Bodies in horrifying hurt/comfort fan fiction: Paying the toll

Rachel Linn

[0.1] Abstract—Hurt/comfort (h/c) fan fiction revels in the malleability of the flesh (changing it, destroying it, manipulating it to new purpose), and some find this fascination baffling and worrisome. At its most extreme, hurt/comfort focuses on the body in pain because it assumes that the destroyed body adds immense value to the narrative. Through the ideas of Elaine Scarry and Julia Kristeva, I move the conversation beyond h/c's uneasy readership and toward the ways pain functions when it takes center stage.

[0.2] Keywords—Abject; Angst; Elaine Scarry; Francesca Coppa; Fullmetal Alchemist; H/c; Horror; Julia Kristeva; Manga; Pain; Torture

Linn, Rachel. 2017. "Bodies in Horrifying Hurt/Comfort Fan Fiction: Paying the Toll." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 25.

1. Introduction

[1.1] The first page of Hiromu Arakawa's manga Fullmetal Alchemist (FMA) (2001) is four panels against a black background (figure 1). In the last and largest panel, a boy kneels with his back to the viewer. Center stage is the stump of his leg, jaggedly severed above the knee. A blood trail streaks across the page and spills into the black gutter. In large, bold letters, the boy (Ed Elric) screams "He's gone…!!" Ed has just realized that his brother Al is trapped on the other side of a metaphysical gate they accidentally opened. Later, readers will learn this is the moment Ed will also give his right arm to the Gate in exchange for his brother's soul. Text scrawled in the gutter's ambiguous between space reads: "Teachings that do not speak of pain have no meaning…because humankind cannot gain anything without first giving something in return" (Arakawa 2002, 5).

The first page of the Fullmetal Alchemist manga, depicting Ed on his hands and knees at the edge of a transmutation circle, one leg bloody and missing below the knee, calling for his brother.

Figure 1. The first page of Hiromu Arakawa's Fullmetal Alchemist (2001). [View larger image.]

[1.2] This opening leaves no surprise that FMA fan fiction is full of works labeled "hurt/comfort," "angst," and "horror." Despite the popularity of hurt/comfort (h/c), the genre's readers and writers often express anxiety about these works, which Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse define as "stories, which, as the name implies, revolve around a character being injured and another character comforting him" (2006, 10–11). Judith May Fathallah, an h/c reader, documents her anxiety-ridden affection for the genre in a 2011 article.

[1.3] Surely it wasn't normal. I justified it to myself by pretending it was only the comfort part I was interested in—the making better, the reparation…That was being a normal human (normal humans shouldn't be interested in observing pain)…I wasn't evil. I was just wise enough to see that things had to go horribly wrong in order to get better. (2011, ¶2.1)

[1.4] This theme of self-recrimination is key to Fathallah's essay (2011, ¶3.7). Fathallah implies that finding pleasure in a character suffering is morally dubious or maybe even evil. But Arakawa asserts that struggle, pain, and loss are central to all meaningful storytelling (note 1). Narrative art almost always involves the witness of suffering. So why do h/c fans like Fathallah feel compelled to defend their pleasure? One must conclude that disquiet around h/c does not stem from the presence of pain itself but from a certain kind of pain prevalent in h/c. I believe it is the excessive emphasis on bodies, especially on bodies in pain, that drives these anxieties.

[1.5] In the next section, I will argue that h/c is underresearched because it intensely scrutinizes the body and often that body's pain. While intimatopic h/c uses pain to create a liminal space in which social constraints are tossed aside so that characters can grow intimate, whump can use it to create a liminal space in which the stability of human subjectivity is questioned. But whether or not an h/c is intimatopic or whump or a mixture of subgenres, all h/c focuses on the body. And while some scholarship has tentatively prodded these bodies, there is still very little about what these bodies are actually doing. This paper not only brings h/c's bodies to the fore but also shows how they can function within these texts as explorations of power and metaphysical knowledge.

[1.6] Fan fictions that feature extreme pain are especially useful in illuminating the relationship between writer/reader discomfort and the body in agony. Therefore, I will offer one subgenre of h/c that I call "horrifying h/c" that fixates on the body in extreme agony and (with the aid of Elaine Scarry and Julia Kristeva) explore how those bodies are used in complicated ways. I borrow from body-centered discourses in performance and film studies to demonstrate ways in which suffering can function in extremely gruesome h/c and posit some reasons why that pain is largely ignored. To support my model of horrifying h/c, I conduct a close reading of one FMA fan fiction by Sevlow, an FMA Big Name Fan. Her archive frequently appears on favorites lists, and Sevlow's large readership demonstrates horrifying h/c's popularity in spite of its extreme content. The work that I will use, Save Me (2007), is a prototypical example of horrifying h/c.

