Clive Interview

Clive Barker is the interview subject for this week’s edition of the podcast Post Mortem with Mick Garris. It is a bit of a shock at first to hear how pronounced the rasp in Clive’s voice has become, but he sounds very enthusiastic, and says that he is in better health these days (which is wonderful news).

During the 75-minute interview, Clive talks about a traumatic incident from his childhood that was a formative influence on his work. His more recent experience of being in a coma is covered (his return to consciousness makes for quite an anecdote). The boundary-pushing writer also addresses the censorship battles he had to fight with editors and publishers over the years. Valuable insight into his drafting process (when working on a novel) is given. Clive and Mick reminisce on their interestingly-premised Mummy film that never got made, and share the news about an upcoming collaborative project. All told, the interview is a real treat, and one that Clive Barker fans will certainly enjoy.

The Scariest Stories Ever

A recent episode of the Lovecraft eZine podcast featured a very interesting topic for genre fans: the panelists discussed their own (as well as their audience’s) choices for “The Scariest Short Stories Ever Written.”

To be sure, such an endeavor is inevitably subjective, contingent on individual trigger points and stylistic preferences (realistic or supernatural horror, quiet or splatterpunk), and influenced by the personal mood and cultural moment in which the tale is first encountered. Accordingly, any citations should be taken in the vein of nomination, not prescription.

With that being said, I’d like to add my own two cents to the discussion with the belated addition of the pair of titles I would choose:

1. The Mist by Stephen King: Yes, I realize that technically this is a novella and not a short story. It is also one harrowing narrative–an environmental disaster turned Lovecraftian apocalypse. King gothicized a seemingly safe space (until that point, the supermarket had been the place to which I happily ventured with my mom to gather weekly treats), besieging it with carnivorous monsters from another dimension, to say nothing of the human fanatics the protagonists find themselves trapped with inside the store. I can remember lying on my bed with my copy of Skeleton Crew as a young teenager, utterly engrossed by the story, when a housefly happened to buzz past my ear. I jumped so high and so hard, I almost dented the ceiling.

2. “Darkness Metastatic” by Sam J. Miller: This transgressive, technophobic tale–which reads like a combination of Chuck Palahniuk and Philip K. Dick–is aptly placed in Nightmare magazine. It concerns an especially nasty piece of malware that is driving people to commit hate crimes and acts of mind-boggling violence. The story is rife with disturbing images (one character threatens to feed a bag of spiders to a captive one by one). The subject matter seems even more insidious based on the piece’s (mid-pandemic) time of publication, when social distancing has driven everyone towards social media. Miller’s account of Americans’ descent into insane incivility perfectly captures the frightful divisiveness gripping the country during the Trump presidency. As a constant reader of horror, I am not easily moved, but have to admit that this one struck a nerve and stuck with me long after.

 

But why stop at two? Here’s a listing of further contenders for the title of “Scariest Story.” I make no claim of exhaustiveness; hundreds of other selections no doubt could be added here. Consider this a starter set of recommended reads rather than the be-all and end-all of superlative horror narratives.

“Going to Meet the Man” by James Baldwin: Baldwin’s unflinching depiction of a lynching sears its way into the reader’s consciousness, and proves that “haunting” is not limited to restless ghosts and remote mansions.

“Rawhead Rex” by Clive Barker: This rampaging-monster/folk-horror tale used unrelenting terror to secure the #1 spot on my recent Books of Blood Countdown.

“Old Virginia” by Laird Barron: The explanation given here for the disappearance of the Roanoke colonists is more terrifying than any real-world theory ever postulated.

“The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood: Don’t be mislead by the innocuous title–this is outdoor horror (and cosmic encroachment) at its finest.

“The Whole Town’s Sleeping” by Ray Bradbury: A late-night journey through a dark ravine surely isn’t a great idea when a serial killer is on the loose. Creepy atmosphere builds towards a shocking clincher.

“The Waxwork” by A.M. Burrage: Uncanniness unparalleled, as a freelance journalist attempts to spend the night in a wax museum’s “Murderers’ Den.”

“Mackintosh Willy” by Ramsey Campbell: Ever since reading this eerie tale, I’ve never been able to enter a park shelter without fear brushing its fingers against my thoughts.

“The Bloody Chamber” by Angela Carter: Carter’s feminist revision of the Beauty and the Beast narrative also works as a quintessential spreader of Gothic terror.

“I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” by Harlan Ellison: The unforgettable title forewarns of the unspeakable horrors in store in this classic tale that takes the technology-run-amok theme to the extreme.

