also be writing a couple of stand-alone novels that hook into other characters from the books. I’ve also got plans for two very separate stand-alones, a post-apocalyptic novella that has resonance with ‘A Thousand Fiendish Angels,’ my short story series, and a horror/supernatural book. So I don’t see my writing as two series,’ I see everything I do as part of a body of work.
DH: We’ve talked about the way that when you research something thoroughly it ceases to become horrific to you. Do you worry this may cause you to miss the true horror of a situation sometimes?
JP: I wanted to capture my initial, visceral horror at the Hunterian in Desecration, but over time that visceral response faded. I can look at human specimens without flinching, and peer more closely at how people have modified their bodies, rather than turning away. However, I have only researched from a distance, and haven’t personally been involved in dissections or corpse art, nor would I be interested in modifying my own physical body. So I don’t think I have really been in a true, horrific situation. What I write about comes from the dark side, the shadow side of my imagination.
DH: Are we, as a society, more comfortable with our bodies than we were, or less?
JP: I don’t believe there’s such a thing as one ‘society’ anymore. We’re in Britain, but we’re not representative of British society, we have more in common with people who like dark fiction, who tell stories and think about the deeper questions in life – and those people could be anywhere in the world. Some people are more comfortable with their bodies than others. Amanda Palmer’s naked performances spring to mind, but I am nowhere near as confident.
Perhaps most writers are more concerned with their minds than their physical bodies, and we can get disconnected physically. I was cycling through south-west India in September and came off my bike on the last day. Bawling my eyes out at the side of the road, bloody and bruised, it occurred to me that this accident was a first for me, a physical awakening to the fragility of my body. Watching my bruises and wounded knee heal over the next month was fascinating, as I became far more aware of physical recovery and resilience. Perhaps it’s good for writers lost in their imaginations to be physically grounded sometimes, although I don’t recommend picking a fight with a road to get there!
DH: Are there places inside yourself you are afraid to go in your writing?
JP: I’m not afraid to go anywhere in my own writing, because most of that is kept private! But I definitely still have boundaries around what I publish, mainly because of fear of judgment, which we can’t ever entirely escape. Desecration is definitely my bravest book yet, and I tackle much darker subjects, and I fully intend to keep pushing my limits. I’m only 38, so I’ve got some time to plumb the depths of my psyche!
J.F.Penn is the award-winning and bestselling author of ‘Desecration,’ as well as the ARKANE series of thrillers. You can get a free short story and audio at http://JFPenn.com/