The Mammoth Book of Body Horror, edited by Paul Kane and Marie O’Regan and introduced by Stuart ‘Re-Animator’ Gordon, is a collection of the things that really get under your skin. These are tales of transformation, mutation and contagion, some old, like HP Lovecraft’s ‘Herbert West – Reanimator’, and some more recent, like my own tale of modelling horrors, ‘The Look’. Then there’s ‘The Fly’ from George Langelaan.
Langelaan is an interesting case. He worked for the Special Operations Executive, a secret unit involved in sabotage and spying. To aid the French resistance movement, he agreed to be parachuted back there in order to meet a key contact, but was worried about being recognised. His ears stuck out, so along with a new identity he was given some plastic surgery to make himself less recognisable.
After being dropped he was caught by the Nazis and condemned to death, but managed to escape from the Mauzac camp in 1942. He was awarded the Croix De Guerre, and wrote a memoir, ‘The Masks Of War’, in 1959.
But two years before this he penned another work about the power of transformation. ‘The Fly’ was a short story that appeared in Playboy magazine. The tale of a scientist whose attempts to transmit himself across distances end in disaster when his cells are mixed with those of a common housefly accidentally trapped in the machine was an instant hit with readers, and was filmed with Vincent Price.
The script was adapted by James Clavell, who wrote ‘The Great Escape’. It spawned two sequels, a remake, another sequel and an opera composed by Howard Shore, who had scored the soundtrack for the successful David Cronenberg version.
A tale of deception and disguise, it must have been a subject close to the writer’s heart, and was perhaps more of a subconscious roman a clef than his memoirs. But a puzzle remains; surely, if Langelaan wrote the gruesome story before suggesting his own physical alteration, it hints at something much stranger in the writer’s mind – or was it merely coincidence?
The Mammoth Book of Body Horror is available from Robinson Books.