2. An embarrassing fascination

[2.1] H/c is charged with being, as Joanna Russ puts it, "totally unlike reality" ([1985] 2014, 87). She gives this example:

[2.2] If your beloved appears at your door bleeding and battered in real life, you probably don't feel the rush of erotic tendresse. In fact, once you've called for an ambulance, covered said beloved with a blanket, made sure the patient's head is lower than the patient's feet, and administered what medical help you can, you are far more likely to go into your bathroom and throw up. ([1985] 2014, 87)

[2.3] Russ may be right, but deriding a genre because it lacks verisimilitude is a strange art criticism. If we judged all art by this standard, we would never go to the opera. Other common critiques of h/c charge it with turning previously competent characters into sniveling wimps, reveling in the hurt with no comfort, and inventing worlds where everyone and everything is inexplicably out to destroy one character (note 2). But these critiques are not specific to h/c. They are generic criticisms that any reader might bring against any fictional work, questioning its world building, character motivation, consistency, and dramatic structure.

[2.4] None of these critiques address what makes h/c its own genre of fiction. They merely note common tropes and missteps, attributed to many of the genre's writers. Critics have yet to address any differences between h/c and other kinds of stories that might explain its inferior status. What, then, drives h/c readers to fear their own pleasure? Since much narrative art features pain, it is not taking pleasure in observing pain but in observing a certain kind of pain that causes reader anxiety.

[2.5] The kind of pain is hinted at in Russ's critique. In h/c, blood, battering, and the erotic are central; intense physical pain and physical need are the focus. The pain that preoccupies h/c (especially h/c labeled whump) is expressed through the body. The focus on the body only amplifies when h/c is linked with its frequent companions horror and angst. This combination creates a subgenre that I call horrifying h/c (note 3). Francesca Coppa proposes that all fan fiction is viewed as a lower class of creative expression because it focuses on bodies and values repetition more than traditional literary works do. Coppa writes, "That may sound like a failure by conventional literary standards, but if we examine fan fiction as a species of performance, the picture changes. Fan fiction's concern with bodies is often perceived as a problem or flaw, but performance is predicated on the idea of bodies, rather than words, as the storytelling medium" (2014, 222).

[2.6] Film studies offers terminology for works concerned with the body and its excess and aptly calls these "body genres" (Clover 1987). Linda Williams categorizes pornography, melodrama, and (of significant interest to this paper) horror as examples of body genres. She argues that all three genres traditionally display the female body and elicit audience interest and excitement by promising to dissolve the distance between the displayed body and the viewer. For example, the implicit promise of pornography is to give its audience ecstatic release in tandem with the ecstasy performed by the displayed female body. Therefore, "what may especially mark these body genres as low is the perception that the body of the spectator is caught up in an almost involuntary mimicry of the emotion or sensation of the body on the screen along with the fact that the body displayed is female" (1991, 4). In their excess, body genres seem to spill out over the spectator and penetrate them with sexual ecstasy or (in the case of horror) terrifying violence. In h/c, the majority of these bodies are male, further disrupting assumptions about sensation and mimicry. The controlled gaze wavers as the distance between spectator bodies and the displayed body on screen (or in fan fiction) is questioned by the extreme sensations that spectators experience as they watch.

[2.7] Sara K. Howe builds on Coppa by noting that most fan fiction jumps off from film or television. Howe calls fan creators hijackers "invading and embodying characters" who have already been embodied by actors. Therefore "fan fiction is not just an appropriation of personae or abstract, imagined characters; it is also the appropriation of actual human bodies and voices" (2013, 74–75). Fan fiction penetrates boundaries between the literary, the performative, and the visual. As Mieke Bal notes in Narratology, there is a pervasive "hierarchical subordination of visuality to language" in the arts (2009, 165) and Linda Williams agrees that body genres in which sensation rivals story with "heavy doses of sex, violence, and emotion are dismissed…as having no logic or reason for existence beyond their power to excite" (1991, 3). Pain is the most opaque of all physical excess—the most dissociated from the reasoning mind. Because h/c emphasizes aspects of fan fiction that demotes its literary prestige, it is viewed as inferior and less deserving of close attention.

[2.8] In addition to issues of class, another struggle fan fiction studies faces is a "mutual suspicion…between narratology, which emphasizes fine-grained analysis of textual features and patterns, and media and cultural studies, which have traditionally focused more on audiences, reception process, and issues of ideology" (Thomas 2011, 20). Bodies are often subordinate to the intellectual or spiritual in literature (Scarry 1985, 18), but, like performance, fan fiction is equally studied as both act and text. Therefore scholars are still finding methods to address fan fiction's performativity (Thomas 2011). Media and cultural studies view fan fiction from anthropological and sociological disciplines where works are investigated as an act, not as a work. Scholars focus on the whyand the how of fan fiction, while not always addressing the what (Hellekson and Busse 2006). Issues of class, combined with issues of academic disciplines, create a scholarly void where no one asks what fan fictions do that distinguishes them from other genres (Gray 2003). Instead, scholarship fixates on the acts of writers and the responding acts of readers, deftly avoiding horrifying h/c's unsavory content. In doing so, unique and inventive attributes of the genre are overlooked.

