The Damnation Game by Clive Barker

Sphere 2007 PB

After the first three Books of Blood came out, both Barker and his publishers knew he needed to present the world with a novel. His initial idea was for something Sphere thought too fantasy-ish for a man they were intent on marketing as a horror writer, so he put that idea to one side (it would eventually become Weaveworld), and set about writing something more traditionally in the horror mould. Initially titled Mamoulian’s Game, it came out in 1985 as The Damnation Game.

The novel opens in war-ravaged Warsaw, in which “the thief” hears about a legendary man who never loses at cards. Seeking him out among the rubble and destruction proves tricky, but it seems this man has been waiting for him… The story then leaps forward to the present day, where Marty Strauss is serving time for robbery in Wandsworth Prison. He’s offered the chance of an early release, if he goes to work for Joseph Whitehead, the super-rich head of a worldwide pharmaceutical empire. Whitehead, it seems, is expecting trouble, and needs a bodyguard he can trust — and a man with gambling debts (which is what drove Marty to crime), is just the sort of person he needs. But when the trouble comes, it’s in the form of Mamoulian, a man possessed of supernatural power, including the ability to raise and control the dead. This is the card-player that Whitehead (“the thief”) met and played in Warsaw, in a moment that started him on the path to being the head of a massive corporate empire. But Mamoulian considers there’s a debt to be repaid, and has come to claim it.

Berkley Books, 2021 edition

The first thing to say about Barker’s first novel, I think, is how naturally he seems to have taken to novel-writing after the (admittedly long) short stories of the Books of Blood. Barker is focused in every scene, taking time to bring out of every character and situation some special detail, as though he’s relishing each moment like a fine wine. That said, this is a long novel, with surprisingly few characters. Perhaps an ingrained habit from short stories and plays with a limited troupe of players kept him from sprawling into the sort of large cast you’d expect in a longer book?

Whenever he’s spoken or written about The Damnation Game, Barker has made it clear what its core inspiration was: “At the heart of the novel is the story of Faust.” In particular, it seems what fascinated him was how a modern version of the Faust story, shorn of its religious underpinnings (he characterised the original Faust as being a Renaissance man punished by a Medieval world) would play out.

Sphere 1988 PB, art by Steve Crisp

I have to admit, though, I’m not so sure the Faust aspect really stands out for me. There are two things you really need for a Faust story: a Devil, and a Pact. As the novel goes on, instead of, for instance, Mamoulian developing into a truly Mephistophelean figure, he gets watered down. Initially threatening and mysterious, the more we learn about him, the more merely human he’s revealed to be. He’s no Devil, just a man who has some magician’s tricks, and what’s more is a very old man, with “depleted energies”. He’s not some all-powerful archetypal Evil come to claim a soul, he’s tired and he doesn’t make it clear for a long time exactly what he wants. Because, it turns out, there’s also no real pact, either. Whatever Mamoulian has turned up to claim, it wasn’t agreed by him and Whitehead. (It certainly wasn’t signed in blood.) It turns out, in fact, more to be something Mamoulian assumed he’d be getting but didn’t, so he starts to come across as more petulant and resentful than full of the sort of Judgement of Hell you’d get in a Faust story. Barker has said his modern version of Faust is about a world in which “Every man is his own Mephistopheles”, but I don’t really see how that works with this narrative. Perhaps it’s simply because Barker would go on to create a far more effective and powerful Faustian story in The Hellbound Heart/Hellraiser.

The strongest theme in The Damnation Game, for me, was something quite different. It popped up in the first paragraph, with a sentence describing war-torn Warsaw:

“Mountains of rubble — still nurturing the dead like bulbs ready to sprout as the spring weather warmed…”

This struck me as evoking the first section of T S Eliot’s The Waste-Land, which is shot through with the contrast between plant-life reviving in the Spring, and the un-reviving dead of the Great War, most explicitly in the lines:

“That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?”

