Skin Fic: Clive Barker’s Books of Blood Tales, Ranked–#2

[To read yesterday’s countdown post, click here.]

 

2. “Dread” (from Vol. 2)

Volume 2’s lead story announces its central theme in its opening sentence: “There’s no delight the equal of dread” (“As long as it is someone else’s,” the narrative amendment is made a few pages later). The university student Quaid is obsessed with the concept; as he tells classmate Stephen Grace, “It’s the subject of any worthwhile philosophy, Stephen. It’s the things we fear, because we don’t understand them. It’s the dark behind the door.” Like a latter-day mad scientist, Quaid proceeds to engage in a series of fiendish experiments. The devout vegetarian Cheryl is locked in a room for days with a piece of meat that steadily grows more flyblown and putrescent: “The longer she waits to eat, the more disgusted she becomes with what she’s been given to feed on. She’s trapped with her own horror of meat on the one hand, and her dread of dying on the other.” Quaid proves a sadistic predator who “teaches people dread” not to help them deal with their deepest, darkest fears but rather to serve his selfish interests as an observer. “To live another’s dread vicariously was the safest, cleverest way to touch the beast,” Quaid maintains, and thus waits “like a carrion bird at the site of some atrocity, counting the minutes left to the expiring soul, hoping for a morsel.” For all his composed demeanor, Quaid is himself riddled with dread, and torments others in search of “a clue to the nature, to the origin, or to the cure for the panic that now held him in thrall.” But Quaid suffers an ironic, Frankensteinian fate, as he’s confronted by the very monster he creates. He confines Stephen (who as a child lost his hearing and experienced night terrors of being “a prisoner of deaf, blind flesh”) and subjects him to sensory deprivation, but Stephen’s sanity soon snaps. Stephen returns with a vengeance in the climax, “transformed into the image of [Quaid’s] own dread”: a clown-costumed axe-murderer. Watching Quaid receive gruesome comeuppance is doubtless satisfying, but this does not simply erase his preceding reign of terror–the mental and emotional havoc wreaked on innocent people because of “the depravity of his intellect.” The probing, provocative “Dread” lingers in the reader’s mind long after its conclusion, and stands as the most naturalistic, and nightmarishly plausible, horror story in the Books of Blood canon.

Skin Fic: Clive Barker’s Books of Blood Tales, Ranked–#3

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

The countdown is almost complete: over the course of the next three days, I will reveal my top three choices for the most horrific entries in Clive Barker’s Books of Blood collection. Taking the bronze:

3. “In the Hills, the Cities” (from Vol. 1)

Mick and Judd, a pair of lovers on a sightseeing tour of Yugoslavia, get more than they bargained for when they stumble upon the “ancient and ceremonial battle” held in the “secret hills” once every decade. The citizens of Popolac and Podujevo gather together to make “a body out of their bodies”; they turn the expression “to have your head in the clouds” into “a living proverb” by constructing opposing “flesh-knitted giant[s].” Barker emphasizes the sublimity, the “terrible majesty” of each “masterpiece of human engineering” (“There was food in its belly…there were pipes from the loins, to take away the waste. The best-sighted sat in the eye sockets, the best voiced in the mouth and throat.” Rooted in “awe,” Mick and Judd “could see the intertwined people that made up the body: the backs like turtles packed together to offer the sweep of the pectorals; the lashed and knotted acrobats at the joints of the arms and the legs alike, rolling and unwinding to articulate the city.”). Still, a Goyaesque vision devolves into a Boschean nightmare, a “Hell” on earth littered with nearly 40,000 dead and dying bodies after a biomechanical flaw in the flank of Podujevo spreads a “cancer of chaos” that sends the “colossus” toppling (Popolac is driven mad by the sight of its counterpart’s devastating dissolution, and turns and flees–a psychotic human kaiju, a rampaging “monster” trampling the countryside). The story’s political allegory is overt (“It is the body of the state,” Vaslav, the contest’s referee, tells Mick and Judd, “it is the shape of our lives”), as Barker critiques the Communist crush of the individual: “Locked in their positions, strapped, roped, and harnessed into a living system that allowed for no living voice to be louder than any other, nor any back to labor less than its neighbor’s, they let an insane consensus replace the tranquil voice of reason.” Despite its supreme body count, “In the Hills, the Cities” (a tale perhaps best categorized as dark, visionary fantasy) isn’t quite the most horrific piece collected in the Books of Blood, but it is without doubt the most incredibly imaginative and unforgettable.

