There’s a particular intimacy to stories that trade in the tropes of what we’ve come to label “body horror.” In these tales, the sanctity of your body is invaded, compromising you in your most vulnerable or intimate moments, slowly transforming you from within—it is horror on its most deeply personal and unsettling level.
Our visceral reaction to these fears are what makes The Beauty—Aliya Whiteley’s short novel of fungus, sex, biological evolution, and gender stereotypes—work so well. It plays on your unspoken fears: of contamination, of the loss of identity, the push and pull of intimacy and eroticism of of the genre itself. Through a story of relatable interpersonal conflict and truly vivid horror imagery, Whiteley crafts an intimately terrifying tale of the divide between men and women, and how far things will go when humans are starved of their basic need for companionship.
Years after a strange yellow fungus left all the women in the world dead, “the Group,” a tribe of men living out their remaining years in a rock-filled valley, entertain each other with stories told by Nathan, their designated historian. When Nathan first notices buds of mushrooms growing from women’s graves, the Group’s elders are unconcerned, dismissing the changes as merely another cycle of seasons. But the strange yellow mushrooms begin to grow into unnervingly pretty creatures, and soon, something deadly seems to have a hold over the men of the Group, something that will change their lives and upend the stability of their existence forever. Something that will pit them against each other, and take over their minds. Something beautiful.
Whiteley has a penchant for describing the disturbing. From the moment the Beauty—the name given the fungal women birthed from the plague that killed the human women they now replace—make their way into camp, humming “like beehives,” the atmosphere of this novella grows increasingly strange. The men of the Group giving themselves over to the Beauty, allowing them to fill a place in their fantasies, and soon find themselves biologically changed by the yellow-grey women. The descriptions of the Beauty, and the cold surroundings in the valley, highlight the desperation of the surviving men, making it a lot more plausible when they release themselves to the alien, semi-sapient fungal blooms and the terrible consequences that come from prolonged contact with them. There is a deep intimacy in these interactions, one not that far removed from outright horror. The results are both terrifying and strangely intriguing.
At its heart, this is a fable about a blurred gender divide. The Beauty are at first presented as a kind of alien sirens, filling the “traditional” feminine roles (wives, mothers) the Group lacked; the men welcome them readily, eagerly taking their places in more masculine roles—as protectors and providers for the Beauty. The men give them all they need, and receive intimacy in return. But as the story deepens, the old order breaks down. The Group members who cling to traditionally masculine roles of control transform into monsters of a sort, resorting to ostracism and outright murder; the men who take more stereotypical feminine roles of nurturer for the Beauty change in appearance, become more delicate even as the Beauty become more masculine. Haunting alien imagery aside, Whiteley is exploring the toxicity of rigid gender roles to the health of any society, as what remains of humanity slowly crumbles due to our rigidity of thought.
Ultimately, The Beauty is a surreal and disquieting post-apocalyptic consideration of the roles we place ourselves in, and the damaging stereotypes and standards we hold each other to, spinning the the common sci-fi conceit of the “alien siren” into an unusual but effective discussion of gender and intimacy, one that disturbs even as it raises new questions about the way we’ve all organized our lives.