Can't get him out of her head

When I saw him I couldn't believe my eyes. Then I couldn't believe his ears. Then I couldn't believe my own.

The web photos of Shannon Larratt, Internet entrepreneur and founding editor of Body Modification Extreme magazine, showed him with facial piercings and earlobes stretched and gutted to accommodate large rings. I had contacted him last spring for a story about new and severe ways to customize yourself, including his split tongue, lasered by a dentist for a reptilian look. I asked if he could move both sides independently. He said he could and never had any complaints.

This, I thought, is someone I have to meet. And since I was in his Toronto neighborhood this summer, I did.

The boyish face that peeks out from behind the door is adorned with no more metal than a pair of glasses. Shannon has remodified himself again.

Sitting in his living room, he tells me his ear stretching, which he started at 17, was his first self-styling venture. He used to be a computer programmer, "and they expect you to look weird," he says. Now 24, he's thought about having them done again (simply snipped off by a doctor) so as not to scare off customers in his third 'Net business -- selling '70s kit cars. But though he says, "It would be to my advantage to move more easily through society," he finally decided to keep them. And he's attached to his skin.

In others' heads

His advice for the novice modifier: Don't do it yourself, don't do too much on your face, and if you want to restyle your tongue, get it split instead of pierced. After awhile that metal clacking against your tooth will break it, leaving you looking like a hillbilly, which for some is worse than looking like a lizard.

Some people do these things for spiritual reasons, he says, others do it to bond. Shannon just likes it. I am so glad. If he had some big, cosmic reason, I would have been disappointed. And he isn't scary like I imagined; he's polite, patient, maybe even a little shy -- a nice boy. So what if he also sells human skulls?

The headbones offered on his Human Skulls For Sale website fetch between $700 and $2,500. He traffics only in violence and deformity, though he gives them cute names. (The one that belonged to someone ravaged by syphilis he calls "The Swinger.") Would we like to see some?

The macabre knickknacks, mostly bought by wealthy eccentrics, mostly come from Asia through an American distributor. He has just two in a glass case. On the website, though, he promises more, with one proviso: some of their owners have to die first. Shannon has the bones of the living on layaway.

The tension is broken by a penis. So what's new? He shows me a mold of one with a subincision, in which the underside of the organ is split, creating ridges of scar tissue and sensitive skin regrowth. Do you have that? I ask. No, he says, though he's "a strong supporter of below-the-neck modifications."

Speaking of retooling, in his backyard, Shannon peels back a vinyl cover to reveal a Laser 917k, which looks like a mini-DeLorean and which he expects will fetch $20,000-$40,000 when it's reconditioned. Kit cars were designed so that the body could be easily removed and replaced. Only 50 were made before the factory burned down. He was outsourcing the bodywork and doing only the wiring himself, but that got expensive, so now he's doing it all. He casually says he is "reskinning" the car.

In his head

In his head

All of a sudden I think I've connected his dots. Programming is the skeleton all computer work hangs on, and skulls are the mainframe of us all. He goes down into the wiring, then takes an interest in transforming the shell, people, cars, whatever. It's not just cosmetic for Shannon; it's down to the bone.

An hour ago I was nervous to meet him. Now I'm slumped down in his couch like I'm at home. And just when I think everything is normal, he offers me his photo album, pictures readers send him. Breast implants are pretty extreme modifications, but they're not the type of things in Shannon's book. Not by a long shot. There is blood in this book, pictures of the messes people have made in their own botched attempts at self-alteration, including self-amputation.

Shannon makes no bones about his disagreement with the latter. He thinks it's not right, but what can you say if that's what they want?

What can you say?

What can you say?

I leave Shannon and walk for blocks and blocks in an all-out daze. I realize I didn't even ask to see his tongue. Most people can't make cocktail chatter; this guy is so interesting you can forget he has a lizard tongue. And then I know what my dizziness is: I'm sorta smitten. It's that feeling you get whenever someone suddenly takes your imagination and runs off with it like a purse snatcher. Shannon took mine -- still has a piece of it -- and was gone. Like I said, lickety-split.