Skin Fic: Clive Barker’s Books of Blood Tales, Ranked–#24, #23, #22

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

 

24. “Confessions of a (Pornographer’s) Shroud” (from Vol. 3)

Throughout his career, Barker has shown a penchant for combining the genres of hard-boiled crime and supernatural horror. In this early instance, a mousy accountant is branded a smut-peddler after being framed by the criminal group he got himself mixed up with; enraged at his public humiliation, Ronnie Glass begins to take revenge on the underworld figures, but ends up tortured and murdered himself. Normally, that would be the end of the story, “Except that it was [only] the beginning” here. Rebelling against his ultra-violent demise (and the horrifying, “life-decaying banality” of the pathologists handling his corpse), the still-sentient Glass animates his death shroud and shapes it into humanoid form. This metamorphic “mansheet” makes more than haunting use of its funereal garb; the ghost stalks and physically assaults its killers. And when this masked antihero finally works its way up to the kingpin Maguire, the result is one of the wildest and most unforgettable scenes of sudden evisceration ever to be splashed across the pages of genre fiction.

 

23. “Revelations” (from Vol. 4, The Inhuman Condition)

Another noirish tale, in which spectral figures prove decidedly visceral. On the thirtieth anniversary of the notorious murder, the posthumous Buck and Sadie Durning return to the Cottonwood Motel in lonesome Texas where Sadie shot and killed the serial philanderer Buck (Sadie herself ends up executed for her lethal efficiency: “In the final analysis, that was why they’d sent her to the chair. Not for doing it, but for doing it too well”). The couple intends to come to grips with the crime and come to terms with each other, but the attempted reconciling is complicated when the Bible-thumping evangelist John Gyer and his browbeaten wife Virginia are driven by heavy storms to take rooms at the so-called “Slaughterhouse of Love.” Buck is a grim figure to begin with–his chest wound continues to spew blood, like some twisted stigmata–and his unrelenting lustfulness leads him to semi-materialize and sexually assault Virginia. As unsettling as a ghostly rapist might be, though, the real horror here is the maniacal, Apocalypse-obsessed Gyer, who goes on a righteous rampage in the climax. Still, the tale features one of the few optimistic endings to be found in the Books of Blood, as Virginia manages to dispatch both Buck and Gyer with a single bullet. Sadie then advises Virginia to escape significant punishment by feigning insanity, and Virginia gets the ultimate laugh on her brimstone-sermonizing husband in her satirically-resonant line of clinching dialogue.

 

22. “New Murders in the Rue Morgue” (from Vol. 2)

An overt sequel to “Poe’s immortal story,” one that reworks the origins of “Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Barker’s elderly protagonist, Lewis Fox, claims that his grandfather met Poe and inspired him with the report of an actual Parisian crime, solved by Lewis’s great uncle, the real-life C. Auguste Dupin. Barker outdoes Poe here for recounting bizarre murders in grisly detail. The first victim is said to have bitten off her tongue in terror as she was flensed of skin and muscle by a deadly razor; a later unfortunate suffers a frightful defacement: “The creature had taken hold of his lip and pulled his muscle off his bone, as though removing a balaclava.” But whereas the precursor narrative is neatly resolved via Dupin’s brilliant act of ratiocination, “New Murders” opens onto ambiguity and insanity. The ironic possibility remains that it was Lewis’s friend Philippe who killed the first victim, Natalie, in a fit of jealous rage after his young lover allegedly seduced Philippe’s trained ape (the product of a mad experiment, as Philippe attempts to test the validity of Lewis’s family legend). Subsequent murders while Philippe is in jail (where he soon chews open his own wrists) might be a strange case of his upraised beast aping the irrational violence initially modeled by its beloved master. In Barker’s scathing worldview, humans often form the most horrifying monsters of all.

