Skin Fic: Clive Barker’s Books of Blood Tales, Ranked–#6, #5, #4

[To read the previous countdown post, click here.]

 

6. “The Forbidden” (from Vol. 5, In the Flesh)

This tale of inner-city squalor proves harrowing long before the supernatural element shows up (or before the setting gets transplanted to Cabrini Green in the Candyman film adaptation). With its “drear canyons” and “grimy corridors,” its infestation by rats and “pharaoh ants,” its devastation by vandalism and crime, the Spector Street Estate housing development is an absolute urban nightmare. But it’s the omnipresent graffiti, not to mention the narratives of “murder and mutilation” shared by local residents, that catches the attention of grad-student protagonist Helen. Because the Candyman character (thanks in large part to actor Tony Todd’s portrayal) has been ensconced in the horror-monster pantheon, it is easy to forget that Barker’s original story develops much of its tension from the figure’s doubtful existence (as Helen wrestles with the question of whether she has stumbled onto an insular world of urban legend). Ultimately, Helen pays for her skepticism: “He was legend, and she, in disbelieving him, had obliged him to show his hand.” Assisted by his conspiratorial “congregation” of fearful worshippers at Spector Street, the hook-handed, beehived grotesque manifests to Helen and seductively seeks to make her “immortal in gossip and graffiti.” The “screaming man” turns out to be much more than a terrifying wall portrait, and his successful victimization of Helen in the fiery climax echoes the conclusion of the classic film The Wicker Man. A haunting work of mounting dread, “The Forbidden” also forms a metafictional reflection on the purpose and import of horror stories.

 

5. “The Book of Blood” (from Vol. 1)

This general prologue to the Books of Blood combines Bradburian carnival darkness with stunning Boschian vision. I’ve already written extensively on the story (for my “Anatomy of a Weird Tale” feature), so rather than encapsulate here, I will just link readers to that blog post.

 

4. “The Body Politic” (from Vol. 4, The Inhuman Condition)

Barker begins this mind-blowing piece with a fiendish premise: our body parts possess their own “secret lives” and sentience. Human hands become plotters of rebellion against the biological collective, seeking not to take up arms but instead to amputate themselves from them. It’s an arresting development when one stops to consider it; as the comrades Left and Right communicate: “A man resists with his hands. His hands will be in revolution against him.” The manual antics steadily escalate from testicle-squeezing, throat-strangling, and mouth-suffocating to grisly declarations of independence (woe to anyone who stumbles within reach of a kitchen knife). Bodily bedlam ensues as the five-fingered beasts amass new recruits (the scene in which a YMCA is overrun is one of the great set pieces in the entire Books of Blood). Besides offering a fantastic literalization of the “body-in-rebellion syndrome,” the story also probes the underlying dread of disease onset and spread, as seen when the beleaguered protagonist Charlie frets about “this cancer at his wrist.” “The Bodily Politic” is a bold testament to Barker’s mastery as a scare scribe, showcasing his unique ability to bring intelligence to the splatter narrative. Lesser authors likely would have reduced the proceedings to bloody farce, but in Barker’s deft hands the tale is shaped into a wild and witty critique of tyranny, messianism, and violent revolt alike.

 

The Spider Inside

Arachnophobes beware: Stephen Graham Jones’s story “Hairy Legs and All” (published in this month’s issue of Nightmare magazine) will make your skin crawl. Jones takes an act as mundane as slipping on a shoe found in the back of a closet, and turns it into an inciting moment of terror. The narrative’s impact is heightened by its structure: most of the 1500-word story is comprised of a single run-on sentence that creates a frightful sense of immediacy (in his Author’s Spotlight interview on the piece, Jones aptly describes it as “a burst of a moment, a string of clauses, a word snowball rolling faster and faster downhill, getting larger and worse”). And just when the reader might think that matters couldn’t possibly get any more nightmarish, the author offers a climactic twist that posits a fate even more awful than the one anticipated. Highly recommended for fans of short-form horror in general, and of Jones’s literary magnificence in particular.

 

Lore Report: “Loyal Companion” (Episode 164)

But not every animal companion has been viewed as friendly. And if you dig through the past long enough, you’re bound to uncover a surprising fact. For one short chapter of human history, animals were seen as something more: some, it seems, were servants of the devil.

