Reality From The Eyes of the Uncanny: Gutshot by Amelia Gray
A swan’s foot, like a duck’s, is a webbed claw. In traversing swan shit and mud, these claws naturally gunk up and reek. Nobody in the history of the world, save another swan, has licked a swan’s foot while that foot was still attached to the swan.
So begins “The Swan as a Metaphor for Love,” which in little more than a page, encapsulates the pitch-black humor, vivid grossness, and scathing critique of human emotions that is characteristic of Amelia Gray’s Gutshot. In Gray’s hands, a swan — commonly the epitome of avian grace, reverence and respect, emblematic of romance through its use in corny ‘love boat’ rides — stinks of “bacterial purge,” and will “bite you and tear your flesh.” The swan “will attack you… if you are trying to have a conversation with their mate,” conjuring the vision of a jealous lover, so insecure in their relationship that they imagine everyone a threat. Famously known for their tradition of mating for life:
someone found a swan once that was twenty-four years old and probably it was mating for life, which everyone made a big deal out of even though the swan was not even old enough to rent a car. The swan wasn’t yet acquainted with life enough to silently hyperventilate in its bed.
For Gray, the sentimental symbolism of the swan is naïve, overcome by the reality of love, as “anyone who claims the swan is a majestic and noble creature has never seen a swan up close.” Her juxtaposition of the superficially clean, composed swan, and its underbelly of filth and shit, is representative of Gray’s view of the human condition as a whole. In her work, nothing is quite what it seems.
Gray published her first novel, THREATS, in 2012, and with Gutshot returns to short fiction, adding to her collections AM/PM (2009) and Museum of the Weird (2010). Like Museum of the Weird, Gutshot is comprised of a series of unsettling short stories, which on the surface appear unrelated, have faint threads that link them: violence, sickness, madness and desire. Both collections elicit a sense of foreboding, characteristically emblematic of Gray’s writing, as epitomized in her novel, THREATS, a book both extremely unsettling and deeply moving.
The novel’s account of both manifest and metaphysical mysteries deftly communicates what is just as often inexpressible — grief, mourning and depression — by undermining reality with her protagonist David’s unreliable, borderline insane, narration. In Gutshot, Gray continues to use mentally unstable and unpredictable characters, and thus is able to create worlds with uncanny realities, at once strange and familiar, and always unexpected.
Perhaps the most unsettling attribute of Gray’s writing is her deadpan presentation of what are quite often unspeakable acts, and while this unsettling detachment gnaws away as we read, we are unwilling to remove ourselves from our discomfort before reaching the disturbing climax. In “The Moment of Conception,” a couple attempt a sort of procreation ritual that involves “some sacrifice,” to say the least. When promoted by his partner to consent, rather than fear the man feels “dominated by the thought that it was difficult to find a person with whom I shared so many of my hobbies.” After dismembering his penis and sewing it inside her “bloody sex,” the two lie entwined, feeling:
There were things that we would do for each other, sacrifices we would make, and the proof of that fact was in front of us plain as an hour in the day. It was a beautiful morning or afternoon.
By offering the horrific and disturbing without judgment, Gray intensifies their effect on us. We become more disturbed by violence and psychosis when these thoughts and actions are offered to us neutrally, as if they were normal.
Gray’s writing frequently leaves us mystified, unable to comprehend the scenes laid out before us with near-sociopathic detachment. In “House Heart,” one of the most twisted stories in Gutshot, a couple kidnap and imprison a young prostitute who “smelled like a bowl of sugar that had been sprayed with a disinfectant.” They bribe her to live within the arterial ventilation system of their house like a human hamster, engaging in a game they call ‘House Heart.’ Aroused by her fear and the thought of her captivity, they make love as she crawls above them, pressed onto her stomach, dehumanized. Either completely unaware of, or resistant to, the idea that their behaviour is abhorrent, the couple believe “each of us had our individual function and hers was to embody the house, which had begun to smell like a hot scalp.” At no point does Gray indicate if she supports or condemns their beliefs and behaviors, and this absence of moral compass permeates her work, causing the reader to question their own morality when faced with such ambiguity.
Her neutral tone, enhanced by the use of third person narration, encourages us to embrace her writing’s dark secretions without conscience, simultaneously engaging in gleeful enjoyment of the repugnance provoked, feeling repulsed by the sickness of her creations. One of this collection’s standout stories, “Fifty Ways to Eat Your Lover,” plays with these conflicting reactions of delight and disgust, and is guaranteed to make those of any gender wince. This list of ways to graphically maim and torture your male lover is fantastically funny and absolutely vile in equal measure. Charting a relationship from start to finish, Gray subverts romantic tropes, suggesting, “When he tells you he loves you, paper-cut his fingertips and suck their blood. When he asks you to marry him, panfry his foreskin.” The story exemplifies the underlying feminism, even misandry, prevalent in Gray’s writing, which is refreshingly brazen and unapologetic.
Adding another layer to the delicate disturbance is the unnerving sense of familiarity contained within many of Gutshot’s stories. Gray’s characters act on feelings that most people only daydream or fantasise about. There is a sense that they signify repressed desires to commit inappropriate, taboo, even immoral actions. Thus, the true horror of her work is founded in its realism: while some stories are fantastical, others are undeniably plausible. “Away From” is on the extreme end of this, with its themes of kidnapping, rape and murder, all discussed in Gray’s typically detached tone; the victim thinks to herself “Well now you are in a predicament,” and later “the thing about fighting is you can’t fight forever”. In “Curses,” twins inflict awful illnesses upon their mother, for no apparent reason other than sick gratification, and with no penance. It would be amiss to assume no child has ever wished for the ability to do the same, but disturbing to consider all the same.
Despite this, Gray’s writing is, at times, extremely funny. Many scenes elicit bursts of unabashed laughter amidst the gore and strangeness. In “Thank You,” two women exchange ‘thank you’ notes of increasingly elaborate forms:
a postal tube arrived and the woman opened it to release eight disorientated white mice. They tumbled out in a line and scrambled for safety. She gave them water and sliced up an apple but was confused by their presence until later that evening when, save for one, they seized and made tiny bowel movements which produced the alphabet beads T H A N K O and U. The last one was uncomfortably constipated in a life-threatening way until she took him to the vet and had the Y extracted at the expense of forty-five dollars.
There is the sense that, for Gray, the gross and the amusing go hand-in-hand. In an interview with The New Yorker, she commented, “Life is a natural mix of horror and humor.” While this is hard to disagree with, in Gutshot she takes this idea to the extreme. Comic scenes do not come as relief for the reader, but rather heighten our experience of the bizarre and unsettling. By making us laugh, she offers a brief thrill of pleasure, before plunging us back into the horror. It can, at times, be alienating, and certainly one needs a strong stomach to read. Gutshot seems most suited to those with an appreciation of dark comedy. Gray’s warped imagination and love of the absurd has created a haunted house of human perversion, brimming with black humor.
[Editor’s note: read “These Are the Fables” from Gutshot in Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading.]
by Amelia Gray