Part of the GRRM Reading Project.
Content warning for discussion of sexual violence, rape, and necrophilia.
In the ’70s, George R. R. Martin (GRRM) wrote three stories set in what he called corpse worlds. In these planets, corpse-handlers transmit their will to brainless bodies, controlling the actions of these corpses for whatever ends necessary. Meathouse Man is the third and last of the corpse-handler stories; the previous ones being Override (1973) and Nobody Leaves New Pittsburgh (1976).
The story had a difficult publishing history. Originally conceived for Harlan Ellison’s The Last Dangerous Visions anthology, it was rejected. Then, according to Martin,
“So I set down and ripped the guts out of the story and rewrote the whole thing from page one, and this time I opened a vein as well, and let the blood drip down right onto the paper (…) I was wounded, and in a lot of pain. I put it all into ‘Meathouse Man,’ and sent the story back to Harlan.”
…only to be rejected again. At this point, Martin considered giving up on Meathouse Man, but he had already put too much work on it. He sent it to other markets, finally publishing the novelette in Orbit 18. It’s probably the most well-known of his corpse-handler stories, even getting a comic book version several years later.
Martin still finds Meathouse Man painful to reread, calling it “easily the darkest thing I’ve written.” That’s no light title considering the themes and tropes that he likes to explore in his fiction (although, to be fair, he said this before writing A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons).
Does the story earn this title? Well…
In the Meathouse
Meathouse Man follows the journey of Greg Trager, a corpse-handler. Trager is skilled at his job, but has little in life other than spending his days controlling corpses to mine ores in the crapsack world of Skrakky. He dreams of something better, of feeling alive, of falling in love. Yet he’s also afraid, insecure, alone.
Initially pressured by his colleagues, Trager becomes a customer of meathouses-brothels where the sex workers are corpses that respond to their clients’ thoughts. Meathouses are an ambiguous experience for him, bringing him a sexual satisfaction that no real woman could match, while also intensifying his feelings of loneliness and disgust.
Trager’s life starts to change when he meets Josie. The two become friends and he falls in love with her. This love makes him feel more alive than ever before, but also brings him a new type of agony. Struggling with his fears and insecurities, Greg finally confesses his feelings for her. She rejects him, while also urging him not to lose hope.
Time passes, and Greg has a better life and a better job in Vendalia. He shares his dreams with his friend Donelly, and one day meets and falls in love with Laurel. Unlike Josie, Laurel reciprocates his feelings and the two enter a loving relationship. Donelly also falls in love with Laurel, and GRRM wastes a perfect opportunity for writing a polyamorous relationship. Instead, Laurel leaves Trager for Donelly.
Trager never recovers completely from this loss. Josie advises him to keep on hoping, but her words have lost their power. Other relationships feel meaningless to him, other people feel distant.
“How many times can you speak them, Trager wondered, speak them and believe them, like you believed them the first time you said them? Once? Twice? Three times, maybe? Or a hundred? And the people who say it a hundred times, are they really so much better at loving? Or only at fooling themselves? Aren’t they really people who long ago abandoned the dream, who use its name for something else?”
Eventually, he gives up. He becomes a corpsemaster in a gladiatorial arena, a job he otherwise considered a repulsive use of his corpse-handler skills. And he finds a new lover: a corpse he can control just like the ones in the meathouse.
Hybrids and horrors
I make no secret that I’m a huge fan of horror stories. Horror messes with us in a very personal way, and I find fascinating to see what each person considers to be scary, disturbing, horrific. Defining genres in fiction was never an easy task, but few genres exemplify this difficulty better than horror. So much of what repulses or draws people to horror stories is entirely subjective.
Furthermore, authors are often aware of genre conventions and may purposefully break them. They will mix and match different genres, bringing unexpected elements and creating something that is neither this or that. Martin is one of such authors, actively seeking to mix different genres in his writing. His horror stories evoke horror tropes and horror feelings, but are rarely pure horror.
This is very in line with his personal views of the genre, something he discusses in the autobiographical segments of Dreamsongs:
“Good horror stories are about larger things. About hope and despair. About love and hatred, lust and jealousy. About friendship and adolescence and sexuality and rage, loneliness and alienation and psychosis, courage and cowardice, the human mind and body and spirit under stress and in agony, the human heart in unending conflict with itself. Good horror stories make us look at our reflections in dark distorting mirrors, where we glimpse things that disturb us, things that we did not really want to look at. Horror looks into the shadows of the human soul, at the fears and rages that live within us all.”
For Martin, horror is not the focus, but the wallpaper. Meathouse Man illustrates this vision very well, using a few horror elements and some truly horrific scenes to frame what is essentially a story about heartbreak and loneliness.
But is it more horrific than Martin’s other stories that also explore these themes through a darker lens? Is it that much worse than The Second Kind of Loneliness or This Tower of Ashes? I confess I would hesitate to call this story horror at all, if not for one element.
Not her but it
Corpse-handling is a deeply problematic practice, something Martin seems to be aware of. The very concept of using the bodies of formerly living people raises questions about dehumanization, objectification, and consent. But Meathouse Man also suggests an even more unethical origin for these corpses:
“For the freighters carried cargoes of men, criminals and derelicts and troublemakers from a dozen worlds bought with hard Vendalian cash (and there were darker rumors, of liners that had vanished mysteriously on routine tourist hops). And the soaring towers were hospitals and corpseyards, where men and women died and deadmen were born to walk anew.”
