A list of novels, graphic novels, comic books, and manga that belong in the body horror genre. Books are listed in alphabetical order by title. This list will be updated as I read more books that fit into this category.
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What is body horror?
Body horror is a broad category that encompasses any horror story that involves a grotesque disfiguration or manipulation of the human form. This could be through violence but more often is through an internal influence such as disease, genetic mutations, or even self harm.
Most people know of body horror through film, specifically director David Cronenberg. If you ever hear of anything described as “Conenberesque” that’s body horror. He’s known for testing the limits of human flesh, combining the flesh with machines and technology is his main focus.
Throughout history body horror has been present in all forms of media but the term didn’t arise until the 1980s in response to the growing genre in film. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis are two early literature examples that don’t always carry this label.
Japan has dominated the genre across film and manga with superstars like Junji Ito bringing the images to the mainstream. Movies such as Tetsuo the Iron Man and Meatball Machine are also fantastic examples of J-Horror that embrace the distortion of the human form.
Across all forms of media the theme that ties body horror together is a fear that comes from within. There may be no external antagonist in the entire story. The threat is only yourself. This often comes with the consequence that in order to defeat the threat you must defeat your own body. This creates a more existential fear than fighting a serial killer or monster does.
Modern body horror has embraced the genre to be used as a symbol for all things from politics and social commentary, changing technologies, aging, and even romance. The books in this list find ways to demonstrate much more than an internal struggle and some of the characters even embrace their mutations.
Please enjoy these body horror books.
Novel by author Paddy Chayefsky
Altered States is a science fiction novel with a very accurate movie adaptation that is also worth a watch. It takes a completely out there concept and tries to make it as backed by real science as possible. The main character is experimenting on himself using hallucinogenic drugs in combination with a sensory deprivation tank. He becomes addicted to the experience and begins to seek out bigger and better highs.
Through exploration of the human psyche, as well as time and space barriers, he begins to blur the lines between reality and hallucination. Eventually, this results in his physical form changing in ways that are far beyond what he ever expected. The book is more sci fi than horror but it has the same elements of distorting the human form and what the boundaries of humanity are.
Animal Man is a lesser known DC comic books hero. His power involves tapping into a dimension known as The Red (Swamp Thing taps into The Green) in which he can connect to a network of animals. He is able to adopt the abilities of any animals on Earth. For example, the flight of an eagle or the speed of a cheetah.
In order to tap into this well of power he gets overcome with The Red. This often appears as a rather startling transition that would be considered horrific to many readers. Although this comic book is more of a super hero story with strong family dynamics it does become a body horror book every time he has to use his abilities. It also comes across some pretty disturbing villains and the art truly captures the grotesqueness of the genre.
This is a much more adult friendly comic book than you may be used to if you haven’t read a lot of DC.
Come Into Me
Graphic novel by authors Zac Thompson and Lonnie Nadler, Illustrations Piotr Kowalski
Come Into Me takes us to the ultimate extreme of social media. Through intestine looking flesh tubes you can connect to another person and experience life through their mind. You can see all of their memories and think with their unique mind patterns. You become fully immersed in another person, a whole new level of intimacy.
This idea is terrifying to me. It’s a bizarre violation of personal individuality but there is definitely a market for such a product. I’ll pass, but I’m sure others would jump at the chance. The true horror of the book is in the concept but the visuals enhance it greatly. Graphic novels truly are an ideal medium for this genre, they get to explore the sights without budget constraints.
Dorohedoro is a 23 volume manga series that has so far gotten 1 season of an anime adaptation. The manga is complete so this one is perfect for a big binge read. The horror elements are strong here and only build as the series goes on. Body horror starts at the beginning with one of the main characters, Caiman, not knowing why he has the head of a lizard and why there is a tiny man who lives in his mouth.
The series is a unique mix of horror, fantasy, and slice of life with a strong emphasis on friendship and chosen family. There is no shortage of violence and gore as Nikaido and Caiman become involved in a conflict with the magic world they are isolated from. Bodies are frequently altered, mutilated, transformed, and swapped in this immensely entertaining read.
Entropy in Bloom
Short stories by author Robert Jeremy Johnson
This short story collection features an array of topics but body horror is present in more than one of them. The opening story dives head first into the world of body modification and how extreme it could possibly get in the future. For example, people are having their lips surgically removed while others compete on a TV show for the most advanced mods far worse than becoming lipless. Although these alterations are self inflicted most people would see them as truly horrific.
