[To read the previous countdown post, click here.]
21. “The Life of Death” (from Vol. 6)
Barker evokes Poe in this tale centered on death and transgression (a minor character is tellingly named Bernice, while the male antagonist fixates on the female lead Elaine’s “beautiful teeth”). When morbid curiosity causes Elaine to explore an excavated crypt, her investigation triggers a sudden onset of spoilage: “Now, with the violation of this secret chamber, the heat of decay had been rekindled, and the tissues were deteriorating afresh. Everywhere she saw rot at work, making sores and suppurations, blisters and pustules.” The Gothic begets the grotesque, as the underground crypt proves to be a plague pit, and Elaine’s unwitting “pestilential education” turns her into a carrier of deadly disease. The narrative is also ripe with dark irony: the stranger Kavanagh, whom Elaine mistakes for Death personified, ultimately exposes himself as “a common killer, a street corner Cain.” Nevertheless, Elaine’s climactic murder and postmortem violation transforms Kavanagh, elevating the mundane predator into a contagion-spreading Grim Reaper. An unsettling tale in and of itself, “The Life of Death” strikes as even more horrifying when read during the present coronavirus pandemic.
20. “Human Remains” (from Vol. 3)
Arguably the most uncanny story in the Books of Blood canon, as a London street hustler named Gavin sees his looks and his life usurped by a doppelganger (a Roman Britain artifact that turns out to be more than a dead relic). Barker once again displays his facility for melding horror and noir, perhaps best illustrated in the scene where Gavin is accosted by the vicious pimp Preetorius (“Allow me to rearrange your face for you. A little crime of fashion,” the razor-wielder menaces, believing that Gavin is responsible for the bloodletting of one of his male prostitutes). Gavin is saved from mutilation by his double, who savages Preetorius: the trumping of an everyday villain by an extraordinary creature. Gavin considers the thing as a “fantastic vision,” a “painted miracle”; he “begins to see the creature not as a monster terrorizing him, but as his tool, his public persona almost.” The irony, as Barker’s narrative critiques Gavin’s vanity and superficiality, is that the imitation ultimately forms a better specimen than the original (when posed an existential question by his double, “Gavin shrugged. What did he know or care about the fine art of being human?”). All told, “Human Remains” is a fine addition to the tradition of the Gothic doppelganger established by writers like Shelley, Poe, Stevenson, and Wilde.
19. “The Yattering and Jack” (from Vol. 1)
Hands down, the most outrageously funny entry on the countdown. Barker’s variation on the Faustian-pact narrative pits a petulant demon against an infuriatingly stoic Englishman (whose soul was pledged to Hell by his Satan-worshipping mother). The titular (whimsically-named) Yattering no doubt is a perpetrator of “ridiculous horror,” no more evident than in the unforgettable scene in which it sets Jack Polo’s Christmas turkey dancing: “Headless, oozing stuffing and onions, it flopped around as though nobody had told the damn thing it was dead, while the fat still bubbled on its bacon-strewn back.” This is not to say, though, that this tale of a high stakes cat-and-mouse game is devoid of graphic horror. The Yattering spectacularly destroys Jack’s cat after tiring of the animal’s constant nail-sharpening on the nylon carpet: “The noise put the demon’s metaphysical teeth on edge. It looked at the cat once, briefly, and it flew apart as though it had swallowed a live grenade.” This highly entertaining story is noteworthy as one of Barker’s earliest ventures into the lower depths and depictions of the infernal Powers that be (“long may they hold court; long may they shit light on the heads of the damned”).