Desecration: Twisting Bodies Out of Shape

DesecrationSmall3DCarrying on the theme of writing that explores the darkest parts of the human psyche, 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.

j f penn(photo: Mim Saxl Photography)

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.

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 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

I Like Darkness

You don’t have to be a goth (I’m not a goth, though Queen of Darkness in Camden Lock Market would sit firmly in my top 5 fantasy shopping list, and just a couple of days ago Andie Berryman gave me the best review I’ve ever had for my performance poetry, talking about my “intelligence and generation x gothism”) to have a fascination with life’s dark side – both real and imagined. In the last couple of days I have re-read Thomas Harris’ Hannibal, soaked up the current series of Whitechapel, and delighted in Lucy Worsely’s stunningly good new series A Very British Murder. If you were the proverbial Martian just landed on Earth and you happened to be unlucky enough that your first experience of humanity was my blog (yes OK if that ACTUALLY happened, you’d head straight back to Mars screaming) you might be forgiven for thinking either that I was a very unrepresentative exemplar of this strange new life form or that you’d walked onto the set of Cannibal Holocaust (not that you’d know what that was if you didn’t know about humanity, only now you would because you’d read it on my blog, hit Google, and go Oh yeah – only you wouldn’t know what Google was if that’s even possible).

In reality, of course, neither of these is true. Humanity is, in many ways, a savage, cruel, thoroughly despicable evolutionary mishap. But by and large our predations are not those of the regular grimoire but far more insidious and banal. Hannibal was for many years the fastest selling adult hardback (read fastest selling title not beginning with the words Harry Potter), and if you were to wander into Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors, the only time you would find yourself anything approaching alone is if they’d just cleared it so that Lucy Worsley could film her new series. And the list goes on – ask 90% of people here in Oxford for a museum recommendation for example and they’ll say “Pitt Rivers” adding swiftly “for the shrunken heads.”


OK, so I know you’re not the proverbial Martian (are you?), but you are probably wondering why I’m delving into these murky waters. Or maybe you’re not – after all, I did write in the preface to (life) razorblades included (download a free copy here or click the photo for the pamphlet) “for all that so much of the material in this book deals with death, this is a book about life” and that book’s cover has been accused of pandering to “suicide chic.” As for some of its contents, well, maybe more of that later. And my thriller The Company of Fellows drew the Goodreads review:

“I want to erase this book from my mind. While parts of it are well-written in a lyrical fashion, this is by far the most depraved and perverse thing I have _ever_ read. Out of thousands and thousands of books–including more than a hundred about serial killers and psychosexual deviants–this book has the single worst and most disgusting things in it I have ever laid eyes on.”

So, you may not be surprised to find me blogging about something other than daisy-filled summer meadows and Cath Kidston table linen. But, whilst idly thinking about life’s darker side and my fascination with it, specifically triggered after this month’s Hammer and Tongue poetry slam by remembering Henry Bowers’ fabulous poem “I Like Darkness”,

I realised that actually the subject fits very much with recent topics on here. Specifically, this is a subject that is actually about how we occupy space. Both physical space (the liminal spaces within cities, the disused and dangerous spaces of industrial neglect, the penumbras and symbolic spaces of forests and heathland) and the conceptual space in which we relate our identity to our perception of the world and others in it. And in the overlap between the two. Which is a good point to pause and share a brilliant Facebook status I read this week from punk commentator Joe Briggs

“That shit about how stand-up comedy is sacred place where you can say anything is so fucking cliched and boring and misses the point so hard, places for exploring taboo topics work coz they are shitty, derided and disrespectable already so nothing you say in them can bring them down, soon as you forget that and start constantly pointing out the freedom and high-minded possibilities of the medium, setting it up like some kind glorious untouchable oasis of thought-experiments and it becomes some straight-up church shit, where it’s beyond criticism cos it’s a holy institution, not that it’s below criticism cos it’s a filthy dirty thing no-one in their right mind would even give a fuck about anyway. The most meaningful shit for me comes from places where meaning is at first absent, when you say “LOOK THIS IS MEANINGFUL. LOOK AT IT! VALIDATE MY ART!” it’s boring and trite, if someone tells you “Your medium is a pile of shit!” you should be like “Yes it is! Fuck you!” not “NO IT IS MOZARTPICASSOGENIUS” Best shit in the world: dumb comics, dumb punk, dumb jokes, dumb action movies, dumb pulp books. All that good dumb shit. That’ll get me through.”

which about perfectly expresses the intersection of darkness, physical space, and conceptual space.

