You’ve finished another week slaving for your corporate overlords. Let’s celebrate with a Freaky Friday, but there’s no relief here. Not this week. Because this week we’re talking about Michael Blumlein’s X,Y.
Christopher Booker wrote that there are only seven basic stories in literature, but in horror it sometimes feels like there are half that many. I blame horror for the fact that I’ve become bored by zombies destroying civilization, for the fact that I yawn in the face of hillbilly cannibals, for the fact that I’ve become numb to yet another woman or child dying horribly and returning as ghosts. After consuming large quantities of stories that end with the narrator becoming the monster, or being revealed as having been the monster all along, or being killed by the monster, I’m desperately craving something new.
So when I came across Michael Blumlein’s X,Y, I got excited.
There’s nothing else quite like X,Y in horror fiction, and even though it isn’t perfect, what is? It’s a book whose flaws are more than compensated for by its originality and it’s a book I doubt anyone would write now. It’s a book that dives into the complicated swamp of gender difference and, rather than worrying about identity politics or liberation narratives, it boils things down to biology. And then it keeps boiling.
Written in 1993 and published as part of Dell’s Abyss horror line, X,Y tastes like JG Ballard or David Cronenberg, and Blumlein writes in the chilly, precise clinical prose of an autopsy report. It’s probably no surprise that he’s an MD, although it is a surprise that a mass market horror paperback contains a two-page list of citations at the end, ranging from The Journal of Neuro-medical Mechanics to The American Journal of Psychiatry.
Neil Gaiman said that a happy ending is just a matter of stopping your story soon enough, a lesson Blumlein ignores. X,Y is never really horrifying, exactly, but it follows an unsettling descent into biology and psychology that spirals downwards to the point where you’d expect any sane writer to stop, and then it keeps spiraling. The book is about Frankie de Leon, a hard-drinking stripper working in a New York City strip club, who passes out one night while dancing and wakes up as a man. That’s not to say her body mutates or grows a penis. She simply wakes up with total amnesia except for the complete conviction that she’s male.
This turns out to be more than her childish boyfriend, Terry, can handle and their relationship turns into a co-dependent nightmare where he promises to help her locate her “real” body while ditching her in the apartment (she’s too nervous in her Frankie-body to leave) or drugging her and keeping her in bed for days at a time. (I’m already in pronoun trouble here since Frankie is no longer referred to as “her” or “she” pretty early in the narrative.) There’s another patron who passed out at the same time Frankie did, and a large part of the book focuses on Frankie’s attempts to locate this patron and figure out what happened to both of them. Interspersed throughout are what appear to be extracts from medical texts about everything from the wail of sirens increasing the incidence of Alzheimer’s and sexual criminality, to lordosis. Towards the end of the book, these are swapped for extracts from beauty and fashion magazines.
Some spoilers are going to follow, but since this book has long been out-of-print I don’t feel too bad. After trying magic (which fails), and amateur sleuthing (also useless), Frankie and Terry wind up in an emotional dead-end and Terry’s increasing frustration with the situation (he suspects it’s all a put-on) causes him to lash out violently. Frankie retreats into catatonia, but emerges deciding that it’s time to wield his femininity as the socially constructed tool it is, and since he also has insight into the male mind, pretty soon he’s dominating Terry in scary ways that involves voluntary self-mutilation, like sewing his lips shut. And worse.
Blumlein has written about human sexual differences before, most notably in his short story collection The Brains of Rats which features stories with titles like “Tissue Ablation and Variant Regeneration: A Case Report” and passages where he writes:
“The struggle between sexes, the battles for power are a reflection of the schism between thought and function, between the power of our minds and powerlessness in the face of our design. Sexual equality, an idea present for hundreds of years, is subverted by instincts present for millions. The genes determining mental capacity have evolved rapidly; those determining sex have been stable for eons. Humankind suffers the consequences of this disparity, the ambiguities of identity, the violence between the sexes.”
In X,Y he reduces those differences beyond biology and into psychology. Then he reduces them further until it feels like, by the end, he’s hit a baseline in human relationships: dominator and dominated. Alpha and beta. Weak and strong. And yet he adds a final twist. In one of his medical abstracts (which I’m assuming are real, although they may be fabricated) he writes of a species of hermaphroditic human beings, extinct now for thousands of years. The male and female switch off the roles of child-bearer, growing penises and vaginas as needed, switching back and forth between the male and female role, until any notions we would have about what constitutes male-ness and female-ness would be irrelevant. By the end of X,Y he seems to be indicating that even the roles divided between the alpha and beta in a relationship can shift back and forth.
I can’t think of another book that delves so deeply into human sexuality without having a single sex scene, and as much as Blumlein writes evocatively of sensory experiences the prose feels removed, dispassionate. The fact that the bulk of the middle section of the novel relates the failed coping techniques of Frankie and Terry in the face of the biological (or psychological) anomaly they’re confronted with may test reader’s patience, but the pay-off is a book that occupies for horror the place Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness occupies for science fiction: a book that questions one of our baseline assumptions about humanity. That we are a binary species, split between male and female. And that that split is somehow firm. As Blumlein shows, this supposedly bedrock difference consists of a few chromosomal markers, a few neural pathways. The kind of thing that can easily be erased by a swipe of God’s hand, or an accident, or just random luck. How you feel about what’s currently in your pants is going to determine how horrifying you find that thought.
Grady Hendrix has written for publications ranging from Playboy to World Literature Today; his most recent novel is Horrorstör, about a haunted Ikea, while My Best Friend’s Exorcism (which is like Beaches meets The Exorcist) will be out from Quirk Books on May 17th.