 

Skin Fic: Clive Barker’s Book of Blood Tales, Ranked–#27, #26, #25

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

 

27. “The Madonna” (from Vol. 5, In the Flesh)

The central setting–the derelict Leopold Road Swimming Pools, with their labyrinthine layout and “echoing mausoleum” soundscape–is undoubtedly Gothic. The erotic and the grotesque are also conjoined in this tale, as naked, nubile beauties breastfeed Lovecraftian beasties (asexually reproduced by the titular creature). But the sudden transgendering of the main character, Jerry, is treated as more miraculous than macabre, a “wonder” to be embraced rather than a horror to be endured. A vivid deconstruction of masculinity, “The Madonna” encapsulates Barker’s career path–his eventual shift beyond the strictures of genre horror to the imaginative possibilities of the dark fantastic.

 

26. “Twilight at the Towers” (from Vol. 6)

Barker’s ability to hybridize is quite evident in this atmospheric mash-up of espionage and lycanthropy narratives. Cold-War Berlin is an arena of intrigue for the KGB and the British Security Service, who each feature special agents harboring especially dark secrets. When a lupine wild card is added to the cat-and-mouse games of politics, scenes of stunning transformation (“His flesh was a mass of tiny contusions, and there were bloodied lumps at his neck and temples which Ballard might have taken for bruises but that they palpitated, as if something nested beneath the skin”) and savage mutilation (“The beast swallowed down the dead man’s eyes in one gulp, like prime oysters”). What is most noteworthy here, though, is the fact that Barker’s narration clearly valorizes the naturally-free werewolf tribe at tale’s end, anticipating the author’s depiction of the Nightbreed in Cabal.

 

25. “Sex, Death, and Starshine” (from Vol. 1)

A would-be production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night gets the Phantom of the Opera treatment, as Barker injects blood (and other bodily fluids) into the traditional “haunted theater” story. The restless figures haunting the Elysium Theater are no ethereal ghosts; they are starkly physical–and libidinous (as exemplified by that unforgettable scene of afterlife fellatio). For a narrative, however, that features multiple deaths, fiery destruction, and a graveyard breakout that overshadows Michael Jackson’s Thriller video, the dominant note struck isn’t really one of horror. Barker offers sardonic commentary on the world of modern acting, as the troupe of thespian revenants preparing to hit the mortuary circuit (targeting “a sorely neglected market”) in the conclusion prove more skilled at breathing life into their roles than do their living, artistically-challenged counterparts.

 

Skin Fic: Clive Barker’s Books of Blood Tales, Ranked–#30, #29, #28

The new anthology film on Hulu, Books of Blood (which I ended up enjoying a helluva lot more than I expected to), inspired me to return to the landmark, multi-volume collection of horror stories, Clive Barker’s Books of Blood. My reread triggered the idea for a series of posts counting down the contents in terms of their horrific effectiveness. So here we go:

 

30. “Babel’s Children” (from Vol. 5, In the Flesh)

The setting–a quasi-religious cloister containing an unsettling secret–is classically Gothic (the place’s “lunatic asylum” atmosphere, where it’s hard to distinguish the patients from the administrators, recalls Poe’s “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether”). Vanessa Jape, the protagonist who accidentally ends up imprisoned there, is a quintessential Barker character: an intrepid delver into mystery, driven by an almost perverse desire to see, to know. But there’s a campiness to the piece’s sustained attempt at political satire (the bearded, rifle-toting men guarding the place are dressed–“disguised” would be overstating the case–as nuns). “Babel’s Children” succeeds as farce, but is a far cry from the other horror tales that Barker pens in the Books of Blood. Based on the narrative logic established by the collection’s frame story, the story feels out of place: the reader has to wonder why this one was ever engraved on Simon McNeal’s skin by the ghostly scribes from the highway of the dead.

