Archive for October 31, 2005

Happy Halloween from all of us at ADDTF!

October 31, 2005

from left: Papagena the Kitty, Clive Barker, Sean T. Collins; Beverly Hills, California, April 28th, 2001

Blog of Blood, Part Thirty: “The stories go on, night and day. Never stop. They tell themselves, you see.”

October 30, 2005

Book Six, Chapter Five

“The Book of Blood (A Postscript): On Jerusalem Street”

“Why do you talk about yourself in the third person?” he asked McNeal, as the boy returned with the glass. “Like you weren’t here…?”

“The boy?” McNeal said. “He isn’t here. He hasn’t been here in a long time.”

He sat down; drank. Wyburd began to feel more than a little uneasy. Was the boy simply mad, or playing some damn-fool game?

The boy swallowed another mouthful of vodka, then asked, matter of factly: “What’s it worth to you?”

Wyburd frowned. “What’s what worth?”

“His skin,” the boy prompted. “That’s what you came for, isn’t it?” Wyburd emptied his glass with two swallows, making no reply. McNeal shrugged. “Everyone has the right to silence,” he said. “Except for the boy of course. No silence for him.” He looked down at his hand, turning it over to appraise the writing on his palm. “The stories go on, night and day. Never stop. They tell themselves, you see. They bleed and bleed. You can never hush them; never heal them.”

A postscript indeed, “On Jerusalem Street” does not appear in the American edition of Books of Blood Volume Six, titled Cabal here in the States; nor does it appear in the collected edition of Volumes One through Three that’s available. Before I read it in my Complete Books of Blood last night, I’d never seen it before. So my Halloween treat comes two nights early, I suppose.

The story’s all of four pages long, and reintroduces us to McNeal, the ill-fated fraudulent medium from the story that kicked off the collection. As this story ends that collection, held as it is by the fiction itself to be readable in its entirety on McNeal’s flesh, you can guess how the story ends for McNeal. How it ends for the man by whom McNeal is ended did come as something of a surprise to me, though it probably shouldn’t have. It’s one final act of catharsis for Barker, who by this point had spent (I’m guessing) around four years at least pouring forth these ghastly stories. It shouldn’t come as a shock that he’d want somebody else to know how it felt to be drowned in these books of blood, making literal what had been only metaphorical for him, and for the reader too of course.

Is there any grand concluding statement to be found in the final story? I think so, actually:

It was a great relief to tell the story. Not because he wanted to be remembered, but because the telling relieved him of the tale. It no longer belonged to him, that life, that death. He had better business, as did they all. Roads to travel; splendours to drink down. He felt the landscape widen. Felt the air brightening.

Surely Barker’s talking about himself here, as storytellers are wont to do. But he’s also talking about nearly all his characters, nearly all their lives and deaths. Haven’t they spent each of their stories casting off their belongings–the obligations of responsibility, of morality, of sanity, of gender, of humanity, of body, of mind, finally of life itself? Freed of those possessions, doesn’t the landscape widen for them, even if they have to die to see it?

What the boy had said was true. The dead have highways.

Only the living are lost.

The pleasure of Clive Barker’s Books of Blood is that, lost though we may be, we are given by them a glimpse of a possible destination, and the encouragement, no matter how frightened we may become, to wander on our way.

Blog of Blood, Part Twenty-Nine: “never believe your eyes.

October 29, 2005

Book Six (Cabal), Chapter Four

“The Last Illusion”

From a very successful blending of genres to a, well, less successful one. “The Last Illusion” is the story upon which Barker’s final directorial effort, Lord of Illusions, was based. Lots of changes were made in the adaptation–I haven’t seen it in years, but I remember it involved a cult leader with some sort of mask and a Euro Satanist guy who looked like a member of KMFDM. That I haven’t seen it in years probably says something about my feelings toward the underlying story, since (I don’t know if you’ve noticed) I’m a pretty huge Clive Barker fan and could reasonably be expected to have the whole movie memorized.

Part of the problem here is the main character, Harry D’Amour, a down-on-his-luck private dick who’s come to specialize, much to his own chagrin, in cases involving the supernatural. D’Amour was intended to be the star of an entire series of adventures, but then, it was black-widow killer Julia who was intended to be the franchise monster of Hellraiser, not Pinhead; characters take on lives of their own, and the impact and length of those lives are dependent on the audience. (Barker, perhaps in order to rectify this discrepancy, has implied that D’Amour will be involved in the destruction of Pinhead in some future short story/novella, by the way.) He’s a likable enough guy, especially because so much of his life has been determined by his greatest failure–he lost a client to Hell, or as Barker calls it, the Gulfs–but this isn’t exactly new territory for private-eye fiction; “forget it, Harry–it’s the Gulfs,” you know what I mean? (It also doesn’t help that he was played in the movie by Scott Bakula, who to me looks much less suited to be a leading man than he is the guy who holds up the tube of anti-fungal ointment in an athlete’s foot medication commerical.)

But the real problem–the reason why not just “The Last Illusion” but also “Hell’s Event” just don’t work as well as the rest of Barker’s Books of Blood tales–is that the monsters, the demons and their summoners, are fundamentally square. Rather than representing freedom, ecstasy, transformation, transcendence, they’ve got the same venal motives as corrupt government officials or Mafia capos who find their monthly payoff short by a couple grand. They’ve got nothing to offer but punishment for transgression, rather than a reward for it. Barker reworks his concept of Hell considerably in Hellraiser and the novella upon which it’s based, The Hellbound Heart–in those stories, Hell offers pain and pleasure, indivisible, too much for the human mind to handle but still, perhaps, worth a peek. As articulated in The Books of Blood, though, Barker’s then-vision of Hell and its denizens works much better when the joke’s on them, as it is in “The Yattering and Jack,” where Hell’s pettiness and adherence to rules is played for laughs. Make it serious, though, and no amount of creatively bizarre demons (there are plenty here) or inventive ways to dispatch them (plenty again) can distract you from the fact that when you’re reading a Clive Barker story, you wanna be able to root for the beasts–or at least find them more interesting than their victims. Oh well.

