Inhabiting the body can be a strange, unsettling thing, especially when it goes wrong. But how do we encapsulate this experience effectively in stories? The absurdist author George Saunders believes that ‘an aesthetic uncoupling from the actual’ may be necessary in fiction to ‘express our most profound experiences’ (cited in Lovell’s Introduction to Saunders’ The Tenth of December, 2013, p.xviii). Saunders’ point is relevant to writing about the disorientation of physical and mental illness. Here, speculative or fabulous narratives may have advantages over realistic ones.
Fabulous tales that touch on disability have a history within storytelling. Characters with disabilities featured commonly in traditional fairy tales—men who were part hedgehog, people with chopped off body parts, women with sleeping disorders, or dwarfs. However, in Disfigured(2020), Amanda LeDuc points out that the disfigured body was given negative connotations in such tales. It was the consequence of a punishment or a moral flaw or something to be overcome, and the stories often ended by the protagonist transforming to achieve bodily perfection. Disfigurement also often defined the villains, a deformed face or body revealing a deformed heart. Some nineteenth-century fabulous fiction broached the subject of disability in more enlightened ways. The protagonist in Charlotte Perkins Gilmore’s feminist short story ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ (1892), who suffers from postpartum depression, keeps seeing a woman creeping behind the yellow wallpaper and wants to free her. The speculative story questioned harmful beliefs about women’s health in the 19th century and offered an ingenious portrait of a breakdown.
Recently, in line with the rise of the disability justice movement, there has been a surge in sympathetic stories about characters with disabilities. Disabled characters take centre stage in the speculative books I discuss below. I’m not exhaustive in what I cover and I acknowledge that excellent realistic narratives (e.g. Nasim Marie Jafry’s (2012) witty The State of Me.) and experimental poetry (e.g Amanda Earl’s (2023) Beast Body Epic) also exist.
Disturbing The Body(2021) is a series of short speculative memoirs about disrupted bodies, edited by Louise Kenward and Verity Holloway. One editor notes, ‘In processing our experiences of illness, disability and trauma, we… produced writing too weird for the confessional essay crowd’ (p.9). The speculative aspect is thus a tool for expressing unusual and intricate realities. In the excellent ‘Underland’, Louise Kenward uses the topsy-turvy narrative of Alice in Wonderland to make sense of her experience of M.E., both the illness and its denial by doctors and others. ‘I had fallen down the rabbit hole… [but] This wasn’t Wonderland: it was my reality, living with a mysterious illness that no one could see’( p.94) Kenward compares Alice’s story perceptively with her own, including how painting the white roses red is like how sufferers are painted the wrong colours by doctors, thus ‘suffocating and denying our reality’. ‘And the Forever House’ by Laura Elliot cleverly retells Charlotte Perkin Gilmore’s (1892) ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ from the perspective of the woman in the wallpaper. In a reversal of roles, the narrator now watches a chronically ill woman who rents the house. Initially, the narrator doesn’t much care for her, but after a time, she realises she has judged her harshly—she is, in fact, most interesting—and wonders wistfully how many rooms there are full of sick women, ‘sad prisoners’.
Verity Holloway, who contributed a piece about heart surgery to Disturbing the Body, has published novels with sickness as a theme. The speculative PseudoTooth (2017) delves into illness and ableism in an engrossing manner. Aisling, a teenager, has seizures with no obvious medical cause, which the neurologist calls ‘pseudoseizures’. She is sent to her strict Aunt Edythe’s gothic-style house in the country to recuperate, where she finds a hidden, 15th-century priest hole in the cellar, which also serves as a doorway to another reality. Aisling stumbles into a low-tech world in the thrall of a cult started by a mysterious man, Our Friend. The reader isn’t entirely sure whether Aisling finds this realm due to her imagination and psychic gifts, or because she is having a seizure or has gone mad (she flushes her drugs away right before). The speculative dimension might portray her madness sympathetically or serve as a plot device for her personal growth outside her family’s influence. Having two distinct settings in the book also enables Holloway to explore different kinds of ableism cleverly: the ‘tamer’ stance of the early 21st century—the patronising attitudes of medics, the impatience of Aisling’s mother, and the hurtful comments of Aisling’s classmates; and the more eugenic-style policies of the realm of ‘Our Friend’, where anyone deemed unfit and undesirable—the sick and mentally ill—are made to disappear. In the ‘other’ world, Aisling encounters both the authoritarianism of Our Friend and a commune of characters living in the wastelands outside the town, who accept her for who she is. Here, she finds some happiness and agency.