 

29. “The Book of Blood (A Postscript): On Jerusalem Street” (from Vol. 6)

This vignette concluding the story cycle does connect clearly with “The Book of Blood” (reinforcing Barker’s indebtedness to Ray Bradbury’s framed story collection The Illustrated Man). But it pales in comparison to the sublime opening section of the Books of Blood. The main character, hitman/procurer-of-outré-trophies Leon Wyburd, is a mere cipher (really all the leader learns about him is that he hopes to retire to Florida), so his bloody fate isn’t all that moving. His demise also fails to achieve the graphic grandeur of Simon’s own, previous comeuppance in “The Book of Blood.” The postscript doesn’t add much to the mythos developed in the first volume’s opening frame; still, it is interesting to hear the reappearing Simon express the maddening state of his ongoing existence as the Book of Blood. Here at collection’s end, he reveals a haunting detail: fours years since his brutal tattooing, his unhealed wounds keep bleeding and bleeding, like sinister textual stigmata.

 

28. “Down, Satan!” (from Vol. 4, The Inhuman Condition)

Discounting the Postscript’s return visit to Jerusalem Street, this is the shortest narrative in The Books of Blood. That is not to say the piece fails to pack a wicked punch. Dialogue-free, it reads like a dark, latter-day parable, of the wealthy Gregorius, “who woke one day and found himself Godless.” Desperate, he hopes to force God to reveal Himself by first invoking Satan: Gregorius’s misguided design is to tempt the Archfiend into entering the earthly realm by building him a malefic palace. H.H Holmes with an existential crisis, Gregorius commissions the construction of an elaborate deathtrap (filled with a slew of human sacrifices) in North Africa. The story luxuriates in the details of decadence, yet also shows restraint in its commitment to ambiguity. Does Satan actually take up residence in New Hell, or are the atrocities committed there the product of Gregorius’s inevitable descent into madness? Does the elusive trickster cunningly lead his would-be tempter Gregorius into damnation? An effective foray into the infernal in and of itself, “Down, Satan!” also prospers from its juxtaposition with the preceding tale–the lengthier “Revelations,” whose final line of dialogue is the sly claim, “The Devil made me do it.”

 

 

Anatomy of a Weird Tale: “The Book of Blood”

Happy 68th birthday to dark imaginer extraordinaire Clive Barker. In honor of the occasion, and this Wednesday’s premiere of the Books of Blood anthology film on Hulu, here’s an essay analyzing the seminal Barker short story…

“The dead have highways” (1), the omniscient narrator bluntly asserts in the single-sentence opening paragraph of “The Book of Blood.” These “unerring lines of ghost trains, of dream-carriages,” though, are no mere metaphor, as the narrative quickly establishes via elaboration: “Their thrum and throb can be heard in the broken places of the world, through cracks made by acts of cruelty, violence, and depravity. Their freight, the wandering dead, can be glimpsed when the heart is close to bursting, and sights that should be hidden come plainly into view.” Besides setting up the rules for this horror story, these lines also highlight a pair of themes that are central to Barker’s work: love, and the revelation of the forbidden.

This “forbidden highway” has heavily-trafficked “intersections” that also merge closely with “our world”: “Here the barriers that separate one reality from the next are worn thin with the passage of innumerable feet.” The idea of the barrier, or veil, between the world of the dead and the world living growing thin is a familiar one in Halloween mythology. Perhaps not coincidentally, Barker’s tale is set in October. It also features a character who is a “little trickster” (8), who plays a “fine game” (4) for the “sheer mischief” of it. The influence of Ray Bradbury’s “The Illustrated Man” on Barker’s story has been long noted, but one might also link “The Book of Blood” with “The October Game,” a Bradbury tale that blurs the line between Halloween illusion and grotesque reality.

Barker does not hesitate to acknowledge his predecessors in “The Book of Blood.” The story’s setting, Number 65, Tollington Place (an abandoned/shunned house that was the site of some past atrocity, and that now bears an “oppressive atmosphere” [2]), clearly has a foundation in Gothic tradition. A “crack in the front of the house that ran from doorstep to eaves” forms an allusion to Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Similarly, the line that “Number 65, Tollington Place was a haunted house, and no one could possess it for long without insanity setting in” echoes the famous opening paragraph of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. There’s even a hint of Suspiria when the ceiling of the place appears “maggoty with life–pulsing, dancing” (7).