Blog of Blood, Part Twenty-Eight: “Don’t be afraid”

October 28, 2005

Book Six (Cabal), Chapter Three

“Twilight at the Towers”

Now here’s something out of left field–a spy-thriller/Manchurian Candidate/werewolf mash-up! Well, they’re not strictly werewolves per se, this being Clive Barker and everything, but lycanthropy is the myth being toyed with here. As I’m of the firm believe that we’re one rock-solid high-production-value maverick horror movie and/or comic away from werewolves becoming the next zombies, genre prognosticators are advised to pay close attention here.

It’s a real testament to Barker’s abilities at this stage in the series that he can graft this kind of horror into this kind of genre thriller (something he really hadn’t touched at all up until this point) and have it make so much thematic and plot-driven sense that you end up wondering why no one ever thought of it before. Shifting allegiances, hidden identities, the demands of the self vs. the demands of society–Barker horror and Cold War espionage have a whole lot in common, don’t they? To arrive at this conclusion Barker sets up an enjoyable and engrossing mystery that, in the end, leaves you cheering for the monsters. I suppose you could criticize the story for its (much less enthusiastic than many similar cases’) embrace of the ’80s-chic notion that the free West and Communist East were six one way, half a dozen the other, but I think that would be churlish and point-missing. The point is that monsters, good and bad, are everywhere,

Carnival of souls

October 28, 2005

First up today, some long-overdue linkage: Matt Maxwell responds to my quibbles over his differing (and in my view, overly proscriptive) definitions of science fiction and horror. The difficulty in a debate like this is that so much of it boils down to what the Dude would refer to as “just, like, your opinion, man,” but I think I can locate where the disagreement really stems from:

Science fiction, and I’ll add the caveat “to myself”, doesn’t and can’t bring the scares like horror can. It’s not trying to, for the most part. Even the at best unsettling “Hey you old fogeys, what happens when we start jacking ourselves into computers and hacking off our limbs and replacing them with blenders” cyberpunk fiction of the mid-80s doesn’t scare. Can’t. Won’t….And sure, science fiction could address the span of human emotion, but it largely chooses not to. Then again, horror often doesn’t soberly consider the intersection of technology/politics/society.

Caveat acknowledged and reiterated on my own behalf, but this feels like saying something is a certain thing definitionally because it tends to be that thing practically. Even if we were to grant that sci-fi doesn’t aim to scare (which I don’t) or that horror doesn’t aim to elucidate intellectual issues (which, again, I don’t), isn’t defining them based on this recalcitrance like saying “comics aren’t about things other than superheroes” simply because most comics are about superheroes, at least as far as comic shops go?

I don’t know; I tend to be very generous with my genre definitions. I don’t see why Alien is less of a work of science fiction because it’s like Jaws or a haunted-house story, for example; on the horror front, you’re talking to a guy who classifies Deliverance and Eyes Wide Shut in that genre. This is not to say that I’m willing to include just about anything within genre boundaries–I’m pretty skeptical, for instance, regarding Aaron Weisbrod’s case for the spy comic Sleeper as horror (though I’m largely sympathetic to his larger argument that horror need not, and frequently is not, located in monsters). I said something similar back when Steve Bissette said that Maus and Jimmy Corrigan were horror–basically, while almost all great horror is bleak, not all things that are bleak are horror. This debate with Matt is sort of the flipside of that: Sci-fi is different than horror in that is defined largely by concept, not by tone. So within that larger framework, can’t you do pretty much anything?

Anyway, on with the quick hits!

Returning to my beloved Black Hole beat, here’s’s Andrew Arnold’s very lengthy, very effusive review of the book, tying it directly into the Halloween spooky-media season–a smart move for publisher Pantheon and anyone else who wants to see this book get into as many hands as possible.

Speaking of BH‘s Charles Burns, Rod Lott at Bookgasm reviews the new anthology The Colour Out of Space: Tales of Cosmic Horror, which boasts a Burns cover. It also sounds pretty cool based on the stories included, from Lovecraft, Bierce, Blackwood, Machen and all the usual cosmic-horror supsects. (Sorry, Matt!)

Back here on Earth, sometimes real life is more horrifying than fiction: I’m sure you’ve all come across the story of the Delaware woman who hanged herself from a tree and was subsequently mistaken for a Halloween direction. I don’t have much to add other than “Jeeezus.” If this weren’t being reported in virtually every major news outlet around I’d suspect, as did Infocult’s Bryan Alexander, that it was an urban myth, but the fact that it took place in America as opposed to a European or Asian nation where English is not spoken and therefore facts are more difficult to confirm leads me to conclude it’s probably legit. Life imitates a horror-movie set-piece.

Finally, it can’t touch RetroCrush’s 100 Scariest Movie Scenes countdown, but it’s still pretty cool: this thread at College Bargain assembles a virtual parade of scary images from film and TV. They’re not all winners (the Crypt Keeper?) and some linkrot has set in, but there are a whole bunch of astutely chosen images up there, certainly enough to make your heart skip a beat once or twice. I’m most impressed by how off-the-beaten-path they got: I’m happy to see iconic images like the demon face from The Exorcist (added bonus: I showed the selection to a friend, who immediately confirmed that the Special Edition’s added glimpse of the face went on too long and killed the effect) and such, but including the masked Burger King mascot, the dogman from The Shining, Bilbo’s freakout from The Fellowship of the Ring, Large Marge, the chicken-chop from Willy Wonka, the Scarecrow from Batman Begins (I hated the movie, but even so I could see the horrific genius in the whole “Would you like to see my mask?” moment), and the woman in the bathtub from the TV-movie version of The Shining–a face-meltingly scary moment in an otherwise tepid production–shows a heterodox and sharp horror mind at work.

Oh, you want to know what my favorite image was?

Blog of Blood, Part Twenty-Seven: “Christ, what a fucking situation.”