The novel focuses on Marty, brought out of prison (a kind of death) into the new life of the outside world once more. He even thinks, at one point: “I’ve been dead, and I’m coming back to life.” But The Damnation Game is dealing not in the dead coming back to life, but a sort of false resurrection of various kinds. Marty is not fully alive again, because his job for Whitehead keeps him for the most part in Whitehead’s (luxurious, but fenced-in) estate. (Whose most telling feature, perhaps, is an abandoned dovecote: an empty space abandoned by love.) It’s made clear Marty isn’t his own man, merely a living body there for Whitehead’s use:

“You’re my property, Strauss. You concern yourself with me, or you get the Hell out of here tomorrow morning. Me! … Not yourself. Forget yourself.”

1985 HB, art by Geoff Shields

The novel is full of characters existing in states of living death. Sometimes literally, as in the case of Breer, whom Mamoulian claims from a death by suicide so as to use him as his agent in the world. Others more figuratively, as in Whitehead’s daughter Carys, with her addiction to heroin, or Whitehead himself, retreating from the world out of fear of Mamoulian, and Mamoulian as well, fastidious and nihilistic, a walking emptiness, yet too afraid of death to leave this life he seems to despise. Marty at one point finds himself infused with “unwelcome thoughts of lying face up in the ground, dead perhaps, but anticipating resurrection.” But this isn’t a resurrection type of world, not with Mamoulian and Whitehead in charge. It’s a living-death world, always holding off the first step towards a true resurrection.

Although it’s unfailing readable, I felt The Damnation Game began to lose its initial focus from the mid-point on, and I place the blame firmly with the character of Mamoulian. It’s at the halfway point the much-anticipated meeting between Whitehead and Mamoulian occurs — the moment Whitehead has been dreading, because he knows it will lead to his death. Only, it doesn’t. Mamoulian turns up, says he will come again, and leaves. Later, he comes again, kills a few secondary characters, and leaves again. The second half of the novel is a series of confrontations with Mamoulian where nothing gets resolved, and for no clear reason. And perhaps nothing gets resolved because it’s not clear for a long time just what Mamoulian wants.

1990 Penguin edition

Mamoulian lacks the sort of clearly-defined meaning Barker is usually so good at giving his antagonists. He’s wonderful at creating larger-than-life, loquacious monsters who expound their philosophies of excess — of experience, pain, power. (Or, as in the case of, say, Rawhead Rex, are so blatantly symbolic they don’t have to explain themselves.) Mamoulian never does this. It’s only after a while we get a glimpse of what his inner world is like, and it turns out to be a foggy world of nihilism, asceticism, and absence. It’s not even a fierce nihilism, it’s all rather tired. Mamoulian is clearly at the end of his life, fed up with it all, and doesn’t make for a very powerful figure — he just keeps lingering. Even his title — he calls himself “the Last European” — comes across more as writerly bravura on Barker’s part than having any real meaning. This makes confrontations with Mamoulian difficult — just what is it you’re confronting? What’s the ideological battle that needs to be fought while the supernatural shenanigans are going on?

I think you can find an opposite to Mamoulian in the novel, but it’s not spelled out. There’s an intensity of living, a relishing of experience, as with Marty when he’s finally let out on his own for a night from Whitehead’s estate:

“He felt real. God in Heaven, that was it. At last he was able to operate in the world again, affect it, shape it.”

The “game” of the novel’s title, perhaps, isn’t so much about the rules of what’s going on, as the feeling of being a player in the world, being part of it all, taking your chances, getting your hands dirty. (Something the fastidious Mamoulian doesn’t want to do. This, perhaps, is at the root of his ability to always win at cards — that chance-phobic ultra-control of his smacks more of anxiety than a Devil’s power.)

