PENANGGALAN | Eric Williams
Read the story @ Noble / Gas Qtrly
There will be spoilers. Read the story first.
Now that you’ve read Eric Williams’s dark yet surprisingly upbeat story about an ambitious woman who sucks the blood of one of her coworkers, you probably have a good sense of what a Penanggalan is. But I’ll quickly give you a little background on this monstrous creature (via Wikipedia, of course):
The Penanggalan is found in various folkloric traditions of the Malay Peninsula. Like certain western staples of myth and folklore (the witch, the harpy), the Penanggalan is a woman with great supernatural powers (originating from witchcraft or some satanic pact) who wreaks havoc on local villages. The Penanggalan is sort of a vampire, drinking the blood of her victims. During the day, she is a regular-looking woman, but at night her head (per the story) detaches from her body and flies around looking for victims. Note that it isn’t a clean auto-decapitation, either: the lady’s flying head actually trails her various internal organs, and far from being simple visceral accessories, these flapping organs sometimes serve a prehensile function–as we see in the story when the Penanggalan grabs and chokes her victim with her tentacle-like intestines. (Could this creature be an inspiration for the venerable genre of tentacle porn? Further research is required, on my part.)
Mr. Williams’s story is pretty spot-on in its portrayal of this frightening creature, but the story features plenty of narrative and stylistic moves that give the monster a unique and contemporary significance within this piece.
In terms of style/diction, the piece features some absolutely gorgeous language–especially, it seems, when discussing the ickier aspects of the Penanggalan’s existence:
Integument pulls away from bone, muscle, skin, her organs jitter like fish in a net, eager for freedom.
Or how about this passage:
Her heart, a plum-bob hanging by its aorta, swings free in the dark as she turns and loops over the city…
Such lovely narration of a disembodied head trailing bodily organs!
Our first glimpse of the piece’s stylistic prowess is in the opening, when we learn of our (anti)heroine’s extrasensory awareness of the space around her. The magical realist diction gives the woman’s surroundings, both its living and inanimate components, an incredible palpability:
Beneath the cracked artificial desert of the parking lot buried soil churns with roots and worms and minerals and water, the electric spark of dirt communally alive and on the attack, digesting asphalt. She wants to help it, rip the slabs apart and bury herself in soil, tangle herself in damp clay and black humus.
This woman, the newly minted Penanggalan, is simultaneously hyper-engaged with her physical surroundings and emotionally detached from her white-collar corporate environment. As we soon learn, a recent business trip to Malaysia–and more specifically, to some obscure caves in which she experienced a supernatural encounter–have transformed our protagonist into the confident, powerful, and occasionally bloodthirsty businesswoman she is today.
This gruesome story offers sharp critiques of two social realms: the suffocating, dehumanizing world of corporate America and the suffocating, dehumanizing plight of women within that space.
She had been a good drone, and the reward for her increased productivity and maximized efficiency had been a grim succession of airports on the way to an overseas conference…
The woman’s transformation into a bloodthirsty flying head-creature simultaneously frees her from her former life as a corporate drone and allows her to flourish within the oppressive corporate prison in which she previously toiled.
There is a clear feminist component to this. Female villains in myth and folklore often spring from society’s longstanding misogynistic tendencies (i.e. a liberated or powerful woman = a bad woman). Naturally, the office in which our (anti)heroine works is marked by the sort of machismo for which corporate America is known, with males (at least in the case of the particularly douchey guy who falls prey to the Penanggalan) bossing around the ladies. The only exception seems to be our protagonist, whose recent supernatural transformation is likely part of the reason she’s achieved a position of power within her workplace.
Note that she doesn’t choose just any dude to prey on; she goes after the guy in her company who’s a particular jerk–ultimately awarding his newly vacant position to his previous underling (and yes, setting the groundwork for this young woman to enjoy her own radical transformation in the aforementioned caves of Malaysia). In the entirely likely event that our Penanggalan continues to thin the ranks of upper management, we can expect a noticeable regime change within her company.