101 Weird Writers #44 — K.J. Bishop

The Anxieties of the Piñata-Corpus: Exploring Fabulism, Abjection, and Body Horror in K.J. Bishop’s “Saving the Gleeful Horse”

This post is part of an ongoing series on 101 weird writers featured in The Weird compendium, the anthology that serves as the inspiration for this site. There is no ranking system; the order is determined by the schedule of posts.

bishopK. J. Bishop (1972–) is an Australian writer and artist. In 2004, her neo-Decadent fantasy novel The Etched City was nominated for a World Fantasy Award and she won the William L. Crawford Award, the Ditmar Award for Best Novel, and the Ditmar Award for Best New Talent. Her work has appeared in several publications including Leviathan 4, Fantasy magazine, and Subterranean magazine. Most infamously, her novella ‘Maldoror Abroad’ appeared in Album Zutique; the story riffed on the original Les Chants de Maldoror (1869) by Isidore Lucien Ducasse under the pen name ‘Comte de Lautréamont’. Her tale ‘Saving the Gleeful Horse’ (2010) shares affinities with Decadent modes of writing, including the Alfred Kubin excerpt that opened The Weird. More can be found from Bishop at her personal website.

"The Gleeful Horse" by K.J. Bishop

“Saving the Gleeful Horse” by K.J. Bishop

“A wound with blood and pus, or the sickly, acrid smell of sweat, of decay, does not signify death. In the presence of signified death—a flat encephalograph, for instance—I would understand, react, or accept. No, as in true theater, without makeup or masks, refuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live. These body fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands, hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death. There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being. My body extricates itself, as being alive, from that border. Such wastes drop so that I might live, until, from loss to loss, nothing remains in me and my entire body falls beyond the limit—cadere, cadaver. If dung signifies the other side of the border, the place where I am not and which permits me to be, the corpse, the most sickening of wastes, is a border that has encroached upon everything. It is no longer I who expel, “I” is expelled. The border has become an object. How can I be without border? That elsewhere that I imagine beyond the present, or that I hallucinate so that I might, in a present time, speak to you, conceive of you—it is now here, jetted, abjected, into “my” world. Deprived of world, therefore, I fall in a faint. In that compelling, raw, insolent thing in the morgue’s full sunlight, in that thing that no longer matches and therefore no longer signifies anything, I behold the breaking down of a world that has erased its borders: fainting away. The corpse, seen without God and outside of science, is the utmost of abjection. It is death infecting life. Abject. It is something rejected from which one does not part, from which one does not protect oneself as from an object. Imaginary uncanniness and real threat, it beckons to us and ends up engulfing us.” (Kristeva, 4)

“Saving the Gleeful Horse” presents an interesting case of a story that is perhaps suitable to categorization as fable or, more specifically, the New Wave Fabulism subgenre; perhaps not. In it are “redemption” and strange bargains, magical women, princes, Rabelaisian gigantism and moments of the carnivalesque, and any number of other traditional landmarks that one might find. Molimus, the narrator, is 8 feet tall and lives under a bridge, where he collects refuse flowing downstream to sell and make something of a living. It seems the reader is invited to at least consider the possibility that the protagonist should be seen as a troll given these converging details; at the very least he is an abnormally large entity that in many other ways appears to be human. We know little of Molimus save through inferences we might make from his compassionate act of trying to save the “life” of the injured eponymous horse via extraordinary means and self-sacrifice. To do so, he seeks out a mysterious “woman or a woman-shaped thing” (174) with mysterious powers in a mysterious and secluded cloister—the Garth of the Aorist. There he engages in ritual and magical bargaining anchored in bodily exchanges that come at no small price to himself. The White Ma’at has goals of her own following her magical imprisonment by her enemy, Prince November, who operates at the periphery of Molimus’s desires and parodies the story’s pattern of bodily exchange and expulsion by drinking “knowledge from the vein on her forehead” (176). The landmarks and stage directions of a fable are all there, but there are more profound concerns than moral lessons at play, some of which are manifest even in the use of the phrase, “Garth (suggestive of containment and limitation) of the Aorist” (suggestive of being extensible and limitless). These concepts return later in the story as Molimus undergoes a transubstantiation into “the smoke of chimneys and bus exhausts” (180) and roams the town, untethered from both his bodily limits and his paltry living space beneath the bridge and the attendant debris collection.