Having depicted the ominous locale, Barker next presents the figure doomed to become the title character. Simon McNeil is a 20-year-old medium brought to Tollington Place by “the Essex University Parapsychology Unit.” Simon seems to have been a fortuitous choice, as he records “all but incontrovertible evidence of life after death.” In the throes of contact with the otherworldly, he signs the names of the dead (along with their birth and death dates) on the wall of the attic room he occupies. He doesn’t stop there, though; the wall grows as crowded as one of Barker’s own artistic canvases: “There were obscene drawings and half-finished jokes alongside lines of romantic poetry. A badly drawn rose. A game of noughts and crosses. A shopping list” (3). Containing the names of the famous and the anonymous alike, this “wailing wall” is “a roll-call of the dead, and it was growing day by day, as though word of mouth was spreading amongst the lost tribes, and seducing them out of silence to sign this barren room with their sacred presence. Although Simon’s “ghost-writings” (4) will be exposed as fakery a page later, Barker’s own reverence for the numinous is incontrovertible here. The “lost tribes” phrase even anticipates his fondly depicted monsters in Cabal/Nightbreed.

Following the presentation of Simon, the narrative then introduces the professor in charge of the psychic research project, Doctor Mary Florescu. Simultaneously mourning the loss of her husband and mooning over the young, handsome Simon (to recall the terms of the story’s opening: her heart is “close to bursting”), Mary renders herself susceptible to an incredible vision:

The world was opening up: throwing her senses into an ecstasy, coaxing them into a wild confusion of functions. She was capable, suddenly, of knowing the world as a system, not of politics or religions, but as a system of senses, a system that spread out from the living flesh to the inert wood of her desk, to the stale gold of her wedding ring. [6]

Barker is a quintessentially sensual writer, and there is no better testament to that fact than this scene. Mary is flush with synesthesia; when her assistant, Fuller, grabs her arm, his hands on her skin “tasted of vinegar” (9). He asks her is she is all right, “his breath like iron.” Mary’s heightened senses also allow her to see right through the ceiling into the attic level of the house, where the masturbating Simon is marked as the “boy-liar” (7). Barker’s penchant for intermixing the ecstatic, the erotic, and the graphic is also evident as Mary glimpses (when the crack between worlds widens) the highway of the dead populated by gory-looking ghosts, “the victims and perpetrators of violence” (8). These disgruntled figures seek redress of Simon’s naked lies: “The ghosts had despaired on the highway a grieving age, bearing the wounds they had died with, and the insanities they had slaughtered with. They had endured [Simon’s] levity and insolence, his idiocies, the fabrications that had made a game of their ordeals. They wanted to speak the truth” (9).

Mary doesn’t falter in the presence of the paranormal, but the same cannot be said of her ironically named assistant. Fuller is devoid of the capacity for the sublime; his inability to behold the marvelous leaves him in the grip of mundane physicality: “The sight killed Fuller in a moment. His mind had no strength to take the panorama in–it could not control the overload that ran through his every nerve. His heart stopped; a revolution overturned the order of his system; his bladder failed, his bowels failed, his limbs shook and collapsed” (10). Fuller drops dead and crosses over to the highway even as the ghosts spill over into Number 65, Tollington Place.

