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 CliveBarker.info.)
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.
“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).
“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.
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.
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.
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.