By Ben Walker
You have to love a book’s title when it gets you thinking before you read any further than the front cover. How many names for skin do I know, I wondered as I took in the impressive artwork. Epidermis? Uh . . . that stuff you bite off from around your fingernails sometime? I obviously needed to be educated, and Roland Blackburn delivers exactly what the title promises.
Scratch the surface and you’ll find a lot of fleshy goodness, with tragedy and torment spilled liberally across its seventeen chapters. The first reads like a short story, a self-contained nightmare that constricts tighter and tighter, leaving you breathless by the last sentence. The second chapter then rears up and squeezes out any precious remnants of air you might have regained while turning the page. Dreamlike imagery mixes with terrifying weirdness, as what began as a fairly straightforward scenario lurches violently into a hellish mix of were-things, Nazi assassins, and an unhealthy dose of body horror.
The lead character of Snow is a grounded and sympathetic one, starting the story with a personal battle which is soon sidelined by all the peculiar shenanigans. As she tries to piece together what’s happening to her life, she’s supported (and antagonised) by a colourful crew of side characters, ranging from the fantastically sarcastic Raven to a pair of beat cops, a female Angus Scrimm-ish love interest and a Very Good Dog. You’re only a few short steps ahead of Snow at any one time, so as you’re figuring things through, so is she. It’s smart writing, there’s a real sense that Blackburn knew what you might be thinking and addresses those thoughts before yanking the tablecloth away and upsetting what’s been laid out already.
And seeing as the book’s mystery is maintained so well, it’s a fast read, keeping you as eager for resolution as Snow is. Low-key pop culture references offer the occasional grin for the eagle-eyed reader, nestling in amongst a surprisingly original take on the werewolf myth. And like the best body horror stories, there’s more than gore. A lot of Snow’s journey is about wishing for death but being cursed with life, affirming but in a terrible way—cling to a life unwanted and you might become something dreadful. What’s more important, the loss of self or losing everything? There’s even a dig at the nature of capitalism, constantly changing itself to prey on those who are deemed as weak. It goes pretty deep. Subcutaneous, you might say.
In short, Seventeen Names for Skin is way more than just a creature feature, with a Cronenbergian, sometimes Junji Ito-esque style to the thrilling, disgusting, satisfying plot. And I learned some new skin names along the way! Bonus points!
Ben Walker is a writer/reviewer from the UK, with reviews appearing on Ginger Nuts of Horror, Kendall Reviews, and in Unnerving Magazine. He also has a booktube channel, BLURB, and is easily distracted on twitter @BensNotWriting.