Mister B Gone by Clive Barker

cb_mrbgoneSeveral pages into Clive Barker’s latest book, Mister B Gone, I found myself thinking, “Ah, I get it — it’s for children!” But I couldn’t quite be sure. It didn’t actually say that it was for kids in any of the publisher’s blurb, but it seemed the only explanation for why Barker’s latest, which starts out with such a grand, attention-grabbing gambit (“Burn this book”!) so soon became… Well, I don’t want to say a disappointment — this is, after all, Clive Barker — but I was, as a reader, disappointed. After all, this is the author of Weaveworld and Imajica, the director of Hellraiser, the creator of Pinhead and the Cenobites — “demons to some, angels to others” — writing what he, of all writers, is surely best qualified to write, the autobiography of a demon, thus taking us to realms of higher (and lower) experience that no other writer can take us to. But what I got was this:

“He worked at the furnaces in Hell and when he got home from the night shift he would have such a temper me and my sister, Charyat, would hide from him. She was a year and two months younger than me, and for some reason if my father caught her he would beat and beat her and not be satisfied until she was sobbing and snotty and begging him to stop. So I started to watch for him. About the time he’d be heading home, I’d climb up the drainpipe onto the roof of our house and watch for him…” [p. 4]

There’s a test Ursula Le Guin suggests putting to fantasy — a “dirty trick”, she admits, but a useful one — in her essay “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie”. What you do is take a passage from a fantasy novel and swap all the fantasy-sounding names for Earthly-sounding ones. If the passage then sounds totally Earthly, then it wasn’t really fantasy to begin with. If you take “the furnaces in Hell” and “Charyat” in the above passage and swap them for, say, “the local steel mill” and “Charlene”, then what you have is most certainly not the autobiography of a demon. At least, not the one I was expecting from Clive Barker. So I thought he must be writing a book for children, and starting out with a passage that would enable a young teen to more easily identify with the demon Jakabok Botch, who soon takes to writing fantasy stories as a way of coping with the violence of his father and the rundown indifference of his housecleaning drudge of a mother — just as you’d expect in a book written for imaginative children who might themselves take to reading fantasy stories to cope with what life is starting to throw at them. But, as I continued reading, I got too many signs this wasn’t a book for children. Someone was described as having a testicle-sized brain. Well, maybe that would be great for a target audience of teenage boys, so maybe — but no, then we get increasing levels of violence, and sex, so this can’t be a book for children. What, then, is it?

In an interview at Dreamwatch Total Sci-Fi Barker explains his own intentions:

“There was another version of this book that I absolutely didn’t want to write, which was the one which was filled with over the top Grand Guignol scenes and very ripe, salty language — all that stuff. And I’d done that kind of demon before. I’d also done the elegant demon, in Pinhead. I wanted this to be a man with two tails, but the burn marks he receives erase so much of what would have made him demonic. But now his past is making him hopefully a much more accessible character. Because I think if you were to meet him you might feel the kind of pity you would feel for Quasimodo.”

That other version of the book, “filled with over the top Grand Guignol scenes and very ripe, salty language” — that was the book I wanted to read! If you’re going to have a main character as a demon, make him a demon, not just a man with two tails! Otherwise, you might just as well write a book about a man with two tails. At least, then, the reader would know what to expect. Letting the reader know what to expect is half the battle of telling a good story. (Fulfilling that promise is the other half.)

Anyway, I stuck with it. (This review does, by the way, have a happy ending.) The character of Jakabok niggled a little bit longer. One moment he was doing the sort of good-deed-disguised-as-evil you’d expect the hero of the children’s book version of Mister B Gone to be doing — playing nasty tricks on hypocritical priests who preach one thing then go and do the opposite — then, suddenly, we find him bathing in baby’s blood. Quite why he’s turned to doing such genuine, nasty evil is never explained. It’s as if Barker has one conception of the character and I, the reader, have another, and I’m spending the first half of this book trying to adjust mine to his.

Then, at last, at last, things pick up. Botch arrives in Mainz. We get a specific date — 1438 — and for the first time the book actually seems to be set somewhere and somewhen (prior to this, its vague medieval setting could be any age from storyland). A man named Gutenberg has created something that will change the world, and the air is filled with the forces of Heaven and Hell fighting out over who will control this new invention. (It is, of course, the printing press.) What brings Barker’s story alive is the appearance of angels. Suddenly, his demons aren’t just men with prosthetics — they are what the angels are not. We begin to feel vast cosmic forces at war; Botch’s story starts to make sense as a footnote-sized glimpse of a much larger story, one we — along with Botch — get the merest hint of. For this glimpse, Botch is punished (by being imprisoned in a book — the fact that the book you’re reading is not just the autobiography of a demon, but is the demon itself, is one of the more interesting, though occasionally over-laboured, aspects of this story); but not before he gets to understand one terrifying Secret about the war between Heaven and Hell which at last makes reading Mister B Gone worthwhile.

Barker has always written best when he’s contrasting the normal world with a fantastical world of revelations and transformations, recasting the old language of religion to suit a modern world sadly bereft of all that imaginative wonder. Mister B Gone is a book that only finds this Barkerian spark in its last third, after rather too much storyless rambling (not to mention tediously undramatic dialogue, so much of which consists of exchanges like: “Really?” “Really.” and “Today?” “Yes. Today”). But, when the angels appear, when the angels appear…

J G Ballard

jgb_miraclesoflifeI’ve just finished reading J G Ballard’s autobiography, Miracles of Life, having reached the halfway point yesterday, then giving in to the urge to just keep reading. As it moves towards his declaration that he has been diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer, it seems less and less like an autobiography, more like a final statement he wants to make to the world, an affirmation of his life, and a series of thank-you’s to the people who have meant most to him in his life. But this is no criticism at all.

