Friday, July 14, 2006
When I was a grad student at Temple U I possessed a VHS tape of Shock Trauma admissions given me by my sister who works there to this day. I saw surgeons peeling a forehead off a skull and joking about "Ronco Snap-Back Faces." I saw a guy who'd put a shotgun under his chin instead of in his mouth, and lived with shredded gelatin for a face. I saw a doctor saw off a foot and throw it three yards into a toy basketball hoop over a biohazard bag.
In those days I used to wake up in the night and have to write short stories. That was I imagine a feature of young, male, Taurus blood--but like blueballs and nocturnal emissions that need faded completely with age.
But the Shock Trauma VHS produced a great story, one of my best, about a prostitute hired by anonymous charities to pleasure mutants and the grotesquely disabled in a secret ward at Johns Hopkins. I went balls-to-the-wall, trying to find a level of disgusting that would be lovely and erotic. Even dour intellectual Alan Singer admired that story: "You must enjoy such material," he said. "For once your prose is competent." The other kids in my fiction workshop loved it too, but all had the same reaction: too bad you ripped off Geek Love. Ripped off Geek Love? I'd never heard of it, let alone "ripped it off." For years I saw the book at Borders, and resented it quietly. The mutant prostitute story went into a drawer with the other "done before" stories, including 100+ pages of a novel suspiciously similar to The X-Files written before The X-Files was on TV.
Any resentment I may have felt toward Katherine Dunn at having a great idea before me is gone now, because I loved her book, and will likely re-read it someday. What is normal? What constitutes the grotesque? Who isn't ugly and mal-formed? Without the groteque the beautiful is impossible to imagine. The two inhabit the same sphere.