[To read the previous countdown post, click here.]
12. “The Skins of the Fathers” (from Vol. 2)
Appropriately, the desert procession of “monumental creatures” at the start of the story is considered by the viewpoint character “a carnival of some sort,” because Barker’s approach here in “The Skins of the Fathers” is nothing less than carnivalesque. Societal norms are upended and genre expectations are challenged: the narrative–which reads like a prequel to Cabal–clearly favors the so-called monsters over their human antagonists (the intolerant inhabitants of the ironically-named community of Welcome, Arizona, whose sheriff is a “hick-town Mussolini” leading an “army of mean-minded, well-armed people” on a lynching mission against the demonized “savages”). Barker relishes the opportunity to describe the Fathers’ “extraordinary anatomies” and to depict instances of incredible metamorphosis, but he also concludes with one of the most horrifying and unforgettable set pieces in the Books of Blood canon. The overbearing humans get cast down into the literal muck, as the Fathers-induced “rising mire” engulfs the militants and then promptly concretizes. Those who are trapped with parts of their upper bodies exposed become unwilling participants in a terrible tableau (the labels given them–the Torso, the Head, the Mouth–suggest a reduction to the status of freakshow exhibit). They might have escaped asphyxiation, but their partial burial leaves them in an unenviable situation: before help could be fetched from Welcome, “the wilderness would have had the best of them. The sun would have boiled their brain-pans dry, snakes would have nested in their hair, the buzzards would have hooked out their helpless eyes.” In this scene of Boschean nightmare, the human devils get their due.
11. “Son of Celluloid” (from Vol. 3)
Barker’s penchant for using the base of crime narrative as a springboard to dark fantasy is once again in perfect evidence. Barberio, a bullet-wounded and unwittingly cancer-riddled escaped prisoner, holes up in a secret niche behind the screen of a Movie Palace; as he dies, the air around him–supercharged by the emotional energy moviegoers have projected toward the film screen over the years–catalyzes his cancer sells and revives him as the titular mutant. Like some glamor-wearing vampire, the Son of Celluloid cloaks himself in movie images and draws vitality from rapt/entrapped viewers: “I need to be looked at, or I die,” he admits. “It’s the natural state of illusions.” The result is one wildly visual (in a perfect world, David Cronenberg would have adapted Barker’s novella as an episode of Masters of Horror) and unabashedly visceral tale. In its guise as Marilyn Monroe, the monster stashes a previous victim’s eyes inside the starlet’s most private part; in its true state, this “dreaming disease” is the epitome of grotesquerie (“It was a filthy thing, a tumor grown fat on wasted passion. A parasite with the shape of a slug, and the texture of raw liver….it brought to mind something aborted, a bucket case.”). There’s substance to go with all the splatter, though, as seen in the story’s jab at Westerns. Harassed by the Son of Celluloid in the form of John Wayne, the character Ricky reacts: “This face, so mockmanly, so uncompromising, personified a handful of lethal lies–about the glories of America’s frontier origins, the morality of swift justice, the tenderness in the heart of brutes.” Nevertheless, a sense of celebration overshadows critique; Barker’s cinephilia (and wit) is splashed all across the page (my favorite moment is when the bogey quotes Bogie–“Here’s looking at you, kid”–as it manifests as “a single vast eye”). The author appears to have had great fun scripting “Son of Celluloid,” creating a delightful frightfest that fans can devour like a heaping tub of buttered popcorn.
10. “In the Flesh” (from Vol. 5, In the Flesh).
The mundane is invaded by dark marvel, as the Pentonville prison becomes the site of “spiraling nightmare.” A narrow jail cell proves no safe haven from otherworldly phantoms, as well as a portal to a bizarre dream city in a desert wasteland (the “assemblage of charnel houses” is gradually revealed to be a “murderers’ metropolis”–a hellish realm where dead criminals are forced to occupy the rooms where their violent deeds were committed, and to ruminate on their mortal sins). New inmate Billy Tait, a nascent shapeshifter, has come to Pentonville hoping to make supernatural contact with his notorious grandfather Edgar, a multiple murderer who was executed and buried on the prison grounds years earlier. No willing tutor, though, the ancestral convict instead runs a con game, duping his grandson into taking his place in the necropolis so Edgar can escape into reincarnation. Billy’s cell mate, the protagonist Cleve, doesn’t fare much better. His visits to the dream city haunt him (dooming him to take up eventual residence there) even after he wins his release from Pentonville, because he’s now sensitive to the populace’s omnipresent bloodthirst: “They were everywhere, these embryonic killers, people wearing smart clothes and sunny expressions were striding the pavement and imagining, as they strode, the deaths of their employers and their spouses, of soap-opera stars and incompetent tailors. The world had murder on its mind, and [Cleve] could no longer bear its thoughts.” The novella both hearkens back to “The Book of Blood” (“I read somewhere: The dead have highways,” Billy tells Cleve. “You ever hear that? Well…they have cities, too.”) and looks forward, in its concerns with crime and punishment, with infernal debt and its discharge, to The Damnation Game. Sinister-toned and creepy to the extreme, “In the Flesh” constitutes a masterwork of horripilation.