One of the most haunting stories I've ever read.  It's so creative I can barely believe it.  Still, slow-motion nightmarishness.  A mix of the philosophic and gruesome blood hash death!  It gets the Kelly D. Snuff Maximus Award for nastiness and blood drenched slaughter.  If they ever made a movie that followed the book strictly, it'd make John Hurt's chest exploding scene seem like Winnie the Pooh getting his head stuck in a pot of honey.

Isserley is an extremely surgically-altered alien female who drives around Northern Scotland in search of fresh meat; alien as in outer space—not from Central America or Syria.  Not that she or her peers can eat such meat; earthling/vodsel is a delicacy on her planet.  It's far too expensive for her class to purchase.  They were allotted the “poorer-quality mince, the necks, offal and extremities.”  Lovely.  Yeah, Isserley is from an unnamed planet choking on its own runaway pollution.  The wealthy, "elite," live their entire lives inside and let the lower classes provide their sustenance and riches.  Therefore, obviously, Isserley's is a low-level job, but still considered above the drudgery of working in the "New Estates," located in a hideously overpopulated and claustrophobic underground.  It’s a more technologically advanced type of Morlock society, if you will.  In the mind’s eye they think of themselves as the civilized society, and humans as the “savages.”  However, these aliens actually seem to be physically closer to what vodsels call canine.  Michel Faber does a great job of translating their native thoughts and communications into English without being the slightest bit intrusive.

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Human Being: An Artist's Interpretation

Interestingly, there’s a category of space traveling elites from her planet that would be labeled here on earth as “tree-hugging environmentalist whackos.”  Isserley hates them.  In fact, when one of these alien environmentalists comes to planet earth, “Amlis Vess,” he releases three of the captive vodsels which were being prepared for slaughter. After which, there’s a nightmarish, keystone cops slapstick scene wherein Isserley and a meatpacking laborer have to hunt down the fugitive vodsels before they’re found out!  It’s cold, and the naked, grotesquely-fattened-by-space-steroids vodsels are shivering and turning blue; their bodies bloated like Michelin men.  Their teeth have been pulled and they're castrated for good measure.  They can’t talk and only “moo.”  Shit drizzles down their overfed, stammering legs.  After this Benny Hill saxophone corralling situation ends, the two exhausted chasers look at each other and start to laugh.  Unbelievably hellish hijinks, eh?  

Isserley knows earthlings far better than the elites do.  The elites have only heard rumors that vodsels can communicate with any sophistication.  When Isserley tours the vodsel stockyards with Vess, one swollen, mewing vodsel writes out the word “mercy” in the dirt floor of their corral.  Vess is curious if it means anything.  Isserley says “of course not.”  She knows that vodesels can write, however.  She's watched enough TV to know that.  Nonetheless, she misinterprets the word as “murky.”  She does not provide information about vodsels to the nobles because she despises “humans” like Amlis Vess.  Isserley is not a happy space camper.  Her cynicism runs deep.  She thinks vodsels are shallow, empty animals.  They lacked “siuwil, mesnishtil, slan, hunshur, hississins, chail and chailsinn.  They couldn't siuwil, they couldn't mesnishtil, they had no concept of slan. In their brutishness, they’d never evolved to use hunshur; their communities were so rudimentary that hississins did not exist; nor did these creatures seem to see any need for chail, or even chailsinn.”  These terms obviously relate to the intellectual and philosophical depth of her civilization.  At the very end of the novel, you get a glimpse of the Buddha-like nature of these elements in her culture.

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Stages of Isserley: An Artist's Interpretation

Isserley is brutally raped by a serial murdering vodsel in a scene that made me wanna puke.

“His penis was grossly distended, fatter and paler than a human's, with a purplish asymmetrical head.  At its tip was a small hole like the imperfectly closed eye of a dead cat.”

“After a minute with his urine flavored flesh in her mouth, the knife-blade on her neck was
lifted slightly, replaced by hard stubby fingers.”

“'Murky,' she pleaded.”

Thankfully, she hideously kills this scumbag.

This ordeal drives Isserley a bit insane, which manifests itself in a temporary gory-maximus-blood-lust; she brings in a sedated vodsel and demands that she be allowed to watch his grisly, thick gouts of crimson castration.  This adds to her already complete and everlasting cynicism.  Too bad her revenge-by-proxy is taken out on a genuinely good vodsel.  Between the grotesque inequality of her culture, and the barbarism of most of the vodsel males she meets on her travels, it would be bizarre if she was NOT filled with hopeless pessimism.

The message is pretty clear, male vodsels blow.

I have some problems with the book.  For instance, the aliens have to know that vodsels can build cars, planes, and even rocket ships.  But they don't know if they can write?  What the hell was Faber thinking?  What the hell were his editors thinking?  Unless I missed something, this is an egregious f-up.  I could not blame someone for not liking this book because of that major flaw.  But I'm a forgiving reader.  My philosophy is that in a fictional world, anything can make sense—even nonsense.  In art, sometimes pieces don't fit together “correctly” without the “flaws.”  It doesn't “sound right.”

“Under the Skin,” the movie, doesn't have this “flaw.”  It's even more of a feminist story than the book, and the book is plenty feminist.  The book's story telling is extremely loud, whereas the movie's story style is deafeningly quite.  The cinematic version is made even more chilling because of the stark contrast between the quiet characters and the in-your-face, roaring sound design and score.  Also, the movie is fast, the score is not.  Silence is a powerful, POWERFUL tool.  A book is wall-to-wall, rock 'n roll movement.  Of course, a novel DOES give us a lot of information that we have ponder in solitude, and that's a completely in-your-head sort of silence.  The final scene reminded me of the burning dowry deaths of the Middle-East, as well as our burn-the-victim-not-the-rapist culture.

Both the book and the movie are brilliant, and they complement each other—weirdly.