Corpsing: My Body and Other Horror Stories comprises a collection of personal, lived horror stories in which the setting is Sophie White's own body.
The cover of Sophie White's new novel shows the infamous Bates residence, from the Hitchcock movie Psycho, sitting atop a woman's body, like a spliced human-house hybrid. It’s a surreal, arresting image of mutation that speaks volumes about the author and what is to follow in the beautifully morbid Corpsing: My Body and Other Horror Stories. This - a collection of personal, lived horror stories - is White’s contribution to the creepy canon that she loves. The setting? Her own body.
Deploying sub-genres and trope references like Swallow, Gore & More! and Final Girl in shouty B-movie fonts to theme her sections is clever. White uses these as a springboard into the weighty issues typically explored in horror, themes like death, madness, grief and addiction, all of which she has harrowing first-hand experience of.
The book opens with one of the most horrific scenes imaginable. White is in the throes of labour while elsewhere, in another hospital bed, her father’s life hangs in the balance. This section, A Haunting, is about the 'agonising, drawn-out horror show’ of his slow decline and eventual death from early-onset Alzeimers.
Anyone with direct experience of this cruel disease will relate to her distress here, and the combination of fury, despair, revulsion and guilt it stirs up. She writes about his deterioration with searing honesty; ‘my handsome, refined father now gobbles from my proffered spoon and inside I howl with the injustice of it all’. This is truly the stuff of nightmares, but White wrestles back some memories of her tanned and lean, music-loving father from the illness, preserving them like a delicate leaf between the pages.
Unfortunately the loss brings on a sort of high-functioning zombification. She becomes alcohol-dependent, spraying perfume around to mask the scent of her drinking. Outwardly she appears to be coping, but ‘at what point does coping become corrosive?’, she wonders.
Her mind begins to unravel under the strain of it all. ‘I go to bed and I drown in the horror of my own head’. In an earlier book, Recipes for a Nervous Breakdown, White described an episode of drug-induced psychosis that she experienced in her twenties and the long-road to recovery afterward; ‘what nightmare had I willingly swallowed?’
That terrifying incident is revisited here as she reflects on her more recent trauma. A mental health crisis is a difficult thing to convey in any artform, but White does a stellar job. The suffering she endured at her lowest ebb is as bad as any horror director could conjure up.
She stock-piled pills as a ‘contingency plan’ should things become too much to bear and was plagued relentlessly by intrusive thoughts. She admits that even now in good times the idea of the darkness returning is her biggest fear; ‘A thought dogs me still: that I will only ever outrun it momentarily, that in the end it will be what finishes me’.
Later chapters explore the challenges faced by women in a society that values the female body over the mind, and demands nothing less than perfection from both. White contributes some of her own uncomfortable experiences, from sexual assault to self-harm.
Again this is serious stuff but White, who doubles as a podcaster on the macabre, has more fun in this section, letting the inner ‘creep flag’ fly and delving into weird and wonderful real-world body horror like necrophilia and consensual vampirism.
Lest we forget from her other work, she’s also wickedly funny. Even the darkest stories are peppered with sardonic humour. There’s the ‘unorthodox’ request to a WhatsApp friend group - she needs someone to collect pig’s blood from the butcher’s for her to satisfy a pregnancy craving.
No matter the situation, White is able to find the ridiculous and absurd in it - from ash-scattering to pregnancy. ‘There’s nothing so sci-fi in life as reproducing’, she says. It’s no wonder that giving birth and parenthood are mined time and again for horror, she observes.
The term ‘corpsing’, White explains, is used in the theatre world to describe an actor breaking character on stage, usually in the form of laughter. If we take this to be White’s corpsing moment, letting the mask slip and daring to tell it like it is, then we can only hope for more like this from her.
Read Orlagh Doherty's review of Filter This, Sophie White's previous book, published in 2019