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.

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Revival by Stephen King

I decided to read King’s 2014 novel Revival after hearing it recommended, on two separate occasions, by Ramsey Campbell and Guillermo del Toro — and was delighted to find it was dedicated to a host of classic horror writers from Mary Shelley onwards, with a particular emphasis on Arthur Machen for The Great God Pan (from which it borrows one of its final scenes).

The story starts with its narrator, Jamie Morton, at the age of six, meeting the new pastor for his town, Charles Jacobs. Jacobs is surprisingly young for a pastor, and comes with a pretty wife (who all the local boys immediately fall in love with) and a very young son. His hobby is electricity, and when Jamie comes to him, desperate for help with his brother Con’s loss of voice after an accident, Jacobs cures the boy with a hastily-made electrical device that stimulates his paralysed nerves back into activity. But when Jacobs’s wife and son are killed in a car accident, the young pastor delivers a bitter, despairing sermon about how religion is nothing but “the theological equivalent of a quick-buck insurance scam”, and leaves town.

Jamie grows up, becomes a gigging, getting-by musician, develops a drug habit, and is on the verge of a nosedive into junkiedom when he meets Jacobs once more. No longer a pastor, Jacobs has nevertheless not lost his faith in electricity (“If you want truth, a power greater than yourselves, look to the lightning” as he said in his infamous final “Terrible Sermon”), and is now making a living on the carnie circuit (he mentions playing in Joyland) as a purveyor of “Portraits in Lightning”, a sort of animated melding of photograph and fantasy. But his main passion is what he calls “the secret electricity”, something which bears little relation to the thing that powers lightbulbs, being infinitely more powerful, and capable of curing virtually any illness. He cures Jamie of his drug addiction, briefly inducing a few odd side-effects, and the two part.

When Jacobs comes into Jamie’s life again, he’s in the religion game once more. Jacobs is now a revivalist preacher and faith-healer, using his electrical touch to make the lame walk and the blind see. But Jamie is unconvinced — not by the healing, which he knows to be genuine, but the faith. He knows Jacobs is only using the pose of religion to go deeper still in his pursuit of the “secret electricity” — something Jamie’s friend Bree tells him was called potestas magnum universum by the alchemists and mages of the past: “the force that powers the universe”.

The trouble is, this “force” isn’t a passive thing like the electricity we know. People cured by Jacobs’s electrical touch don’t relapse, but a significant number go on to commit irrational crimes, including the murder of loved ones, or taking their own lives. It’s as if being touched by the power of the “secret electricity” lets something other get hold of them, something malignant and perhaps insane, but certainly inhuman — something Jacobs is steadily moving closer to encountering in the raw.

The dedication to Machen, an epigraph from Lovecraft, and the appearance in the story of De Vermis Mysteriis (invented by Robert Bloch, Latinised by Lovecraft), imply that, here, King is having a go at cosmic horror. And it’s evident the narrative is heading towards some cosmic-level revelation as we move ever closer to discovering the nature of the “secret electricity” that powers our universe.

…and that’s enough tents/churches with lightning for now.

But is what we get cosmic horror? Reading this book got me thinking about whether King — and this is no criticism of him as a writer or storyteller — is capable of what I’d call cosmic horror. And this is true, I’d say, of many writers, even some of the best horror writers. Lovecraft can do cosmic horror through conjuring the sheer indifference to humanity of his vast and alien, god-like entities. Ramsey Campbell, I think, does it in the way his cosmic entities, though apparently interested in individual humans — enough to prey on them, anyway — ultimately only want to absorb them into their inhumanity. Alan Moore does it in Providence, in the way deeply traumatic transformations are doled out to his characters so casually, irrevocably shattering their humanity, and then doing the same to the world as we know it. But conjuring the cold bleakness, and the crushing inhumanity of the authentically cosmic is a rare — and perhaps not enviable — talent. Clive Barker, for instance, can do perverse hells and transformed beings who follow weird philosophies, but I’d say he’s too invested in the fleshiness of the human experience to conjure something so resolutely anti-human as the cosmic. And King, also, has too much belief in the meaning of human life to go truly, bleakly cosmic.