 

Fright Manual: Five Great Hand-Themed Horror Stories

Hands have figured prominently throughout the cinematic history of the horror film, but what about in horror fiction? Here’s a handful of short stories likely to leave readers with sweaty palms. (A few disclaimers: the list is confined to human hands–hence no raising of “The Monkey’s Paw”–and leaves out Clive Barker’s superlative story “The Body Politic,” only because I have already addressed that piece in a recent Countdown post.)

 

1. “The Flayed Hand” by Guy de Maupassant (1875)

Not the first horror story focused on a Hand of Glory, and certainly not the last, but no doubt one of the most frightful ever penned. The character Pierre is way too flippant about the morbid relic he has obtained from the effects of a recently deceased sorcerer, laughingly hanging the titular appendage as the handle of his door-bell. Naturally, Pierre comes to regret his error, as he’s subjected to some heavy-handed supernatural vengeance.

 

2. “Hands” by Sherwood Anderson (1919)

This quietly haunting story–the first in Anderson’s “Book of the Grotesque” that comprises Winesburg, Ohio–veers toward the American Gothic rather than outright horror. The eccentric Wing Biddlebaum, “forever frightened and beset by a ghostly band of doubts,” is noted throughout Winesburg for his nervous hand gestures. He also has a fear of physically contacting others with his hands, and when the cause for Wing’s strange behavior is at last revealed, the end result is a tale of an angry mob’s rush to judgement and the warping effects of frustrated self-expression.

 

3. “Survivor Type” by Stephen King (1982)

Richard Pine, a heroin-smuggling ex-surgeon who finds himself shipwrecked on a remote island, goes to the most extreme lengths to survive: wounded and wracked by hunger, he resorts to amputation and auto-cannibalism. Pine’s journal entries continually emphasize the need to take care of his hands (integral to his professional life, and now his means of keeping himself alive via grim surgery), but desperation and madness drive him to bite the hand that feeds him. The ghoulish final line of this gory piece is worthy of the cackling Crypt-Keeper.

 

4. “Minutes” by Norman Partridge (1994)

This short-short is long on creepiness: a terrified wife awakens at midnight to the repeating sequence of a booming slam, a scream, and squelching against the bedroom windowpane. The climactic reveal furnishes a natural and psychologically-plausible answer to the mystery, and forms a cringe-worthy instance of hand trauma. Partridge has written deftly about hands elsewhere (“Red Right Hand,” “Dead Man’s Hand”), but the dreadful imagery/incident here has stayed with me for many years.

 

5. “City in Aspic” by Conrad Williams (2001)

While Williams claims the classic horror film Don’t Look Now as a primary inspiration, de Maupassant’s story cited above can also be detected as an influence here. An off-season hotel security guard keeps finding lost gloves during his sojourns through wintry Venice. The discoveries coincide with a series of vicious murders in which the victim has been left with a skinned left hand. Veteran ghost-story readers will likely anticipate the climactic plot twist, but the fun resides in getting there, thanks to Williams’s chillingly atmospheric prose.

 

Later: A Review of Stephen King’s Latest

Stephen King’s publications with Hard Case Crime have been a mixed effort. The first novel, 2005’s The Colorado Kid, proved frustratingly inconclusive (and not very hard-boiled). 2013’s Joyland, a coming-of-age-type narrative involving ghostly apparitions and murder at a summertime amusement park, made for a much more representative King showing. The author’s third Hard Case novel, though, stands as an instant classic.

Later is narrated by Jamie Conklin, a 22-year-old reflecting back on incidents from his youth. Jamie was born with a very special ability to see dead people, but not in any facile, Sixth Sense type of way. The dead appear to him more solid-looking than spectral (sporting the clothes they died in, and sometimes the fatal wounds they incurred), and can hold conversations with him. This paranormal gift is both a blessing and a curse, helping Jamie and his single-mom Tia solve problems but also leading to dire predicaments. Part of the fun of the novel is the way King carefully establishes the rules of interaction with the dead, then complicates them significantly when one particularly menacing revenant refuses to fade into the hereafter.

The novel presents a seamless mix of crime and the supernatural. A serial bomber, a sadistic drug lord, and a femme fatale in the form of a crooked cop number amongst the cast. From the outset, Jamie insists that he is telling a horror story, and the subsequent narrative gives zero reason to doubt him. There are deadly images here (both natural and supernatural) guaranteed to haunt the reader just as they have Jamie.

