(First published on Substack on 15 may 2023)
I am semi-jokingly known as the ‘cannibalism guy’ among my friends. I know a worrying amount about cannibalism, fictional and real, and have a published short story about eroticised ritual cannibalism (For This Divinity, Into The Crypts of Rays’).
This is where I state that I have never knowingly consumed human flesh.
Imagine: I am 15. I don’t yet know that I’m a boy. I do know that I’m unhappy. Despite my parents acceptance of queerness I have grown up under section 28. I have already been outed at my school, an immensely traumatic experience. My bisexuality is public record, my depression obvious, and my transness so deeply repressed that I won’t acknowledge it for more than 20 years. I feel hated. I am hated, and I am full of hate.
I haunt the ‘gay interest’ aisle in the main library with a self-conscious awkwardness only possible in an isolated queer teen.
There, I find a copy of Exquisite Corpse by Poppy Z. Brite. I have nowhere to be, and the book is reasonably short, so I sit in one of the library chairs to read it. I am lost in it almost immediately, I am taken away into a world where gay kids live and die and fuck up, where cannibals and serial killers stalk the edges of their lives in some twisted kind of love. A wound in me recognises a similar wound in someone else.
Central to Exquisite Corpse is the love between two serial killers, both based on infamous real gay serial killers. I didn’t know that at the time. But my teen brain had found something. It had latched on.
Later I would find out that Poppy Z. Brite had come out as a trans man, and I would be afraid in a way I couldn’t name. For myself, for what it meant about me.
Over and over I returned to stories that connected love and blood, that said to me ‘to love something is to consume it’, that took their relationships and said ‘it’s all tooth and claw over here’.
Of course, when NBC’s Hannibal came out I went nuts for it. Of course when I finally saw Ravenous (1999) I fixated.
When you’re a queer kid you are also, often, a traumatised kid. And both of those things are monstrous, corrupting. The world does not want you near their pure and normal children. I am not saying anything new here: the links between queer experience and sympathetic monster portrayals are intense. Queer-coding villains has led to generations of gay vampires, werewolves, murderers, and all-round bad eggs. We have taken them, and made them ours.
Anyway, a vampire is only a very fussy cannibal.
Queer love, even today, is a secretive thing, expressed in the warm dark. I am a man who loves and desires intensely. The body of my beloved becomes a fascination for me beyond sex. This is their home, where they live, and from the delicate bones in their wrists to the way the skin folds at their waist it is them and yet not the entirety of them. I think a lot about how wonderful it is that a person I love is walking around in this complicated machine of meat and bone.
When I kiss that tender, vulnerable stomach I think of how easy it is to bite, instead.
So here we come to the constant, constant argument – that of problematic, bad rep. I have no energy for this argument. I had it for the first time in my teens. I feel like we’ve been having it every month since 1999, and probably before that. I am 37 years old. Reading the words ‘this is problematic, actually’ ages me five years.
Because ultimately what I feel is this – that fiction should have more ‘problematic’ characters, not less, and that what I enjoy most as a writer is thinking ‘how can I make this man worse’ and then doing it.
When I write a queer cannibal it comes from this history, this human fascination with one of the deepest taboos. It comes from my hunger for love and understanding, a hunger so deep I was feeding it any way I could.
When I was writing For This Divinity I was interested in desire repressed so hard it found a… different kind of outlet. I was interested in the symbolic ritual cannibalism of The Catholic Mass, and how a damaged and misguided man might twist it back to the literal.
In a short story what you don’t say is as important as what you do, but I think it’s still apparent that Ezra is a dangerously persuasive man ruined by extremism, who has managed to gather vulnerable people to him. His bisexual desires only finding completion in the death – and consumption – of his flock.
This is the only cannibalism thing I have published so far. But there is hopefully more coming. I have a novella in mind, a few shorts, maybe a full cannibalism novel.
Can’t wait to show you my bloody, beating heart and ask you to take a bite.