Back in 2008, Comma Press created a cult hit with their anthology The New Uncanny, which invited authors to write stories in response to Sigmund Freud’s theory of the uncanny or unheimlich. The collection won that year’s Shirley Jackson Anthology Award and even spawned a film, Matthew Holness’s modern British horror classic Possum. 12 years later comes The New Abject. As co-editor Ra Page’s introduction puts it, “The horror, disgust or recoil we experience when we are faced with what we have shed, let go, expelled, sloughed off – that is the fear of the abject.”
The 19 authors collected here have been tasked with responding to two parallel theories of the abject. The first, laid out by philosopher Julia Kristeva in her book Powers of Horror, suggests that the abject is embodied by the human reaction (of horror and disgust) to “border objects” which remind us of the separation between self and other – the classic example being a corpse, which signifies the impermanence of human life. The second is a social interpretation, an idea first developed by Georges Bataille, in which abjection is represented by “things and people that society expels”: outcasts, rebels and scapegoats, for instance.
All things considered, it’s no wonder some of the contributors opt for body horror, and none more effectively than Lara Williams in her story “( ) ( (”. It’s about a woman who becomes obsessed with plucking hairs from her body, and Williams writes so vividly that I had to skim over many of its passages with eyes scrunched up and teeth clenched – the literary equivalent of hiding behind a cushion during a particularly gory horror movie scene. Christine Poulson’s “Teeth and Hair” offers a gentler (though still unnerving) take on this approach; its tale of a live-in nanny haunted by her charge’s late mother, with a couple of nods to The Turn of the Screw, is gripping.
It’s exciting to discover the different ways in which authors have chosen to approach the theme. “The Universal Stain Remover” by Gaia Holmes is among the smartest, telling the story of a woman’s escape from an abusive relationship through the stains she tackles while house-sitting. One of the most memorable stories, Adam Marek’s Black Mirror-esque “It’s a Dinosauromorph, Dumdum” takes a step into near-future science fiction, depicting a world in which “Magic Reality” technology is used to enhance everything… including people. In Saleem Haddad’s “An Enfleshment of Desire”, the bodily abject is combined with the societal, as the narrator begins an aggressive sexual affair amid violent protests in Beirut.
With The New Abject published in the midst of both a pandemic and a period of political turmoil, it’s inevitable that some of the stories might seek to use current events as a frame for ideas of abjection. Yet the introduction tells us the story that does this most successfully – Lucie McKnight Hardy’s “Wretched” – was written pre-Covid. McKnight Hardy depicts a broken society in which food is scarce and the outcasts known as “the Wretched” are scorned (and worse). The rich worldbuilding and engrossing plot make this extraordinarily prescient story an obvious high point of the book.
This is a broad-ranging anthology, with the list of contributors encompassing horror stalwarts, such as Ramsey Campbell; established authors not typically associated with genre fiction, such as Margaret Drabble; relative newcomers, such as Maeve Haughey; and those whose work is better known in other mediums, such as artist Mike Nelson. This variety, along with the relative looseness of the idea of the abject, can sometimes make the book feel disjointed. But it’s also a strength; if one story doesn’t appeal to you, the next will likely be entirely different. It’s an enjoyable book to dip in and out of, with a pleasingly diverse range of approaches to its unifying theme.
The New Abject: Tales of Modern Unease is published by Comma Press.