Brainwyrms by Alison Rumfitt (2023)
Publisher : Cipher Press (12 Oct. 2023)
Language : English
Paperback : 236 pages
ISBN-10 : 1739220722
ISBN-13 : 978-1739220723
“People take fetish and kink seriously, they treat it as a lifestyle and structure their existence around it. There are many people in communities on the internet who essentially are engaged in fetish that would never think of it as such. There are communities of men online who obsess over cigars, their phallic shapes, the feeling of having them in their mouths, and they may never realise what that really means. They might never even get off on it properly. There are communities of people who dress up in Red Army costumes who don’t fuck one another – and yet… fetishes can burst out of the specific easy boundaries they are put in and overcome the entire self. They can become an ideology. A lot of people live like this. It was not enough to simply get infected. It couldn’t just be that. It had to be something more. It had to have some wider meaning or what was the fucking point?”
Alison Rumfitt’s Tell Me I’m Worthless (2021) was an astonishing and game-changing debut, a brilliant and furious dissection of transphobia and fascism in modern Britain that immediately cemented Rumfitt as one of the most exciting writers in modern horror. Here was an example of how some messages can only be conveyed through transgressive extreme horror, written with inventive literary flare and burning passion. Rumfitt’s second novel Brainwyrms (2023) is somehow even more transgressive, extreme and viscerally horrifying than its predecessor, somehow even more angry and urgent about the state of the UK. The term “brainworms” comes from internet speak referring to internalized transphobia. Rumfitt’s novel literalises this metaphor, creating a gruesome and graphic body horror story about people who have a parasite infection fetish to further explore our country’s linked descent into fascism and transphobia. Brainwyrms is most assuredly not for the faint of heart. But for those of us who thrive on horror at its most viscerally disturbing and violently transgressive, Brainwyrms is a rare treat indeed.
Frankie is a trans woman who works at a Gender Identity Clinic for children, until it is bombed by a TERF during Frankie’s shift. In the traumatic aftermath, her self-destructive binging of casual sex, drugs and alcohol leads her to Vanya, a beautiful but deeply disturbed young woman. The two embark on a mutually destructive, toxic relationship. But Vanya has a secret even darker than Frankie can possibly suspect – she has a fetish for being infected by parasites, and her twisted obsession has led her, through internet forums, mail-order tapeworms and abusive relationships, to a parasite directly linked to a conspiracy threatening to consume the world.
Brainwyrms is a violently transgressive book, one that unflinchingly explores taboo sexuality, frequently in shockingly graphic detail. The novel is an unapologetic voyage to the extremes of the abject. It will no doubt prove too viscerally disgusting for many readers. But if ever there was an artistic argument for the necessity of extreme transgressive horror as a medium to explore particular ideas, Brainwyrms is it. There’s nothing remotely gratuitous here. Rumfitt uses the idea of a group of people with a fetish for having parasites invade their body as a metaphor for the ways in which desire is always entrenched in power matrices, the ways in which repressed sexual urges can erupt as violence against fetishized minorities, the ways in which kink is coopted into the machine of late period capitalism until it comes into conflict with the puritanism of Christian fascism. To properly dig into the psychology of these themes, the book has to go right to the extremes; to do any less would be to sell its ideas short, to flinch away from the unpalatable impact of what it’s talking about.
Rumfitt also demonstrates beautifully how extreme transgressive horror and literary experimentation can be brought together to accentuate each other. Brainwyrms is not simply a work of stomach-churning body horror; it’s a work of stomach-churning body horror that employs disruptions of the formal structure of its text in much the same way as the brainwyrms disrupt the integrity of the characters’ bodies. The novel is framed by a fictional introduction, in which Rumfitt writes from the future date of 5th September 2030, in an all-too-believable near-future dystopian Britain where the government has banned transgenderism. That the novel comes out this October, following the Conservative Party Conference where the Tories explicitly scapegoated trans people in their latest attempt to hold on to power by kowtowing to the far right makes Brainwyrms incredibly urgent. From the vantage point of the near future, Rumfitt frames Brainwyrms as a dire warning already unheeded – here in the real world perhaps there is time, but my god not much of it, and not if we don’t take radical action. Rumfitt’s ficinoalised narrative voice interrupts the novel at various points, once to make sure the reader is properly prepared for its gungiest, most viscerally upsetting sequence, at other times to admit her own complicity in the entwined machinations of fascism and desire that have consumed the UK. The novel further disorients the reader by switching between Frankie’s sections, told in the third person, and Vanya’s sections, relayed in an intense, deranged first person stream of consciousness that, at times to fully convey Vanya’s severe alienation from humanity, portrays events as a surrealist play on the stage of Vanya’s mind. These techniques work together to make the novel’s transgressive message even more powerful, implying that not even the world of the book or indeed the reader’s relatively comfortable remove from the world of the book are safe from parasitic invasion.
Brainwyrms is a powerful and harrowing reading experience, but 2023 will struggle to produce a more urgent and necessary book. Rumfitt’s chilling portrayal of a Britain consumed by fascism and transphobia is as gut-wrenching and as sickening as the extreme body horror that runs through the book, and the way these two elements thematically feed off and compliment each other demonstrates the necessity of extreme transgressive horror as the only medium equipped to tackle these subjects head-on. It’s an absolutely incredible follow up to one of the most brilliant horror debuts of recent years, and one can only wait in anticipation to see what Rumfitt will do next.
Brainwyrms by Alison Rumfitt
When a TERF bombs Frankie’s workplace, she blows up Frankie’s life with it. As the media descends like vultures, Frankie tries to cope with the carnage: binge-drinking, sleeping with strangers, pushing away her friends. Then, she meets Vanya.
Mysterious, beautiful, terrifying Vanya. The two hit it off immediately, but as their relationship intensifies, so too does Frankie’s feeling that Vanya is hiding something from her. When Vanya’s secrets threaten to tear them apart, Frankie starts digging, and unearths a sinister, depraved conspiracy, the roots of which go deeper than she ever imagined.
Shocking, grotesque, and downright filthy, Brainwyrms confronts the creeping reality of political terrorism while exploring the depths of love, pain, and identity.