October 27, 2005

Book Six (Cabal), Chapter Two
“How Spoilers Bleed”

We’re now heading down the home stretch; we’re also heading up river–“How Spoilers Bleed” is Clive Barker’s Heart of Darkness. It’s about what happens when avaricious Europeans head into the jungle, though the jungle in this case is found in Brazil rather than the Congo (or Vietnam and Cambodia, for that matter). It’s the the nastiest, angriest story in the collection, and that really is saying something.

This time around, it isn’t the gore that makes the story so nasty (although there are one or two spectacular gore scenes, the first of which is, thanks to its easy understandability, maybe the most brutal in the series). No, this time around it’s the characters who radiate awfulness. All the characters–that’s a first, believe it or not. Greedy, callous, deceitful, despairing, and ultimately genocidal, they’re just plain rotten. And it’s no coincidence that that’s the word that comes to mind–Barker makes rottenness itself the central horrific metaphor in the story, in large part I would guess because these terrible men practically demand it.

The really remarkable thing about the story is the way the rottenness infects the prose as well. Barker’s horror writing generally cuts like a machete, and as appropriate as that might be in a story about the catastrophic exploitation of the rain forests and their inhabitants, here he decides to wield his prose like a blunt instrument instead, crushing decency and beauty any time it threatens to bloom just as easily and viscerally as main character Locke crushes a mosquito between his fingers when we first meet him. Consider Barker’s description of the rain forest itself, generally considered to be one of the most breathtaking environments on Earth:

This burgeoning diversity was a sham, the jungle pretending itself an artless garden. It was not. Where the untutored trespasser saw only a brilliant show of natural splendors, Locke now recognized a subtle conspiracy at work, in which each thing mirrored some other thing. The trees, the river; a blossom, a bird. In a moth’s wing, a monkey’s eye; on a lizard’s back, sunlight on stones. Round and round in a dizzying circle of impersonations, a hall of mirrors which confounded the senses and would, given time, rot reason altogether.


Their noisy progress, the Jeep engine complaining at every new acrobatic required of it, brought the jungle alive on every side, a repertoire of wails, whoops, and screeches. It was an urgent, hungry place, Locke thought: and for the first time since setting foot on this subcontinent he loathed it with all his heart. There was no room here to make sense of events; the best that could be hoped was that one be allowed a niche to breathe awhile between one squalid flowering and the next.

In Conrad’s time the notion of a corrupting jungle may well have been part and parcel of the Western sense of superiority to the Third World; I wonder if that’s still the case here. By the time of Barker’s writing modern liberalism had transformed even the most squalid “developing” area or brutally inhospitable wilderness into a pre-fallen paradise, simply by virtue of there being no Westerners there to fuck it up yet. Suggesting (even through an odious interlocutor like Locke) that the undeveloped wilderness can be ugly is a transgressive act–as taboo, in its way, as were films like Deliverance and The Texas Chain Saw Massacare, whose visions of the supposedly glorious frontier roots of America answered the likes of Easy Rider‘s “we blew it” with the response “it was already blown long ago.”

The natives in Barker’s story are another integral part of the tale’s unique nastiness. In all likelihood they come across better than those in Conrad’s. For one thing, Barker’s European spoilers do not “go native”–quite the opposite, really. Barker treats the natives as monsters, yes, but of course that means they get treated fairly well: terrible but wonderful, corrupting yet pure in their corruptness. They reflect the jungle itself in this way:

They seemed, in their silence, like another species, as mysterious and unfathomable as mules or birds. Hadn’t somebody in Uxituba told him that many of these people didn’t even give their children proper names, that each was like a limb of the tribe, anonymous and therefore unfixable? He could believe that now, meeting the same dark stare in each pair of eyes, could believe that what they faced here was not three dozen individuals but a fluid system of hatred made flesh. It made him shudder to think of it.

Now, for the first time since their appearance, one of the assembly moved. He was an ancient, fully thirty years older than most of the tribe. He, like the rest, was all but naked. The sagging flesh of his limbs and breasts resembled tanned hide; his step, though the pale eyes suggested blindness, was perfectly confident. Once standing in front of the interlopers he opened his mouth–there were no teeth set in his rotted gums–and spoke. What emerged from his scraggy throat was a language made not of words but only of sound, a potpourri of jungle noises. There was no discernible pattern to the outpouring, it was simply a display–awesome in its way–of impersonations. The man could murmur like a jaguar, screech like a parrot; he could find in his throat the splash of rain on orchids, the howl of monkeys.

The sounds made Stumpf’s gorge rise. The jungle had diseased him, dehydrated him and left him wrung out. Now this rheumy-eyed stickman was vomiting the whole odious place up at him.

What follows owes as least as much to Camus and The Stranger as it does to Conrad and Kurtz. That’s as good a way as any as seguing into the fact that the real monsters here, obviously, are the Europeans, the spoilers. They’re physically diseased, first of all: One has dysentery, another a case of syphilis advanced enough to render his dick an afterthought. (There are worse diseases in store, alas for them.) They are also, of course, murderers, about as cold and unfeeling as you please. Barker goes to great lengths to hammer home their sheer hideousness in virtually every facet of their lives. I mean, what can be said of a sentence like this–

It was one of Locke’s few certain pleasures, and one he never tired of, to watch a local woman, face dead as a cold manioc cake, submit to a dog or a donkey for a few grubby dollar bills.

And when one of Locke’s liasons is about to reach its sordid climax…

The woman with the squint was about to accede to a particular peccadillo of Locke’s–one which she had resolutely refused until drunkenness persuaded her to abandon what little hope of dignity she had…there came a rap on the door.

A little boy has come to tell Locke his colleague is in the hospital, dying.

“Well, let him. Understand me? You go back, and tell him, I won’t come until I’m ready.”

Again, the boy shrugged. “E meu dinheiro?” he said, as Locke went to close the door.

“You go to hell,” Locke replied, and slammed it in the child’s face.

