This month on Food and Horror – Octavia Cade on The indiscriminate mouth: blind hunger and black holes.
Octavia Cade is the author of Book Smugglers Publishing’s The Mussel Eater. Food & Horror is a regular monthly column from Octavia, in which she examines the close relationship between the things we eat and the horrific.
The indiscriminate mouth: blind hunger and black holes.
Food & Horror: Episode 10
Last month I talked about meals as rituals, food as a means of imposing order and meaning on an often chaotic and destabilised (or destabilising) universe. And while I used ritual meals as a specific example of this, nearly all the horror stories I’ve been talking about in these columns are, at base, a means of promoting a specifically desired outcome. That outcome doesn’t have to be the one desired by the reader – often in horror it is not. It must simply be that desired by the character who is using food as a means of achieving their goal.
The fairy tale “The Juniper Tree”, for instance, is the attempt of a stepmother to promote her biological daughter over her stepson, to ensure her daughter’s inheritance and essentially build a future economic power base for her offspring. Her daughter’s material prospects, as funnelled from her father’s household, are limited by the existence of that father’s son. The mother is unconcerned with her daughter’s emotional well-being, with the bond the little girl has with her brother. Sibling love is clearly a minor part of the mother’s universe, incapable of destabilising her environment in a way that, for example, poverty can. While we as readers find her bloodthirsty actions deplorable (making her stepson’s body into stew only adds insult to injury), we can still see that there is a reasoned motive behind the horror. The little boy isn’t a random victim. He is targeted because of what he represents, and because his permanent absence is advantageous to those left behind.
In horror, this kind of strategic thinking is commonplace. And because food tends to require effort, and preparation – a stew of stepson, a poisoned feast, a maiden staked out for sacrifice to a hungry beast – it’s all too easy to fold in food and food preparation to strategy. Everyone has to eat, after all, so why not take advantage of necessity to kill two birds with one scone?
It is a tactical decision, is what I’m saying. And while sometimes the horror comes from consequence and effect – the painful effects of rat poison in the pudding, the suffocation of cyanide – much of the horror comes from this subversion of the commonplace. Humans are so conditioned to see food as a means of bringing together, of the strengthening of social or familial bonds, of the reiteration of how things are supposed to be (we eat, we eat together, we are not the ones who are eaten) that the upturning of these expectations, these foundation pieces of our collective cultures, contributes hugely to the sense of destabilisation that is so characteristic of horror.
This sort of directed consumption is largely dependent on, and can only exist because of, character. There is a thinking intelligence behind the direction, and whether that intelligence is working for good or evil is largely irrelevant – the only exception being that the “good” horror meals contribute to the stabilisation of the reader’s worldview, while the “evil” horror meals are contributors to reader destabilisation. Contrast reader reaction to “The Juniper Tree” and Catherynne M. Valente’s “The Lily and the Horn”, which I talked about in last month’s column. The child stew is pretty universally seen as revolting and destructive of family unity, while the poisoned meals prepared by the Lily are designed to minimise war and destruction by limiting the casualties of a conflict to the leading players in that conflict, while excusing both civilians and conscripted armies from slaughter.
Blind consumption, however, is a horror trope that takes destabilisation to a whole new level. It does this by unlinking consumption from character, at least as far as humanly possible.
Characters consume for a reason. Whether that reason is basic nutrition (say, if the character in question is a cannibal or a salt-water croc) or seduction (for example the vampire), or in the quest for power and the stabilisation of situation (as in The Juniper Tree), it is understandable. And understandable consumption can be supported, or it can be guarded against. Vampires can be warded off with garlic or holy water, and being polite to people materially improves one’s chances of not being eaten by Hannibal Lecter. Similarly, if an individual wants to reinforce their perceived position at the top of the food chain, they can easily do so by staying out of coastal crocodilian habitat, for instance, or by refusing to throw chum in the water and then go swimming with the subsequent sharks.
Motive means manipulation. That is, the motivated horror consumer can be constrained by, or constrains through, intelligence or ritual or behaviour. When the consumer is a blind force instead of a character, and thus separated from motive, escaping the red gape of their greedy maw becomes a rather more perilous endeavour.
Basically, it comes down to luck. Being at the wrong place at the wrong time, all innocent of danger – or, in the worst iterations, being at any place at any time, because the consumption is so all-consuming that nowhere is safe.
Possibly my earliest exposure to horror was the horror of blind consumption. The culprit? The one film that could be relied upon to be showed on telly every Christmas: that paragon of childhood memory, The Neverending Story.
But The Neverending Story is not a horror film, you cry.
Sod off. It totally fucking was. Don’t you remember that poor horse? Artax, drowning in the Swamp of Sadness…
(No. I don’t know why TVNZ was so determined to fill all my holidays with misery and despair but they were and they did.)
You don’t need to tell me that the Swamp of Sadness didn’t literally devour poor brave Artax, although no doubt microorganism fed on his body under that muddy surface. But otherwise, all the consumption was metaphorical, and it was linked, inextricably, to the biggest consumption of all: the Nothing. If you remember Artax, you remember the Nothing. Quite a different type of villain for little Octavia to be exposed to. Even then, I found it hard to wrap my brain around. How could nothing be so bad? But it was bad. Even the Rockbiter was afraid, and he was totally enormous and ate stone for breakfast. “A hole would be something. No, it was Nothing! And it got bigger, and bigger…”
Unaware as I was at the time that the film was based on a book of the same title, which was itself translated from the original story Die Unendliche Geschichte, you can understand that I was also unaware of Germany even as a place, let alone as a philosophical and psychological hotbed of angst and nihilism. Truly, the Nothing is a villain for these miserable academics, but The Neverending Story, spreading its cheery message to the children of the world, realised early and sensibly that we’d need a face to hang the horror on. An effective introduction to the misery of internalised horror, the Gmork was a vicious werewolf type that fitted much more easily into the recognizable and terrifying narrative of Bad Doggy.
