A cold cut that originated in Europe, Head cheese is a meat jelly made from the head of a calf or a pig, and often set in aspic, which is another savory meat jelly made with meat stock. I don’t know about you, but I have my limits with how many times I can hear the word “meat” associated with “jelly” before I start to feel sick. With a title like Headcheese, the reader has a good sense of what they’re in for with Cinestate Presents newly released novel…
…Written by Jess Hagemann, Headcheese is a novel which defies description. It has no genre, it does not follow “standard” structure, and is quite minimalist on what you might typically think of as “story”. But it’s because of all of that that Headcheese is also one of the more fascinating novels to hit the market recently. In simple terms, Headcheese follows a long list of characters, some of them amputees, some of them wishing to be amputated, as they deal with the daily obsession that is BID, Body Integrity Dysphoria, which is a rare, under-studied condition, in which there is a mismatch between image and the physical body, which leads to the desire of amputation, whether it be removing a leg, arm, etc. Similar to someone who is transgender, those who have BID feel that their physical body does not match who they are supposed to be. Headcheese is a deep, provocative look into the minds of those individuals.
Hagemann immediately sets the tone for Headcheese with a series of actual quotes from the message boards over at Fetlife.com. To someone like myself who has never once desired to be amputated-one of my worst fears, in fact-these quotes are chilling though equally fascinating. The power of a novel like Headcheese lies with its ability to pull a willing audience down into the sort of perverse mindsets which we could never ourselves imagine, but does so in such a way that we want to learn more, see more, rather than run away screaming with our tails between our legs. Not really horror but still plainly horrific at times, Hagemann has written a novel which is equal parts terrifying and poetic.
Keep in mind, that despite my mention of BID, that is not the only condition which embodies the characters in Headcheese. For some, it’s a matter of fetishism. Hagemann does not limit the curiosity of amputation to a couple viewpoints. Turning to the opening pages, she provides a two-page list of the characters which populate the novel. Most come equipped with a description regarding sexual orientation, and a mention of either the limb which has been amputated, or their amputation desire. In creating so many different characters with varied viewpoints on amputation itself, Hagemann accomplishes something which a lesser author may have easily missed, or could have perhaps even made offensive: Hagemann has created a novel which, for those who these conditions apply, I would imagine is surprisingly inspirational. There are those who I feel would have focused on the disturbing side of amputation, and make no mistake, Headcheese is packed to the brim with those sorts of moments, but instead of demonizing the fetish or the multitude of conditions associated with amputation, Hagemann instead seems to be declaring that hey, if it’s your jam to want your arm replaced with a stronger robotic limb, then you do you. For those like myself who may not fully understand the condition, Hagemann is granting the reader an intelligent insight into why someone would actually want to be amputated, all throughout remaining respectful to those that have this obsession.
Headcheese references all sorts of amputation ideologies and desires, whether it be through the thoughts of characters, or the mention of pop-culture or real-life cases, such as a man who purposely sought out someone to amputate and eat him. For some, that is their ultimate dream, something which I never would have known before reading this novel. At times, Hagemann even sways into allusions to people she either knows or has seen in her own day to day life, such as a hippo of a man she refers to as “Big Tub”. Headcheese works as an odd combination of fiction, non-fiction, and stream of consciousness all wrapped into one neat, easy to read bundle. Part Chuck Palahniuk, part Jack Kerouac, all Jess Hagemann, Headcheese offers all sorts of curious information to take in, in a style which is completely unique to Hagemann. The writing seems to go nowhere but everywhere, less focused on the physical journey of her characters, and more on the journey of their souls and the completion of their most secretive desires.
Of course, this does create an issue of understanding with the reader. With such a chaotic style, coupled with so many characters that come and go so frequently without much of a transition in-between “chapters”, it can be difficult to keep up with any semblance of a “story”, and at times, it can be easy to lose sight of who these characters are, hence the two-page reference list at the beginning of the novel. For a group of characters with such fascinating mindsets, it can become frustrating for the reader that we constantly have to check back to remember who seem of these people are. In reading Headcheese, you’ll likely find yourself much less engaged with the “story” of these people. It is their views and ideas which continue to pull the reader. I found myself caring less about what would happen to “Captain Hook”, aka Bartholomew Jordan, and more interested in discovering what ultimately drives him in his wants and needs.
Connoisseurs of the macabre, both written word and visual art, will find plenty to devour within Headcheese. As I already said, despite the thoughtful peek into the minds of those with amputation obsession, Headcheese oozes an excessive amount of queasy imagery that would make Pinhead himself feel a bit squeamish. Headcheese may not be a horror novel, but Hagemann has the touch of a horror novelist, understanding how to turn even the simplest of circumstances into something which feels nightmarish or gross or nightmarishly gross. She has some exceptional assistance as well through the art of Chris Panatier. Take a look at the thumbnail image accompanying this review, and you’ll see that Panatier has his own talent within the realm of disturbing imagery. From beginning to end, Panatier’s work shows up, sometimes beautiful, often cringe-inducing, and always effective.
Headcheese is not a novel for everyone. There are those who won’t be able to relate to Hagemann’s chaotic prose, and many others who likely won’t be able to nor want to become so wrapped up in the imaginative, uncomfortable world of amputation. But if you are intrigued by those with a nature that you might deem “strange”, then Headcheese is a novel which is guaranteed not to disappoint. Though if you ask me, I’d say Hagemann’s novel isn’t for all of us, or even most of us. It’s for those that have any level of curiosity in amputation, from a small fascination to a driving obsession, saying that there is nothing wrong with being different, no matter how queasy society may view the subject. It’s in that that I applaud her and this novel, which I hope encourages and inspires those that are deemed “different” to the same degree in which it riveted myself.
Headcheese is now available from Cinestate Presents.
By Matt Konopka