Punctures

Apart from its fabulist qualities, “Saving the Gleeful Horse” can be read as a subtle and complex work of body horror, through which permeate anxieties of insertion, evisceration, corporeal dispersal, and the contingencies of bodily functionality, the narrative success of which follows from the use of convincing ambiguities of plot, setting, and character. The characters are divorced (but only partly so) from “real” human bodies by the use of carnivalesque pageantry, magical powers, unusual physical characteristics, and subterfuge in order to add complexity to the story’s formulation of corporeality, but, if nothing else, the motivations of the two main characters seem all too human even if they are in fact a giant troll and quasi-human witch. Bishop juxtaposes animate but ambiguous “persons” and inanimate (or should-be inanimate) items to create tension and purposely confound the reader’s sympathies in the incarnation of Molimus (either an impossibly large human or a troll) and the White Ma’at (either a “woman or a woman-shaped thing”). (174)

Our opening image in the story is that of a horse or horse-shaped piñata of sorts being bashed open and emptied of its contents by playfully indifferent children. Bishop takes care to explicitly note the action’s brutality as it is perceived by Molimus. The perception of vitality on the part of the story’s characters becomes an ordering of value. Soon, our narrator is introduced—an 8-foot character who resembles a human but may perfectly well be a troll as we’re invited to suspect by his impossible dimensions. But before we find out anything about Molimus, Bishop has already set up ground rules that need to be traced throughout the narrative in an opening passage that might be easy to overlook but is nonetheless essential for understanding the story:

“Children are cruel. No one who has lived in the world need ask for proof of that. So it is nothing for them to beat a living creature—a rare, marvelous creature at that—to death. They do so in order to seize the treasure inside it, but one sees the pleasure they take in this assassination of life, even before the plunder starts. Their laughter bounces…until holes open in its body (emphasis added) and the prizes—caramels, toys, game money printed with pictures of wrestlers and cartoon characters—rain down into their hands”. (171)

What to the children is a mere lifeless object is, to Molimus, a living being that has been subjected to great violence and warrants his sympathies. Here, cruelty is both a normative and marginalizing force: it normalizes an order in which presumably human children occupy a privileged space in the world of the story while Molimus resides at the margins, sympathetic to the piñata/creatures the children perceive as inert. What the reader might likewise consider inert objects are assigned a vitality. Internal “vital organs” fall from the piñata bodies and are commodified “prizes” that carry a value for some but not others, the creatures’ evisceration a moment of delight to the children. When our protagonist discovers the Gleeful Horse, he describes it being “as full of holes as a sieve”. (172) (Though the sex of the protagonist is withheld and obscured through first-person narration, for the purposes of this essay the construction of Molimus’s name and mention of “men’s shirts” seem to suggest that the character is meant to be read as male. Yet there is certainly the possibility of reading the character otherwise or as purposely ambiguous.) Where an author like Ligotti imbues animation in things otherwise inanimate to make them supernatural, Bishop locates that which is dead or inert within the animate to explore anxieties about our mortality. At this juncture, it seems fruitful to turn to Kristeva’s discussion of the abject. The explicit connections in the story between refuse and vitality suggest that there are perhaps not so many distinctions as we’d like to think, and that there is a power exchange between them that creates a subject-object relationship. It is important to note that refuse, or “filth”, is “not a quality in itself, but it applies only to what relates to a boundary and, more particularly, represents the object jettisoned out of that boundary, its other side, a margin. Matter issuing from them [the orifices of the body] is marginal stuff of the most obvious kind. Spittle, blood, milk, urine, faeces or tears by simply issuing forth have traversed the boundary of the body. [. . .] The mistake is to treat bodily margins in isolation from all other margins.” (Kristeva, 69)

Molimus, who “has a foot in both worlds” (175), is empathetic to the horse regarded as an object of the children’s destructive cruelty, and, seeking to save its life after its injuries, which he feels will restore happiness to the area, he consults with a mysterious woman “or woman-like thing” that once held power—the White Ma’at. It’s worth noting in the context of these dual worlds that “Ma’at” refers, among other things, to ancient Egyptian conceptions of truth, balance, order, and harmony, which were often personified as a goddess regulating stars, seasons, and actions of mortals. Molimus’s desperate empathy for the horse manifests itself in a manner coherent with the structure of the story’s use of illness when he states, “I feel sick…not for my sake but for the sake of my horse.” (177) The Ma’at reveals to Molimus the secrets of the objects he perceives as living things, whose internal plastic “organs” constitute “starlike pieces” and are essential to their survival. But those secrets apply to Molimus as well. The White Ma’at is imprisoned in a cloister after being overthrown from her position of power by Prince November, and she seeks to reclaim her position, a goal into which Molimus’s desire to save the horse is subsumed. His agency is both realized but also subverted through their magical bargain.