Episode 164 of the Lore podcast goes to the dogs (and cats and birds and rabbits). The topic is witches’ familiars–supernatural creatures believed to provide assistance/protection to practitioners of magic. Host Aaron Mahnke gives a fine overview of such otherworldly figures before bringing the discussion out of the realm of pure folklore and showing how (alleged) familiars have played an integral role in historical events. Mahnke details how familiars factored into the infamous Salem Witchcraft Trials (somewhat surprisingly, no reference is made to the cat Salem in The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina), but he devotes most of the narrative focus to British examples (including a nobleman’s dog demonized by printing press propaganda during the English Civil War). A well-structured and fast-moving episode, “Loyal Companion” serves up a real treat to faithful followers of the podcast.

 

Skin Fic: Clive Barker’s Books of Blood Tales, Ranked–#9, #8, #7

[To read the previous countdown post, click here.]

 

9. “The Midnight Meat Train” (from Vol. 1)

With its body-as-meat conceit (a killer working like “efficient abattoir operative” turns hapless passengers into “shaved, bled, slit slabs of humanity…ripe for devouring”), this is arguably Barker’s most splatterpunk piece in the Books of Blood. But the narrative presents several other facets before the carnage starts. On one level, “The Midnight Meat Train” functions as a satiric critique of pre-Giuliani New York City, a den of depravity that, from the perspective of disillusioned protagonist Leon Kaufman, is “no Palace of Delights. It bred death, not pleasure.” Urban political corruption is also underscored, as the city fathers allegedly endeavoring to bring the tabloid-dubbed Subway Killer to justice secretly sanction his crimes: “Mahogany was a protected man, above every law on the statute books.” The middle section of the story (Kaufman gradually realizes he is trapped on the titular vehicle with a serial butcher, hurtling through the dark towards unimaginable atrocity) is a tour de force of suspense. And the extended climax piles up the shocks, starting with the revelation of the gods/monsters who constitute the true City Fathers–gross, Morlockian gormandizers who have charged Mahogany with serving up New Yorkers as provender. Matters turn positively Lovecraftian when Kaufman catches glimpse of the cyclopean marvel that is the Father of Fathers. Tapping into tourist terrors of getting lost in the metropolitan labyrinth and into native lore of mole people lurking in the city’s subterranean tunnels, “The Midnight Meat Train” does for subway riding what Psycho did for showering and Jaws did for swimming.

 

8. “Scape-Goats” (from Vol. 3)

Here’s a tale that evinces the stern morality of an 80’s slasher film. A pair of couples given to hard drinking and loveless screwing pay for their transgressions when they end up beached on a desolate, uncharted islet in the Inner Hebrides. Barker creates a thick atmosphere of dread via an accretion of unnerving details. The surrounding waters sport “a slick film of algae, like sweat on a skull”; the air presents a smell “as wholesome as a roomful of rotting peaches, thick and sickly….A smell like an open drain clogged with old meat: like the gutters of a slaughter house, caked with suet and black blood.” The land itself is littered with oddly unsettled pebbles, but perhaps the strangest aspect of the whole scene is the sight of a trio of miserable sheep imprisoned by barbed-wire fencing. The castaways eventually discover that they’ve landed on a burial mound for wartime drowning victims (and that the sheep have been penned there as a memorial offering), but only after Jonathan–in a fit of drunken savagery–bludgeons one of the animals to death. Nautical hell breaks loose, and the vengeful kills form horrific spectacles. A flying stone sheers off the top of Jonathan’s head, “from the middle of his nose upwards, leaving his mouth still wide, his tongue rooted in blood, and flinging the rets of his beauty towards [his lover Frankie] in a cloud of wet red dust.” A barrage of rocks knock Angela’s body into “small enough pieces to accommodate a shrimp’s palate.” When Frankie tries to escape on the island-warden’s rowboat, she is attacked by a “shoal of corpses” that now includes her battered friend Ray, “spilling threads of severed nerves from his empty eye socket like the tentacles of a tiny squid.” Frankie proves no final girl, but her first-person narration does allow her to describe the “sea change” that leaves her scoured and scarred, bloated and fish-nibbled. At once exceedingly eerie and grimly visceral, “Scape-Goats” fits perfectly with the framing device of the Books of Blood–the idea that these are stories told by restless revenants.