King reinforces his reign as America’s consummate storyteller (his mastery allows a complex narrative to unfold fluidly and realistically). The retrospective nature of the tale (foregrounded by the title and reiterated by Jamie) enables King to trail precisely-placed breadcrumbs of suspense throughout. Featuring engaging characters and a compelling premise, the book is a quintessential page-turner. There’s an added intimacy (not to mention a succinctness) when King writes fiction in the first person, and this novel draws readers in with its narrative magic as easily as do The Body, The Mist, and Dolores Claiborne.

Not surprisingly for a novel in which one of the characters (Jamie’s mom) is a literary agent, Later makes plentiful references to other books and authors. Ghost stories by M.R. James and Charles Dickens are invoked, as is Bram Stoker’s vampire opus Dracula. But the greatest treat for Constant Readers is the intertextual connection (as the back cover copy alerts) that King weaves with his own classic work It.

Reminiscent of recent publications like The Outsider and the title novella of If It Bleeds, this book will greatly appeal to those who enjoy dark crime that shades off into horror. Later is a novel that King fans can’t pick up soon enough.

 

 

Just Added: Macabre Follows

I’ve just added a new page to the header menu: Macabre Follows. It is an annotated, hyperlinked list of online places (websites, blogs, podcasts, etc.) that lovers of horror and the Gothic will be thrilled to visit on a continuing basis.

Such cataloging is an ongoing project, and I am sure I will be adding to the page over time. I also welcome recommendations from readers of this blog (feel free to make your suggestions in the Comments section below, or to communicate them to me through the Contact form.

I hope this new page helps lead you down some delightfully dark pathways…

The Eight Greatest Openers/Clinchers in Clive Barker’s Books of Blood

The final installment of the Books of Blood countdown will be posted in the coming days. In the meantime, here are my choices for the eight best openings and closings in the collection.

 

Openers

The dead have highways.
–“The Book of Blood” (Vol. 1)

Why the Powers (long may they hold court; long may they shit light on the heads of the damned) had sent it out from Hell to stalk Jack Polo, the Yattering couldn’t discover.
–“The Yattering and Jack” (Vol. 1)

There is no delight the equal of dread.
–“Dread” (Vol. 2)

He had been flesh once. Flesh, and bone, and ambition. But that was an age ago, or so it seemed, and the memory of that blessed state was fading fast.
–“Confessions of a (Pornographer’s) Shroud” (Vol. 3)

Whenever he woke, Charlie George’s hands stood still.
–“The Body Politic” (Vol. 4)

The burning man propelled himself down the steps of the Hume Laboratories as the police car–summoned, he presumed, by the alarm either Welles or Dance had set off upstairs–appeared at the gate and swung up the driveway.
–“The Age of Desire” (Vol. 4)

Like a flawless tragedy, the elegance of which structure is lost upon those suffering in it, the perfect geometry of the Spector Street Estate was visible only from the air.
–“The Forbidden” (Vol. 5)

Wyburd looked at the book, and the book looked back. Everything he’d ever been told about the boy was true.
–“The Book of Blood–(A Postscript): On Jerusalem Street” (Vol. 6)

 

Clinchers

The city would go about its business in ignorance: never knowing what it was built upon, or what it owed its life to. Without hesitation, Kaufman fell to his knees and kissed the dirty concrete with his bloody lips, silently swearing his eternal loyalty to its continuance.
The Palace of Delights received the adoration without comment.
–“The Midnight Meat Train” (Vol. 1)

Then the sow smiled, and Redman felt, though he had believed himself numb, the first shock of pain as Lacey’s teeth bit off a piece from his foot, and the boy clambered, snorting, up his savior’s body to kiss out his life.
–“Pig Blood Blues” (Vol. 1)

“I told you to look at me,” said Hell, and went its bitter way, leaving him standing there, a fine paradox for the democrats to find when they came, bustling with words, into the Palace of Westminster.
–“Hell’s Event” (Vol. 2)

The sea has long since washed the plate clean of its leavings. Angela, the “Emmanuelle,” and Jonathan, are gone. Only we drowned belong here, face up, under the stones, soothed by the rhythm of tiny waves and the absurd incomprehension of sheep.
–“Scape-Goats” (Vol. 3)

“The Devil made me do it,” Virginia replied, gazing up at the moon and putting on the craziest smile she could muster.
–“Revelations” (Vol. 4)

He went away content, knowing at last how sin (and he) had come into the world.
–“In the Flesh” (Vol. 5)

He opened his mouth and shouted into the whirlpool, as the light grew and grew, an anthem in praise of paradox.
–“The Madonna” (Vol. 5)

Things came and went away; that was a kind of magic. And in between? Pursuits and conjurings, horrors, guises. The occasional joy.
That there was room for joy, ah! that was magic too.
–“The Last Illusion” (Vol. 6)

 

Lore Report: “On the Line” (Episode 165)

But there’s one place in the world that straddles more than just two cultures. It also manages to walk the line between the past and the present in a powerful way, no matter how tragic or horrifying that past might be.  And if you’re up for it, I’s like to take you there. Because the places where two worlds collide can also be the most frightening.