1988 Charter Books PB

And the one power Marty and Carys can wield against Mamoulian, it turns out, is the connection they feel. Both Whitehead and Mamoulian are powerful figures, locked by their very power into their own solipsistic worlds, able to hold off what they fear, and so become all the more imprisoned by that fear. It’s the more human characters, with their vulnerability and need to connect, that overcome the powerful, in their own small way.

As I say, The Damnation Game remains readable, but I don’t think it has the sort of lasting meaning it might have had if Mamoulian had been a figure who really stood for something — as, say, “the Hell Priest” (whom we all know as Pinhead) does in Barker’s next piece of long-form fiction.


The Books of Blood IV-VI by Clive Barker

The Books of Blood IV, art by Clive Barker

Unlike the stories in the first three Books of Blood, those collected in volumes IV to VI weren’t started as personal pieces for the delectation of Barker and his friends, but were part of a now burgeoning career as a writer — in fact, they were mostly written, according to Douglas E Winter in his 2002 biography of Barker, The Dark Fantastic, whilst Barker was also writing his first novel, The Damnation Game. All three of this second set of The Books of Blood (as well as The Damnation Game) came out in 1985. (In the UK, anyway. In the US, they were published later, in individually-titled volumes: The Inhuman Condition in 1986, In the Flesh in 1987, and, packaged with a new novella, Cabal in 1988.)

To me it feels — certainly in volumes V and VI — that Barker’s style is a lot more assured, perhaps less wild and experimental, but always peppered with moments of his particular storytelling voice. The tales are, sometimes, less bombastically fantastic than those in the first three volumes, as though Barker were deliberately concentrating on the more traditional literary elements in his arsenal: character, setting, and realism. Barker himself felt the stories were “Much denser, much richer, much more confident, much more paradoxical, and on one level, much, much more vicious.” (This quote from a 1986 interview, reproduced at

The Books of Blood V, art by Clive Barker

There are still some experimental-feeling stories, though unlike with the first three Books of Blood, here they’re the less successful stories, to my mind. “The Body Politic”, for instance, has the premise of a revolution in which human hands begin to seek independence from their (to them, parasitic) hosts. For a moment it feels it’s going to be a political allegory/satire, particularly when the left hand is the first to achieve this revolutionary freedom, but the right is generally acknowledged as the leader. But instead it devolves into a series of kill-scenes involving hordes of human hands skittering about like James Herbert’s Rats. I suspect Barker just isn’t a political writer. His most overtly political tale in these three books, “Babel’s Children”, is really just a joke/cynical statement about the arbitrariness and superficiality of the people who are in charge of the world, whatever their political persuasions.

Elsewhere, Barker is still trying out genres, as in the spy story “Twilight at the Towers” (which is also a werewolf story, and ends with a touch of the “tribe of monsters” theme found throughout Barker’s work, most notably in Cabal), and the hard-boiled detective yarn of “The Last Illusion” (which is also a Faustian pact tale — another Barker mainstay — with plenty of demons). Neither’s among the better stories here.

The standout, for me, is “The Forbidden”, which, like “In the Hills, the Cities” works in a sort of dreamlike way. Its story doesn’t make complete sense, but exists just to lead us closer and closer to the moment we’re presented with one of Barker’s eloquent monsters, whose eloquence encapsulates something that transcends the story’s logic.

Books of Blood VI, art by Clive Barker

“The Forbidden”’s protagonist, Helen Buchanan, is a young academic who wants to apply anthropological methods to the graffiti she finds in a rundown Liverpool estate. (Maybe the same one, Cantril Farm, as Ramsey Campbell used in The Face That Must Die?) Finding a particularly striking, almost shrine-like graffiti’d artwork, and an intriguing slogan (“Sweets to the Sweet”) that’s never particularly explained, she gets caught up with trying to trace the source of vague rumours of a violent killing, and so comes to meet the Candyman, a Barkerian figure that occupies the twilight zone between actuality and urban legend:

“I am rumour,” he sang in her ear. “It’s a blessed condition, believe me. To live in people’s dreams; to be whispered at street-corners; but not have to be.”

