Cannibalism: No Fit Subject for a Novel?

I think that a writer has to follow what is presented to him or her and then follow their curiosity to where it leads. I had read the best selling book ALIVE when it was published in 1974.  It was a fascinating true account of how the people of an airliner crash, high in the remote Andes Mountains, had survived for weeks by cannibalizing their fellow deceased passengers.  The concept was gruesome, but the elements of heroism were also plainly evident.

Nothing would have warranted me to think more on that horrific subject had I not come across a small newspaper article no more than one column by three inches that probably appeared in the New York Times.  The report stated that the survivors of the Andes crash had experienced remarkable health following their rescue from the crash site.  Although they had suffered much, individuals who had allergies, arthritis, and other nagging conditions prior to the accident were free of symptoms for periods of six to eight weeks afterwards.

My imagination then leaped to the unstated conclusion that the human flesh diet had somehow transferred health benefits to those survivors. It was an outrageous idea, but how might the crash survivors respond to their experiences of the health benefits?  Might they want to investigate it?  Research it?  And where would that lead them when such a taboo study had to be done in secret?  I sought to develop answers to these questions.

A writer’s curiosity should propel him or her into the research mode, and so for several years I read everything that I could find on cannibalism.  I was interested in fact, not fiction, and so I read the psychological and anthropological science on the subject.  At the end of that study, I felt that I knew as much about anthropophagy as any graduate student in the world, and I felt confident that I could combine the research with creative imagination to write a very original and unusual novel.

Flesh was my second novel, written about 1980.  I sent the manuscript to a classmate from our days together at UVA—Bob Friedman, who was to become the subsequent publisher of my four Booker Series novels.  Bob had been a first reader of my short fiction and first novel, but he was usually slow and brief on the comeback.  I might wait for months for him to say “nice job.” His reaction to Flesh was very different and immediate.

“You kept me up all night!” he said as the opening line in his telephone call.  Bob had read Flesh in one sitting.  Bob’s conclusion about Flesh proved to be prophetic.

“This book will be bigger than Jaws, or no publisher will touch it,” he said.  And Bob was right for nearly 30 years. Based on my synopsis of Flesh, no agent or publisher wanted to read it.  If they expressed themselves at all, their tones rang of disgust.  My defense of the novel as an allegory was useless.  The subject, as far as they were concerned, was too taboo.

Well, in 30 years, the appetites of readers (pun intended) and media viewers have changed. Human dissection is common on the forensic crime shows on television.  Hit vampire novels, television shows, and movies show copious blood gushing.  And zombies?  The onslaught of body-devouring zombies is as ghoulish as a slaughterhouse.

In writing Flesh, I did what every writer should do. I pursued what was presented to me, supported my curiosity with solid research, and then completed the novel that had propelled my imagination.  Now we get to see if Bob was right.  We’ve overcome the cautions of previous-day publishers by the wonderful vehicle of e-books.  What remains to be seen is if Flesh becomes bigger than Jaws—the book and the movie.

Don’t be afraid.  You will laugh at some scenes in Flesh.  The verisimilitude, however, is creepy.  My wife Pat worries that after Flesh, no one will ever again come to our house for dinner.  If you think that I am daring you to read Flesh, I guess that I am.  After 30 years of suppression, Flesh is out of the closet.

4 Comments

Filed under Writing

4 responses to “Cannibalism: No Fit Subject for a Novel?

  1. Regarding that dinner invitation … due to dietary restrictions, I will be bringing my own boxed meal. As Bob says,”Nice job,”

    • The available puns on this subject seem vast. So many common adages can be twisted. For example, someone on my Face Book posted this innocent one, “you are so cute that I could eat you up.” I no longer want that said to any babies that we know!

  2. I’ve already downloaded it, but need to finish two other books before I can get to it. At the moment, I have more than I can chew. (With apologies).

  3. Thank you for your courage. You demonstrate good “taste”. And I am reminded of the old adage, “you are what you eat.”

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