3. Equivalent exchange

[3.1] While scholars avoid unsavory bodies in h/c, Japanese anime and manga often foreground gruesome acts and physical suffering in works like Fate/Zero (2006), Berserk (1989), and Tokyo Ghoul (2011). For example, Tokyo Ghoul's protagonist Ken Kaneki is half ghoul and can regenerate parts of his body. Figure 2 shows a ghoul named Yamori cutting off Kaneki's toes and fingers over and over. Yamori tortures for no other reason than his sadistic pleasure. Still, this scene is pivotal to Kaneki's character development and even causes significant changes in his physiognomy, turning his hair white and his nails black. Repeated bodily suffering transforms him inside and out. Perhaps because these sequences are so common in Japanese anime and manga, anime fandoms are especially full of horrifying fictions. Fans of FMA have taken Arakawa's prologue statement—"Teachings that do not speak of pain have no meaning…because humankind cannot gain anything without first giving something in return" (2002, 5)—and applied it to flesh and blood just as she does.

A page from the manga Tokyo Ghoul, depicting Yamori's torture of Ken Kaneki by cutting off his fingers and toes repeatedly.

Figure 2. Kaneki and Yamori (wearing his Jason mask) are floating in fragmented, extreme close-ups against a chaotic backdrop spattered with blood. Tokyo Ghoul 2011. [View larger image.]

[3.2] In FMA, alchemy is ruled by certain laws. As Ed Elric explains, "The basics of alchemy is the 'equivalent exchange'! That means that to obtain something, something of equal value must be lost" (Arakawa 2002, 26). While alchemy is often just chemistry, Arakawa's manga also makes room for exchanging the intangible, the unspeakable, and the undefinable. When the Elric brothers attempt to resurrect their mother by means of human transmutation (a forbidden branch of alchemy), the spell rebounds and pulls them through the Gate of Truth. They float beyond the Gate, all knowledge pouring through them until they are overwhelmed. But the Gate only allows alchemists to keep the amount of knowledge equivalent to the toll they pay. Edward exchanges his left leg, while Al exchanges his entire body. In the world of FMA, pieces of the body can be traded for knowledge and power. Pain can be currency. Like Arakawa's manga, horrifying h/c fan fictions explore the exchange of pain, flesh, and blood as objects of value and power. Writers and readers of FMA horrifying h/c borrow anime and manga's assumption that there is value in an intense focus on the body in pain. But how do these strategies work in fan fiction?

[3.3] In most h/c models, the hurt comes early. This may seem obvious, but order is important. The great, earth-shattering hurt is often the inciting incident or even backstory. The fiction is built around saving the hurt character from abstractions (from fear, anger, self-loathing, and despair), not from the hurt itself. A lot of h/c takes place in locations associated with safety like hospitals, homes, or remote havens. The danger comes from within, not without. But it is the way pain influences characters that divides h/c into subgenres.

[3.4] There is plenty of h/c that follows Elizabeth Woledge's model of intimatopic slash where "it is used to enhance the eroticization of intimacy. H/c provides a plausible way for any author to depict increasing closeness between two men, because when the hero is hurt, he is at his most vulnerable. The element of hurt permits him to share intimacies that would otherwise be kept private" (2006, 110). In intimatopic h/c, the hurt can be something as trivial as the flu or something as serious as death. The vulnerable state of the (typically male) hurt character opens an opportunity for two characters to share intimate moments they would not have under other circumstances. Variations of intimatopic h/c's have received some academic interest in relation to slash (a much more popular topic) and romantic h/c's have received some interest in relation to erotic fan fiction (also a more popular topic). Scholarship that mentions h/c tends to focus on intimatopic, romantic h/c. Because fan fiction is still considered women's work, exploring h/c bodies as erotic, sensual creations with sentimental tones is comfortable. Discussing the body in extreme pain without eroticizing that pain is ground less trodden.

[3.5] Horrifying h/c is less discussed than are other subgenres of whump because it uses pain and suffering differently than does intimatopic h/c. Unlike intimatopic h/c, the plot does not revolve around two characters coming together but in the hurt character coming back to themselves. In a way, horrifying h/c mirrors FMA alchemy. Another alchemist in FMA, Major Armstrong, says "Deconstruction and creation are two sides of the same coin! We must tear down in order to build! That is the great law of the cosmos!" (Arakawa 2002, 303). Like alchemy, many horrifying h/c's begin with total destruction while the fiction itself is about reconstruction. The hurt character is pushed to annihilation—taken to the Gate, their toll of flesh paid—and then they return to bear witness. As a result of this scholarly void, there isn't language to discuss h/c where the body in pain is the focus. In the next section I will borrow language from scholars who tangle with the ambiguity of the body (whole/permeable, mortal/immortal, subject/object) in order to delve into the black gutters of horrifying h/c.

