Happy 68th birthday to dark imaginer extraordinaire Clive Barker. In honor of the occasion, and this Wednesday’s premiere of the Books of Blood anthology film on Hulu, here’s an essay analyzing the seminal Barker short story…
“The dead have highways” (1), the omniscient narrator bluntly asserts in the single-sentence opening paragraph of “The Book of Blood.” These “unerring lines of ghost trains, of dream-carriages,” though, are no mere metaphor, as the narrative quickly establishes via elaboration: “Their thrum and throb can be heard in the broken places of the world, through cracks made by acts of cruelty, violence, and depravity. Their freight, the wandering dead, can be glimpsed when the heart is close to bursting, and sights that should be hidden come plainly into view.” Besides setting up the rules for this horror story, these lines also highlight a pair of themes that are central to Barker’s work: love, and the revelation of the forbidden.
This “forbidden highway” has heavily-trafficked “intersections” that also merge closely with “our world”: “Here the barriers that separate one reality from the next are worn thin with the passage of innumerable feet.” The idea of the barrier, or veil, between the world of the dead and the world living growing thin is a familiar one in Halloween mythology. Perhaps not coincidentally, Barker’s tale is set in October. It also features a character who is a “little trickster” (8), who plays a “fine game” (4) for the “sheer mischief” of it. The influence of Ray Bradbury’s “The Illustrated Man” on Barker’s story has been long noted, but one might also link “The Book of Blood” with “The October Game,” a Bradbury tale that blurs the line between Halloween illusion and grotesque reality.
Barker does not hesitate to acknowledge his predecessors in “The Book of Blood.” The story’s setting, Number 65, Tollington Place (an abandoned/shunned house that was the site of some past atrocity, and that now bears an “oppressive atmosphere” ), clearly has a foundation in Gothic tradition. A “crack in the front of the house that ran from doorstep to eaves” forms an allusion to Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Similarly, the line that “Number 65, Tollington Place was a haunted house, and no one could possess it for long without insanity setting in” echoes the famous opening paragraph of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. There’s even a hint of Suspiria when the ceiling of the place appears “maggoty with life–pulsing, dancing” (7).
Having depicted the ominous locale, Barker next presents the figure doomed to become the title character. Simon McNeil is a 20-year-old medium brought to Tollington Place by “the Essex University Parapsychology Unit.” Simon seems to have been a fortuitous choice, as he records “all but incontrovertible evidence of life after death.” In the throes of contact with the otherworldly, he signs the names of the dead (along with their birth and death dates) on the wall of the attic room he occupies. He doesn’t stop there, though; the wall grows as crowded as one of Barker’s own artistic canvases: “There were obscene drawings and half-finished jokes alongside lines of romantic poetry. A badly drawn rose. A game of noughts and crosses. A shopping list” (3). Containing the names of the famous and the anonymous alike, this “wailing wall” is “a roll-call of the dead, and it was growing day by day, as though word of mouth was spreading amongst the lost tribes, and seducing them out of silence to sign this barren room with their sacred presence. Although Simon’s “ghost-writings” (4) will be exposed as fakery a page later, Barker’s own reverence for the numinous is incontrovertible here. The “lost tribes” phrase even anticipates his fondly depicted monsters in Cabal/Nightbreed.
Following the presentation of Simon, the narrative then introduces the professor in charge of the psychic research project, Doctor Mary Florescu. Simultaneously mourning the loss of her husband and mooning over the young, handsome Simon (to recall the terms of the story’s opening: her heart is “close to bursting”), Mary renders herself susceptible to an incredible vision:
The world was opening up: throwing her senses into an ecstasy, coaxing them into a wild confusion of functions. She was capable, suddenly, of knowing the world as a system, not of politics or religions, but as a system of senses, a system that spread out from the living flesh to the inert wood of her desk, to the stale gold of her wedding ring. 
