Book: The Necrophiliac
Author: Gabrielle Wittkop
Type of Book: Fiction, necrophilia
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Self-explanatory, I think.
Availability: Published by ECW Press in 2011, you can get a copy here:
Comments: Finally! A new book to satisfy the imaginations of all the people who land on my site via Google searches for “necrophilia!” Not being flippant because there are a surprising number of you. I was directed to this book by a commenter to this site, “Bad Tara.” Tara is not a big fan of Peter Sotos and recommended this book as an example of the literature she believes to be truly sexually transgressive. (When I look back on what I’ve read these last few months, I realize that for me this was the Summer of Sexual Deviance. It was not intentional, but my reviews are going to be a bit perverse for a bit. Just a heads up.)
I have to admit that I was completely surprised by this book. When I was a young woman I had a definite affinity for the gothic, especially the gothic obsession with death and decay. Poe and Baudelaire were favorites for me, as were Flannery O’Connor and Shirley Jackson. I read plenty of splatter, too, just foulness for the sake of foulness, but it was not until I read the book Exquisite Corpse by Poppy Z. Brite that I experienced a true marriage of splatter with a love of the Word. (Poppy Z. Brite now lives as a transgendered man, Billy Martin, so while I will call him “Brite” as I discuss his earlier work, I also will use male pronouns.)
Brite created a Southern Gothic splatter that pushed boundaries so far that it took me a long time to understand what I thought of the book. He borrowed from serial killer culture and used the creepiness in New Orleans to excellent advantage, but the most important element of this book to me was that, aside from a far too early brush with Hubert Selby, it was the first literary wallow I ever read. As so many of my extreme horror discussions here indicate, good extremity is rare, so while I had read lots of extremity, I had never read extremity as good and purposeful as Exquisite Corpse. Brite’s novel, about a Dahmer/Nilsen-like desire by killers to keep a corpse with them for as long as they could, employed every sense as he wrote about evisceration and necrophilia. The tactile experience of intestines in the hands, the sweet, cloying smell of rot, the visceral sensation of, well, viscera – it was all fabulously crafted. Murder, necrophilia and corpse desecration read with a sickening beauty. The novel was deeply disturbing on almost every level, which made my enjoyment of the gorgeous decadence all the more questionable to me. Think about it – what does it say about you when you admit, “This depiction of a terrible murder, evisceration and subsequent decomposition of a raped corpse was some of the most sensual prose I’ve read?”
Lucky for me that was two decades ago and the Internet came along and made everything far less shocking. But there was no avoiding that Brite’s prose was sensual, a delicious wallow in the forbidden and revolting. Exquisite Corpse is beautiful because of the revelation that the horrible can be so very beautiful and emotionally satisfying. It’s the book version of casu marzu and balut. It’s a delicacy, and that which is a delicacy is often that which is the most outrageous, harmful, foul or upsetting, when you consider all the details.
While The Necrophiliac is not so sensual, not so visceral, had I not read Exquisite Corpse all those years ago, I might not have had a proper frame work for Wittkop’s book. What I know of necrophilia doesn’t lend itself well to romantic looks at those whose love for the dead extends beyond a sexual compulsion. The Molly Parker film, Kissed, touched on the subject of romantic necrophilia, but it was very artsy and refined, never really discussing the cold, messy realities of loving the dead. The grotesque story of Dr. Carl Tanzler, who stole the dead body of a young woman who had died of tuberculosis, mummified it and equipped it with a special “channel” so he could have sex with her for seven years, comes close. But it wasn’t like Tanzler loved all the dead – rather, he was obsessed and fixated on one specific body. He didn’t want to make love to corpses. He wanted to make love to this young woman and, since he could not have her in life, he had her in death.
So in a sense, The Necrophiliac covers new ground for me. Though there are details in this book that lend themselves well to readers looking for a nasty wallow, this is, at its core, a romantic book about doomed love. Lucien, the narrator and diarist, is less interested in decay but it does not deter him. He is a romantic necrophile, genuinely drawn to specific dead people. He has no sexual or age preference, rather concentrating on specific people who are compelling to him. His relationships are, by the nature of his paraphilia, short term, and he mourns the loss of each romantic partner as their decay takes them away from him. He experiences a complete breakdown during his last affair and it feels very much like Lucien planned it that way, tiring of a life wherein those he loves will always be taken from him within days or weeks of discovering them.
In his diary, Lucien, who is a wealthy antiques dealer, describes in detail his love affairs with dead people. He has just enough charm and self-control to be able to move about in society without revealing his true nature, but he also seems to be creepy enough that his cleaning ladies remarked that he smelled like a vampire. Lucien is very expressive, and it was especially interesting how, for him, the dead had vastly different personalities. That sentence seemed odd to me as I typed it because my first impulse is to think that the dead have personalities. But they don’t, do they? We just imbue the corpse with the traits we knew it possessed when it was alive. A cadaver has no more personality than a chair. Lucien didn’t know most of the dead people he decides to have sex with. He doesn’t know what their living traits were. His specific sexual desire permits him to attribute what he believes are the individual motivations of the dead.