[3.6] Elaine Scarry's (1985) study on pain has been foundational in addressing extreme pain's political use; it strives to give a coherent account of pain's opaque structure. Scarry argues that pain is difficult to put into language because it has no language. Literary psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva's (1982) concept of abjection partners well with Scarry's analysis, as it addresses human responses when faced with horror. While both theorists discuss real pain and physical phenomena, they borrow heavily from art and literature to bolster their arguments. For this article, I simply ask them to return the favor and lend their discourse to illuminate how horrifying h/c literature uses the body in pain.

4. The structure of pain

[4.1] Scarry proposes that one element of extreme pain is "its obliteration of the contents of consciousness. Pain annihilates not only the objects of complex thought and emotion but also the objects of the most elemental acts of perception" (1985, 54–55). Scarry calls the extreme position in which pain overtakes all else in the world "obliteration." She writes, "Pain…eventually occupies the entire body and spills out into the realm beyond the body, takes over all that is inside and outside, makes the two obscenely indistinguishable, and systematically destroys anything like language or world extension" (1985, 54–55). Scarry's narrative map gives pain a direction and an eventual position in which pain is everything.

[4.2] Kristeva gives that position a name and imagines the consequences of occupying that position. In obliteration, the hurt character becomes what Kristeva might call an unwilling "deject," straying into the realm of abjection or the "land of oblivion" (1982, 8). FMA might call the land of oblivion the Gate of Truth. The sensation of the abject (where the subject is repulsed by a smell, the sight of blood, or a corpse in a way that cannot be positioned into the symbolic order) causes a "breaking down of a world that has erased its borders" in "the place where meaning collapses" (1982, 4). The destruction that Scarry (1985) describes in torture works with Kristeva's concept of abjection to form the narrative structure in horrifying h/c. In horrifying h/c, the hurt character loses all boundaries as their world is swallowed by pain. The hurt character is violently forced to face the stench of infection, the taste of blood, the corpses of friends, or even his own corpse while lingering on death's edges. It becomes increasingly difficult for the deject to constitute borders that define a position in space and time. He cannot determine what is within and what is without. For example, in the FMA horrifying h/c Bury It Forward (2008), Ed fills the hurt role. In the first chapter, he is mentally absent from his body. The most complicated task that he can accomplish is shelving books at random in a library. He is even incapable of speech. Ed has lost his position as a subject. Another character comments that Ed's mindless existence is "just an extension of the torture" (KawasakiTriple 2008). Lost in the liminal space of abjection, the hurt character is boundless. Pain, along with the dissolution of the body's supposed boundaries through abjections, has melted away subjectivity.

[4.3] The hurt character is in chaos and floats anchorless until he encounters the comforter. The comforter accepts responsibility to care for the hurt character, physically and mentally. With the comforter's help, the hurt character must rename his obliterated world to give it meaning: for example, reinstituting ideas like "this is a bed," "this is a friend," "this is not blood in my mouth." Newly forged boundaries allow the hurt character to lay claim: "this is my body"; "this is my voice." The abstractions that previously overwhelmed him are marked and therefore visible: "this is my guilt," "this is my terror," "this is my shame." The comforter acts as a sounding board that sends back the world s/he wants the hurt character to assemble ("yes, I am your friend," "no, it is not your fault"). Complete trust in the comforter becomes an urgent need for the hurt character, and any small breach of that trust is a world-shattering betrayal.

[4.4] Some FMA fan fictions take this dissolution a step further by melding a human character with an animal, which is another forbidden branch of alchemy. In Sevlow's Number Twenty Eight (2008) and Arathe's Dichotomy (2007), Ed is a half dog who wars with his animal side for control of his mind and instincts. In both fictions, Roy must keep Ed from succumbing to his animal self, where he would lose language and subjectivity entirely. In Dichotomy, Roy repeats Ed's name until he remembers it.

[4.5] He snatched at the knowledge, drawing it close to him. He was Edward, and that was Roy. With slow, steadfast determination he plucked bits of himself from the wreckage of the flood and held on tightly. It was by no means everything, but just enough to restore a little of his sense of self; something that had been buried deeply beneath the alien mind that was now a part of his.

[4.6] In Dichotomy, Ed is still himself, but he is also something more. In addition to what is lost and reconstituted, the hurt character often brings back secret knowledge from oblivion just as canon Ed Elric brings back incredible alchemic skills from the Gate. This knowledge may enlighten the hurt character, the comforter, other characters, or the reader. Jennifer Ballengee argues that the use of torture in literature as a truth-finding mechanism is an ancient and pervasive device. For Aristotle, testimony wrought through torture is indisputable. "The 'givenness' of proof gained by torture…seems to derive from its physical presence" (2009, 2). In h/c, the more profoundly present a body seems, the more likely an abjected character will return with secret knowledge. They can bear witness to life's truth, even if that truth is futile and barren. The power of the wounded body to divulge truth in horrifying h/c can extend to other characters who witness that body. When faced with the seemingly irrefutable body of evidence, characters are forced to question their own core values. For example, in the Tokyo Ghoul fan fiction The Black Tapes by Timeless Tears (2016), ghoul hunter Amon questions whether all ghouls are evil after watching a taped session of Kaneki's torture. Kaneki's body in pain becomes irrefutable evidence to Amon that his worldview is wrong. The more overwhelmingly sensational that horrifying h/c's bodies are, the more convincing the body of evidence becomes.

