[To read the previous countdown post, click here.]
18. “Jacqueline Ess: Her Will and Testament” (from Vol. 2)
In the most overtly feminist tale in the Books of Blood, the eponymous housewife attempts to escape “the boredom, the drudgery, the frustration” of her life via suicide; her wrist-slitting fails to prove fatal, but Jacqueline succeeds in developing the paranormal ability to bend/rend flesh with her thoughts. From here, she proceeds to transform her condescending male therapist into a woman, and her adultery-blathering husband Ben is fantastically compressed, “shut up into a space about the size of one of his fine leather suitcases, while blood, bile, and lymphatic fluid pulsed weakly from his hushed body.” The Cronenbergian extreme of body horror, though, is reached when Jacqueline reorganizes her deliberately-abusive, death-wishing lover Titus, “his hands knotted into paws, his legs scooped up around his back, knees broken so he had the look of a four-legged crab, his brain exposed, his eyes lidless, lower jaw broken and swept up over his top jaw like a bulldog, ears torn off, spine snapped, humanity bewitched into another state.” With its erotically-charged and graphic mix of sex and violence, the narrative of Jacqueline Ess (who at one point sprouts “needles she’d made out of her own skin and muscle, like a flesh cactus”) anticipates Barker’s The Hellbound Heart and Hellraiser. The lovestruck Oliver, who grows obsessed with Jacqueline, even voices the proto-Cenobite sentiment that “with her, there were no limits.”
17. “The Inhuman Condition” (from Vol. 4, The Inhuman Condition)
Another narrative forerunner of Hellraiser, with its unnerving vagrant character Pope and its featuring of a puzzle whose solving releases fantastic monsters. Pope initially seems a mere street bum, but gradually emerges as a twisted “priest” after a quartet of thugs harass him, and the least objectionable of them (the protagonist Karney) pockets Pope’s string of knots. The cord itself proves quite uncanny: Karney experiences “a bewildering sensation of intentionality” in it, as the knots find “their surreptitious way into his hand” and begin to tease themselves loose after Karney compulsively plucks at them. Barker’s tale builds in a series of suspenseful set pieces, corresponding with the emergence of each grotesque creature. But for all the bloody mayhem they cause, these monsters ultimately are not painted as villains; that role is reserved for Pope himself, an arcane Cain who has spellbound his own brother in the knots, forcing him to suffer an evolutionary split into “reptile, ape, and child.” And despite his own character flaws, Karney proves a quintessential Barker hero in his determination to transcend banality and embrace the sublime. Recognizing the threat posed by the dark magic embraided in the cord, Karney continues to probe at the puzzle regardless: “just to die a little less ignorant of mysteries than he’d been born” makes the very risk worth taking.
16. “How Spoilers Bleed” (from Vol. 6)
Stephen King’s Thinner meets Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in this harrowing tale of biters bit (or more accurately, spoilers spoiled). A group of racist, land-grabbing Europeans descend upon a native tribe in the Amazon jungle (a confounding locale that, from the invaders’ perspective, threatens to “rot reason altogether”) and end up cursed by a vengeful tribal elder following the fatal shooting of a young Indian boy. The Europeans’ moral corruption is literalized, transformed into a physical disease, as they grow putrescent as overripe fruit. They are ravaged by everything they encounter, no matter how incidental the contact or infinitesimal the object. The innocent rub of his shirt against the murderous Cherrick’s skin chafes “his nerve endings. The shirt might have been sackcloth, the way it abraded him.” A beetle’s “imperceptible tread” on the forehead leaves a “trail of tiny wounds,” and in a climactic bit of spectacular comeuppance, the hapless character Stumpf is scourged by dust motes and skin flakes that hit him like “a hail of minute razors.” There’s message in all this messiness, though, as Barker’s narrative offers cutting remarks on greed and materialism, cultural oppression and genocide.