Did Candyman commit the killings Helen heard about? Yet the story presents these not as actual killings, but urban legends, rumours, always heard from the friend of a friend, and occurring in the next block. The implication is, then, that they didn’t occur, but instead express some potential for such things, a reaction against the extreme social breakdown of the estate where they’re supposed to have occurred. So why does Candyman then manifest and actualise them with a genuine killing (and through someone else, not by his own hooked hand), if his nature is rumour? But none of this matters once the Candyman’s there, whispering his Barkerish aphorisms in Helen’s ear. It’s a woozy, dreamlike tale, with a mood perfectly suited to the more dreamlike direction cinematic horror took in the 80s, making its 1992 adaptation Candyman perhaps the most artistically successful film based on Barker’s writing (though Hellraiser remains my favourite).

Scenes from the 1992 version of Candyman

“The Madonna” is another glimpse-of-a-monster tale, and one of the better ones in these three volumes. Here, the monster isn’t verbally eloquent, but is nevertheless pregnant with meaning — literally. Taking up the theme of monstrous births and the balance between masculine and feminine from the first three Books’ “Skins of the Fathers” and “Rawhead Rex”, here we have two men, whose relationship with the females in their lives is exploitative or at least dismissive, encountering something of a more primal female nature. Again, the tale is about the encounter, the revelation of the thing at the centre of the story’s spiral — the inward spiral towards revelation perhaps being the classic Barker story-shape — rather than the whys and what-happens-nexts.

If there’s one more tale I’d single out, it’s “The Life of Death”, and for a quite different reason. Barker had already written at least one entirely non-supernatural tale (“Dread”), but here we have a far less sensationalistic story, almost a character-piece, as we follow the never-quite-stated mood of a young woman in the days after a hysterectomy. Entering a previously-sealed crypt beneath a church that’s in the process of demolition, she comes into an entirely new relationship with death. It touches on the supernatural, but those supernatural elements can also be read as entirely metaphorical or poetic, and it’s the overall (dark) poetry of the piece that makes it such a standout.

US edition of The Books of Blood IV, released as The Inhuman Condition, art by Fred Marcellino

It was while reading this and the other less wildly fantastic pieces that I found myself wondering what made Barker’s most characteristic writing still so indubitably his. I keep wanting to call it “theatricality”, but that’s probably more down to his being a playwright, actor, and director. One part of it, though, is theatrical, or certainly showy, in its preoccupation with the idea of glitzy appearance as opposed to substance. On the one hand, Barker’s apt to underline the superficiality of something we’d initially value, as in this:

“Sunlight was a showman. It threw its brightness down with such flamboyance, eager as any tinsel-merchant to dazzle and distract. But beneath the gleaming surface it illuminated was another state; one that sunlight – ever the crowd-pleaser – conspired to conceal. It was vile and desperate, that condition.”

Or, even more direct:

“Miracles are useless. Magic is a distraction from the real concerns. It’s rhetoric. Melodrama.”

But on the other hand, with Barker, there is real magic, and real miracles, but they’re often to be found far away from the glitz and glamour, among the tawdry, the downtrodden, the grubby. (And the criminal — Barker evidently likes the air of forbiddenness and freedom that surrounds his less salubrious characters.) In “The Inhuman Condition”, for instance, a young thug called Karney takes a curiously knotted string from the pocket of a tramp he and his friends have beaten up and, fascinated by its complex knots, finds himself releasing monsters as he unpicks them — much as the puzzle-box of the Lament Configuration releases demons in Hellraiser.