A scene of almost sexual violence, “a kind of rape” (12) is subsequently witnessed by Mary as the ghosts make their vengeful assault on Simon. Scoring and scarring “the hieroglyphics of agony” (13) onto every inch of his skin with “the torturing needles of broken jug-glass” (11), the ghosts’ efforts anticipate the sinister ministrations of the Cenobites in The Hellbound Heart. The deep (some might deem perverted) bonds of love forged between Mary and Simon likewise prefigure the relationship of Julia and Frank in the novella/film adaptation, brooking no supernatural obstacle. At the same time, Barker hearkens back to Bradbury’s “The Illustrated Man,” as Simon’s grueling transformation reminds Mary of “the tattooes she’d seen: freak show exhibits, some of them, others just shirtless laborers in the street with a message to their mothers pricked across their backs. It was not unknown, to write a book of blood” (11).

Simon’s forced embodiment of a collection of (true) ghost stories vindicates Mary’s research interests, but at painful cost. Here is “proof beyond any doubt, and she wished, oh god how she wished, that she had not come by it. And yet, after a lifetime of waiting, here it was: the revelation of life beyond flesh, written in flesh itself” (15). Undaunted by Simon’s monumental damaging, Mary vows to protect him, knowing that henceforth “he would be an object of curiosity at best, and at worst of repugnance and horror.” She also commits herself to this Book of Blood as “his sole translator” for the world at large” (16). Accordingly, at story’s end, Mary leads him, “naked, into the balmy night.”

The closing segment steps back to position “The Book of Blood” as general prologue to the various narratives that follow: “Here then are the stories written on the Book of Blood. Read, if it pleases you, and learn.” The contents of the collection will draw “a map of that dark highway that leads out of life towards unknown destinations.” Most people fortunately will end up dying peacefully, but “for a few, a chosen few, the horrors will come, skipping to fetch them off to the highway of the damned.” The narrator insists: “So read. Read and learn.” But such commandment is not given in the interest of stern moralizing. The lessons to be learned throughout the Books of Blood are not the traditionally conservative ones of the horror genre, where transgression is simply punished and the taboo abjected. Instead, readers will learn to interact with the fantastic, to embrace the forbidden. Finally, Barker hardly seems to have reader safety foremost in mind when he concludes by observing: “It’s best to be prepared for the worst after all, and to learn to walk before breath runs out.” This exercise in macabre wit makes for a perfect pair with the wonderfully graphic epigraph to the volume: “Everybody is a book of blood; wherever we’re opened, we’re red.”

“The Book of Blood” forms a strong frame for Barker’s six-volume series (arguably the greatest story/novella collection in the history of the horror genre). It is also an immensely effective narrative in and of itself, one that puts Barker’s visionary gifts–and exquisite prose–on full display.

 

Work Cited

Barker, Clive. “The Book of Blood.” Clive Barker’s Books of Blood. Vol. 1. New York: Berkeley Publishing Group, 1984. 1-16.

Trains of Thought

The subject of this week’s Lore episode has got me thinking: what are the most unnerving trains to appear in the horror genre throughout history? In terms of fiction, these works immediately come to mind: Robert Aickman’s “The Trains,” Robert Bloch’s “That Hellbound Train,” Stephen King’s The Waste Lands and Wizard and Glass (featuring that riddle-loving pain, Blaine the Mono), and Clive Barker’s “The Midnight Meat Train.”  Aside from the film adaptation of that Books of Blood story, there’s also Terror Train and Train to Busan in the cinematic realm. But the most memorable engine of terror might be the locomotive that delivers Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show to Green Town in Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. The sounds of that funeral train’s whistle are not soon forgotten:

 The wails of a lifetime were gathered in it from other nights in other slumbering years; the howl of moon-dreamed dogs, the seep of river cold winds through January porch screens which stopped the blood, a thousand fire sirens weeping, or worse! the outgone shreds of breath, the protests  of a billion people dead or dying, not wanting to be dead, their groans, their sighs, bursting over the earth!

The carnival’s late-night arrival also forms a signature scene in the 1983 film version:

 

Any great train narratives in the horror genre that I failed to track here? Let me know in the comments section below.