“Nevertheless, does not fear hide an aggression, a violence that returns to its source, its sign having been inverted? What was there in the beginning: want, deprivation, original fear, or the violence of rejection, aggressivity, the deadly death drive?” (Kristeva, 38)

By the conclusion of the story, a structural balance has been achieved in which the ignorant cruelty of the children visited upon “inanimate” creatures has been reversed and revisited upon them by Molimus in the form of a hollowing illness that he has become. Ironically, he seems just as unaware as the children did when inflicting torments on the creatures for which Molimus feels profound sympathy. Although he has achieved his own ends, the darker implication is that the sickness he inflicts on them will continue for the indefinite future—the apparent aim of the White Ma’at’s bargain.

Shame

To interpret “Saving the Gleeful Horse” as a kind of body horror fable by way of the abject, it is crucial to understand the places where the reader can identify connections between the characters’ bodily limitations and hierarchical positions within the story. For the Gleeful Horse and other inert-but-alive objects, junk goes in and junk comes out. Vital innards are simultaneously cheap plastic and starlike matter. Animate bodies are pushed into inanimate ones both in specific individuals and en masse, such as when the White Ma’at pushes her losing armies “into the chalk hills like raisins in pudding, so that they all died in the white dark” (176). The expulsion and consumption of bodily parts and fluids are a system of power exchange throughout the story that creates the hierarchies of the story’s world. As either an unusually large human or a particularly humanesque troll, Molimus is in a position of superiority to the pet / companion he is caring for; yet Molimus himself is in a position inferior to that held by the mysterious and powerful woman in the Garth of the Aorist. However, after Molimus learns of the functions of the plastic parts, he is induced to experience a shameful realization of his own corporeal limitations in a mirror of the toys he expresses concern for in an act of regurgitating a plastic piece from his own body.

“Why does corporeal waste, menstrual blood and excrement, or everything that is assimilated to them, from nail-parings to decay, represent—like a metaphor that would have become incarnate—the objective frailty of symbolic order?” (Kristeva, 70)

Steven Van Wolputte provides a useful anthropological overview of the history of conceptions of the body in relation to self, society, polity, and ideology that provides some insight into this reading of “Saving the Gleeful Horse” as a body horror fable. Throughout the recent history of critical analyses of conceptions of the body’s significance and modes of operation, Van Wolputte identifies a number of distinctions within the field of medical anthropology that might be applied in different ways to the story. In summation:

“The individual (note this shift from the “natural”) body is the domain of phenomenological analysis as it studies the “lived” or embodied experiences people have of their bodies. The social body, in contrast, relates to the ways the body (including its products: blood, milk, etc.) operates as a natural symbol, as a tool at hand to think and represent social relationships such as gender, kinship, and mode of production (see Featherstone et al. 1991). A third dimension states that power and control are embodied as well. This is the body politic: the human body as tool or weapon of domestication and disciplination and of identification, subjection, and resistance. These three bodies also constitute three levels of experience and analysis. What mediates between them, what according to the authors interarticulates nature, society, and individual, are emotions. As proto-symbols or proto-rituals emotions affect experience most immediately. Hence they can bridge the mind/body divide and bring the three bodies together.” (254-255)

The story interacts with all of these conceptions of the uses of the body—the ritualistic bargaining and exchange of bodily fluids, the White Ma’at’s exploitation of Molimus’s bodily transformation to exercise power and revenge on her enemies, the identification of bodily cruelty and the “lived” experience of evisceration in the context of a setting in which the inert is subjectively viewed as alive, and in the deliberate usage of bodily organs/plastic trinkets as commodity and item of transactional exchange. It is also important to note Kristeva’s own distinctions between intimate suffering [la douleur] and public horror in articulating abjection (see Keltner) and how those conceptually cohere to the anthropological perspectives outlined by Van Wolputte. Keltner summarizes Kristeva’s distinction succinctly: “abjection is the shape that the border between the intimate and the public takes; or rather, abjection is the fate of intimacy in the historical context of an unavoidable interiorization of public horror.” The description seems apt in the context of “Saving the Gleeful Horse.” Molimus’s bargain with the White Ma’at occurs at the physical site of bodily consumptive exchange that unalterably subjects the protagonist to of the Ma’at’s power; he becomes a literal public horror in the form of a sickness-inducing smoke. The agency he exerts to seek a cure for the Gleeful Horse appears to be subsumed by the Ma’at’s payment of her “debts” or revenge during this process.