In the Flesh (the US edition of The Books of Blood V), art by Fred Marcellino

The essence of Barker’s most characteristic style, though, is the way he’ll take a step back from the narrative to highlight some story moment, to bring out the archetypal nature of some character, or the elemental nature of some conflict, to recast an otherwise realistic narrative in terms of masks worn by actors and timeworn styles of drama (the love story, the longed-for tragedy, the sad comedy, the melodrama). For instance, he’ll describe a character as “a common killer, a street-corner Cain”, in a way that both disparages them and elevates them with a Biblical pedigree. And perhaps that’s where the likes of the Candyman get their story-power: they speak, knowingly, of their own roles, and they see and live in the story-world that interpenetrates the real. If this is “theatricality”, it’s the theatricality of archetypal theatre — of morality plays, Greek tragedies, Renaissance dramas, and pantomimes. It’s the bones of story, showing through.

The Dark Fantastic, by Douglas E Winter

In The Dark Fantastic, Douglas E Winter says that “Flesh is a trap” for Barker “here [in The Books of Blood] and throughout his career” — but, to me, the body is Barker’s main theme, and it’s only the untransformed flesh that’s a trap. Escape, for Barker, isn’t escape from the body, but escape into new fleshly forms and shapes. For all his talk of revelations and transcendence, for Barker, there’s nothing but the body — the transcendence he demands is fleshly transcendence, the revelations he seeks are ones of blood and nerves and muscle, not spirit and soul.

In “The Last Illusion”, for instance, when the illusionist/magician Swann dies, it’s his body — not, as in a more traditional version of the tale, his soul — that has to be protected to stop Hell from claiming it. And the ghosts in “Revelations” are, aside from being unseen by most people, just of a different degree of physicality than the rest of us. They still bear the wounds that killed them, and their interests are still interests of the flesh (i.e., physical pleasures). Hell in “In the Flesh” is a Hell of murderers being trapped in the physical locations where they performed their murders, while freedom is a return to the physical world of the living.

Which raises the question of what realms Barker is hinting at when he talks of enlightenment, transcendence, Hell and so on. It seems to me that, in these books at least, he avoids any sort of theology or system of higher worlds, invented or otherwise. (What, for instance, forces the murderers in “In the Flesh” to haunt the scenes of their crimes? If it’s a judgemental God, He’s not referred to.) It seems, rather, that Barker just wants the elbow room provided by talk of transcendence, enlightenment, Heaven and Hell, angels and demons — without having to commit to anything but the potential for these things, for a wider realm of experience than the mundane world allows.


The Books of Blood I-III by Clive Barker

Barker began writing his Books of Blood stories at the start of the 1980s — bizarrely enough as a relief from the intense work of playwriting (his initial career being as a playwright, actor, and director of the Dog Theatre Company). They were, at first, intended only for himself and his friends, and for the sheer joy of doing something new. But later, realising he might be able to make a go of these things, he had them typed up as a 600-page manuscript and handed it to his theatrical agent, who tried Gollancz (who turned it down), then paperback publisher Sphere Books, under the misapprehension they published Stephen King. Sphere accepted, and took the unusual approach of releasing them in three volumes simultaneously (Barker had thought of the stories as one book, The Book of Blood), and putting this then-unknown author’s name as part of the title. They even used his art for the covers. Clive Barker’s Books of Blood volumes I to III came out in March 1984.

They were something different in the then-booming horror market, very much unlike its leading author, Stephen King. As Douglas Winter puts it in his biography of Barker, The Dark Fantastic:

“His stories exercised an unbridled enthusiasm for the lush and the lurid, pushing at taboos of sex and violence, yet confirmed an unparalleled ambition and audacity.”

King, though, certainly does excess — perhaps more self-consciously than Barker, in whom it feels like a natural mode — but anyway that’s not the real core of what Barker brought to the genre. As well as being explicit in terms of blood, gore, and bodies, Barker was explicit with the more philosophically religious elements in horror fiction: he wasn’t just out to shock, he was after revelation, transformation and transcendence, even if it was of a dark kind. As he’s quoted in Winter’s biography:

“The kind of horror I like drags things into daylight and says, Right. Let’s have a really good look. Does it still scare you? Does it maybe do something different to you now that you can see it more plainly — something that isn’t quite like being scared?