And nothing illustrates the horror of this concept better than the meathouse. Not only because it’s a symbol for Trager’s darkest moments, but also because in the meathouse scenes we gaze into the dynamic and implications of the corpse worlds.
The opening scene is probably the piece of Martin’s writing that made me most uncomfortable to date. As a woman, I found that scene a painful reminder of how we’re often viewed and treated in real life. Martin couldn’t have predicted the whole debate surrounding sex robots, but it was impossible for me not to associate it with the corpse women.
The idea of having female bodies at men’s disposal, to be used as they wish with no regards to these women’s feelings or opinions, is an awful naturalization of male feelings of entitlement over women. And I’m not sure how much Martin was aware of the implications here.
On one hand, he seems to invite us to question this woman’s condition and the ethics of the act:
“The others had gone to other rooms, had left him alone with her (no, it, not her but it, he reminded himself, and promptly forgot again).”
On the other, expressions like “female meat” emphasize her condition as an object to be used and discarded. This condition is almost eroticized, shown as part of the appeal of the meathouses. Trager’s use of these female bodies is also narrated in excruciating detail:
“Trager was drained and satisfied, but he had more time left, and he was determined to get his money’s worth. He explored her thoroughly, sticking his fingers everywhere they would go, touching her everywhere, rolling it over, looking at everything. The corpse moved like dead meat.”
What is the purpose of including such graphic descriptions of what is essentially sexual violence? Martin seems to be aware of the problematic aspects of the act, but does he really address them in the narrative? How much of this violence and dehumanization is not purely used as background for a story told from a male point-of-view?
With that in mind…
Martin’s Moping Males
The benefit of reading Martin’s stories in more or less chronological order is that we gain a new angle on his choices for characters, plot, and themes. Meathouse Man is a personal horror story; Greg Trager’s descent into darkness and refusal of reality and human connections. These elements were already present in stories like The Second Kind of Loneliness and This Tower of Ashes, but here they feel much more of a conscious choice from Trager’s part, making it all the more horrible and heartbreaking.
Martin believes that “the human heart in conflict with itself” is the only thing worth writing about. Conflicted his characters are, and their struggles are relatable. Trager’s pain and the questions he asks himself will find echo in many readers’ thoughts and experiences. We also follow his journey from the beginning, gaining a better understanding of what he wants and who he is as character. We learn of his hopes and dreams, we get involved, we root for him, and ultimately we lament his choices.
Still, at this point I have to confess I find it a bit exasperating to read so many stories about men brooding because they didn’t get the woman they wanted. It’s a pity because each story is interesting in its own right and brings a different approach to the same themes. Together, however, they make an uncomfortable pattern.
My all-time favorite A Song for Lya also centers in loneliness, love, and the incapacity for humans to perfectly understand and complement each other. But there are a few elements that make Lya work that are lacking in Meathouse Man and the other stories.
For one, the title character of A Song for Lya is a relevant and complex character in her own right. While the story is narrated by and ultimately sides with Robb, there’s never a sense that Lya’s choice was incomprehensible. The story doesn’t judge her for it, and it’s all the more powerful because of that. In Meathouse Man, and Loneliness and Tower before it, the perspective of the female ‘love interest’ never gains the same weight.
The Second Kind of Loneliness and This Tower of Ashes take place after romantic rejections, and we learn little of the women involved in those relationships. They’re heavily idealized, just like Josie and Laurel in Meathouse Man. Everything we see of these characters is filtered by the male gaze and related to their effect on the lives of the male protagonists. Their individuality is not important, their opinions and desires don’t matter. They exist to heal or ruin these male characters.
What gives A Song for Lya its emotional core is precisely that it never presents love as the ultimate solution for human miseries. Love here doesn’t conquer all, and realizing the limitations of human connections is the hard lesson the two lovers learn and react very differently to. Conversely, Meathouse Man and the other two stories reinforce the idea that the love of a good woman would be enough to heal all the loneliness and pain of the male protagonists. Love will give them life, will bring them to the human world, will fill the void inside them.
Do I have to explain why this idea is harmful? Why specifically the notion that men need women to fix them emotionally is harmful for all genders? Maybe the real horror was the toxic views on masculinity we met along the way.
As Martin’s stories become longer and more complex, I feel the need to collect those orphan thoughts about them:
- Martin experiments a lot with structure in Meathouse Man. Some readers may dislike the results, but I found them refreshing. I especially like how he approaches the dialogues with Josie and Donelly, keeping just the keywords. It’s a way to avoid what could otherwise sound like a very cliche exchange, plus in hindsight it gains a new layer as we learn these words have lost their power for Trager.
- Martin’s charm is often in details, and I like how he only refers to Trager by his first name in scenes that show his emotional connection with other characters.
- There’s a reference to “Old Earth,” which makes me wonder if this story is also part of the Thousand Worlds universe. Couldn’t find any other evidence for this, does anyone knows for sure?
- The whole idea of “fucking corpses” reminded me of one of the darkest passages in A Song of Ice and Fire. It’s interesting to think of this scene paired with the meathouse scenes and consider the evolution of Martin’s views on female objectification.
- The meathouse scenes were far from the only problematic element of the story. Martin’s description of the black corpse that Trager fights in the arena made me super uncomfortable as well, as did the associations between fatness and unattractiveness that permeate the story. Our boy still has a long way to go.
What are your thoughts on the story? Have you checked the comic book version as well?
Next month we’ll visit Martin’s “first pure fantasy as a pro”: “The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr.”