Returning to Van Wolputte’s point that emotions “interarticulate” among these different levels of bodily experience, we must note that in Bishop’s story, there is a clear and explicit link between bodily mortification, emotion, and power relationships. The most readily identifiable indicators of emotional state within the story both involve bodily expulsion through tears and regurgitation, or exchanges of bodily fluid. We know little else of Molimus’s emotional life. Upon first encountering the Gleeful Horse, Molimus states:

“To see their poor empty bodies makes me cry into the water…the bodies last for very little time after they have yielded up the ghost.” (172)

Later, as he bargains with the White Ma’at for a way to save the horse and learns of the bodily fragility of both it and himself, there is a scene eerily reminiscent of the Kristeva passage that opens this essay. In this scene, Molimus encounters one of his own physical limitations, which establishes a set of conditions linked to shame and bodily expulsion under which the Gleeful Horse can continue to exist. The dual descriptions of these bits of plastic pieces and starlike matter echo the contradictions that underlie human waste as expelled (dead) matter and a byproduct of processes necessary for the continuation of life:

“I feel a qualm, as if conspiracy sits here with us…I am suddenly ill with a spasm that feels like shame (emphasis added). Whatever it is, here in the Garth of the Aorist it has the shape of a real, solid thing stuck in my gullet, making me gag around it. My tongue feels it as it comes up with a mouthful of bile. It is annular, with an embellishment on one side: a sort of ornamented sphincter. I spit the plastic ring out onto the floor…” (178)

What is shame if not a momentary realization of coerced submission to a learned order against which selfhood exists in spite of itself and that order, in this case that of animate over inanimate? Molimus’s expelled plastic toy is Kristeva’s expelled waste matter. We don’t know much about Molimus other than what we can infer from his motivations, but one of the few points at which there is an explicit statement of emotion occurs during this momentary realization of bodily limit. The discovery of the plastic ring in his mouth and its immediate expulsion induces a sense of shame, which serves as a subdued but cathartic reinforcement of his place in the story’s world just as such a private bodily expulsion serves as a persistent reminder of human limit and temporality.

“Nevertheless, does not fear hide an aggression, a violence that returns to its source, its sign having been inverted?” (Kristeva, 38)

While an exhaustive analysis of “Saving the Gleeful Horse” from Van Wolputte’s summarized anthropological perspectives is not within the scope of this essay, it is useful to identify these connections as they relate to the Kristevan abject. We can then understand why the story elicits a subtle horror in response to its pattern of bodily anxiety. Kristeva asks, “Why does corporeal waste…represent…the objective frailty of symbolic order?” And what better illustration of abjecting the self than the case of Molimus bargaining with body fluids and organs and thus becoming disembodied, his agency actualized in the shame of the realization of bodily limit and the subsequent process of subsumption into the larger will of the Ma’at, which recontextualizes the effects of his own agency in a manner not dissimilar from that which might occur through the catharsis of cosmic horror? In the order of power relations in the story, this moment of exchange subsumes his “person-” or “trollhood,” such as it is, by recontextualizing his agency. The transactional nature of bodily exchanges within the story subject Molimus to a process of sublimation; his corporeality is renounced in exchange for continuation in the abjected form of smoke. He seems to remain partly himself while transitioning to a form subjected to an order imposed by the White Ma’at as a condition of fulfillment. What might have been written as catharsis is instead subdued and anticlimactic, for Bishop extends the story beyond Molimus’s own body and to the bodily limits of the townsfolk from whom he pillages organs in an ironic structural parody of the callousness described in the opening paragraph of the story.

The theme of casual cruelty replays from Molimus’s new perspective as an incorporeal being whose consciousness is carried on wisps of smoke. In his conversation with the White Ma’at early in the story, he cannot comprehend how the children can be so cruel to creatures he perceives as living. To fulfill his bargain to save the Gleeful Horse, he must perpetrate the same kinds of acts upon others, seemingly unaware of his cruelty) Likewise, he does not seem to appreciate or have concern for the cruelty he in turn inflicts upon others even in service of preserving another life, and this seems a crucial point to identify. “…they say the smoke gives them (the Treasure Children) the dreams in exchange for their lives. The dreams…they confide about to friends and siblings before they are seized by the silence that comes with the hollowing (emphasis added) effect of the illness…” (181) The subjectivity of bodily value and perceived validity within a particular set of rules is precisely that which produces catharsis in a Kristevan interpretation, and it is a testament to Bishop’s restraint that she subdues this catharsis to conclude the story with the indefinite continuation of Molimus’s infliction of sickness upon the children. He is “the future” and represents a new ordering of the rules of this world.