There’s a strong feeling in these stories of a highly creative talent let loose on an unexplored domain, rushing around and trying all sorts of ideas, approaches, modes and genres, squeezing them to see what juice they’ll produce in his particular hands. There are ensemble pieces and narratives focused on just the one character (even a rare first-person story), there’s realism (the non-supernatural “Dread”, about its protagonist’s philosophical education thanks to a man who believes that the only subject of any “worthwhile philosophy” is “the things we fear, because we don’t understand them”, and goes on to give practical, personalised lessons), there’s fable (“Hell’s Event”, about a once-a-century race that decides who will rule the next hundred years: Heaven or Hell), there’s something close to comedy (“The Yattering and Jack”, about a minor demon’s attempts to break the mind of a stubbornly disbelieving gherkin-importer), and something close to a love story (“Jacqueline Ess—Her Will and Testament”, in which a woman gains the ability to reshape flesh with her mind, but her attempts to learn how to use this new power from the powerful men in her life only show how shallow power is compared to passion, which is so much harder to find).

Some, for me, don’t work so well and perhaps betray the fact that Barker, though highly creative and an obviously gifted writer, was still learning his craft. “Pig Blood Blues”, about an ex-policeman newly hired to teach woodwork at a Remand Centre for Adolescent Offenders, who discovers the whole facility has taken to worshipping a seemingly possessed pig in the centre’s farm, felt to me as though it could have done with a slower pace, a longer build-up. It’s as though Barker, impatient to see where this idea would end (it’s a rare case of one his tales leaving its revelations till the end), hurried through the elements that might have turned this into a novel: character build-up, growing hints about what was happening, and so on.

I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that “Skins of the Fathers” and “Rawhead Rex” were among the first to be written, as they’re both less satisfying in their overall story structure, while also having some of the rawest laying out of themes that I can imagine were bubbling around in this young male creator’s psyche: themes of monstrous fathers and victimised sons. In Barker’s fiction, though, that word “monstrous” can have a far different meaning to its normal, daylight, usage. In “Skins of the Fathers”, for instance, we have two types of monstrous father. There’s Eugene, who considers it his absolute right to have everything his own way, and to abuse his wife Lucy and son Aaron as much as he likes. He’s clearly monstrous, but in Barker’s world, calling him that would be an abuse of the term, because there are also, in this tale, actual monsters, and these are, it turns out, Aaron’s real fathers: ancient creatures of the desert, a varied mix of weirdly beautiful or downright incomprehensible beings who have come at last to reclaim their son and awaken him to the powers that are his birthright. I can’t help reading this story as, in some ways, a creator’s self-remaking fable, in which he disowns the traditional ideas of (as it’s put in the story) “hand-me-down machismo” (something that might have been especially important to a gay writer like Barker), in favour of something weird, marginalised, secretive and perhaps forbidden, but also magical, transformative and creative.

The 1986 film of Rawhead Rex, a zero-subtlety folk horror… But nothing says 80s fantasy like hand-animated glowing energies.

“Rawhead Rex”, on the other hand, presents us with an outright monstrous father in both meanings of the word: a child-eating monster whose only purpose is to eat, kill, destroy, and dominate, but whose one weakness is the the equally archetypal image of the female as source of life. What Rawhead Rex and the monsters in “Skins of the Fathers” have in common is they’re presented as ancient creatures who father children on human mothers. In “Rawhead Rex” the subsequent pregnancies kill the mothers, but in “Skins of the Fathers” the monsters, rather than men, are women’s natural partners for generating offspring:

“Women had always existed: they had lived, a species to themselves, with the demons. But they had wanted playmates: and together they had made men… What an error, what a cataclysmic miscalculation. Within mere eons, the worst rooted out the best; the women were made slaves, the demons killed or driven underground, leaving only a few pockets of survivors.”

