***Note: Some Spoilers for The Beauty***
The distrust between the male and female sexes has and will probably always be fertile ground for horror narratives. The difference between the sexes foster fear; the shared human experience between them gives form to that fear. We know what the other is thinking and what they might do to us. They are devils we’ve always known and could never escape.
As the saying goes, “Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em.”
This is the plot of Aliya Whiteley’s The Beauty, her 2014 novella, which was published recently in the United States. In the dystopic near-future of The Beauty, a mysterious disease has claimed the lives of every woman and girl on earth. The men have grown old, and the remaining boys have grown into men. Some of these men inhabit what used to be a thriving off-the-grid community. Every day, the men busy themselves with all the various activities needed to keep the community running, unsuccessfully ignoring the fact that they are merely waiting to die. Every night, Nathan, the community’s storyteller, recounts stories of their dead women and idealized past. Nathan is on the brink of losing hope when their women come back, rising from their graves in the form of mushroom-woman hybrids.
They are The Beauty, and though they are walking yellow fungi with psychic abilities, they have tits and asses, which is good enough for the men. Caught between their repulsion and intense longing for the emotional and physical relationships they’ve missed, the men accept their new mushroom-women as mates. They pray that things might go back to normal, which is not what their new partners have in mind.
The premise of The Beauty is captivating and provocative. Like a demented fairy tale, The Beauty explores themes of gender politics, identity, and the stories we choose to tell ourselves. Without ever offering her opinion, Whiteley examines subjects like a dying community, political tension, gender reversals, sexuality, pregnancy, and the loss of autonomy. Then she examines how those subjects stoke fear in men and women alike. The Beauty is a meditation on masculinity in the absence of conventional femininity—asserting that masculinity is predicated if not dependent on a static definition of femininity.
That’s why, when the Beauty first appear, the men are so happy. In a darkly comic development, the men are repulsed for all of five minutes before they start pairing off with their Beauties. They cuddle and fuck their Beauties, settle into domestic routines, and treat them as they did their womenfolk. At first, the Beauties fall into well-worn relationship dynamics and do not challenge the social order of the community. All they do is coo and comfort, a melding of mother and lover.
That is, of course, until it becomes clear that the Beauty were never playing that game. It dawns on the men that their new girlfriends were never alien-but-feminine helpmeets. They have a collective agenda, and even though the men are disgusted, almost all of them aren’t disgusted enough to stop it.
Whiteley never allows her Beauties to devolve into a kind of evil-plant-abomination-seductress trope. They are more than temptresses or sirens. They are intelligent beings that genuinely seem to care for the men, and although they foist a horrifying fate onto the men, that fate is a hopeful one. It just so happens to fly in the face of the structured order, and it just so happens to drastically recast the dynamic between the men and the mates.
In doing so, The Beauty also plays around with established dualistic tropes by layering them over the conflict between masculinity and femininity—civilization vs. wilderness, patriarchy vs. matriarchy, sex vs. death, war vs. peace. For such a straightforward premise, Whiteley explores a great deal, purposefully raising more questions than she answers.
And if the idea that a whole group of guys is so lonely they’ll put their dicks in anything wasn’t disturbing enough, the book gets way creepier and much more disgusting.
As a lover of horror novels, I often find that such books are frightening but only in an abstract way. Rarely can a horror novel make me jump or cringe or cower as a horror movie can. The Beauty has the distinction of being one of the few books I’ve read that has made me squirm. It was so gross–womb-like caves, mushroom-woman-human sex, man-on-mushroom-woman and mushroom-woman-on-man violence and sexual assault, shriveled boy parts, and revolting new orifices where they shouldn’t be. David Cronenberg would be proud, and I would not be surprised if he influenced Whiteley’s imagery, which both alien and familiar, full of dark sexual forces as well as strict biological functions.
The body horror appears throughout, especially towards the end. While disgusting, Whiteley is very restrained in her depiction of physical and biological horrors, resisting the urge to plunge headlong into the nastiness and instead focus on key details. In a way, her approach makes the descriptions grosser, because they don’t rise to the level of ridiculousness. As any horror fan knows, the more ridiculous a reveal, the easier it is to dismiss it. Whiteley avoids that trap.
That being said, I was constantly struck by the instances when the pacing and tone of The Beauty undermined the narrative.
The pace is steady and unvaried. At times, this works to produce a riveting discord between terrifying events and the matter-of-fact retelling of the narrator, like he’s taking us through a slow-motion nightmare. But it doesn’t always land as it should. Some critical scenes forfeit their punch to maintain the pace. Additionally, the tone was a little ham-fisted, a little forced, a little on the nose. To be fair, this effect could be due to Nathan’s narration (he is a storyteller after all), but it distracted from the story in ways I’m not sure were intentional.
I also found the ending much too rushed. Because the climax was so brutal, I was left flipping through the book, searching in vain for the rest of the story. I understand why Whiteley made the choice she did, but it felt like a little bit of a cop out, a sidestep to avoid the fallout from the story’s violent climax. I mean, shit went down! The ending didn’t seem thematically cohesive and let me down as a reader committed to seeing this weird, gross story through to the end. However, the rest of the book was so compelling that I’ll forgive the ending. A little bit.
On the whole, the book is successful, restrained but effective in its use of body horror to explore societal constructs and gender swaps. Whitely has a lot of talent and a knack for wonderfully morbid stories that mirror the realities we struggle to confront. I can’t wait to read more of her work.