Disability can also be represented sympathetically in speculative fiction by reimagining the historical past. Anna Vaught’s elegant Saving Lucia (2020) is an alt-historical novel that depicts four women who existed historically and were branded hysterical and institutionalised. Vaught mixes factual details with imagined scenarios, granting these women a voice and creating more rebellious and joyful lives for them. The book takes place in St Andrew’s psychiatric hospital in Northampton, where Lucia Joyce, the daughter of James Joyce, is a patient alongside Lady Violet Gibson, the woman who tried to assassinate Mussolini in Rome in 1926. Vaught invents a fictional friendship between the two women and Violet helps Lucia to escape from the institution. Lucia and Violet are joined for a time by two more historic figures, Blanche Wittman, a patient of the Salpêtrière Hospital, Paris, under the care of Charcot, who was given the title ‘Queen of the Hysterics’, and Anna O, the pseudonym of a well-known patient of Breuer, an associate of Freud. The four women take a journey through the places and times of their lives, including Violet’s attempt to kill Mussolini. Events are rewritten in Vaught’s story, so the assassination attempt succeeds and the four women break into Charcot’s house in Paris and enjoy a wild feast there. In conversation with me, Vaught explained that with this book, ‘I wanted to look at the experiments and adventures you can have in your mind…. I wanted to imagine the [characters’] interior worlds and also, because I knew something of their confinements, imagine possible freedoms for them, too. I could not do that without an alternative history and the exuberance is part of the mayhem, the joy and the release.’
The Book of X(2019) by Sarah Rose Etteris a compelling surrealist exploration into living with disfigurement, which blurs the line between the grotesque and real life. Cassie is born with the same disfigured body as her mother and grandmother, her stomach literally in a knot. Cassie explains, ‘three women with their torsos twisted like thick pieces of rope with a single hitch in the centre.’ She is brought up on a meat farm, a piece of land with a quarry where her father and brother work mining meat from caverns. Cassie’s overbearing mother ignores her own knot, which has become painful, and criticises her daughter’s appearance, encouraging her to dress and eat in certain ways. Cassie desperately wants to be like the other girls her own age, but is mostly treated as a freak by them and feels ashamed about her knot. She moves to a job in the city after school, keen to live an independent life, but she is lonely, still burdened by her knot, which now causes her physical pain, too. The men she is romantically drawn to treat her badly once they see the disfigurement. The book is structured in fragments, alternating accounts of Cassie’s daily struggles with sections called Visions, in which Cassie imagines a better life for herself. Impressively, the surrealism never distracts from her existence but shows how viscerally she relates to the world, whether she’s eating a diet of rocks, helping her father to harvest meat with her bare hands, or floating in a river of thighs. The speculative dimension is an original way to explore what living in a disfigured and painful female body means; it is both symbol and nuanced commentary on the book’s themes of normative ‘beauty’ and being ‘other’, acceptance and loss, and gender roles.
Lisette Auton’s charming MG novel The Secret of HavenPoint(2021) combines magical realism and an adventure thriller. The story is not about disability itself, but the central characters are all disabled children, who are represented as plucky heroes. The book charts the escapades of Alpha and her found family of Wrecklings, a motley group of disabled children and adults. Their home is in the Haven Point lighthouse, a ramshackle coastal dwelling where they find acceptance and support from a community (which includes mermaids), away from those who usually shun them. Creepy and dramatic events unfold and the speculative dimension is used to imagine an accessible community in which all kinds of disabled youngsters thrive and enjoy agency. The YA novel Lycanthropy and Other Chronic Illnesses by Kristen O’Neal (2021) is about a young woman with chronic lyme disease, called Priya. She meets Bridgit online in a chronic illness support group, and Bridgit, it transpires, has health issues because of transforming into a werewolf at times. The speculative aspect engagingly explores the hidden costs of invisible, misunderstood illnesses, especially amongst younger people, and the sense of being ‘other’.
In my new short story book, Let Them Float, I use magical realist and surrealist lenses to touch on both mental and physical illness. A few stories simply feature a disabled character, but most stories are about sickness. In the title piece, people overwhelmed by their lives float above the park. The floating itself is clearly preposterous—I wanted to inject some surreal humour into a serious subject. It affects individuals who struggle with their daily existence and relationships, but the spectacle also serves to highlight ableist attitudes in onlookers, from the bigotry and dismissiveness of two male characters to the patronising approach of the psychiatrist. In ‘Gardening with the Messiah’, it’s uncertain if a Messiah helps a grieving widow to deadhead flowers or if the story is a gentle portrait of dementia. In ‘Duskers’, a young, previously fit woman develops an (unnamed) M.E. or long-covid type illness after the flu and subsequently turns transparent. Given how often metaphors have been used negatively to represent disability (in Disney films, for instance), some writers are legitimately wary of using them, but I think magical realism can offer complex symbolism. The transparency symbolises literally how chronically sick people end up invisible to friends or loved ones—a lack of understanding and abandonment are common, even by spouses or partners; and it simultaneously highlights how, when sick, we feel part of our body but not all part of it, all at once.
This piece has shown that speculative storytellers don’t abandon reality but approach it indirectly, giving free range to the imagination. In this manner, they reframe experience, including disability, in unusual ways, illuminating what might be normally overlooked or misunderstood as well as imagining better alternatives. As the character Liska says in Kisrty Logan’s A Portable Shelter (2017): ‘There is no other way to give you the truth except to [put] it in a story and let you find your own way round inside’ (p.102).