When, two hours and one ungainly act of passionless sex later, Locke unlocked the door, he discovered that the child, by way of revenge, had defecated on the threshold.

Do you see what I mean? Awful, awful. Before it all ends there’s a dead pig that reminds us of Lord of the Flies and an ending that, interestingly, is the closest to the BradburyMathesonKing tradition we’ve yet seen. But I think the most striking thing, which is really only registering

with me now, is that what we don’t see is a glimpse of the transcendent, which can usually be found in even the worst of Barker’s horrors. It’s as though the transcendent was rotted right out of this story. It makes me wonder, once I’m able to recover from the reading, who the author was really trying to scare.

And no one’s gonna save you from the beast that’s ’bout to strike

October 26, 2005

I’m pleased and priveleged to announce that today I am a Very Special Guest over at the indispensable horror/fantasy/SF blog Dark But Shining. I’ve penned them a little essay on the video for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and why it belongs in the horror pantheon. Yeah, you heard me! It’s gonna be a while before you see it around these parts, so go over to DBS and check it out. Heck, go over to DBS and don’t check it out–it’s a great site whether or not they’ve let me be a part of it for a day!

Blog of Blood, Part Twenty-Six: “I like places where the dead are.”

October 26, 2005

Book Six (Cabal), Chapter One

“The Life of Death”

First, a quick note: People who purchase the American edition of this volume will find the first story in it to be not a story at all but “Cabal,” a more or less full-length novella. As this story (which is pretty great, incidentally) is not included in The Complete Books of Blood as published in one volume three or so years ago, I won’t be tackling it here; perhaps at some point I’ll do a Blog of Blood post-script that will include it and the subsequent novella The Hellbound Heart, the inspirations for Nightbreed and Hellraiser respectively. But for now, on with the show.

I have yet to reread the final story in this volume so I don’t want to say for sure, but I think that pound for pound this may well be the strongest volume in the series. It certainly starts off that way, as in “The Life of Death” Barker is writing at a very high, very direct, very powerful level. I really like the way he teases out the central metaphor of the story–that a woman recovering from a physically and mentally traumatic hysterectomy has, essentially, become pregnant with Death–in such a way that, for all its obviousness and potential heavy-handedness, it instead feels perfectly natural and even alluring to be drawn into. As she regains her strength, so too does the prose liven up and become hot-blooded:

She was pleased with what she saw. Her breasts were full and dark, her skin had a pleasing sheen to it, her pubic hair had regrown more lushly than ever. The scars themselves still looked and felt tender, but her eyes read their lividness as a sign of her cunt’s ambition, as though any day now her sex would grown from anus to navel (and beyond perhaps), opening her up, making her terrible.

It was paradoxical, surely, that it was only now, when the surgeons had emptied her out, that she should feel so ripe, so resplendent.

“When the surgeons had emptied her out”–so callous, so (I’d imagine, and I’m fortunate that I will never know) dead-on. And so much of our central character’s “ripening” revolves around the peculiar eroticism (already noted in “Dread”) of a woman voraciously eating. There are devourers aplenty here, as there are in nearly every story in the collection.

And this is another tale in which so many passages demand to be called out:

“I only ever saw one dead person. My grandmother. I was very young at the time…”

“I trust it was a pivotal experience.”

“I don’t think so. In fact I scarcely remember it at all. I only remember how everybody cried.”


He nodded sagely.

“So selfish,” he said. “Don’t you think? Spoiling a farewell with snot and sobs.” Again he looked at her to gauge the response; again he was satisfied that she would not take offense. “We cry for ourselves, don’t we? Not for the dead. The dead are past caring.”

And from thanatos to eros, or more accurately to the union of the two:

He was bending over the body, whispering in its ear as he rearranged it on the tangled sheets. Then he unbuttoned himself and unveiled that bone whose inflammation was the sincerest form of flattery.

Ha! Damn. I bet he waited for MONTHS to work that into something.

But perhaps my favorite part of the story is not the insightful writing, not the sensuously bleak setting and events, not even the way it expertly toys with reader expectations as to what, exactly, is happening–it’s that line I quoted in the title of this post. “I like places where the dead are.” I’m going to try to avoid spoiling anything by making comparisons between the character who says that and the author who gave put those words in his mouth–would Barker find such a comparison apt, even flattering? beats me–but I wonder if here, in the final volume, Barker hasn’t gotten right to the point. Has he answered the question asked in “The Forbidden”? Do we tell, and listen to, these horrible stories because a part of us, knowing how our own stories will end, likes where they’re going?

Blog of Blood, Part Twenty-Five: “But I ask you, in all honesty, is it any more terrifying than leaving the power in their hands?”

October 25, 2005

Book Five (In the Flesh), Chapter Four

“Babel’s Children”

The least like a horror story in the whole anthology, “Babel’s Children”‘s deadpan handling of a completely absurd and bizarre situation reflects Barker’s roots in magic realism. After all, The Books of Blood are lousy with characters who, perhaps after some initial reticence, leap into acceptance of the extraordinary as easily as hopping across a puddle to keep their feet from getting wet. You can remove the horrific element of the extraordinary and still come up with a story that’s resolutely Barkerian, albeit one that shows Barker’s non-horror roots more clearly than the blood-soaked ones.

Another of those roots is undoubtedly Kafka, as this story is about an absurdity at the heart of human existence on Planet Earth in the time Barker lived there. The notion being explored is that the colossal structures of government, economics, religion, philosophy, military power, and so forth have all been erected on a completely nonsensical foundation. It’s sort of like “Hell’s Event” without the Hell–who needs an infernal opponent in a race to decide arbitrarily the fate of humanity when we can simply race against ourselves?

Is this great political science, even of the satirical variety? I don’t know. They cynics among us usually say that thinking it’s all random and meaningless (and please note I don’t believe the two are synonymous) exculpates the very real people whose very real decisions keep other very real people in penury and misery; the determined laborers for the greater good among us would agree, and further argue that it exculpates us from not taking it upon ourselves to fix things. But horror is about hopelessness, and even a non-horror Barker story like this one must remain true to that spirit; the absurdity cannot be challenged or defeated. The scary part is that what’s true in Barker World might well be true in our own.