“Home” by Charles L. Grant: The master of quiet, atmospheric horror makes even a simple sandbox and set of swings the stuff of nightmares.

“Best New Horror” by Joe Hill: Hill makes a strong bid for his father’s genre crown with this early–and completely unnerving–story.

“Mr. Dark’s Carnival” by Glen Hirshberg: A gut-punch of a ghost story, set at the most sinister Halloween attraction since Something Wicked This Way Comes.

“The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs: Never has a a knock on the door been more unwelcome than in this ultimate be-careful-what-you-wish-for narrative.

“The Darkest Part” by Stephen Graham Jones: The supernatural, pederastic clown haunting the pages of this story (which packs enough nightmare fuel to power an epic novel) leaves the reader almost pining for Pennywise.

“Gone” by Jack Ketchum: A legend of no-holds-barred horror, Ketchum demonstrates that he can chill just as easily with a more restrained approach, in this Halloween tale of devastating parental grief.

“God of the Razor” by Joe R. Lansdale: Jack the Ripper seems like Jack Tripper compared to the supernatural slasher that Lansdale imagines here.

“Gas Station Carnivals” by Thomas Ligotti: Ligotti’s mesmerizing prose freezes the reader with fear in this tale that stages a dreadful revelation.

“The Shadow Over Innsmouth” by H.P. Lovecraft: For my money, the narrator’s attempt to escape from the Gilman House (and from the clutches of the monstrosities haunting the hotel) constitutes the most harrowing sequence in the entire Lovecraft canon.

“The Great God Pan” by Arthur Machen: The granddaddy of weird tales, replete with human iniquity and terrible incursion by the otherworldly.

“Prey” by Richard Matheson: The written exploits of the bloodthirsty Zuni-warrior doll are arguably even more horrifying than what appears in the Trilogy of Terror film adaptation.

“Yellow Jacket Summer” by Robert R. McCammon: This Southern Gothic take on “It’s a Good Life” did absolutely nothing to alleviate my wasp phobia.

“Orange is for Anguish, Blue for Insanity” by David Morrell: Morrell’s is not the first name that comes to mind when one thinks of cosmic horror, but the author produces an eye-popping example of it here.

“A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor: A family excursion (humorously narrated) takes a sharp left into the macabre, when the murderous Misfit arrives at the scene of a car accident.

“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates: Oates builds narrative suspense to an almost unbearable level, as the reader suspects that there is more than the mere seduction of a teenage girl at stake.

“Guts” by Chuck Palahniuk: Palahniuk’s notorious, unabashedly grotesque story of onanism gone wrong ultimately haunts because its extreme scenes of body horror are all too plausible.

“Lesser Demons” by Norman Partridge: A hard-boiled, post-apocalyptic take on Lovecraft, featuring eldritch wretches born from the bellies of human corpses.

“The Masque of the Red Death” by Edgar Allan Poe: Poe’s colorful plague tale painfully reminds the reader that bloody demise can be the fate of anyone.

“The Autopsy” by Michael Shea: Shea frays the reader’s every last nerve here with surgical precision. I can’t believe this graphic shockfest (first published in 1980) has yet to be adapted as a cinematic feature.

“Iverson’s Pits” by Dan Simmons: A Gettysburg-commemorating ceremony becomes the site of supernatural events that make the horrors of the Civil War seem positively quaint by comparison.

“Sticks” by Karl Edward Wagner: If you didn’t know what a lich was prior to reading this unsettling sylvan tale, you certainly will (never be able to forget) afterward.

“The Walker in the Cemetery” by Ian Watson: “The Mist” meets “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” as a group of tourists in Genoa are preyed upon by a human-sized iteration of Cthulhu (in the role of sadistic slasher/wrathful god).

 

Countdown: Film/TV Adaptations of Clive Barker’s Books of Blood Tales

I’m going to close out my recent coverage of Clive Barker’s Books of Blood collection with a quick countdown of the films and TV works directly adapted from the author’s six-volume masterpiece. So here’s the list, running from worst to best:

 

9. “The Yattering and Jack” (1987)

Really, all anyone needs to know about this Tales from the Darkside episode is that the yattering is represented as a red-painted little person in a dog collar. Barker’s blackly humorous story gets reduced to slapstick (and the infamous turkey scene is poorly translated from the page).