Ballard spends most of the book on his early, and extremely formative, years in Shanghai, both as the only son of a wealthy family, and as a borderline feral teen in a prison camp during the Japanese occupation. He’s at his most poetic when describing the time he spent dissecting human cadavers in anatomy classes during the two years he studied for a medical degree. But he is at his most moving when writing in simple terms about how much raising his three children (who give the book its title) has meant to him. In a way, the second half of the book, and the latter half of his life, seems to have been a means of coming to terms with the amazing clash of near-decadent luxury, fantastic exoticism, casual brutality and too-easy mortality of those early years, as well as the tragically early death of his wife. The fact that he can speak so eloquently about the happiness he later found in the simple, human things of life proves how successfully he overcame those early, dehumanising influences. Following him on this journey is wonderfully moving. And this is from the pen of the man who plumbed the depths of human psychopathology in Crash — a man supposed to be “beyond psychiatric help” (as one early reader of Crash had it)? But I’m primed to sympathise with Ballard, as he’s one of my favourite writers, whose originality of mind and imagination, as well as his peerless prose style, have been a constant joy in my reading life. (If this sounds a bit elegaic, it’s only because I’ve caught the mood from his book.)

I have to admit, right away, that I’ve never read his most famous book, Empire of the Sun. Having devoured so many interviews with him (and, of course, having watched the film — yes I know it can’t be any sort of substitute), I haven’t quite been able to sum up the enthusiasm. (Reading Miracles of Life has only put the event off even longer, of course, as it covers a lot of the same ground.) And, as far as Ballard’s most notorious book is concerned, I’ve read Crash, and felt that while it was doubtlessly an amazing writing achievement, and although it was obviously a personal milestone for Ballard, a very necessary confrontation with the “dark powers that propelled the novel” (Miracles of Life, p. 242), it’s not a book I’m ever intending to re-read. As the most intense part of Crash is its prose, Cronenberg’s 1996 film struck me as curiously flat and literal, lacking the intense obsessive poetry that made the book worth reading at all. (The film only approaches the experience of reading the novel once, when, in the midst of a conversation between the two lead male characters, we get a seemingly inconsequential close-up of some details of the car they’re driving, as if James Spader’s mind has wandered, distractedly, to mentally caress the car’s wing mirrors.) No doubt this puts me beyond the literary pale, but my favourite Ballard novels are the earlier, more obviously fantastic ones: The Drowned WorldThe Crystal World, and, from his post-Crash period, The Unlimited Dream Company.

jgb_crystalworldThe Crystal World contains his best writing. Just reading the opening page never fails to impress me, again and again, with the precision and vividness with which Ballard uses words, and never fails to enthuse my own writing. The Crystal World is, aside from its incredible premise (in the most surreal of his early disaster novels, the world becomes supersaturated with time itself, and a slowly-spreading infection starts to crystallise everything, whether plant, animal, or mineral), a book infused with the conjuring up of light from language itself, in a way that means even the darknesses and shadows Ballard describes become somehow luminous. This is the second paragraph of the first page:

“At intervals, when the sky was overcast, the water was almost black, like putrescent dye. By contrast, the straggle of warehouses and small hotels that constituted Port Matarre gleamed across the dark swells with a spectral brightness, as if lit less by solar light than by some interior lantern, like the pavilion of an abandoned necropolis built out on a series of piers from the edges of the jungle.”

jgb_drownedworldBut the plot is weaker (a minor fault in such a poetic book) than in my favourite Ballard novel, The Drowned World. I was gratified, in reading Miracles of Life, to find Ballard was fond of film noir, because there’s something about the prose of The Drowned World that makes me feel it’s a mix of surrealist painting and film noir thriller. Ballard’s skill as a writer isn’t only in his use of language, but the ideas behind it. This description always strikes me as one of his most perfect:

“Looking up at the ancient impassive faces [of the giant iguanas], Kerans could understand the curious fear they roused, re-kindling archaic memories of the terrifying jungles of the Paleocene, when the reptiles had gone down before the emergent mammals, and sense the implacable hatred one zoological class feels towards another that usurps it.” (p. 18)

That “implacable hatred one zoological class feels towards another” is the most incredible idea, and one that could only be found in science fiction, yet it so perfectly captures something about the stony-faced malice of lizards. This description, from the same book, of starting a suited dive into a lagoon has always remained with me as startlingly evocative and vivid:

“The water was hotter than expected. Instead of a cool revivifying bath, he was stepping into a tank filled with warm, glutinous jelly that clamped itself to his calves and thighs like the foetid embrace of some gigantic protozoan monster.” (p. 104)

jgb_udcThe Unlimited Dream Company — a book whose only disappointment is that the title seemed to me to promise a far different story — has to be one of Ballard’s strangest. A young man steals a light aircraft and promptly crashes into a river in Shepperton. Escaping the wreck, he finds he has gained a transformative power over the inhabitants of the suburb, which eventually leads to them being able to fly. He, however, cannot leave the area of his submerged plane. It seems, to my mind, to be the anti-Crash among Ballard’s novels, combating the “dark powers” of modern technological death-wish with the transformative powers of the human imagination. It is one of the few books to have directly entered my dream world upon reading it — only three days after finishing it, I was also teaching people to fly.

These are my favourite Ballard novels, but the book of his I’m fondest of is the short story collection The Disaster Area — or should that be The Four-Dimensional Nightmare — or perhaps it’s The Overloaded Man? Maybe I should just settle for that literary brick, The Complete Short Stories, which contains them all. But then there’s High Rise, the first Ballard book I read (I bought it because of the Hawkwind song), and Concrete Island, and his book of essays and reviews, A User’s Guide to the Millennium. Or even Miracles of Life