Fright Card: 6 Killer Movie-Monster Matchups

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf ManFreddy vs. Jason, Alien vs. Predator: horror film history repeatedly features face-offs between iconic monsters. If I were booking the fright card, though, here’s the cinematic talent I’d try to line up in the proverbial squared circle and set to mashing:

1.King Kong vs. Cthulhu

The regal gorilla is scheduled to renew his rivalry with Godzilla this spring, but in the meantime could clash with another colossus from down under the sea. Imagine the entourages this pair of native-favored figures would bring to their showdown!

 

2.Hannibal Lecter vs. Leatherface

A Texas Death Match of two competitors hungry for a vicious victory. Biting needs to be legalized here, otherwise this one would end in a quick disqualification.

 

3.The Cat from Hell vs. Ben

Stephen King’s infernal feline makes for a natural antagonist with the big black rat. Let’s hold this one in a steel cage, lest Ben’s colony of followers create outside interference.

 

4.The Creeper vs. The Faceless Trucker

A head-on collision of these scourges of the open road promises to spark some spectacular violence. Stipulation: the winner takes the title to his opponent’s wicked set of wheels.

 

5.Pinhead vs. Candyman

A sacerdotal demon devoted to inflicting legendary pain gets called out by an urban legend with a devastating right hook. The only thing that could make this bout between Clive Barker bogies any better would be to turn it into a Triple Threat Match with the undead Decker from Nightbreed.

 

6.Michael Myers vs. Sam

 

A battle of lunatic luchadores, as Haddonfield’s notorious Halloween-ruiner draws the wrath of the holiday’s most determined rule-keeper. Michael has a decided size advantage, but could end up a sucker for a jagged-edged foreign object that Sam is apt to carry into this street fight.

 

Horror’s Most Memorable Movie Moments–My Top 10 List

Meagan Navarro’s fun piece last week–“Horror’s 75 Most Memorable Movie Moments!”–over at Bloody Disgusting got me to thinking about what I might add to the list (which, according to Meagan’s criteria, wasn’t just limited to the scariest scenes). Yes, any such effort is inherently subjective, but I submit for your perusal my top 10 choices (presenting the films in chronological order):

 

1.Ill-Received (Freaks, 1932).

The Gooble-Gobble song is as unforgettable as Cleopatra and Hercules’s drunken disparagement of the “freaks” is reprehensible. This is the most disturbing wedding reception ever (or at least until Game of Thrones came along).

 

2.Monster Laughs (Young Frankenstein, 1974)

No scene better captures the hilarity of Mel Brooks’s classic Universal Monster-movie spoof than this one. Decades later, Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle’s duet still puts a broad smile on my face.

 

3.Hull of a Scare (Jaws, 1975)

Man-eating shark terrorizing a beach community? OK, I could deal with that. But the sudden underwater framing of Ben Gardner’s corpse in the hull hole (an image permanently imprinted on my psyche) formed my jump-scare baptism.

 

4.Roach Explosion (Creepshow, 1982)

I nearly checked out when first watching this segment of the Stephen King anthology film as a ten-year-old. Creepshow‘s most horrifying scene instilled a lifelong dread of insects in me.

 

5.Police Brutality (The Terminator1984)

Cop-killing is a horror-movie standard (forcing the audience to think that not even our sworn protectors can save us from harm). But Arnold’s hyperviolent assault on the precinct in this film constituted an unprecedented rampage–and haunted my dreams for weeks after viewing it.

 

6.Fears of a Clown (Poltergeist1984)

A creepy doll wasn’t bad enough; no, Steven Spielberg had to go and give us a creepy clown doll. Before Pennywise ever popped up in the Derry sewer system, Poltergeist was IT for causing coulrophobia.

 

7.Cenobite Arrival (Hellraiser1987)

Kirsty’s solving of the puzzle box was a cinematic game-changer. The sublime grotesquerie and menacing eloquence of Clive Barker’s Order of the Gash truly revolutionized monster-movie villainy.

