7 novels that mix romance and body horror

The first movie I saw at the cinema was Disney’s The beauty and the Beast. This is perhaps my first memory, I was two years old. My brother, who was three years old, was frightened by the beast and had to be escorted out of the theater. However, I was quite impressed with the monster. I think about that experience a lot because I’m pretty sure the movie idealized the dynamics of unhealthy relationships and instilled false hopes of one day being gifted with a library, and because of that line delivered via voice dramatic off: “For who could ever learn to love a beast?”

This question has come back to me over the years, usually when one of my friends or I was dating someone beastly, or when I felt beastly myself. It came up once again when I started writing my werewolf book, Such sharp teeth. I started thinking about body horror and romance, how often they intersect and why. There is the element of monstrous desire, but deeper than that, it seems to me that at the heart of both is control. A loss of control over the body, over the heart. A forced surrender. Unavoidable vulnerability.

What could be more terrifying than revealing your true form and hoping to be loved as you are? Or fall in love with someone who might not be as they appear? And love can be transformative, but is that always a good thing or could it be a really bad thing?

The books on this list blend elements of body horror and romance, both conventional and unconventional, with beautifully dark and sometimes gruesome results.

Our women under the sea by Julia Armfield

“It’s always comforting, fashionable, to think of my Leah, although such thoughts come with the usual wave of grief that my Leah is not the one I have with me now.”

When Miri’s wife Leah finally returns after a high seas mission gone wrong, it becomes apparent that the woman Miri sent to sea is not the same woman who returned. Armfield’s breathtaking novel explores the glory of falling in love and the devastation of it slipping through your fingers. There are chilling moments of body horror, but what’s truly chilling is reckoning with the fleeting and mysterious nature of love.

The seas by Samantha Hunt

“I stand naked, staring at Jude, concentrating on becoming one hundred percent water so I can slide down the sewers and go overboard or at least I could slide down Jude’s bad pipe and fill his lungs , lovingly washing away every breath he takes.”

At Samantha Hunt’s The seas, our unnamed 19-year-old protagonist suspects she’s a mermaid. Her father disappeared into the sea years ago and left her to languish in a sad little coastal town. She is hopelessly in love with a haunted local veteran, Jude, though their bond proves complicated. More poignant and heartbreaking than horrifying, The seas talks about how grief, loneliness and love, especially our first love, can forever alter us.

house of hunger by Alexis Henderson

“We bleed for those we love the most.”

In Alexis Henderson’s delightfully gothic novel, indentured blood servants must dedicate themselves to their mistress or noble class master by supplying their blood for consumption. In return, they are handsomely rewarded. When Marion Shaw leaves the slums to work as a blood servant for Countess Lisavet, she is captivated by her extravagant new lifestyle and striking mistress, but unable to shake off the nagging suspicion that something is wrong. Lisavet soon becomes interested in Marion, but is it true love, or will Lisavet (literally) bleed Marion dry? There’s sultry, sultry gothic romance, dizzying body horror, but what’s perhaps most compelling about the novel is how it ruminates on toxic relationships.

Build your house around my body by Violet Kupersmith

“He didn’t have to have it. He just had to be near him. That was enough.”

It’s hard to distill the sprawling brilliance of Violet Kupersmith’s novel, which weaves multiple narratives across different timelines, seamlessly incorporates folklore, ghosts and monsters, and explores themes of love, violence and revenge, identity and colonialism. To avoid spoiling anything, I’ll just say that there are several instances where love – pure, genuine love and selfish love – proves to be horrifying and/or transformative. It’s sometimes bittersweet, and sometimes downright terrifying.

The misfit by Molly Pohlig

“…I only want your happiness your happiness and mine ours both please eat you need our strength.”

Molly Pohlig’s inventive novel, set in the Victorian era, centers on 28-year-old bachelor Iseult, who is tortured by the bitter ghost of her mother Beatrice. Beatrice died giving birth to Iseult and now haunts her daughter’s body, constantly uttering cruelties, pushing Iseult to self-harm as a coping mechanism. Iseult’s equally cruel father exerts his control by attempting to marry her off – unsuccessfully, until Jacob Vinke enters the picture. Jacob has silver skin, a side effect of medical treatment that made him, like Iseult, undesirable. Will they be two misfits in love? Maybe. But Pohlig’s novel has more to say about the ghosts that roam beneath our skin and the struggle to take full ownership of our bodies and our destinies.

Things have gotten worse since our last conversation and other misfortunes by Eric LaRocca

“What did you do today to earn your eyes?”

In LaRocca’s gripping short story, two women connect in a chat room in the early 2000s and form an online relationship. Lost and lonely Agnès soon falls in love with the generous and enigmatic Zoé. Their skewed power balance is clear from the start, but how this dynamic unfolds is truly shocking. Fear intensifies as love turns to obsession and physical and emotional limits are tested. The conclusion is as heartbreaking as it is shocking. This new book is about body horror, but it also captures something specific and profound about the need for connection and the first steps of the internet.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

“If I can’t inspire love, I will scare!”

While most of us grow up thinking Frankenstein’s Monster is a big green lout with bolts sticking out of its neck, reading Mary Shelley’s horror classic for the first time can be shocking. The creature in the novel is a gentle, intelligent soul trapped in a monstrous form, aware that its appearance forbids the love and connection it craves. The creature’s dilemma taps into the fear that we won’t be embraced and accepted for who we are because of how we look, that our love won’t be reciprocated because of the superficial. It’s the most obliterating intersection of romance and body horror, where the former can’t exist because of the latter. Aside from the resuscitation and revenge plot, it’s pretty relatable.

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