Marija Peričić’s second novel, Exquisite Corpse, is deeply disturbing, more so for the fact that it’s based on true events. Set in 1930s Stockholm, the story centres on Lina Dahlstrom, whose terminal tuberculosis is being treated by the eccentric and unsettling Dr Dance. Over time, Dance’s obsession with Lina grows, further intensifying after her death. Dance truly cares about Lina, just not in the way a rational person with empathy might care. This entropic un-romance is perfectly structured to unveil horrors in the most effective order.
The reader first encounters Dance through the eyes of Lina’s sister, Greta, drawing the reader inwards, beginning at the periphery of the tale before being sucked into its morbid centre. Greta’s perspective enables the reader to observe a series of interactions through outside eyes. Then, the reader is pulled into the faux-sanity of Dance’s disturbing mentality. Dance – already lousy with entitlement and undeserved confidence – becomes increasingly dangerous as layers of delusion converge.
Lina’s section is viscerally disturbing, and throbs with uncomfortable contrast. It asks questions of consciousness, coloured by overlapping lenses of disembodiment, disempowerment and disgust. As realisation dawns on the reader, so does revulsion.
Juxtaposing happy memories with an unpleasant present, the novel shakes the certainty of the reader with an altered understanding of death.
The final part of the book unveils the world through the mind of the doctor’s wife, Doris, cleverly revealing a full view of Dance’s grisly aftermath. Each time a new perspective is revealed, the reader’s heart beats a little faster. Three distinct voices tunnel inwards, descending into abject horror, before a fourth raises the reader to the surface of a revelatory sea.
Subtle undertones of the Gothic achieve a sense of creepiness permeating every facet of this story. The setting feels natural, despite its historicity. Power imbalances (doctor/patient, wealthy/poor, man/woman) are explored, along with issues of autonomy and consent, through the grotesque vehicle of body horror. Unclear boundaries between truth and delusion are blurry, and bleed outside the usual edges of the genre. Details are revealed in careful measure, wrapped in dichotomies of youth and age, life and decay, love and revulsion, everything and nothing.
Peričić’s gruesome tale is morbid, confronting and intoxicating. Her controlled prose is beautifully precise, and evocative enough to inspire dry retching. A gruesome ghost story of a different kind, it deals in the maggot-picking realities of necrophilia, the hard work of dying and the obscene physicality of existence. This is a book about control: losing it, wanting it and taking it. It will resonate most with fans of literary horror, and anyone fascinated by perverse anomalies of human behaviour.
Exquisite Corpse by Marija Peričić
Publisher: Ultimo Press
Release Date: June 2023