“There looms, within abjection, one of those violent, dark revolts of being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable. It lies there, quite close, but it cannot be assimilated. It beseeches, worries, and fascinates desire, which, nevertheless, does not let itself be seduced. Apprehensive, desire turns aside; sickened, it rejects. A certainty protects it from the shameful—a certainty of which it is proud holds on to it. But simultaneously, just the same, that impetus, that spasm, that leap is drawn toward an elsewhere as tempting as it is condemned. Unflaggingly, like an inescapable boomerang, a vortex of summons and repulsion places the one haunted by it literally beside himself.” (Kristeva, 1)

Sick

Much of Bishop’s work is preoccupied with themes of disease and bodily hybridization, of “having a foot in both worlds” in some way or another. These notions ask questions common to all effective art: what is the self and its relationship to corporeality? What are the limits of existence? What are the conditions under which those limits might be tested? Often, the borderlands between differing species, living and dead, deformation and bodily integrity, sickness and health, are disputed territories entwined in transactional relationships with one another, as in “Saving the Gleeful Horse.” Disease also features in stories such as “The Art of Dying” and “Maldoror Abroad,” the latter of which suggests that illness consolidates impulses toward destruction of world and destruction of self into a united, disgusted rejection of the limits that have been prescribed by corporeality. And yet, even in a different story’s context, the bodily byproducts of illness are transactional:

“I’ve been on my knees in the toilet, vomiting all kinds of filth. These offerings (emphasis added) from my private ecosystem are flowing to the oceans of the world, and in time will enter the rain that falls everywhere. Close the entrances to your body; eat and drink nothing.” (“Maldoror Abroad,” 98)

In The Etched City, in which Raule, a healer and surgeon, encounters the transformative properties of illness juxtaposed with the transformative powers of art:

“…she had observed that in the view of the healthy, the sick often appeared as monsters. When the monstrosity was too extreme, whether in the form of disease, old age, madness, or deformity, the sufferer would be shunned regardless of whether their condition was contagious or not. She had concluded that it was human nature to superstitiously fear the transferral of misfortunate via some imagined, intangible but highly conductive medium. And now she knew that her own urge to study the frailties and failures of the flesh, and to understand their causes, was born of a primitive desire to immunise herself against them.” (61)

Plague Doctor Bird

Sculptures such as Bishop’s Plague Doctor Bird distill the themes of human/nonhuman hybridization and illness.

Even as life has a value determined by social relationships in “Saving the Gleeful Horse,” illness and “the ill” as simultaneously a physical description and a social category are in constant conceptual flux—byproducts expelled by social and scientific process. Illness occupies an in-between borderland in a binary system of living and dead or animate and inanimate, perhaps not unlike Molimus’s bodily sublimation into an ephemeral smoke that seems to retain a kind of agency. To be ill is to be forced to directly confront, like Molimus and his plastic ring, the recursively vital and decaying conditions for life even as its embodiment necessarily moves toward death. To be ill is to be marginalized from life by being forced into a social category distinct from health and its implications of full participation, and the “hollowing” plague visited upon the Treasure Children becomes a balancing act for their own prior acts of marginalization of the Gleeful Horse and its kind. The asymmetry between the continuous flux of illness’s effect on the body and the static categories of “healthy” and “ill” is as rich a mine of anxiety to examine as any other, and the particulars of the social context in which illness exists, whether real or fantastical, leave open seemingly infinite ways in which this relationship might be presented. Even as Molimus seems not entirely aware of what his bargain means, the White Ma’at tells him, “The future will work through you.” (177) That future, for the Treasure Children, is illness and the marginalization it entails. In Dodie Bellamy’s mediations on illness, she states: “Julia Kristeva: There are lives not sustained by desire, as desire is always for objects. Such lives are based on exclusion.” (79).  As Molimus once was relegated to the space beneath a bridge, so now are the children confined to the margins as victims of the illness he brings to them. Perhaps, as Bellamy puts it elsewhere in a litany of prophesied power inversions exchanged between the healthy and ill through the mediations of language, “When the sick rule the world mortality will be sexy. When the sick rule the world, all writing will be short and succinct, no paragraphs will be longer than two sentences so we can comprehend them through the brain fog (emphasis added) the well bring to us daily.” (36)

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Works Cited

Bellamy, Dodie. When the Sick Rule the World. South Pasadena: Semiotext(e), 2015. Print.

Bishop, K.J. The Etched City. New York: Bantam Spectra, 2004. Print.

Bishop, K.J. “Saving the Gleeful Horse”. That Book Your Mad Ancestor Wrote. Self-published, 2012. Print.

Keltner, Stacey. Kristeva. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2011.

Kristeva, Julia. The Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982. Print.

Van Wolputte, Steven. “Hang on to Your Self: Of Bodies, Embodiment, and Selves”. Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 33 (2004), pp. 251-269. Annual Reviews. 2004.