[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.