Michael Faber tunnels “Under the Skin”


“Even in the nacreous hush of a winter dawn, when the mists were still dossed down in the fields on either side, the A9 could not be trusted to stay empty for long.”

And the journey begins.

Pulled in by the lilting, almost soothing language, one might expect a benign story concerning suburban life: the good daughter’s dating a biker, or the grandfather’s hiding a secret from his long ago boyhood.

But Michael Faber’s 2000 novel “Under the Skin” leads us down a dark and disturbing road which, while weaving in and out of the lives of ordinary people, ultimately reveals the last thing on anybody’s mind: an unthinkable and malevolent and alien agenda.

“Isserley always drove straight past a hitchhiker when she first saw him, to give herself time to size him up. She was looking for big muscles: a hunk on legs.”

Okay, so now we’re thinking along the lines of “Looking For Mr. Goodbar,” right? This Isserley has done this before, and she’ll probably do it again. She wants men. Maybe she’s a sex addict. Obviously she wants a good time…right?


Yes, she does. If a good time involves randomly offering men a ride, casually asking seemingly innocent questions about their lives and then, once she’s determined no one will be looking for them anytime soon,  injecting them with a drug and delivering their unconscious body to the secret slaughterhouse that’s hidden below a farm.

Because she’s an alien, physically altered to look more or less human, and human beings are a delicious delicacy and in great demand on her home planet.

In the movie based on the novel, one of the most bizarre and riveting and sinister and ghoulish moments came when Scarlett Johansson, who plays Isserley, is walking through a strangely lightless space over a mirror-like surface while she peels off her clothing, luring an entranced male who follows, fugue-like, after her, pulling his clothes off, too, until he is nude.


But while Isserley stands, still clad in her bra and jeans, firmly atop the mirror-shiny surface, the man slowly begins to sink down into it as he walks, and yet he keeps walking forward, determined to reach Isserley who remains above, out of reach, watching. And he continues moving forward, calmly, still silently staring at Isserley, as if what’s happening to him isn’t even registering, until he disappears beneath the black surface.


I won’t describe what happens to this and other fellows in a later scene; you’ll have to see it for yourselves. But suffice it to say that I don’t have the adjectives available to relate the utter horror of what transpires.

So an alien race has come to Earth and is secretly kidnapping, fattening up, then slaughtering men whom, presumably, no one will notice are missing. There’s a lot more to this story, though, in the novel, compared to the movie. In the novel we discover that the population on Isserley’s home world is as stratified and unevenly divided when it comes to resources and who receives them as is Earth’s.

In fact, Isserley was forced into this job on our far away world because she couldn’t do any better on her home planet, and she resents the constant physical pain the surgery left her in and is constantly revisiting and bemoaning her social status in general. She sounds like someone who wants to “move on up” just like anyone else.

But as time goes on and several incidents occur, Isserley finds herself transforming again—this time emotionally—as she slowly develops empathy for the humans she heretofore had simply thought of as meat.

herd of cows



There’s an interesting parallel, of course, with our own “meat” industry, how we view animals, how we round them up for our consumption. The author has stated that he does question our methods and entire perspective on the slaughter of animals, but the book was not written as a treatise on that or any one subject. And he also is not a vegetarian.

The endings of the book and the movie differ greatly, but I thought both of them worked in their own mediums. The movie’s conclusion was more karma-heavy due to the fact that the very thing that Isserley had been hunting the entire time was now stalking her in some deep, dark woods.

But this was a rare occasion where, in my opinion, the movie was as effective as the book, and both are worth pursuing. An interesting take on “alien life” in the universe that’s a far cry from E.T., “Starman,” or even Superman. It’s a nightmarish scenario, like if Superman went bad, having a powerful, single-minded alien presence inhabiting our world with no positive intentions toward us.



Imagine standing in “the prehistoric stillness” of an early morning. With the “mists still dossed down in the fields.” You are alone. Everything calm and quiet. Ordinary. Maybe almost beautiful. Then you see that one car.

Coming down the road toward you…