 

8. Quicksilver Highway (1997)

Mick Garris’s made-for-TV anthology film adapts Barker’s classic story “The Body Politic” (along with Stephen King’s “Chattery Teeth”), providing convincing visual proof that some of the ideas in Barker’s fiction don’t lend themselves to the small screen. The army of disembodied hands comes across as a bunch of outcasts from The Addams Family, looking like Thing and squeaking like Cousin Itt. On a positive note, Matt Frewer’s performance offers arguably the best physical comedy by a horror actor not named Bruce Campbell.

 

7. Book of Blood (2009)

Muted and maudlin, this adaptation seems to lose the eyeball kicks of the source text. The pacing also lags at times (“The Book of Blood” prologue is one of the shortest pieces in Barker’s story collection, so significant stretching of its material is required onscreen). A fairly-faithful version of the collection’s “On Jerusalem Street” epilogue, though, does make for an effective ending to the film.

 

6. Dread (2009)

Anthony DiBlasi’s film often feels like it wants to be another Fight Club, with the antagonist Quaid cutting a figure from the Tyler Durden mold. As with the preceding entry on this countdown, Dread suffers from definite pacing issues (it would have been much better suited as a Masters of Horror episode). But also like Book of Blood, it features a terrific ending, one that gives a wickedly clever twist to the dread experiments in Barker’s story.

 

5. Lord of Illusions (1995)

One of the most disappointing adaptations, considering that Barker directed it himself, and that “The Last Illusion” is one of the strongest pieces in the story collection. Pedestrian actor Scott Bakula is spectacularly miscast as occult detective Harry D’Amour. Worse, the menagerie of demonic monsters in the original narrative get jettisoned here, in favor of the lamely wisecracking cult leader Nix. I would love to see Barker take a another shot at this with a remake that adheres more strictly to the plot and cast of “The Last Illusion.”

 

4. Books of Blood (2020)

Surprisingly, this Hulu anthology film is filled largely with material not taken from Barker’s collection (it’s not like the adaptational possibilities have been exhausted already). The non-canonical material is entertaining, though, and I’ve grown to appreciate the Trick ‘r Treat-style intertwining of the individual tales. This film is worth watching just for the jaw-dropping scene in which the slimy Simon is torturously inscribed by the revenants from the highway of the dead.

 

3. Rawhead Rex (1986)

Yes, the acting is terrible (Ronan Wilmot hams it up as the hysterical Declan O’Brien) and the special effects are laughable (Rawhead Rex is depicted via a Halloween mask with cheap light-up eyes, and overall looks like a refugee from a Twisted Sister video). But still, there is genuine entertainment to be found in the film’s ancient-monster-on-a-modern-rampage storyline. This one (which took the top spot on my ranking of Barker’s Books of Blood tales) absolutely deserves a big-budget remake.

 

2. The Midnight Meat Train (2008)

Director Ryuhei Kitamura’s film vehicle is stocked with inventively-lensed scenes of stunning gore, but for me it’s the quieter moments (e.g. Mahogany slicing the cancerous buboes from his own torso) that are the most horrifying. Bradley Cooper gives a middling performance as Leon Kauffman, but Vinnie Jones is impressively imposing as the mute, mallet-wielding Mahogany. My main critique is that the carnivorous city fathers are criminally undersold by the film version, yet even that fact does not ruin the climax–the protracted battle between Leon and Mahogany in a subway car abattoir.

 

1. Candyman (1992)

The film presents an inspired shift in locale, as the choice of Chicago’s notorious Cabrini Green housing project as main setting adds a strong racial element to the socioeconomic commentary in Barker’s (England-based) story. At once eloquent and menacing, Tony Todd elevates the hook-handed, walking-beehive bogey of the title into an iconic movie monster. The mirror summoning is a bit derivative (borrowing from Bloody Mary lore), but however the Candyman might arrive, he does so with undeniable mythic grandeur. A classic horror film (unfortunately, the pair of sequels fail to recapture its dark magic), one that the forthcoming remake/reimagining will be hard-pressed to equal.

 

Mob Scene: “Rawhead Rex”

“Rawhead Rex” (ranked #1 on the recently-concluded Dispatches from the Macabre Republic countdown) is the ultimate monster story in Clive Barker’s Books of Blood collection. The titular carnivore–“the Beast of the Wild Woods,” the “Lord of the Hardon”–is Barker’s raging, R-rated, phallic-associated answer to King Kong. There’s also a certain Universal-Horror-vibe to Rawhead’s terrorizing of European villagers. It should come as no surprise then, that the story features a mob scene. Or two scenes, if one counts the passing mention (Rawhead’s recollection) of the monster’s capture/live-burial centuries earlier. His hunters used a traditional weapon of the torch-and-pitchfork crowd to smoke the beast out of his lair: “He had been flushed out of his fortress with streaming eyes, confused and fearful, to be met with spike sand nets on every side, and that…thing they had, that sight that could subdue him.”

