Several 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…