Trying not to get too spoilery, here, Revival moves towards a revelation of what, it seems, is behind our world, and the vision King paints is of a Boschian Hell: insane, obscene, monstrous and grotesque, but, I’d say, not cosmic. It’s not cosmic because it has a place for human beings. Even though it’s horrific, it misses what for me is the truly cosmic note, the cold, bleak indifference to humanity. Just as space doesn’t care you can’t breathe in its vacuum, the cosmic doesn’t care what happens to you when it casually crushes you — or, failing to crush you, leaves you insane and traumatised. The cosmic doesn’t hate, it just doesn’t care.

But the devils of Bosch’s Hell — and the equivalent in Revival’s ultimate revelation — do care. They care enough to be really, really horrible to human beings, so I’m not saying King paints a nice picture; but humans have a place in it, so it’s not cosmic. (Not that I’m saying cosmic horror is the best or only sort of horror, it’s just one I like, and like to see done well.)

Another aspect of the cosmic is it’s horrific at a philosophical level. Its revelations have deep implications, and it is these that really deliver the blow. And the thing is, King’s revelation doesn’t even make much sense. That may be the point — King may be saying, here, that the ultimate order behind the universe is insane — but the slow build-up, with its laying out of clues as to what the “secret electricity” seems to be, imply there is an order. In a Lovecraftian tale, the final revelation of cosmic horror would bring those clues together in a way that made perfect, but terrible, sense. I don’t think that happens here.

King a few times has his narrator and Jacobs debate the ethics of what Jacobs is doing with his quest for the truth behind the “secret electricity”, but as with The Institute, while both sides raise valid points, ultimately King backs away from laying out a full, convincing argument. His narrator instinctively adopts an emotional response before Jacob’s self-dehumanising but logically-stated obsession, and that’s okay, but I’d have liked the narrator’s response to be equally convincing.

Still, it was an enjoyable read. King is a great storyteller, and at no point was I disappointed in Revival. It’s just that, once I’d finished it, I couldn’t think of much that was particularly memorable about it, either.

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Pinhead & The Scarlet Gospels

scarlet-gospels-uk-coverClive Barker’s new novel may open with the resurrection of a magician, but its primary purpose is not to revive the magical past, it’s to lay a ghost. Or, rather, exorcise a demon. For here, in a literary kill-off move that’s surely been played out too many times for anyone to believe it’ll work, Barker does a Reichenbach Falls on his most famous creation: the Hell Priest.

Who?

That’s Pinhead, to you and me — or the Lead Cenobite, if you’re a purist, as that was how he was credited in the first Hellraiser film (while in The Hellbound Heart, he wasn’t even the lead) — but apparently the entity in question prefers to be addressed as the Hell Priest. At least, until he slaughters the rest of his order and embarks on a new career as would-be King of Hell. (The Devil, in this version of Hell, having been absent for some time.)

It’s here, I think, Barker’s trouble begins. If you’re going to kill someone off, you’ve got to at least get their name right. I don’t even think he gets the location right. The Hell Priest is to be killed off in Hell, right? But Pinhead — the creature who, to me, made his one and only definitive appearance in Hellraiser, and whose name ought to be Pinhead, because it shows the proper degree of fear-hiding-behind-irreverence that such truly terrible monsters are often treated with — doesn’t belong in Hell. The ‘Hell’ in Hellraiser is figurative, not literal. ‘Hell’ is a state you go through — toils and torments raised to religious levels — not a place. (Certainly not as quotidian a place as Barker presents in The Scarlet Gospels: a Hell with uniformed police, bicycles, money, and other much-too-mundane details, far more reminiscent of the Hell of Barker’s mostly disappointing previous novel, Mister B Gone. It does have some glorious architecture, though.)