[4.7] Coppa's observation that fan fiction is "too narrowly focused on bodies and character" (2014, 222) is celebrated by horrifying h/c. In h/c, relationships and healing are more important than events. But a certain kind of pain is needed to fulfill horrifying h/c's structural model. For example, a broken arm will not bring about the unmooring that detaches the hurt character from their position as a subject that Scarry and Kristeva describe. Horrifying h/c that follows this model depends on painful experiences so violently world shattering that they propel the hurt character into another dimension and send him beyond the Gate. To reach that extreme, the agony must be physical and psychological, which is why horrifying h/c often includes taboo scenes of domestic abuse, battlefields, torture, and rape.

5. Save me, Maes

[5.1] To demonstrate how extreme pain functions in an actual fan fiction and provide examples of how the reader is affected by continual reassertion of the exploded body, I will take a close look at one horrifying h/c from FMA fandom by Sevlow. Sevlow's work shows a range of ways in which pain and the body can function in horrifying h/c (note 4). Her fictions often revolve around the popular FMA character Colonel Roy Mustang, his best friend Maes Hughes, and titular Fullmetal Alchemist Edward Elric. In her work Save Me (2007), Mustang and 60 soldiers under his command are captured by rebels in the Liore uprising. The fiction begins when Maes Hughes rescues Colonel Mustang with a wave of reinforcements 2 months later. Sevlow dedicates multiple paragraphs to describing his appearance when he's found. His long list of injuries, his excessive weight loss, and his pale, bloodless pallor render Roy "scarcely recognizable." Sevlow even engages the reader's olfactory sense, writing "he smelled like a slaughterhouse." Mustang is awake when Maes's rescue party finds him, but "every soldier crowded around him could see that he wasn't really there anymore and had probably been absent for a long time, now. His dull eyes were not just blank, they were empty as if he had forgotten everything except for what it means to be in pain." Before the fiction even begins, Colonel Mustang's body as well as his mind have been tortured to obliteration.

[5.2] Throughout the scene, Mustang's physical agony usurps his mental state and takes center stage. Maes tries to rouse Roy but gets no response, so he slaps Roy in an attempt to bring him back. Roy responds to this physical contact by quoting the periodic table—his strategy for getting through interrogation. Even though he is no longer being tortured, Roy still responds to contact as though he were. His mind is still in the presence of his captors. Maes is distressed over his friend's catatonic state, but his focus is drawn back to the body when he notices Roy's fingers are broken and his fingernails bent back or removed. The body demands Maes's attention and therefore the reader's as well. While Roy's catatonic state might conjure pity, the description of his bloody, mangled nail beds inspire abject disgust.

[5.3] Sevlow pushes the characters as well as the reader as far as possible to abject repulsion by writing about Roy's body in overwhelming detail. Sevlow takes time to describe Roy's spine, fingernails, mouth, eyelids, wrists, and nose as though in extreme close-up. Readers of the manga or viewers of FMA's shows can instantly conjure the image of Roy's body in detail, and "when the image competes with the word, it overwhelms and dominates it, slamming against the viewer/reader's sense before the image can be fully processed as fiction" (Keisner 2008, 413). Film theorist Laura Mulvey argues in her influential manifesto "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" that a close-up of the sexualized female body in cinema "destroys the Renaissance space, the illusion of depth demanded by the narrative, it gives a flatness" that undermines verisimilitude (1999, 838). Here, that flatness destroys the illusion of narrative logic. It reinforces abjection's excess and destruction of reason. Sevlow's intense close-ups of the Colonel are reminiscent of how manga is drawn: chopped pieces of hand-rendered flesh separated by gutters. Those slim gutters can dissolve into nothing or cross vast time and space that questions borders (Gallacher 2011). Roy's mangled pieces defy symbolic order.

[5.4] Save Me's Colonel Roy Mustang is transported to a hospital and the Liore rebels who held him are arrested by the end of the first chapter. When Maes Hughes meets with the doctor in charge of his care, a repetitious list of injuries delivered in a clinical voice reinforces and legitimizes the obliteration of Roy's body (note 5). Once Maes takes in this information, the doctor asks Maes to formally take on the role of comforter. The doctor cautions "as his medical proxy, he needs you to help him through. Can you do it?" Of course, Maes emphatically agrees.