One final note: Ever since reading Barker’s description of sex as a means by which he gets characters to do things they normally wouldn’t–a logistical mechanism, in other words, to get the protagonists past the point where the audience of the movie would be yelling “don’t go in there!” at the screen–I’ve been paying special attention to other things he uses in a similar fashion; lately, professional ambitions (usually of the frustrated variety) seem to do the trick. In this story Barker gives himself the most can’t-miss device in this vein imaginable–he simply declares, from the very start of the story, that his main character’s a thrill-seeker, a woman who insists to the point of perversity on taking the road less travelled. The gag is that in an absurd universe, all roads lead to exactly the same place: nowhere. The second gag is that “nowhere” is another word for Utopia, but whether we’ll ever arrive there Barker pointedly refuses to say.

Blog of Blood, Part Twenty-Four: “I don’t want to see.

October 24, 2005

Book Five (In the Flesh), Chapter Three

“The Madonna”

This story is the feminine yin to “Rawhead Rex”‘s masculine yang, as literally as is possible: While Rawhead represents everything unstoppable and monstrous about masculinity–the evil men suspect they contain, basically–the Madonna, her handmaidens, and her children represents everything alien and horrifyingly fecund about femininity–the evil men suspect women contain.

As he does in “Jacqueline Ess,” Barker associates monstrous femininity with fluidity: Jacqueline’s body roiled like a sea, while the Madonna’s amorphous form makes its home in a humid, sweating abandoned public pool and sauna complex, its children cavorting in the waters. There’s something about water that clearly strikes Barker as frightening to men–even in a story like “Scape-Goats,” where the water triumphs over everyone, it’s ultimately a woman who’s able really to accept the pull of the tide. And you’d probably be hard pressed to count how many times male characters “drown” in the eyes and bodies of their female beloved throughout these stories. So when “The Madonna”‘s male protagonist–one of Barker’s struggling professionals, whose frustration has thus far seen him make pacts with gangsters and rape his own girlfriend rather than admit defeat either in his career or his love life–becomes female, is it any surprise that his acceptance of this fact is directly accompanied by an embrace of death through drowning?

And yet, the transformed man’s girlfriend (not as estranged one would think, or hope) is the one who voices the most explicit rejection of his newfound status.

“I saw…,” she said. Her voice was guttural; thick with barely suppressed abhorrence. “Am I going mad?”


“Then what’s happening?”

“I don’t know,” he replied simply. “Is it so terrible?”

“Vile,” she said. “Revolting. I don’t want to look at you. You hear me? I don’t want to see.

He didn’t attempt to argue. She didn’t want to know him, and that was her prerogative.

What to make of this exchange? I mean, if your significant other woke up next to you one morning with a different set of primary and secondary sex characteristics, this would probably be your reaction too, but this is Barker World we’re talking about, where the acceptance of the extraordinary is a commonplace. What are we being told here? What is it about her that makes her reject her man’s womanhood, with far more vehemence than she rejected him for forcing himself on her two nights before? Is it a coincidence that Barker sets this scene in the bathroom, where she’s turned on the shower and let the water run, but simply sat outside, head in hands, without stepping inside to immerse herself?

Carnival of Souls

October 24, 2005

First things first: I’ve posted links to all my reviews of the stories in Clive Barker’s Books of Blood in one handy spot. Click and (hopefully) enjoy.

Next, Black Hole, Charles Burns’s horror-comic masterpiece, is out, and there are reviews and profiles here there and everywhere. Courtesy of Tom Spurgeon comes this Philadelphia Inquirer profile of Burns and his work (registration required; try username and password 123ABC), in which Art Spiegelman brings the yuks:

“He’s not at all the kind of guy who’s walking around saying: ‘I can’t wait to cut somebody’s throat,’ ” says Art Spiegelman, creator of the Pulitzer Prize-winning comic Maus. “But the times we’ve stayed over his house, I’ve made sure to double-bolt the door.”

Next, courtesy of comics critic Paul Gravett’s new website comes this overview of Burns’s work, with particular emphasis on body horror and (naturally) Black Hole.

And courtesy of I don’t know who comes this mildly critical New York Press review of Black Hole, which astutely compares it to Dan Clowes’s also excellent, if far more impenetrable, study of sexualized horror, Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron.

This book is the real deal, fright fans.

Speaking of neat books, I liked the sound of The 13 Best Horror Stories of All Time (reviewed by Rod Lott at Bookgasm). If you’ve ever thought it’d be cool to have “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Call of Cthulu,” “The Monkey’s Paw,” “The Great God Pan,” “The Lottery,” “Dracula’s Guest” and so forth all collected in one place, it sounds like you could do a lot worse than to buy this anthology.

On the “old news” beat, All Too Flat maestro Ken Bromberg sends word of a zombie attack on the American Idol auditions at UT Austin this past August. I watch American Idol regularly so I will not indulge in the metaphorical Idol-fan bashing that could be done here; I leave that to you the reader.

Moving to the movies, Bill Sherman takes a look at David Cronenberg’s The Brood; among other things, he points out the thematic links between Cronenberg’s work and Clive Barker’s. He’s a man after my own heart.

Also at the movies, Carl Swift at The Black Lagoon examines The Blair Witch Project. I’ve noticed that this movie–the scariest film I’ve ever seen, incidentally–seems to be undergoing a well-deserved and long-overdue critical rehabilitation of late, which is a very very good thing indeed for lovers of great horror; it’s far too important a film to be relegated to insignificance. (For example, more than almost any other film, it prepped American imaginations for the J-horror movement, I think.)