As such, The Neverending Story is more of an introduction to blind consumption, to leering, vacuous gobbling, than anything else. It works on multiple levels, and while as a kid is was the Gmork who was the most easily horrifying, as an adult that fucking Nothing still gives me the shivers. The Nothing exists, and it is hideous, eating away at the edges of the world until Fantasia is reduced to almost nothing, to a sad little remnant the size of a grain of sand, but it’s not something we can really see. The Gmork may be in league with the Nothing, and his motivation might be rather thin on the ground, but he’s an intelligent entity and even if he can’t be swayed or reasoned with, it’s possible to avoid or defeat him.
The Nothing, in comparison, can’t be chained up, or stabbed with a stone knife. It can’t be starved to death, because it just keeps on eating anything in its path – rock, pasture, buildings, people of all types and races. Its consumption is totally indiscriminate. It doesn’t have preferences; it doesn’t differentiate. The Nothing doesn’t leave a limestone outcropping for later because it would rather feast on granite. It simply doesn’t care. There’s no personality to its persecution; either from its end or from its victims. It doesn’t latch onto pretty young things like a vampire does; it doesn’t restrict itself to a particular territory like a crocodile. On the (very dimly) bright side, that means it doesn’t come after individuals people on a grudge, but the flip side of this is that there’s nothing that can be done to avoid it – no magic trick, no ritual to turn consumption aside. Bear spray won’t help, and neither will garlic. The Nothing will eat those up too, and not care as it crunches.
There’s something terribly creepy about that.
From the moment we become sentient, our survival and success in life is dependent on pattern recognition, and on our understanding of cause and effect. Language comes from pattern recognition – names, prayers, invocations, the development of method. We learn quickly and early that specific actions increase (or decrease) our chances of achievement at whatever goal we’ve set ourselves. Though we don’t often think about it, this underlying certainty gives shape to our lives and to the choices we make, because we expect those choices to have meaning.
Truly blind consumption spits in the face of all that. It disrupts the idea of cause and effect, because there’s no cause that we can understand to indicate what, specifically, has been done (or has failed to be done) to cause the subsequent effect. It disrupts the idea of pattern recognition because there is no pattern – pattern implies meaning; an organised or otherwise explainable sequence of events that can be understood and therefore to some degree manipulated.
I’ve said before in these columns that I think the purpose and primary effect of horror is to destabilise. Oftentimes this destabilisation is used for specific effect: what if flesh-eating zombies really did exist? What if an alien really did want to eat me? What if the meat in this stew isn’t what I think it is?
Blind consumption doesn’t work to specific effect. It upturns everything, makes everything meaningless. It’s no longer a question of “But zombies/aliens/cannibal families don’t exist” which is generally overturned so that the protagonist has to deal with a world where they’re required to say, even if only implicitly “I was wrong about (this particular thing)”. Blind consumption is the admission that “I’ve been wrong about everything, there’s nothing left that I can make sense of”.
And so it is with the Nothing. It’s lack of meaning given form, and as such it’s no surprise that the Nothing doesn’t just consume everything around it – it also encourages living creatures into suicide, tempting them to feed themselves to the jaws of what is, essentially, absence.
“It usually started with just a little chunk, no bigger than a partridge egg. But then these chunks got bigger and bigger. If somebody put his foot into one of them by mistake, the foot – or hand – or whatever else he put in – would be gone too. It didn’t hurt – it was just that part of whoever it was would be missing. Some would even fall in on purpose if they got too close to the Nothing. It has an irresistible attraction – the bigger the place, the stronger the pull.”
Of course some people would fall in on purpose. Why wouldn’t they? When confronted with blind consumption, with the total destabilisation of cause and effect and pattern, it’s hard to respond mindfully, in a meaningful way, because the Nothing has no mind, and it is anathema to meaning. It’s a black hole, essentially – and the bigger the black hole, the stronger the gravitational pull. Like responds to like, and mass attracts mass.
In Fantasia, the physics is different. It’s not the property of mass that’s causing people to throw themselves into the Nothing, to let themselves be devoured into suicide. It’s imagination and feeling and inspiration that’s the basic currency of this world, the mass-analogue. The expectation of wonder is what holds Fantasia together – wonder and creative currents, fantasy and inventiveness. These are the things that give meaning and purpose to Fantasia and its citizens.
So when the Nothing comes along, devouring all these things indiscriminately, undermining their importance in a fundamental way, its very lack calls to the part of the Fantasian people that is the very opposite of imagination… the angst and nihilism inherent in each individual. The part that says What if we’ve been wrong all along? It doesn’t take much doubt (just a little chunk) but the resulting horror feeds on every positive thought, every creative impulse, until the symmetry of lack between the Nothing and the despairing individual acts as gravity, drawing them closer and closer to the Nothing until the only alternative is to become part of it.
It really is like a black hole.
Why TVNZ was so determined to show it every Christmas I’ll never know – but I watched it every year anyway, and every year it was more and more horrifying…