[5.5] When Roy awakens, his mind is completely divorced from the relative physical safety of his hospital room. He hallucinates that he is still in Liore with such convincing vividness that he attacks Maes Hughes. The objects and people that surround Roy are meaningless in the narrowness of his overwhelming pain. Subjectivity's delusions of order have been systematically stripped away. Roy cannot reinstitute boundaries between himself and the rest of the world. His pain has trapped him in the boundless abject. While Sevlow will spend a great deal of time detailing Roy's descent to this liminal position, the fiction itself revolves around Roy's fight to return from abjection and how the experience has changed him. It is less about the pain itself and more about that pain's power over him.

6. The theater of pain

[6.1] As the fiction progresses, the reader learns through flashbacks and character revelations how Roy Mustang arrived at a state of obliteration. Roy's memories follow the structure of pain as Scarry (1985) envisions it to mimic the act of creation and simulate plot. While torture often features interrogation, its purpose is rarely to extract information. A theater of power manipulates the victim's pain into a show of the totalitarian regime's dominance. Scarry argues that this use of torture is effective because pain resists translation into language. Pain is therefore ripe for manipulation by those who understand its use to the regime. Compounding this issue, the difficulty of translating pain into language keeps it hidden from the verbal world, rendering its structure and its uses invisible. Horrifying h/c exposes that structure through a relentless focus on the tortured body in agony.

[6.2] Roy's imprisonment and torture transforms his pain into a spectacular fiction of power for the Liore rebels. Their leader Jenkins cleverly builds that fiction on a partial truth. In FMA canon, Ed and Al stir unrest in Liore when they reveal that a local bishop is a charlatan. This divide becomes a citywide civil war when the bishop's followers rebel. In Save Me, Jenkins wants Roy to tell him where Ed is so that they can torture and kill him for revenge. But Jenkins is less interested in an answer than he is in torturing Roy. Roy's torture is a performance meant to bolster the rebels' confidence in their cause. Understanding this, Roy creates his own performance, disrespecting, goading, and undermining Jenkins's authority. The battle of wills between them is both personal and political. Jenkins performs for the benefit of his fighters, while Roy performs for the benefit of his fellow captured soldiers. The performative nature of Jenkins's interrogation is reinforced by their surroundings. Roy and his fellow soldiers are held in an auditorium, and the stage is his torture chamber. Jenkins grows frustrated when Roy gives him no answers after weeks of abuse. He takes a new tactic and forces Roy to choose: either tell him where Ed is or he will shoot another boy, Private Zane, in the head.

[6.3] By this point in his imprisonment, Jenkins has created a fiction of power through pain and deprivation so consuming that Roy cannot see how paper-thin the rebel hold on Liore is. If Mustang reveals Ed's location, it would be his location of weeks ago, and the Elrics are (according to canon) always on the move and essentially homeless. It's unlikely they would be there. Even if Mustang gave away that much, how would the rebels escape the city's barricades? The pain has obliterated so much of Mustang's universe that he cannot conceive of a world where Jenkins is a minor player. Roy's world has narrowed to include only his immediate surroundings, and in that context Jenkins is the most powerful being alive. In this narrowed universe, Scarry proposes, "the absence of pain is a presence of world; the presence of pain is the absence of world. Across this set of inversions pain becomes power" (Scarry 1985, 37).

[6.4] Jenkins's questioning is not meant to retrieve information. It is the excuse he needs to inflict pain. Jenkins's perpetual demand creates the illusion that the question motivates the pain, and its answer is somehow crucial, even though the reader knows the question is irrelevant (Scarry 1985). In the end Roy chooses Ed. Private Zane's death is then described in vivid detail:

[6.5] The gunshot was impossibly loud. The side of Zane's head caved in from the trauma of the entrance wound and Jenkins let him go. The body pitched forward and slumped against Roy's leg, the pulpy remains of Zane's head coming to a rest against the Colonel's thigh and coating his leg with the chunks of damaged flesh and brain tissue leaking from Zane's nose.

[6.6] Bile and horror rose in the back of Roy's throat as he feebly jerked his leg away. Overbalanced, the body slid to the floor with a wet thud.

[6.7] Sevlow bookends this section with brutal sounds. Between them is a lengthy description of Zane's corpse: its movement, look, and feel. The corpse, according to Kristeva, is the ultimate abjection. She writes, "In that compelling, raw, insolent thing in the morgue's full sunlight, in that thing that no longer matches and therefore no longer signifies anything, I behold the breaking down of a world that has erased its borders: fainting away" (1982, 4). By overwhelming the reader with body parts, Sevlow conjures up as much repulsion and abjection as she can through language. The corpse is also the ultimate evidence, and its legitimacy as evidence is brought firmly home by its accompanying horror. Roy's guilt over Zane's death is the hardest burden for him to settle in Save Me. Whether living or dead, the body has authority and weight. The more vivid the body becomes, the more that language written on that body resembles truth. As he does with all forms of Roy's torture, Jenkins uses the power of Zane's body to write his regime's story and Roy's complicity. Private Zane's body and blood occupy Roy's vision as it occupies the reader's mind, pushing them both to parallel abjection.