Finally, fantasy smackdown! Philip Pullman of His Dark Materials fame has taken aim at C.S. Lewis’s beloved Narnia series (in the Observer, as quoted by the BBC, courtesy of CinemaEye, courtesy of Bookgasm–phew!) on the eve of the live-action film version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, calling them “a peevish blend of racist, misogynistic and reactionary prejudice.” I don’t really get the racist angle–isn’t that canard usually reserved for Tolkien?–and I’ve never read Pullman so I don’t have much of a dog in this race, but I must admit I’m far a big fan of Lewis’s fantasy series. This may be because I first read it as a lapsarian grown-up rather than a kid with all the devoutness that childhood usually entails, but I think, regardless, that a) it would always have paled in comparison to Tolkien’s work and my love thereof; b) its attempts to shoehorn its entire plot and world into Christian allegory leads to hamfisted and unforgivable storytelling lapses, most notably the fate of Susan in The Last Battle. Feh. And on a semi-related note, I don’t really remember the huge epic battle sequences that the filmmakers seem to have discovered in TLtWatW if the trailers are any indication, do you? Hmm, I wonder if they may have drawn inspiration from any other recent successful fantasy films…

Blog of Blood, Part Twenty-Three: “Why tell these horrible stories if they’re not true?”

October 23, 2005

Book Five (In the Flesh), Chapter Two

“The Forbidden”

This story is the basis for the 1992 film Candyman, written and directed by Bernard Rose and easily one of the finest Barker adaptations to see the light of film. What’s kind of amazing is how much of the movie is new: the American setting, the race-hate angle, the ethnicity of both the slum residents and the Candyman himself, the wrong-man plotline, even the “we dare you to say his name five times!” thing–none of these elements appeared in the original short story. Granted, analogues for many of the film’s novel points can be found in the story itself: class for race, pure urban-legend perpetuation for the name-in-the-mirror bit (I actually think I prefer the book’s strategy; it’s purer, if less catch-phrase memorable)–but it’s still a rare delight to see an adaptation that changes so much work so well.

I find the story to be another of Barker’s best, in no small part because there’s almost no way to figure out where you’re going to end up from where you begin. When the villain appears it’s out of left field and extremely abrupt, and with only a handful of pages to go till the end of the story. It’s a great way to mimic how the protagonist, university graffiti researcher Helen, must feel–suddenly swept away by the irrational, helplessly hurtling toward an unexpected and unimaginable fate.

Much of the story’s strength comes by way of contrast: the seedy, falling-apart-at-the-seams ghetto versus Helen and her boyfriend Trevor’s posh post-grad dinner parties, Helen’s guileless inquisitiveness versus the residents’ nearly pathological reticence, the laughing rationality of faculty b.s. sessions versus the lyrical madness of the Candyman’s lethal seducer’s speech. Another source of strength is the structure, which has an awful lot in common with the one to follow, “The Madonna”: a dedicated professional hungry for success and trapped in a comfortably dysfunctional relationship stumbles across an exemplar of urban decay that houses a secret beast which transcends the squalor of its surroundings even as it destroy those who come in contact with it. Once again, it’s worth noting how relatable Barker’s main characters are becoming: the desire to do something worthwhile coupled with the sinking feeling that you’re shit out of luck is something we’ve all experienced, right? Barker uses that desire as a key for his characters to unlock doors that under normal circumstances they would never dare open. (He’s described his use of sexual desire in this way as well.) And once again, if death’s behind that door, Barker insists that it’s worth it. Are you convinced that he’s right?

Blog of Blood, Part Twenty-Two: “I read somewhere: The dead have highways. You ever hear that? Well…they have cities too.”

October 22, 2005

Book Five (In the Flesh), Chapter One

“In the Flesh”

As I read through this book it strikes me as being the most archetypically Barkerian, especially in relation to his later, novel-length works. The real accessibility of myth, the link between sexuality and transformation, the exploration of forbidden realms–much more so than the straight-up cruelty of, say, “The Midnight Meat Train” and “Dread,” this is the territory Barker will spend much of his later career in.

The title story of the collection introduces us to the first of Barker’s many cities on the edge of forever. The irony is that the bulk of the story takes place in a prison. Most horror authors would milk the setting for claustrophobia; Barker’s not most horror authors, obviously, and instead opts to make expanse and emptiness the source of this story’s uncanny unpleasantness. Naturally he makes physical transformation the passport to this particular city, and since he’s still getting his sea legs with the dream-city concept you can tell these grotesque metamorphoses (an extremely appropriate choice of word, I assure you) are where he’s really enjoying himself here.

He’s having fun writing this story, and it makes it a lot of fun to read–so much so that we’ll forgive him the O.-Henry-by-way-of-The-Outer-Limits ending, as a matter of fact. I mean, heck, the story even has a callback! (See the above quote–if The Books of Blood were The Dark Side of the Moon, this would be “Breathe (Reprise).”) The characters are well-drawn and likable, even (this is a relative rarity for Barker, who’s priorities usually lie elsewhere) relatable, the scenario is absorbing, and the fate of all involved is horrible, but unique. As is so often the case with The Books of Blood, the uniqueness is paramount, even to the damned.

The Complete Blog of Blood

October 21, 2005

Here is a listing of each of the Blog of Blood entries, to be updated continuously as the series progresses.


Book One

Chapter One: “The Book of Blood”

Chapter Two: “The Midnight Meat Train”

Chapter Three: “The Yattering and Jack”

Chapter Four: “Pig Blood Blues”

Chapter Five: “Sex, Death and Starshine”

Chapter Six: “In the Hills, the Cities”

Book Two

Chapter One: “Dread”

Chapter Two: “Hell’s Event”

Chapter Three: “Jacqueline Ess: Her Will and Testament”

Chapter Four: “The Skins of the Fathers”

Chapter Five: “New Murders in the Rue Morgue”

Book Three

Chapter One: “Son of Celluloid”

Chapter Two: “Rawhead Rex”

Chapter Three: “Confessions of a (Pornographer’s) Shroud”

Chapter Four: “Scape-Goats”

Chapter Five: “Human Remains”

Book Four (The Inhuman Condition)

Chapter One: “The Inhuman Condition

Chapter Two: “The Body Politic”

Chapter Three: “Revelations”

Chapter Four: “Down, Satan!”