 

7. “The Last Illusion” (from Vol. 6)

In this first appearance of Barker’s recurring character Harry D’Amour, the occult detective is hired to “corpse-sit” the body of the master magician Swann until it can be successfully cremated (only later does D’Amour discover the depths of intrigue complicating the situation: the forces of the Gulfs are hellbent on claiming the deceased Swann, for attempting to renege on their Faustian pact, and for daring to pass off the black magic arts gifted to him “as mere illusions” in his stage act). Barker invokes William Peter Blatty, as D’Amour is haunted by a previous encounter with the Gulfs: an adultery case that took a terrible turn when Mimi Lomax’s lover proved to be a demon in disguise (and who ended up sexually assaulting D’Amour’s exorcist associate: “Six hours they’d sat–Mimi occasionally breaking the silence with laughter or gibberish–and the first Harry had known of [the demon’s] return was the smell of cooking excrement, and Mimi’s cry of “‘Sodomite!’ as [Father] Hesse surrendered to an act his faith had long forbidden him.”). Echoes of Bradbury also can be discerned in the dark carnival of devils D’Amour must deal with, who are wont to transform their victims into human instruments and who arrive on the scene “like a drunken jazz band extemporizing on bagpipes, a wheezing, rambling cacophony.” Numbering amongst the demonic monstrosities are the Castrato (“a mountain of a man with the belly and the breasts of a Neolithic Venus. But the fire in its body had twisted it out of true, breaking out through its palms and its navel, burning its mouth and nostrils into one ragged hole. It had, as its name implied, been unsexed; from that hole too, light spilled”) and the Repartee (“its half-dozen limbs moving in oiled and elaborate configurations to pierce the walls of the staircase and so haul itself up. It brought to mind a man on crutches, throwing the sticks ahead of him and levering his weight after, but there was nothing invalid in the thunder of its body, no pain in the white eye that burned in its sickle head”). Combining tempting femmes, false appearances, and questionable allegiances with harrowing antagonists and stunning supernatural action, “The Last Illusion” seamlessly melds the hard-boiled and the horrific. Unfortunately overshadowed by its film adaptation (Barker’s most disappointing directorial effort, the misguided and miscast Lord of Illusions), this masterful novella begs for a more faithful remake.

 

Super Bowl Burton

Meet Edgar Scissorhands…

Airing during tonight’s Super Bowl, Cadillac’s “Scissorhands 2” commercial features the handy son of Winona Ryder’s Kim Boggs character. The 90-second ad packs in a lot of witty gags in the vein of the classic film. Tim Burton fans are big winners tonight!

 

Lore Report: “Persistence” (Episode 163)

The written language. The light bulb. Space Travel. We people are a lot of things, but persistent is at the top of the list. But every quality has a darker side. Yes, our refusal to give up might have empowered our growth as a species, but it’s also driven us to do things that aren’t as easy to brag about. Because sometimes that persistence has turned us into monsters.

A favorite topic of the Lore podcast is picked up again in Episode 163: the witchcraft trial. Host Aaron Mahnke takes us back to the Massachusetts town of Newbury circa 1680, where a farmer named Caleb Powell (who spoke a little too freely of his knowledge of astrology) was arrested as a wizard. Powell was ultimately spared from execution or imprisonment, but then the woman whose family he supposedly bedeviled, Elizabeth Morse, was herself arrested and put on trial as a suspected witch (during the course of the story, Mahnke also delves into the countermagic practice of nailing a horseshoe above a threshold, and shares the purported origins of such superstitious endeavor). The episode’s overarching theme does feel a bit forced (as is the podcast’s wont), “persistence” here referencing the Newbury community’s commitment to persecution. One also might wish that the discussion of the Marblehead-born prophetess Moll Pitcher (whose history proves richer and more interesting than that of Powell and Morse) wasn’t just shoehorned into the concluding segment. Nevertheless, this anecdote-saturated episode (Mahnke spends little time on historical overview before jumping into the tales) requires no persistent struggle; lore-loving listeners will be eager to follow its narrative path.