You don’t get an easy introduction to the ideas in this book, either. Right from the first words you are smacked with the foul reality and the interesting interpretations Lucien shares. The first page shows Lucien describing a little girl whose body he is inspecting (and how he obtained this body is not made clear but we will eventually learn the many ways Lucien courts the dead):
The grey eyelashes of this little girl cast a grey shadow against her cheek. She has the sly, ironic smile of those who know a lot.
This little girl is worth the trouble. It’s truly a very beautiful dead girl.
But the next day Lucien finds out how sly this little girl really is:
Yesterday evening, the little girl played a mean trick on me. I should have been more careful of her with that smile of hers.
What did this little girl do? Well, at the beginning of her “courtship” with Lucien she begins to vomit up bile.
Open in a Gorgon mask, her mouth didn’t stop vomiting this juice until its odour filled the room. All this rather spoiled my pleasure. I’m accustomed to better manners, for the dead are tidy. They have already released their excrement in leaving life as one disposes of an ignominious burden.
She’s not one of the dead from whom I have any grief in separating myself, the way one deplores having to leave a friend. She certainly had a mean character, I would swear to it. From time to time, she emits a deep gurgling that makes me suspicious.
But like many men before him, Lucien has a change of heart when it comes time to separate once and for all. The next night as he is preparing the little girl by wrapping her in plastic so he can throw her into the Seine, he sees another side of her and it softens him.
…she suddenly emitted a desperate sigh. Pained, prolonged the S in Sevres whistled through her teeth as if she had already suffered some sort of intolerable sorrow over her next abandonment. An immense pity squeezed at my heart. I hadn’t done justice to the humble, harsh charm of this child. I threw myself on her, covered her with kisses, repentant as an unfaithful lover.
He prostrates himself before the child, brushing her hair, oiling her body with perfumes, and, yes, having sex with her. She still ends up rolled in plastic, dumped in the Seine, but at least Lucien has a rapprochement before he abandons her.
The writing is so elegant, so filled with romance, that as you read these stories, you may well forget for a moment that you are reading are the words of a necrophile. That his partners are dead and they have no slyness, no kindness, no lust left in them. It’s all the creation of this man whose passions force him to imbue the dead with the personalities of the living.
But is he? Is one of the points of this little book to show the humanity in the paraphilia? To let us know that those who love the dead may, in fact, experience the world in a completely different way? That the reason a person becomes a necrophile is because that person can see in the dead what the rest of us cannot?
I don’t know. But it’s interesting to speculate.
The chapter I found the most interesting in this book was when Lucien discussed the other necrophiles he encountered in his life. At a funeral for a distasteful distant relative of his, he ran into a male and female pair of necrophiles and found them lacking in refinement.
..an extremely banal couple dressed in mourning, whom I guessed – I don’t know why – had come to enjoy themselves. No doubt the music, the funereal chants, and the bombyx had the custom of acting on the man in a specific way, for I distinctly heard his companion whisper to him a precise question in the state he found himself in. She used a vulgar word, something from an army barracks, of a crudeness that took me aback. There, was, I believe, another outline of a gesture, but I wasn’t sure.
These two were only watered-down necrophiliacs, and their preferences couldn’t rise to the height of passion.
But the other necrophile he encountered did measure up, passion-wise. An actress Lucien knew died and while she was not particularly beautiful, Lucien still wanted her. Once she was buried he crept into the cemetery during a heavy rain storm, picked the caretaker’s lock and stole a shovel, and dug her up.
As I struggled to climb out of the slippery grave with my package, I saw a man who was hiding behind a tombstone to watch me. His dark silhouette, his thick neck detached themselves neatly from the depth of the night. An atrocious fear spread over me. This man was going to follow me, kill me maybe. Or more likely, he was going to denounce me. Without knowing what I was doing, I abandoned the actress and fled as fast as my anguish permitted me.
Lucien made a clean getaway but the paper the next day held bad news.
In Montmartre Cemetery, the body of a well-known actress had been discovered, stripped of its clothes, disemboweled and horribly mutilated. The rain had effaced all clues. So the revolting man who had spied on me had taken advantage of the fruit of my efforts. How horrible! I burst into tears of vexation and grief.
Lucien was indeed grieving because, as I mentioned already, he is a romantic necrophile. He would never have savaged a corpse in the rain, on the ground, in the mud. He would never have mutilated a corpse, disemboweling it. Not for him the Exquisite Corpse delight in the damage done – he wants to court the dead in his own peculiar manner. Take them back to his place. Wash them, dress them, perfume them, admire them, commune with them.