Chapter Five: “The Age of Desire”

Book Five (In the Flesh)

Chapter One: “In the Flesh”

Chapter Two: “The Forbidden”

Chapter Three: “The Madonna”

Chapter Four: “Babel’s Children”

Book Six (Cabal)

Chapter One: “The Life of Death”

Chapter Two: “How Spoilers Bleed”

Chapter Three: “Twilight at the Towers”

Chapter Four: “The Last Illusion”

Chapter Five: “The Book of Blood (A Postscript): On Jerusalem Street”


Blog of Blood, Part Twenty-One: “Head was nothing; mind was nothing.”

October 21, 2005

Book Four (The Inhuman Condition), Chapter Five

“The Age of Desire”

28 Days Later but not contagious and with rape-murder instead of plain murder–that’s probably the easiest way to describe this story. You horror connoisseurs out there will also deduce that it’s similar to David Cronenberg’s Shivers, which can pretty much be described as 28 Days Later, just as contagious, with plain rape instead of plain murder. “The Age of Desire” preceded 28 Days (and even presaged its use of monkeys) and followed Shivers by what, almost a decade, and it fits in nicely between them. It’s one of Barker’s strongest short stories, no question.

Clearly the fact that the sex-crazed condition of the story’s “monster”-slash-protagonist isn’t contagious sets “Desire” apart from both its filmic counterparts. Curiously, Barker toys with the potentially millennialist implications of his scientists’ aphrodisiac-on-steroids throughout the story–hence the title, just by way of a for instance–only to deflate them almost (almost–you have to pay careful attention to the story’s climax to see why just “almost”) completely by the story’s end. “I’m dying of terminal joy,” thinks the afflicted. The sensual overload of his condition is unsustainable; that Barker can’t quite bring himself to destroy the world with it may make this something you’d never expect out of the author–a cautionary tale about immersion in the physical at the expense of the mental.

That’s usually Cronenberg’s territory; both artists are preoccupied with the dominion of the body over the mind, but the Canadian’s a lot more frightened of it than the Englishman, who usually all but embraces the transformative possibilities of acknowledging that biology is in fact destiny. It’s only in accepting this, Barker seems to argue, do we stand a chance of ever gaining control of that destiny. On the other hand, “The Age of Desire” warns us that the mind cannot be overthrown completely without dire consequences. “The dream of Casanova” is really just a tarted-up nightmare.

Blog of Blood, Part Twenty: “Sooner or later the Fiend would show his face, and Gregorius would spit on it.”

October 20, 2005

Book Four (The Inhuman Condition), Chapter Four

“Down, Satan!”

The emphasis in this particular short story is definitely on the “short” half of the equation–it’s a grand total of six pages long! That makes it quite an anomaly in The Books of Blood, which stories tend to be of semi-novella length. This one’s written more like a really fucked-up fable or parable: Titan of industry Gregorius wearies of his search for God and decides the Devil might be more accessible; he therefore spends his fortune constructing what amounts to the Tower of Babel for depravity in order to lure Satan out of hiding, only to be consumed and transformed into a veritably Satanic figure himself by his labors.

It’s a funny little tale–springing Mussolini’s pet architect from an insane asylum so he can oversee design the palace of horrors is one of its clever touches. But it’s a weird story too. You can see where Barker could have teased this thing out into a bona fide story through its resonances with previous tales: the mind-boggling ambition of Gregorius’ dwelling echoes that of the villagers in “In the Hills, the Cities,” while the amoral rich man himself is reminiscent of the ill-fated Trump type in “Jacqueline Ess.” So why did Barker keep this one so short and shorn of realism? Beats me, really. In a weird way the tone presages that of his later children’s books, The Thief of Always and the Abarat series. I guess this is kind of a children’s story for grown-ups. Very grown-ups.


October 19, 2005

Book Four (The Inhuman Condition), Chapter Three


Another story I didn’t remember at all, and (not coincidentally, I’m guessing) another story that’s very, very low on gore–the lowest so far, I believe.

This is the first time Barker betrays his roots as a playwright–man, is this thing stagy. The story centers on three couples: an evangelist and his wife, heading toward a blow-up; the evangelist’s assistant and the eccentric daughter of the owner of the motel where the traveling preacher is staying, radiating instant heat; and the ghosts of a murderer and her slain husband, back at the motel where she killed him thirty years ago for one last shot at reconciliation. It’d make a heckuva one-act.

It’s actually easier to picture the story as acted out on stage, with lighting tricks used to give a spectral feel to the ghosts in their ’50s get-up, than it is to immerse yourself in its world the way you do with a normal Barker story. I sorta wish I’d reread it in college and had the presence of mind to adapt it for the stage myself. Personally I think some work would have to be done to beef up some of the characters, who feel much more stock than Barker’s usually do–would you be surprised to hear that the preacher is emotionally and physically abusive, that his wife is a pill-popper, and that the slain husband has only one thing on his mind? And it’s barely horror at all, ghosts and bullet wounds aside. But Barker would return to the fields of bodice-ripping romance far more fruitfully in the future–Galilee, to a certain extent Coldheart Canyon–so there’s some fun to be had in this amateur production before the curtain’s rung down.

Carnival of Souls

October 18, 2005

Let’s kick things off today with The Best Horror Comic Of All Time (TM): Tom Spurgeon links to The Book Standard’s interview with Charles Burns, writer-artist of the absolutely stunning graphic novel about a sexually transmitted mutation in ’70s Seattle teens, Black Hole, which comes out today! Among other topics, Burns answers the question “Why horror?”

I know that I could have told the story just totally straight. I mean, I could have told a similar story. But I wanted to have something that kind of pushed it to an extreme. So I worked with the idea of how, in adolescence, you

Blog of Blood, Part Eighteen: “Seeing them gathered like this the metaphors collapsed. They were what they were…That was the horror.”