[6.8] Violence underpins Jenkins's performance and transforms the body's pain into power. It does not matter that Jenkins's power is fiction to Roy Mustang's obliterated body. Even after his rescue, the power of Jenkins's regime still holds Roy prisoner because his performance was bolstered by Roy's real and vivid pain. Whenever Roy experiences physical pain under Maes's care, his mind is immediately thrust back onto that stage. Jenkins's fiction of power endures because Roy's body can no longer tell the difference between torture and other stimuli.

[6.9] Save Me spends much of its word count in flashbacks documenting Jenkins's constructed fiction in which he converts pain into power. He maims and controls Roy's body, then he converts that pain into power through language and narrative. Jenkins builds his fiction through interrogation, verbal degradation, accusation and even the written word (in the final chapter, Roy realizes that Jenkins has seared his name into his back with cigarette burns). By the time Roy is rescued, he is saturated by this performance and believes it. While Jenkins performs his own theater, Sevlow assaults the reader with a "Theatre of Cruelty" in the vein of Artaud's ([1958] 1994) ideal art by detailing every barbaric act visited on Roy's body.

[6.10] Roy is not the only one whose universe is shaken by evidence wrought from pain. Just like Amon's opinion of ghouls changed in The Black Tapes, characters in Save Me are awakened from their illusions by facing Roy. Lifelong military man General Hakuro is stunned by Mustang's physical transformation as Mustang delivers a report on Liore to their military's head, Fuhrer Bradley. The evidence of Mustang's mutilated body alongside his firsthand account shakes Hakuro's core beliefs.

[6.11] At first, Hakuro couldn't believe his ears as he listened to Mustang speak. Surely the man was mistaken…but then he realized that Mustang was speaking terrible truths. The man didn't speak them bitterly; he was not pointing fingers…just stating facts in a way that made the General's blood turn cold.

[6.12] The Fuhrer listened quietly, his face like stone; none of this was a surprise to him.

[6.13] And then, for the first time ever in his distinguished career, Hakuro began to doubt the military in which he served.

[6.14] Mustang's intimate horror becomes public evidence as he expresses what fraction of his horror he can put into language. It is the articulation of Roy's experience in language, reinforced by his maimed body, that allows Hakuro to glimpse the truth about the government he serves. FMA fans reading Sevlow's fan fiction already know that Fuhrer Bradley is bent on global destruction. Even though Hakuro cannot know the whole truth, Roy's body testifies that something in the government is amiss.

[6.15] Jenkins's performance and Hakuro's new knowledge demonstrate that pain, flesh, and blood in h/c are tradable and malleable, so pain's meaning can be redirected by characters. While many other narrative forms obscure the power of pain (Scarry 1985), h/c brings that power into focus. The comforting character acts as an anchor through which the hurt character can recognize how pain is shaping their world and change that power's direction. Maes Hughes's role as the comfort character, then, isn't to undo the pain itself, but to reestablish Roy's power over it.

7. An erasure of limits

[7.1] Bodies, especially bodies in pain, are laden objects. The body produces both too little meaning (as the body resists translation into language and narrative) and an excess of meaning (as the body is read in infinite ways) (Ballengee 2009, 9). The body can seem like more than its flesh can contain, trembling on the edge of limitlessness. It is the threshold of horrifying abjection. It is exhilarating and terrifying.

[7.2] The same fears about emotional excess that Linda Williams (1991) says plague body genres in film can be found in h/c readership as well. Just as film body genres ignite fears that the clear boundaries between spectators and filmed bodies have been breached, excessive bodies in h/c obscure boundaries between h/c bodies and readers. As the line between character and reader emotions is perceived to diminish, this blurring creates anxieties that readers are sadistic or masochistic. Meanwhile, readers who indulge in narratives that deemphasize the body are spared such accusations. The perceived loss of aesthetic distance, coupled with the body in pain's excessive and overwhelming presence, creates the anxieties that swirl around h/c, especially horrifying h/c.

[7.3] Horrifying h/c vehemently argues that there is a point to the pain. H/c's use of pain borrows from the "view of suffering, of the pain of others that is rooted in religious thinking, which links pain to sacrifice, and sacrifice to exaltation" (Sontag 2003, 99). Scarry posits, "The very temptation to invoke analogies to remote cosmologies (and there is a long tradition of such analogies) is itself a sign of pain's triumph, for it achieves its aversiveness in part by bringing about, even within the radius of several feet, this absolute split between one's sense of one's own reality and the reality of other persons" (1985, 4). But just as Aristotle did, we imbue these language-less odysseys into oblivion with almost sacred value. Hurt characters transcend through their sacrifice. Like a cadaver splayed open in the morgue, the fictional body in pain stands witness to death's abjection that is always at our door. Howe believes that those who dwell in fandoms live "the abject, repeatedly experiencing the border between self and other" (2013, 151–52). Fans revel in the dissolution of boundaries, and they write characters who experience this dissolution at its most extreme where they dare not go, then draw those characters back from obliteration through the anchor of language.