In a very strange way, this is a romance novel – it’s just that Lucien romances the dead. There are passages in this book that would work in any high-brow romance novel, if only one of the romantic pair was not dead. One of the dead Lucien loves the most is a woman named Suzanne. Here are some of his descriptions of and interactions with her:
Suzanne… A petty bourgeois with finely coiffed blond [sic] hair, a polka-dot blouse under a classic suit
Suzanne had soft skin, almond-shaped nails. In lifting her blouse, I noticed the carefully shaved armpits. She was wearing underwear made of a crepe de Chine of a quality far superior to that of her suit, from which I concluded a dignity, a genuine feminine modesty. Her body showed that she had always respected it with a sort of asceticism, but a likeable, civilized, lenient asceticism.
I carried Suzanne to my bed. With a trembling hand, I removed her bra, her little panties. The wait took away my trembling; the tension of my desire didn’t permit me to prolong the moment of possession any further.
I locked myself in with Suzanne. Honeymoon without music and without bouquets in my glacial room where the lamps burned. I didn’t respond to the telephone. One or two times, despite my forbidding, someone rang the doorbell. My heart beating, holding my breath, immobile in the dark vestibule, I was all ready to do anything to defend my treasure.
Suzanne was not the most beautiful corpse Lucien made love to, but her corpse possessed qualities that made her the love of Lucien’s life. She became the experience by which Lucien measures the happiness or sadness of future unions. And of course, in a very real sense, she becomes the one who got away, but, then again, all of Lucien’s partners get away at some point when they become too decayed to keep with him any longer. He is genuinely devastated when Suzanne goes the way of all the others – wrapped up and dropped into the Seine:
My life, my death, mixed in Suzanne. In her, I entered into Hades; with her, I travelled all the way into the oceanic silt, tangled myself in the seaweed, petrified myself into the limestone, circulated into the veins of coral…
The romance saves this book from being a complete wallow, but the way Lucien approaches his paraphilia is thought-provoking. Lucien does not experience the dead, the decay and rot, the way most people would because in death he sees and smells the beginning and end of the world, the transformation of the base into the sublime.
Their fine powerful odor is that of the bombyx. It seems to come from the heart of the earth, from the empire where the musky larvae trudge between the roots, where blades of mica gleam like frozen silver, there where the blood of future chrysanthemums wells up, among the dusty peat, the sulphureous mire. The smell of the dead is that of the return to the cosmos, that of the sublime alchemy.
Perhaps it is because all the strange content I read meant this book could not upset or disgust me, but I was surprised by how unperturbed I was reading this book. I was not appalled, not disgusted. I am really glad “Bad Tara” recommended this book to me because it was a fresh, unusual look into a very outrageous sexual habit, one that did not pander, one that was so finely written and considered that one could just immerse oneself into the book without feeling exploited or disturbed. Yet the book does not quail from “hard” content, making the appalling beautiful and imbuing it with a humanity that was wholly unexpected.
I can’t fully endorse this book because I have to think a substantial part of my readership won’t want to read the romantic and graphic antics of a necrophile. But for the necrophiliacs who land here with increasingly creative subject strings, and for those who really want to experience the outre, highly recommended.
5 thoughts on “The Necrophiliac by Gabrielle Wittkop”
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Thanks again for recommending it to me!
Uh, I was to understand there’d be pie and necrophilia?
I’m not particularly drawn to this area of interest, but I have watched some films like Nekromantik out of morbid curiosity, and of course it comes up often in horror stories. They’re invariably disappointing, though, in that they don’t really get into the psychology of the necrophiliac in a convincing way. Either the topic is treated unseriously, or as a metaphor, or just taken as fact without explanation.
(Probably the best and most disturbing film about necrophilia that I’ve seen is Nacho Cerda’s great short film “Aftermath,” which can be seen here if you dare. It’s gory and hard to watch, but quite artfully presented.)
Boy, Exquisite Corpse was something else. I also read it back in the pre-Internet days, and at the time it was the most disturbing and nauseating novel I’d ever read. (Oh, those sweet innocent days before I encountered Edward Lee and Wrath James White.) What made it so horrific for me is that the luscious imagery made what was going on seem beautiful and appealing, which was nauseating in the way that smelling something sweet in a dumpster full of rotten food can be nauseating.
I wanted to make a dead people pie joke but I can’t think of one.
Man, Nekromantic and Aftermath were both… I guess disappointing. I am becoming so inured to nastiness that nothing really bothers me anymore. Kissed had some nice moments because it didn’t make the sexual paraphilia a joke, though the ending was overwrought. It’s am unusual topic and hard to handle, it would seem.
God, Brite in his heyday wrote circles around Lee and Wrath James White. I sort of want to go back and reread all the horror titles Brite wrote. It always disappointed me that Lost Souls was never made into a movie.
Exquisite Corpse is one of my favourite books in any genre. The last chapter/epilogue is such an amazing piece of writing. Some of the stories in Self-Made Man/Are You Loathsome Tonight are also among the best short stories I’ve read – though the collection as a whole is a bit patchy.
This book sounds really good. I’m not specifically interested in the topic, but I love novels that successfully humanize aberrant people in this kind of way.