October 18, 2005

Book Four (The Inhuman Condition), Chapter Two

“The Body Politic”

This story reads sort of like what you’d get if Clive Barker were the frontman in a Stephen King cover band. As such, it’s probably the most apples-to-apples comparison you can get between Barker’s short stories and King’s. Fans of King’s short story collections Night Shift and Skeleton Key (and boy am I ever one! As I always say, King’s at his best when he’s under 100 pages or over 1,000) know that one of his favorite devices is the run-of-the-mill thing that suddenly goes killer: trucks, rats, mold, a laundry machine, fog, a wind-up monkey, a mirror, etc. Often these things achieve a murderous sentience and threaten apocalypse through sheer force of numbers alone. And that’s exactly what you have here: It’s Maximum Overdrive with human hands instead of vehicles and appliances.

With the experiment controlled for the villain variable, noteworthy differences emerge. The most prominent, obviously, is the tone. King writes everymen; sure, when he’s writing ’em, every man is more likely to be a writer from New England than in our own, but it’s basically a John Cougar Mellencamp world, with all the just-folks dialogue and idiomatic expressions that entails. Barker couldn’t be less interested in that sort of writing; nearly all of his characters, regardless of their station in life, think in lyrical, dreamily self-absorbed snippets of philosophy.

Another prominent divergence is in the conclusion. King’s short stories tend to have endings where even if he doesn’t come right out and say where things will head after the final sentence, you’ve got a clear picture–either back to the status quo or, more likely, slowly onward toward apocalypse. (I remember marveling at just how many of his short stories end in the worst way possible.) Barker’s a lot less concerned with endings–this one twists and turns from one possibility to another before ending up going a different route entirely. Indeed, many of his novels all but eschew the concept of an ending entirely–Imajica, Coldheart Canyon, and I believe Weaveworld (it’s been a while) have their climaxes followed up by another 50-100 pages that are much more than just a wrap-up or epilogue, but like an entirely new arc for the novel. “The Body Politic” is actually closer to a King ending than you usually get from Barker’s work, but it’s still notable how random and unpredictable both it and what might follow from it are.

Finally, there’s the Evil Thing itself. King’s Evil Things are almost always external in nature–everyday items, threats from space, supernatural horrors. When Barker did his King-style story, he made the Evil Thing a part of the human body. The enslavement of the mind to the needs of the body is a prominent theme in Barker’s work, in evidence in a variety of different ways everywhere from “Dread” to Book Four‘s “Age of Desire.” Here Barker makes literalizes this theme as much as possible, and the results are genuinely frightening. (I’m sure I’m not the only person who spent a few seconds mimicking what it would be like if my hands had a life of their own, only to quickly freak out over how creepy it felt and stop!) And, of course, very very gory–this entire story is pretty much a catalog of self-mutilation, and while the damage done to the bodies involved isn’t as spectacular or inventive as Barker’s capable of due to the logistics involved, it’s actually all the more horrifying for its very ease of imaginability.

And I think the quote I chose as a title for this post is a key one, too–yes, the killer hands are symbolic of all the body-horror issues Barker’s always poking at–but yes, they’re also plain old killer hands. So much of the joy of horror stems from the simple pleasure of coming up with really scary monsters that do really scary things. I think in all these verbose blogathons going on there’s a risk of losing sight of that–mainstream critics of horror movies, for example, seem to see losing sight of that as a point of pride; pick any review of any zombie movie and you’ll see what I mean–but Barker refuses to let that terrible delight go. King at his best is the same way–take his novella “The Mist,” from Skeleton Crew, which he says he wrote simply for the thrill of creating big monsters with giant tentacles that eat people. There’s an awful lot to be said for pure monsters, because they’re scary.

All in all, King fans can consider this one their Clive Barker gateway drug. Unpleasant side-effects guaranteed or your money back.

Blog of Blood, Part Seventeen: “just to die a little less ignorant of mysteries than he’d been born”

October 17, 2005

Book Four (The Inhuman Condition), Chapter One

“The Inhuman Condition”

Here’s another one I didn’t remember–I guess we’re moving into uncharted territory, memory-wise. Again, this one isn’t terribly gory or brutal. It is weird, in terms of its horrific logistics: Though you don’t know it at first, this is a story about spells, and I very much doubt you’ve come across this method of enchantment before. You can sense the pleasure Barker derived from coming up with something truly novel throughout this collection, and in this case you get the sense that that pleasure is almost enough in itself to sustain the entire story.

“Inhuman” contains (as you might expect from the title) some memorable additions to Barker’s bestiary, but I found the humans involved much more compelling. The heroes of the story are a group of petty criminals who assault the homeless when they’re not committing burglaries, but Barker coaxes out from them genuine feelings of friendship and even of love that lesser writers would gloss over among this type of thug, insisting instead that societal ills or innate evil keep them on their path. Barker seems to say that they do this because they’re friends, even if they’d never articulate it that way themselves. Take this passage, which takes place when Karney (the main character) reveals to his cohort Brendan the supernatural origin of their friend Catso’s demise:

Karney caught sight of a telltale fullness at the edge of Brendan’s eyes. [Brendan’s] anger was camouflage–barely adequate–for a grief he had no mechanism to prevent. In Brendan’s present mood neither fear nor argument would convince him of the truth.

This is also one of the rare stories where things turn out okay for the main character–indeed, his station in life has the potential to markedly improve, though what we know of his nemesis throughout the rest of the story indicates that the newfound knowledge he has might come at quite a price. The execution’s a little pat–I think this is one of the rare places where Barker’s prose fails him: “He came to the mysteries on the page’s of Pope’s forbidden book as to an oasis. Drinking deeply, he looked forward with rare exhilaration to the pilgrimage ahead.”…I don’t know, just strikes me as a bit hokey–but I like the notion; it presages the conclusions of many of Barker’s later novels, in which hope emerges from horror a lot more regularly than it does here.