Themes of desperation and the need for attention and acceptance are woven throughout all the stories here. They are deeply personal and although at times absurd it would be difficult to read the collection without having a strong emotional reaction.
Novel by author Katherine Dunn
Geek Love should be on the reading list of everyone who’s always looking to push their limits just a bit further. It’s the deeply disturbing and down right f***d up tale of a family who makes their living operating their own freak show. Throughout the generations they have taken great strides to ensure that all of their offspring are born with genetic abnormalities. There are the usual conjoined twins and bearded ladies but the true star is Artie the fish boy.
These malformities are both physical and mental which pushes some of the family members to have sets of morals quite different from those of the “normal” world. The acts of violence and manipulation written on these pages will turn your stomach. As in some of these other books the body horror comes from numerous directions. There are those who are born with abnormalities but there is also no shortage of self-inflicted mutilation.
Most Junji Ito books could be included on this list. As previously mentioned he’s widely considered a master of the genre. His manga are drawn with bizarre and over the top images that stretch the human form into every possible shape and possibility.
Lovesickness is an anthology of his that includes the scary story The Rib Woman. Her ability to play with her body in the way that she does demonstrates not only horror but a dark humor as well. Ito finds ways to incorporate silliness or even romance into his macabre tales and any of his books are worth picking up.
The Low, Low Woods
Graphic novel by author Carmen Maria Machado, Illustrations by DaNi
This graphic novel entry takes body horror into the metaphysical realm as a young woman opens up into a black hole. The lady in question was innocently fooling around with her new girlfriend when her stomach turns into a deep void that will change the way the two see the world, the universe, and everything around them.
She is a vessel and a mystery. Her body is the key and a metaphor. The book deals with themes of rape culture, victim blaming, and how to heal after trauma. Female authors have an interesting perspective in this genre as woman are more likely to have dealt with becoming acquainted with horrific body changes including regular pain and the parasites affectionately referred to as babies. Even just the monthly gore of menstruation can inspire horror stories. The Low Low Woods is a feminist comic book at heart but does not become preachy.
Graphic novel by author Michael Fiffe
Panorama is a traditionally styled body horror romance. It follows a couple as they become completely intwined with one another. If you’ve ever experienced a passionate whirlwind romance you may be able to understand the feeling of obsession with the physical that this couple does. Two people become one in the most literal sense as this romance melds their flesh.
Horror and romance can definitely coincide. Navigating a new relationship and dealing with overwhelming emotions can be just as scary as a serial killer outside your door. The panic attacks, the nerves, the doubt, and ultimately the fear are something most of us can understand quite well.
Many of the books on this list place the horror on the protagonist. They are the ones to experience the changing in their bodies. Ring Shout puts that horror on the enemy. This book also stands out as being semi-appropriate for a young adult audience. The heroines of the story are in their teens to early adulthood and a younger audience could definitely enjoy their own brand of magic.
There is, however, the gore to be aware of. Blood and violence are not for everyone and this book does have quite a bit of it. It also indulges in some spectacular horror imagery that sets it apart from other mundane horror novels. Plus, who doesn’t love reading about members of the KKK getting what’s coming to them?
Graphic novel by Ezra Clayton Daniels
Upgrade Soul is a spectacular body horror book but also just a spectacular book. It’s on my list of all time favorites and should be read by any reader, not just those looking for a scare. The book crosses all genre lines and can be read as sci fi, horror, romance, philosophy, social commentary, satire, and at times a dark comedy. The basic premise is that an elderly couple signs up for an experimental procedure that is supposed to increase their lifespans. Of course, things go wrong.
The procedure leaves them disfigured and by all measurements quite ugly. Where it goes from there is one of the most thought provoking books I’ve ever read. You will question what it means to be alive, to be in love, to escape death, and whether or not you want to do any of these things at all. The twists and turns in this one come together in one masterfully crafted story that will impress and repulse in equal measure.
The Vegetarian rose to the top of the charts as a highly polarizing novel. People have very strong feelings about whether they love or hate this one. I loved it, I hope you will too. The concept is simple, a wife spontaneously decides to become a vegetarian in a culture that does not encourage this behavior.
Despite her family attempting to persuade her otherwise she refuses to budge on her stance even when it becomes detrimental to her health. He body begins to change, first by losing weight but it doesn’t stop there. She undergoes a strange transformation. This book is an unusual insight into Korean culture as well as the universal place of women in society. Not a traditional horror but a drama with intense imagery, this book is sure to cause a reaction.
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