[7.4] Mercifully, hurt characters are rarely left in abject madness, and readers breathe easier when hurt characters claw their way back to subjectivity. It is comforting to believe that life can be given meaning through language even after all boundaries have been stripped away. It is the ultimate image of human resilience. In Save Me's last chapter, Maes tries to convince Roy to go back to the hospital after he intentionally burns the skin off his back, but Roy accuses Maes of lying when he says it will be temporary.

[7.5] "You aren't crazy, Roy, but this does prove that you need help. You don't have a choice now. Do you understand?"

"But…but how do I know that? How do I know anything?"

"…You're just going to have to trust me," Maes rasped, battling hard against the tightness in his throat, "…Do you still trust me?"

[7.6] Roy can believe in Jenkins's performance or Maes's performance, or a mixture of both. There is a lingering, eerie suspicion in Save Me that Roy's mind will continue to stray into the abject where the boundaries he has erected between his position as a subject and as an object dissolve. He is not the man he was, and his body will carry the scars.

[7.7] Whether hurting or healing, horrifying h/c focuses on the body in distress. The uncomfortable and relentless focus on the body in agony, not the focus on suffering in general, produces feelings of discomfort in readers. The abject is, after all, an uncomfortable place. This in no way exempts h/c from critique for its use of bodies (dubious and liberal use of sexual healing in fictions that include rape springs to mind). The question is whether critics and scholars have addressed what makes h/c its own genre, or whether they have been so fascinated by the abundance of flesh that they stop short of interrogating how that flesh functions.

[7.8] In much horrifying h/c, pain defies the boundaries of the body. The infliction of pain (as well as dismemberment and penetration) obliterates the hurt character, positioning him as a deject in a state of constant abjection, swallowed by madness. The character's vivid body becomes evidence that the language of fiction can repel and disgust, and it therefore might just be possible to move in the other direction and transform abjection into language. Horror—with its blood, hysteria, and monsters—can "point out the limits of cultural knowledge. Indeed, the thrill of horror fiction may very well be a response to that liminal space between what we know and what we need to know, but haven't yet acquired" (Arnzen 2008, ¶1.4). Like other horror genres, horrifying h/c can be a response to the metaphysical unknown.

[7.9] Horrifying h/c is no place for the squeamish. Its ambitions leave no room for the faint of heart. These fictions are embarrassingly excessive. They are out of control. Critics and theorists alike are baffled by these repulsive bodies spilling out of their pages and therefore never ask what those bodies are actually doing. Horrifying h/c splays open the body in every way imaginable and for every use imaginable, to see what, if anything, is returned from the abyss of abjection. In h/c, the hurt and comforting characters reconstruct the universe in light of a horrible new knowledge that they are subject and object, person and corpse. The struggle to find meaning in light of this knowledge fuels horrifying h/c and draws in readers who want to see whether words can tear apart the world and remake it. They want to see whether pain's crushing power and the resulting abjection can be breached and remolded. It is this optimistic promise that one can face the void and return that gives horrifying h/c its strange fascination.

8. Notes

1. In Elaine Scarry's definitive work on the subject of pain, she writes "The rarity with which physical pain is represented in literature is most striking when seen within the framing fact of how consistently art confers visibility on other forms of distress (the thoughts of Hamlet, the tragedy of Lear, the heartache of Woolf's 'merest schoolgirl'). Psychological suffering, though often difficult for any one person to express, does have referential content, is susceptible to verbal objectification, and is so habitually depicted in art that, as Thomas Mann's Settembrini reminds us, there is virtually no piece of literature that is not about suffering, no piece of literature that does not stand by ready to assist us" (1985, 11).

2. These three criticisms are explored at greater length in Gillam (n.d.).

3. Some examples of horrifying h/c in other fandoms include Rinseternalsoul's Violation of Honor (2008) in Inuyasha, AvocadoLove's The Apple Falls Far (2010) in Avatar: The Last Airbender, Geri K's The Slave (2007) in Star Wars, TimelessTears's The Black Tapes (2016) in Tokyo Ghoul, and Bow-Tie Queen's The Broken Doctor (2013) in Doctor Who.

4. Some other horrifying h/c fics in FMA are Sevlow's Number Twenty Eight (2008), Arathe's Dichotomy (2007), KawasakiTriple's Bury It Forward (2008), and DarkAngel555's Darkness to Dawn (2013).

5. A slightly abbreviated version of Doctor Jacob's injury list is as follows: "He's malnourished, dehydrated, and anemic…His leg was the worst of it, though. It's broken in three places and we had to put in some pins to hold it together. There was a bone protruding from the wound just below the knee and the area was festering badly…His pelvis is fractured…And his jaw. He has three broken ribs, a cracked skull, and six broken fingers. His left shoulder was dislocated, but we aren't too worried about that…He has some nasty burns on his back and some lacerations…There was some bad anal tearing…He's covered in bruises and other superficial wounds, but I'm sure you knew that."

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