Specifically, I think the central pull of the dark side is part of our desire to position ourselves as outsider. “Outside” is a space to which we are ineluctably drawn and from which we are repulsed in equal measure. It is a space simultaneously of promise and danger, but most of all it is a space wholly different from the one we sense we in fact occupy. Its strange attraction, best likened to the vertiginous feeling of standing on an edge and wanting with all your heart both to cling to the rock and to dive headlong, can be seen in a powerful archetypical hold that stretches back to Cain’s banishment to the land of Nod and stretches forward through endless symbolic accretions to the “perfect” opening of Moby Dick, “Call me Ishmael” and beyond.

If an attraction-repulsion to darkness is about positioning ourselves as outsider, it could be argued that it is symptomatic of a societal decadence and comfort which we acknowledge at some level but from which we want to distance ourselves (think of the popularity of guignol and dark cabaret at times of decadence, the prevalence of music hall whimsy at times of distress) – though not entirely, but rather as what one might call torture tourists, dipping into the dark side from a safe distance, toying with outsiderdom as a way into grappling with the problems of being part of a society that is affluent and comfortable but with the buttresses of whose affluence and comfort – sweat shops, crippling carbon emissions, forest-stripping, famine – we are deeply uncomfortable. A fascination, that is, with a particular, widely-agreed avatar of evil may represent a first step towards admitting that the true “banality of evil” is not the everydayness of Denis Nilsen’s face but the millions who will never have the opportunity for such thought experiments because all their spare capacity is exhausted making your T-shirts.

But a fascination with darkness is not just about renting out a conceptual holiday home as “other.” It is also about reaching inside oneself and peeling back layers of learned behaviour and thought to discover who you actually are, to admit your desires, and to acknowledge frailties and failings that have hitherto plagued you from the shadows so as to dispel or, indeed, embrace them and so render them harmless.

There’s a danger of this sounding rather banal – paraphilias and transgression help us to explore the notion of boundaries, we get a glimpse of the things we desire but never dare to do. True, but I don’t think that’s the full story.

In order to see if I was on the wrong track completely or had overlooked the obvious, I did something highly scientific – I took a straw poll on Facebook. The results were fascinating. One respondent pointed out the vicarious attraction of darkness in culture:

“It allows a vicarious dip into darker waters whilst posing no tangible threat. And the darkness makes the beautiful things in life all the brighter and I feel more thankful.”

Another developed that in a very interesting way

“I could never do such things myself and I try to find the disconnect that lead them in one direction while I went in another”

That, surely, is one of the most compelling questions, and one that is central to our struggle for our own identity – what switch do we have that others don’t? This kind of self-scrutiny was at the heart of another response, which focused on the question of nature versus nurture, which is, surely, at root the question “how do I know if this is me?” The same respondent put it succinctly “I don’t think you can understand human nature – ergo yourself – without examining both the ‘light’ and the ‘dark’.”

There really does seem to be a fundamental question of the search for identity, for an understanding of our exterior and interior occupation of space. And it is this that makes me sceptical of the criticism alluded to above – that a creative focus on the dark side glamourises the worst of human behaviour. The perceived danger was expressed very insightfully by another of my respondents, “If there is danger in glamorization, it’s because people will see the gain that can come from dark actions.” That seems to me to be much closer to the truth than the oft-expressed worry that we are somehow pied pipering the world’s youth to a lemming-like mass suicide. We are fundamentally aware how fragile (and fictive) the moral order is, and how easily it could be toppled by the posturings of a Nietzschean ubermensch come Aleister Crowley-esque prankster.

If the primary worry about the danger of darkness is based on the desire to protect the moral web holding society together, then that vertiginous pull into the night can be further seen as part of the desire to be on the outside, to assert oneself as an individual against the formalised and instiutional. It is, in a suitably Laveyan sounding formulation, part of the concretising of the self and creation of a unique space for the self to inhabit.

Yet again we find at the root of the curiosity the question of how we occupy space. And this is what makes me less worried than many about glamourisation (and certainly less worried than I am about constant exposure to greed and selfishness from politicians and the media). Even obsessional interest in the dark side is as much about what we are not as about what we are. It  is about a notional “outside” space that we do not and cannot occupy but in relation to which we are able to define ourselves more fully than we would if we just had access to the “inside.”

Closing the door to the darkness not only prevents full exploration of identity. In some cases, the suturing over of a festering wound can be highly damaging. This is one reason I have never had any worries about putting my very darkest material out there, because it all comes from a confessional place, reaching out to others offering them a touchstone, a point of contact with a space within themselves they may otherwise be unable to articulate. I see it ultimately as creating hope.

I have one on for far too long. I haven’t even started to talk about the specific ways I deal with violence, forbidden desire, and taboo in my writing. I hope, though, I’ve at least started an internal conversation for you, and possibly reassured you that your inclination to the night is less troubling than you may have thought.