I thought I’d do my bit over here by discussing some of the stories Black Static has published by female authors over the years. I’m not going to post one a day, or attempt to stick to a regular schedule (I’m lousy at commitment), just as and when I can.
And we start with “Votary” by M. K. Hobson, which appeared in the very first issue back in September 2007. Hobson is an American writer, and with credits in places like Interzone, Realms of Fantasy and F&SF, probably much better known for her work in the Science Fiction and Fantasy genres than Horror. Check out her website for more information.
“Votary” opens with the line ‘Votary’s father was very fat’, but as the story continues we learn that ‘very fat’ was an understatement. Father is absolutely huge, confined to the basement of the family’s ancient house and waited on by mother and daughter, both of whom are named Votary.
The story is told from the perspective of the daughter, who idolises her father and can ask for nothing more than to sit at his feet and provide the food with which he maintains his massive bulk. But when her mother starts to develop outside interests, Votary’s comfortable little world is threatened, forcing her to take decisive action.
Hobson wrote at the time of the story’s publication, ‘I guarantee my story “Votary” will make you LITERALLY VOMIT IN TERROR!’ Thankfully I didn’t experience any such reaction, but certainly there is a lot in the story to repel, with the description of the father an accumulation of grotesque effects, and in particular in the scenes where he feeds, huge mouth flipping open 180 degrees and mother and daughter shoveling sustenance into his ravenous maw like workmen feeding a cement mixer.
There are echoes here of George R. R. Martin’s story “The Pear Shaped Man”, of Frank in the attic in Clive Barker’s “Hellbound Heart”, and of a grotesquely fat demon in an early series of “Buffy”, whose name I can’t recall, but Hobson takes all these elements and gives them a thorough whirl round in the cocktail shaker of her imagination to produce something entirely different.
A literal reading of the story taken in tandem with the meaning of the word ‘votary’ has the father as a deity attended by female devotees. There are hints in the text that support this, such as a statement about the great age of the house and the suggestion of an endless succession of daughters, each taking on the mother’s role and eventually being replaced. And taken on that level, we can read into the story a commentary on the restrictions and demands unconditional worship imposes on its devotees. But beyond that something more fundamental appears to be going on.
Father’s world, the world of the basement, is set in our world, the ‘real’ world, and interesting things are seen at the points where the two overlap. In the real world, mother and daughter have names, and the former at least once had dreams of a different life, whereas in the world of the basement their identities are defined by their function, they have no purpose except to serve the will of another.
The father, who is waited on hand and foot, who does nothing except watch television and eat a constant diet of whiskey, cigarettes and burgers, who turns women into his slaves, seems like nothing so much as a grotesquely exaggerated caricature of a bankrupted ideal of masculinity. As a deity he is the bloated apotheosis of a thwarted and impotent machismo, man as the parasite who takes from women and gives nothing back. And Votary herself is the embodiment of a female masochism and will to subservience that allows this to happen.