Barker is a quintessentially sensual writer, and there is no better testament to that fact than this scene. Mary is flush with synesthesia; when her assistant, Fuller, grabs her arm, his hands on her skin “tasted of vinegar” (9). He asks her is she is all right, “his breath like iron.” Mary’s heightened senses also allow her to see right through the ceiling into the attic level of the house, where the masturbating Simon is marked as the “boy-liar” (7). Barker’s penchant for intermixing the ecstatic, the erotic, and the graphic is also evident as Mary glimpses (when the crack between worlds widens) the highway of the dead populated by gory-looking ghosts, “the victims and perpetrators of violence” (8). These disgruntled figures seek redress of Simon’s naked lies: “The ghosts had despaired on the highway a grieving age, bearing the wounds they had died with, and the insanities they had slaughtered with. They had endured [Simon’s] levity and insolence, his idiocies, the fabrications that had made a game of their ordeals. They wanted to speak the truth” (9).
Mary doesn’t falter in the presence of the paranormal, but the same cannot be said of her ironically named assistant. Fuller is devoid of the capacity for the sublime; his inability to behold the marvelous leaves him in the grip of mundane physicality: “The sight killed Fuller in a moment. His mind had no strength to take the panorama in–it could not control the overload that ran through his every nerve. His heart stopped; a revolution overturned the order of his system; his bladder failed, his bowels failed, his limbs shook and collapsed” (10). Fuller drops dead and crosses over to the highway even as the ghosts spill over into Number 65, Tollington Place.
A scene of almost sexual violence, “a kind of rape” (12) is subsequently witnessed by Mary as the ghosts make their vengeful assault on Simon. Scoring and scarring “the hieroglyphics of agony” (13) onto every inch of his skin with “the torturing needles of broken jug-glass” (11), the ghosts’ efforts anticipate the sinister ministrations of the Cenobites in The Hellbound Heart. The deep (some might deem perverted) bonds of love forged between Mary and Simon likewise prefigure the relationship of Julia and Frank in the novella/film adaptation, brooking no supernatural obstacle. At the same time, Barker hearkens back to Bradbury’s “The Illustrated Man,” as Simon’s grueling transformation reminds Mary of “the tattooes she’d seen: freak show exhibits, some of them, others just shirtless laborers in the street with a message to their mothers pricked across their backs. It was not unknown, to write a book of blood” (11).
Simon’s forced embodiment of a collection of (true) ghost stories vindicates Mary’s research interests, but at painful cost. Here is “proof beyond any doubt, and she wished, oh god how she wished, that she had not come by it. And yet, after a lifetime of waiting, here it was: the revelation of life beyond flesh, written in flesh itself” (15). Undaunted by Simon’s monumental damaging, Mary vows to protect him, knowing that henceforth “he would be an object of curiosity at best, and at worst of repugnance and horror.” She also commits herself to this Book of Blood as “his sole translator” for the world at large” (16). Accordingly, at story’s end, Mary leads him, “naked, into the balmy night.”
The closing segment steps back to position “The Book of Blood” as general prologue to the various narratives that follow: “Here then are the stories written on the Book of Blood. Read, if it pleases you, and learn.” The contents of the collection will draw “a map of that dark highway that leads out of life towards unknown destinations.” Most people fortunately will end up dying peacefully, but “for a few, a chosen few, the horrors will come, skipping to fetch them off to the highway of the damned.” The narrator insists: “So read. Read and learn.” But such commandment is not given in the interest of stern moralizing. The lessons to be learned throughout the Books of Blood are not the traditionally conservative ones of the horror genre, where transgression is simply punished and the taboo abjected. Instead, readers will learn to interact with the fantastic, to embrace the forbidden. Finally, Barker hardly seems to have reader safety foremost in mind when he concludes by observing: “It’s best to be prepared for the worst after all, and to learn to walk before breath runs out.” This exercise in macabre wit makes for a perfect pair with the wonderfully graphic epigraph to the volume: “Everybody is a book of blood; wherever we’re opened, we’re red.”
“The Book of Blood” forms a strong frame for Barker’s six-volume series (arguably the greatest story/novella collection in the history of the horror genre). It is also an immensely effective narrative in and of itself, one that puts Barker’s visionary gifts–and exquisite prose–on full display.
Barker, Clive. “The Book of Blood.” Clive Barker’s Books of Blood. Vol. 1. New York: Berkeley Publishing Group, 1984. 1-16.