“Midnight Meat Train” is another story to feature a root race of non-human (or once-human) fathers. Here, the protagonist escapes becoming a victim of what seems to be one more New York City serial killer, only to find this killer had in fact been working for the city — not the government, but for the “City Fathers”, a race of ancient and perhaps once-human elders who have among them the “Father of Fathers”, the “original American”, who is most certainly not human:

“If it was like anything, it was like a shoal of fish. A thousand snouts all moving in union, budding, blossoming and withering rhythmically. It was iridescent, like mother of pearl…”

But the most general theme that links these stories — and the books Barker would go on to write, too — is the transformative effect of contact with the darkness. That contact, for Barker, is never an end-point, as it so often is in horror; it’s always a door to be opened, a curtain to be lifted, a secret to be brought into the light. From “Midnight Meat Train”:

“You shouldn’t have seen this: it’s not for the likes of you,” he said, taking another step towards Kaufman. “It’s secret.”

Which recalls my favourite line from Barker’s 1987 film Hellraiser, and one I’m sure recurs throughout his work, in many forms: “This is not for your eyes.” It’s not for your eyes, but Barker’s going to show you anyway.

from the cover of Hobbes’ 1651 treatise, Leviathan

The one story I’ve heard most often singled out in these early Barker stories is “In the Hills, the Cities”, a weird mix of transcendent vision and tragic horror that pretty much defies categorisation. A couple of lovers, Mick and Judd, are on their first — and, they soon realise, last, because they’re just not getting on — holiday together, somewhere in Yugoslavia. Mick, it turns out, is (to Judd) a “political bore”, while Judd keeps wanting to take side-trips to obscure local churches to see their paintings. He’s not religious, he’s only interested in the paintings’ aesthetics, leading Mick to think that the “complexities, the contradictions, even the agonies that made those cultures blossom and wither were just tiresome” to Judd. Then, cutting through their petty squabbles, comes a vision straight off the cover of Hobbes’ Leviathan to not only transcend their politics-versus-aesthetics debate, but blow it out of the water.

Two towns they pass close to have a tradition. Once a year each makes itself into a single, walking giant, a carefully strapped-and-bound-together ambulant city made of people. Some people are the eyes, some are the teeth, some are the fingers, others are the muscles, the heart, the stomach. These two “cities” then do battle. It is a thing that seems to capture a sort of nobility, as one character says:

“It is the body of the state,” said Vaslav, so softly his voice was barely above a whisper, “it is the shape of our lives.”

But it is also rooted in the madness of the mob:

“Mick saw the leg raised; saw the faces of the people in the shin and ankle and foot – they were as big as he was now – all huge men chosen to take the full weight of this great creation. Many were dead. The bottom of the foot, he could see, was a jigsaw of crushed and bloody bodies, pressed to death under the weight of their fellow citizens.”

It — quite literally — embodies politics and aesthetics, transcending both into something incomprehensible, awe-inspiring, deranged and monstrous. It’s a seemingly allegorical image (as the cover of Leviathan was) but it goes so far beyond any allegorical meaning. (It’s surprising to realise that this, perhaps the most powerful image in Barker’s first three Books of Blood is not supernatural.)

I actually think that “In the Hills, the Cities” is perhaps the only example, here, of something that works despite Barker’s philosophy of “having a really good look”. Although nothing, in the end, is hidden, the reason behind all this remains obscure. Is this an image of transcendence, or of derangement? Had Barker included this image in his later fiction — and he’d soon go on to find his natural medium in doorstop-sized novels like Weaveworld — he’d have to explore its meaning, lay it bare somehow. But I think its power here lies in the way it absorbs and transcends both Mick’s politics and Judd’s aesthetics to become so much more than both, while still remaining almost screamingly incomprehensible. It reaches beyond Barker’s images of transcendence — however dark and magical — to the sublime, in all its terror and mystery, insanity and imagination.