This all anticipates the mob scene dramatized in the story’s modern-day climax. Rawhead once again suffers from impaired vision, having roasted his own eyeballs while vengefully employing fire against the villagers of Zeal. The real eyesore for Rawhead, though, is the sight of the rediscovered sheela na gig, a stony symbol of female fecundity wielded by protagonist Ron Milton. As Rawhead stands enthralled by the frightful image, he is set upon by his human antagonists. The unsubtly-dubbed “gathering Zealots” attack with their bare hands (“Fists beat on his spine, nails raked his skin”) until someone takes up a knife and savagely hamstrings Rawhead. Immediately, the angry villagers seize the opportunity provided by the beast’s toppling, “overpowering him by sheer weight of numbers.” Rawhead senses his imminent demise yet goes down fighting: “He snaps off a finger here, a face there, but they would not be stopped now. Their hatred was old; in their bones, did they but know it.”

At long last, the Zealots have bested their ancient enemy, but it’s the outsider Ron who delivers the killing blow. Ron, who earlier had witnessed his young son’s head being chomped by the murderous Rawhead, returns the favor by pulverizing the creature’s skull with the dreaded stone: “The King went out…once and for all.” Out, in keeping with Barker’s unflinchingly graphic narrative, in a “brain spattered” blaze of gory.

 

Skin Fic: Clive Barker’s Books of Blood Tales, Ranked–#1

[The previous posts for this countdown: 30, 29, 28; 27, 26, 25; 24, 23, 22; 21, 20, 19; 18, 17, 16; 15,14,13; 12, 11, 10; 9, 8, 7; 6, 5 4; 3; 2]

 

At long last, the countdown concludes! I’ve really enjoyed this chance to delve back into Clive Barker’s brilliant multi-volume collection (which, nearly four decades later, remains the most audacious debut in the history of the horror genre). The Books of Blood are filled with wonderfully unnerving narratives, but here’s my choice for the most horrifying one of all:

 

1. “Rawhead Rex” (from Vol. 3)

King Kong meets British folk horror in this tale of a pre-Christian-era monster on the rampage in a modern-day village during Harvest Festival time. The titular nemesis terrifies from the moment he is accidentally liberated from his ancient grave (in which he has been buried alive since the 1500’s): “His head was breaking the surface now, his black hair wreathed with worms, his scalp seething with tiny red spiders.” Nine feet tall, brazenly naked, with a “lewd, revolting face”  and double rows of needle teeth “like claws unsheathed from a cat’s paw,” Rawhead Rex is a creature of “gargantuan” appetite and “crude territorial instinct.” He is a “childdevourer,” a gelder of men, a rapist of women (who die giving birth to horrid-jawed hybrids), and a golden-showering defiler of priests (Rawhead anticipates Pinhead as a hellish figure of sacrilege). The scene in which he murders protagonist Ron Milton’s young son is one of astonishing atrocity, horrifying for both the helplessly-witnessing father and the ravaged son who vomits down Rawhead’s tunneling gullet as the monster abruptly bites off the top of his head (later, Rawhead gourmandizes on the stolen corpse in more leisurely fashion: “Occasionally the beast would lean up on one elbow and paddle its fingers in the cooling soup of the boy child’s body, fishing for a delicacy.”). But for all his brute violence, Rawhead is “no mere beast”; he is capable of cunning as well as carnage. Some of the most satisfying sections of the narrative are those presented from Rawhead’s perspective, revealing his bloody desires and fears (like all classic monsters, Rawhead has a specific vulnerability). Unlike Frankenstein’s Monster, he has no aversion to fire. “Fire was a tool: he’d used it many times, to burn out enemies, to cremate them in their beds.” “Demented with death” and eager to raze the village of Zeal, he attacks the “wheeled boxes” he finds “lined up on the pavement like bullocks to be slaughtered” and ignites their “blood” (burning himself blind in the process of such raging). Although ultimately vanquished, Rawhead Rex reigns supreme as Barker’s most formidable monster in the collection, and the savage swath he cuts through the former “Wild Woods” constitutes the most horrific endeavor in the Books of Blood.

 

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.

 

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)

 

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.

 

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.