I’m one lucky book nerd. I get to read quite a few books to review for PopHorror. I have discovered many new authors this way, which is fantastic. When Our Lady of the Inferno’s Preston Fassel (read my interview with him here) asked me if I’d like to read Headcheese by Jess Hagemann, I was already fascinated by that title alone. He described the book as, “It’s a [Mark Z. Danielewski’s] House of Leaves–style epistolary novel about a disparate group of people who form a religious cult around self-amputation.”
Confession time… I have never read House of Leaves nor an epistolary novel. However, this furthered my interest in this new book, and I never hesitated before agreeing to read it. How was this book? Read on to find out what I thought as a newbie to this style of writing.
The day that Lorrie “accidentally” cuts off her little toe, she discovers what it’s like to be able-bodied and not want that body part.
After Bartholomew loses his left arm to a Sunni sniper, he’s inspired to start a new kind of church?one where both amputation and sex are types of performance art.
Trice, a prosthetics engineer, receives the assignment of a lifetime when he’s asked to rebuild his son’s crippled frame.
Haunted by the memory of his dead wife, George must take the ultimate measure to excise her ghost. For good.
From sexual fetish to the clinical diagnosis of Body Integrity Identity Disorder, Headcheese makes the first cut, peeling back the epidermis to peer inside the minds and hearts of 26 people navigating the topography of flesh.
This book is a disturbing look at a mental illness BIID, which stands for Body Integrity Identity Disorder.
According to National Center for Biotechnology Information:
It is a rare, infrequently studied and highly secretive condition in which there is a mismatch between the mental body image and the physical body. Subjects suffering from BIID have an intense desire to amputate a major limb or severe the spinal cord in order to become paralyzed.
Headcheese gives us a terrifying look at this disorder. Prior to reading this book, I had no idea that this condition existed. Jess Hagemann presents this topic as an episodic documentary style film within a book as she explores the stories of the characters who suffer from this disorder. At times, you forget that this is a work of fiction. The characters are dynamic, and even though the subject matter is disturbing, you can’t help but want to read more.
There are plenty of cringeworthy scenes in this book. Jess Hagemann has a no-holds-barred description of the amputations, and there is plenty of blood. While this is a work of fiction, I believe the most alarming thing is that this could be happening in the real world at this very moment. Jess Hagemann has an ability to create some of the most petrifying scenes I’ve ever read. She also constructs scenes that help you understand why these people feel the way they do about their bodies. You grasp their suffering and empathise with their need to do this, even though the whole idea seems so off the wall. Why would anyone want to mutilate themselves? It’s then that you realize that so many of us don’t fit in to what is “normal” in society. Perhaps this is a way, an extreme way, that people try to fit in… or force themselves out even further. They feel incomplete as whole human beings, and only through self-destruction do they begin to feel whole.
The cast of this book is extensive, but the story mainly follows Lorrie, Bartholomew (Captain Hook), Trice and George. The author weaves the story together and these characters end up connecting throughout the telling. Each of the characters have BIID, but all have different reasons for their disorder. Bartholomew is a rather chilling character. He wants to help people find themselves by gifting them an amputation. As deranged as this is, you can see why he does it. You can’t help but empathize with Lorrie, George and Trice.
The epistolary style makes Headcheese a quick read. There are illustrations from Chris Panatier throughout, artwork that is grotesquely stunning and adds to the overall experience.
Headcheese is totally worth the read. This is my first book of this style and subject matter, and it really made me think. I actually ended up reading a lot of it for a second time before this review due to many contemplative moments. Jess Hagemann has a gift to tell a story in a meaningful and creative way. She can also write horrifying scenes like nobody’s business. The book is an experience… and that is why my review is spoiler-free. You need to read this one and experience it all for yourself. Be sure to pick it up available now on Amazon. I am looking forward to more from Jess Hagemann! Stay tuned to PopHorror for our upcoming interview with the author Jess Hagemann!