The Lore podcast tour of world folklore continues in episode 165 with a visit to the Channel Islands. Host Aaron Mahnke begins with a historical-background sketch that includes some surprising pieces of information, such as the Nazi occupation of the islands (and establishment of concentration camps there) during World War II. Throughout the episode, Mahnke posits the Channel Islands (located between Great Britain and Normandy) is a liminal space in more than a geographical sense. Focusing on the island of Guernsey, he recounts tales of fairy banquet tables, supernatural black dogs, and ghostly nocturnal screams along the beachfront. The most compelling story, though, is the concluding one, concerning a curious object known as the Rock That Sings and the deadly curse associated with it. Easily entertaining, “On the Line” is an episode that warrants prime placement in the listener’s queue.

 

Mob Scene: “Jerry’s Kids Meet Wormboy”

The mob scene as splatterpunk extravaganza…

Amongst other things, zombies speak to the basic human fear of the mob, of being individually outnumbered by the ill-intentioned. But such an encounter can be dramatized with wicked wit, as witnessed in David J. Schow’s 1989 story, “Jerry’s Kids Meet Wormboy” (collected in Zombie Jam). It’s one of the most famous–and outrageous–pieces of zombie fiction ever written, featuring a 400-pound survivor of the apocalypse (who lives to feast on undead flesh) and an evangelical preacher leading a rotten congregation of Born-Agains (who are controlled via voodoo-like doses of rattlesnake venom).

The climactic showdown, as the Right Reverend Jerry directs his flock to attack Wormboy’s heavily-fortified graveyard stronghold, is an absolute carnival of carnage (consider this grotesque nugget, as Wormboy shoots the zombie dubbed Barf Eater for its particularly indiscriminate palate: “Its limbs stiffened straight as hydrostatic pressure blew its head apart into watermelon glop. Then it came undone altogether, collapsing into a mound of diarrheic putrescence that bubbled and flowed around the pipework.”). What prevents the action from becoming submerged in the sophomoric is Schow’s sheer stylistic verve, his wordplay and unabashedly vivid imagery. Even as Jerry works at “rousing the rabble” with his Bible thumping, the reverend’s rhetoric is countered by the narrative’s consistently irreverent/ironic tone. Jerry gets a nasty surprise when he verbally and physically tries to urge one of his holy soldiers “Onward!”: “The flat of his hand met all the resistance of cold oatmeal. A cow patty had more tensile strength and left less mess.” When Wormboy (armed with enough weaponry to outfit a whole squad of monster-hunting angry villagers) guns down one of Jerry’s decomposing deacons, “Something fist-sized and mulchy smacked Jerry’s shoulder and blessed it with a smear of yellow.” Nevertheless, the Born-Agains continue their pursuit of the morbidly obese Wormboy: “The closer the congregation staggered to the graveyard, the better they could smell this sinner, and his fatted calves.”

There’s probably nothing I can write here, though, that adequately captures the manic energy and macabre fireworks on display in this extended sequence. Amidst all the splatter, the scene offers critical commentary on religious fervor and unchecked appetite alike. As seen in the story “The Thing Too Hideous to Describe” (which I covered in a previous post), Schow is no stranger to intelligent variations on the angry-villagers motif, and “Jerry’s Kids Meet Wormboy” forms another unforgettable example of a mob scene.

 

Some More Gore D’oeuvres

In honor of tomorrow night’s return of The Walking Dead on AMC, here are five new pieces of zombie haiku that I have added to my previous “Small Bites” post in the Publications/Free Reads section.

 

Unfit Bit

Never enough steps.
Tracked down by a cadaver.
Measureless progress.

 

Shakespearean Tragedy

Merchants of menace.
All-too-pursuant Shylocks
Exact pounds of flesh.

 

Morning Death

Gross halitosis,
Like something died in his mouth.
His pecked bedmate does.

 

Unhealthy Skepticism

News reports dismissed:
Nothing but a can of bull.
Now: a cannibal.

 

Nights of the Walking Dead

Carnage as homage.
Romero-ghoul Easter eggs,
Nicotero-dyed.

 

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.