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Prevenge: in a world of male violence, seeing monstrous women is a thrill

Why I love watching women commit acts of violence on screen. 

The best thing you’ll see in the cinema this year is a big man called DJ Dan looking down in horror as he realises that the thing slithering down his leg and onto his living room floor is his testicle, unleashed from its ballsack by the knife held by heavily pregnant Ruth (played by Alice Lowe). Or, if the death-by-castration of DJ Dan – an entirely appropriate response to his pick-up patter about the easiness of “fat birds” – doesn’t grab you, maybe one of the other grisly highlights of Lowe’s maternity-slasher movie Prevenge will.

You could choose Ruth sitting astride a man and ramming a gilt statue through his eye-socket; or Ruth butchering a chilly businesswoman who smirkingly explains at the end of a job interview that it just wouldn’t make sense to hire a woman who’s about to have a baby. And all of it is accompanied by the insinuating whisper of Ruth’s foetus, who seems to be talking to her from the womb, urging “mummy” to greater acts of violence. As Ruth’s gratingly sincere midwife tells her: “Baby knows what to do.” 

There’s an extra thrill to watching in knowing that, not only is the main character pregnant, but so is the mastermind behind all this on-screen gore: while Prevenge employs a wealth convincing prosthetics, Lowe’s bump isn’t one of them. She wrote, directed and starred in the film while pregnant. It’s hard to think of any film that better captures the nightmare side of pregnancy. Maybe Alien, and even Alien only managed it by pointing out how awful it would be if men were the ones hosting strangers in their bellies.

Prevenge shows the sheer bloody mentalness of pregnancy. On the one hand, there’s the fear a woman feels about what having a baby will do to her body and her life – in interviews, Lowe has said that it partly sprang from her anxiety that being a mother might mean never working again. On the other, there’s the cultural command that you be more blissfully happy than ever before (and if you’re not then you’re a terrible mummy). Between the two, it’s hardly surprising that most pregnant women feel part-deranged at least part of the time. Why don’t more of us fill our baby books with murder scribbles like Ruth?

But it’s not just pregnant women who I like to see committing acts of savage bloodletting. Contemplating all kinds of fictional female violence gives me a deep and holy satisfaction. After the US presidential election result, there was a time when the only thing getting me through the day was thinking about Naomi Alderman’s novel The Power, and imagining what I would do if nature handed me the ability to deliver electric shocks that the book gives to women: what I’d do, it turns out, is make a list of men I blame for Trump and go around discharging volts into them.

I loved Under the Skin, where Scarlett Johansson’s seductive alien can’t be penetrated by anything – she can’t even swallow even food – but can consume men by absorbing them in scenes of dark and abstract horror. I loved Ex Machina, where robot Ava (played by Alicia Vikander) turns on her creator and takes her revenge: she isn’t even really female, what with being an AI performing a man’s idea of femininity, but watching her rise up and batter the men who imprisoned and exploited her still made my heart sing.

I loved Audition, which starts like a romantic comedy with a man interviewing potential brides, and ends somewhere else completely when the woman he picks (Eihi Shiina) turns out to be much less submissive and much more torture-y than expected. I could argue that all these things are feminist – and some of those arguments would be more of a stretch than others – but the truth is I just like them, and liking something doesn’t make it righteous.

Becoming the monster is seductive, but the idea that women are dangerous or monstrous has always been used to justify the things men do to us. It’s witch trial logic. It’s the same logic that went into 1987’s Fatal Attraction, a film that (according to Susan Faludi in Backlash) male audiences watched with gleeful cries of “kill the bitch” as Glenn Close’s vengeful character was finally dispatched, taking all those unwelcome pretensions of female liberation with her. It’s the logic that gives front-page coverage to rare real-life female killers, while regular femicide goes unreported.

If women are bad, then it’s only self-defence when men strike us down. But if we’re naturally good, then we could never hit back or hit first, and the fantasy of hitting back or hitting first is a nice one, especially if it’s not really your fault because an evil foetus made you. That’s the joy of DJ Dan’s bollock: a short and gloriously cathartic holiday in being the one who makes others cringe, rather than the one who does the cringing. The future is female. Fear us.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

Photo: Nadav Kander
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Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder