This is one of those strange and ephemeral memories.
I was in a bookstore, leafing through the horror section as always. I was little, but old enough to be allowed to read violent books. Or maybe my parents were so relieved that I was reading that she didn’t care what I read. Either way, I was young, reading horror novels in a bookstore that might have been in Mic Mac Mall, which was the biggest shopping mall in the Nova Scotia. It still is, I hear. It definitely still has the original design, which makes it look straight out of Romero’s Day of the Dead.
(Incidentally, the name Mic Mac comes from the Mic Mac Indians, or First Nation, as we would call them today. ‘Mic Mac’ is a phonetic bastardization of the proper way to say it: MigMag, although you have to open your mouth very wide and do something strange to your epiglottis to manage it.)
In the horror section, I found a novel called The Beast Within(1981), by Edward Levy. The cover was a large clawed hand that lurked behind the title. So I began to read it. I was, and still am, and extremely fast reader, and I breezed through it quickly as I stood in the aisle of the old-fashioned mall bookstore. No lattes or candle display nearby: just the bestsellers up front and the schlock on the side walls, where I was standing. When you read standing up, your shoulders are hunched, and your neck is bent at an angle. Your arms and wrists are tensed and held. Your blood flows poorly and you’re quite vulnerable if something might happen to you. Of course, nothing ever had happened to me while I read standing up so I had no reason to believe I might read something that would endanger me.
The Beast Within start as an old religious farmer tills his field. He hasn’t been tilling the field of his nineteen year-old wife, because that might be fun. He happens to hate sex, has been raised to hate sex. So when a travelling Bible salesman (Yep, you read that correctly) comes to call, what’s a red-blooded and neglected farmgirl to do? Despite the cheap brushes Levy uses, the set-up he paints is vivid and elemental - the voluptuous teen wife with ‘long chestnut hair’, the rigid and frigid domineering old husband and his bible and his praying, and the strutting young salesman coming to call.
With barely few flattering words ( and the book is frank in how easy the salesman seduces her. You’d have to be an idiot to fail in such a rigged situation), the salesman has her clothes off. Right in the middle of all that rutting, the husband burst in upon them and knocks the salesman unconscious. Knowing just how much the husband detests sex and anything to do with it, one cannot imagine things went well for his wife after the salesman is knocked out. But we never witness what happens to her. We find out later.
The salesman wakes up, his head aching. He’s lying on the floor of the cellar, chained to the wall. Above him the door opens, and the raging husband throws the body of his dead wife onto the floor beside the prostrate salesman, who, we must assume, will not ever be selling Bibles again. She’s been cooked. We never find out how she was cooked - on a spit? A large stove? A pot? Cured in the sun? Smoked? It’s not really important. What is important is that she is crisp and smells like roast pork.
The man holds out for quite a long time - a week, if I remember. He gets more and more hungry. Finally, weak and ravenous, all restraining impulses melted away like wax by the flame of his hunger, he crawls over to the body and ‘sinks his teeth into the flesh of her hip’. I remember these words perfectly, well over thirty years later, because when I looked up from the page, great pulsing beams of white light were shooting down from the ceiling and and my body was numb and tingling all over. Then nothing.
The next thing I knew my mother was standing over me, and beside her was a store employee who looked friggin’ terrified.
That story was in my nightmare for weeks after that. A book so terrible, so extreme, that it could endanger my health - The Beast Within may as well have been the Necronomicon for all the power it had over me.
I read the entire book when I was older. I held my breath when I came to that fateful passage, but nothing happened - no tingling, no embarrassing fainting. The cannibalism was just the beginning: the man is kept there for years until he breaks free, but by then he is no longer human. He sires a son; the son has a lot in common with his absent dad. Essentially, it’s a werewolf story. It has all the deep currents of sex, shame, and unavoidable parental curses that any good werewolf story should have, except there isn’t a werewolf. But it was a relief to take away that power that it once had over me.
A year after its publication, a terrible movie version came out. We found out about the movie and we rented it.I was honour-bound to see it, and it became just another movie my buddies and I saw on the weekend. The ending - well, I won’t ruin it for you by giving it away - was epically bad. Google the title, press ‘images’ on top of the page, and you’ll see stills from the climax.