To me, Pinhead is a far different creature to this troublesome Hell Priest. His origins — along with those of Barker’s first (and best) feature film — lie in an experimental short film, The Forbidden, first glimpsed on The South Bank Show in 1994. Here, Barker presents us with a variant on the Faust myth, in which a lone magician in search of ‘the further reaches of experience’ summons a ghostly lover, then passes onto more esoteric pleasures, culminating in his being skinned alive. The Forbidden is scattered with abstract, purely cinematic sequences (which can be seen sneaking their way into Hellraiser, too — as in the shot of an unfurling, blood-red flower that precedes Kirsty’s waking up in hospital), some of which are of Barker’s ‘nail-board’: a square wooden base, criss-crossed with regular score marks, six-inch nails hammered into each juncture. Moving a light around it, Barker explores this for its abstract visual qualities (as he does the lights-through-slats that precede the appearance of the Cenobites in Hellraiser), but it’s unmistakably the origin of Pinhead:

‘Every inch of its head had been tattooed with an intricate grid, and at every intersection of horizontal and vertical axes a jewelled pin driven through the bone.’ — The Hellbound Heart

Contrasted with the Faust character’s visions and torments, the image of the nail-board contains, I think, a sort of boiled-down abstraction of crucifixion: nails (significantly, these aren’t points-upwards, as you’d expect from an image of torture), crosses and wood, simplified and multiplied, as though transcendence were being sold by the yard, and made available to anyone with a DIY temperament.

Moving from the nail-board to Pinhead, you see a man (or creature) who is in his own, permanent, self-crucified state, the very image of pain and transcendence unified. Summoned by Uncle Frank — who’s more interested in a far different meaning of the phrase ‘getting nailed’ — the Cenobites are ‘Angels to some. Demons to others.’ So they are, in Hellraiser, not evil, and do not belong to Hell. Instead, they’re a gateway to extreme experience that transcends the idea of pain being opposite to pleasure, or of evil being opposed to good. Heaven is their Hell, and vice versa; one is reached through the other. Their whole point is that they do not belong in a duality. Which means that, by putting its ‘Hell Priest’ in a very traditional Hell, The Scarlet Gospels, to me, strikes a false note. The Hell Priest that Barker is killing off isn’t the Cenobite known to the rest of us as Pinhead; he’s an imposter.

(Mind you, the Hellraiser movies have been doing just as convincing a job of removing Pinhead from his original ‘beyond good and evil’ meaning and turning him into a standard movie monster since the second film. And this, no doubt, is the version of the creature Barker wants to kill off.)

Scarlet Gospels (US cover)I’ve said before that Barker’s work is all about unifying the divides between, for instance, imagination and mundanity, between day-to-day experience and the transcendent extremes. For much of it, The Scarlet Gospels is too concerned, I think, with a storyline that doesn’t allow any of this deeper theme to come through. It reads like a checklist of what a Clive Barker novel ought to be: a very gruesome beginning, and then a lot of excessive, perverse, blood-soaked demonic goings on after that, but very little of the higher themes like transcendence.

Which isn’t to say there’s no transcendence. As well as being about the Hell Priest, The Scarlet Gospels is about two other characters with a literary pedigree: Harry D’Amour, Barker’s longstanding supernatural PI, and Lucifer. Both of these are transformed by the events of The Scarlet Gospels, in far different (and more convincing) ways than the demise of Pinhead (which can’t help being unconvincing — he’s been offed too many times in the movies).

The Scarlet Gospels isn’t the best of Barker, but that’s not to say it’s not worth reading. If at times it feels a little dated in its constant excess, it also feels like a reminder of the days when major publishers put out stuff that actually seemed dangerous and transgressive but which also had artistic intent. Barker is an artist, and I’d certainly like to read more of him — but moved on, not dwelling on the same old stuff in the same old way. And I wonder if there aren’t signs Barker might want this too:

Now Harry realized with terrifying clarity that he no longer wished to be the witness of such sights. This was not the world in which he belonged.

And:

“I have heard this story. I have seen you. I have seen all of you! In countless incarnations!” the Devil shouted to the crowd who attentively watched his every move. When he spoke again, it was slow and deliberate. “I do not want this anymore.”

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