Gemma Files Recommends “Skin”

"Skin" by Kathe Koja
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Citing the book's enormous influence on her own work, novelist Gemma Files recommends Kathe Koja’s horror story set against the backdrop of 1990s counterculture scenes of art, body modification and underground music.

The transcript of this audio essay has been edited slightly for clarity.

The book I'd like to talk about today is "Skin" by Kathe Koja, whom I count as one of my primary formative influences.

[The book was] first published in 1992 as part of Dell's short-lived "Abyss" line of literary horror. It's an immersive, weird experience of a book that hooks you from the very first page and sucks you in deep, obsessive, much like both its main characters.

The book chronicles the rise and fall of a mutually damaging relationship between Tess— a sculptor turned homemade robotics expert — and Bebe— a dancer whose art involves pushing the boundaries of her own body as far as they'll go. Very much rooted in the underground music, body modification, and performance art scenes of the early 1990s, "Skin" appears to contain barely disguised shout outs to people like Mark Paulline, who formed the Survival Research Laboratories, and Bob Flanagan, the star of Nine Inch Nails band video "Happiness in Slavery," whose self-punishing routines eventually became the subject of Kirby Dick's documentary "Sick."

But it's also just a beautifully written book from start to finish. Curt and poetic, full of fascinating descriptive shorthand, perfect for chronicling a rust-soaked garbage world full of people in desperate search of love, pain and transfiguration.

I read it every couple of years, and I'm always amazed by the way that something so niche-market-specific, so rooted in a particular historical era, can seem so fresh and novel — even when applied to the postmodernism and transhumanism cultures of today.

Kathe Koja is an author who wrote a series of horror novels for "Abyss." And after this line folded, she mainly went into writing young adult fiction., interestingly enough, but very recently she popped back up on the adult-oriented screen with a historical novel set around the turn of the century involving marionettes — with a big gay romance in the middle of it.

She's just really an amazing writer, and I wish she was more well-known. I met her once — the very first time that I went to the World Horror Convention, which I think was in Denver. That was the year I was up for an award and I won. And just touching her hand was like completing a circuit and feeling like "yeah, I've really arrived."