 

8.Kirsten Dunst Dusted (Interview with the Vampire1994)

Who ever thought there could be a worse form of vampire attack than a jugular juicing? The fiendish execution of the scene-stealing Claudia was at once terrifying and tear-jerking, and Louis’s subsequent discovery of her ash sculpture was beautifully macabre.

 

9.Chilling Vigil (Paranormal Activity, 2007)

The scene when Katie looms over a sleeping Micah (underscoring our vulnerability while unconscious) was the stuff of nightmare. A fast-forwarding time stamp on a piece of video has never been more horripilating.

 

10.Jack-o’-Lantern Extravaganza (Trick ‘r Treat2007)

There’s so much about this Halloween-themed film that’s visually spellbinding, but nothing more so than the sight of Rhonda’a yard-ful of carved pumpkins. If I ever lived in the town of Warren Valley (and how I would love to!), this is the place I’d want to call home.

 

Mob Scene–Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh

 

The 1992 film Candyman made a couple of key revisions when adapting Clive Barker’s story “The Forbidden.” First, it relocated the action from (the fictional) Spector Street Estate in England to Cabrini-Green, Chicago’s most notorious housing project. It also furnished a backstory for the titular killer: no mere urban legend, Candyman was actually a black artist named Daniel Robitaille, who ended up lynched by a miscegenation-hating mob after impregnating a white woman. In Candyman, Professor Purcell conveys this exposition (the transcript of his speech can be read here) to protagonist Helen Lyle over the dinner table. The graphic picture Purcell paints is framed as a strictly verbal account, but in the film’s 1995 sequel, Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh, Daniel’s torture/murder is fully dramatized onscreen.

This mob scene begins in horrific fashion, with the gruesome sawing off of the subdued Daniel’s right hand. But the sudden swarming of a black cloud of bees (and just as quick retreat of this quasi-Biblical plague of insects) is a nonsensical bit marked by silly CGI. The drama also gets melo-, thanks to the hammy histrionics of Daniel’s protesting lover Caroline. Perhaps most dissatisfying of all, the scene is too on-the-nose in its explanation of the origins of the Candyman legend. A child present at the spectacle of violence tastes a drop of honey splattered on his cheek as Daniel is smeared with honeycomb, and proceeds to christen Daniel with the hybrid moniker “Candyman.” A parasol-carrying woman picks up on this lead, and laughingly chants “sweets to the sweet” (we’ve come a long way from the allusion to Shakespeare’s Hamlet in Barker’s story). Finally, Caroline’s vengeful father feels a strange need to stick a handheld mirror in the ravaged Daniel’s face; the mirror conveniently capture’s Daniel’s soul as he dies uttering “Candyman.”

Yes, the execution here leaves a lot to be desired, but this mob scene undeniably succeeds in establishing the modern-day bogey as a formerly human victim. The erstwhile Daniel Robitaille is transformed into a sympathetic figure, an innocent man (in life) whose romance with Caroline precipitated a tragic death. Candyman–who provides a voiceover to the flashback–was forced to become “the reflection of [the racist rabble’s] hatred, their evil.” His mortal demise is much more pitiable than that of another horror icon, the child murderer Freddy Krueger in Nightmare on Elm Street, who suffers a boiler-room immolation by a mob of outraged, vigilante-justice-seeking parents.

Recently, a remake of the original Candyman was announced, with Jordan Peele at the helm. If the forthcoming film chooses to give a similar backstory to the legend, it might be worth the price of admission just to see what sort of mob scene the Get Out director envisions.

Prime Evil: Thirtieth Anniversary Review

1988 was a banner year for horror anthologies, delivering not only Silver Scream (which did include several reprints in its table of contents), but also Prime Evil: New Stories of Modern Horror. I recently reread the latter, Douglas-E.-Winter-edited anthology, curious to see how it holds up three decades later. The short answer is “amazingly well”; allow me to elaborate, though, on the individual selections.

“The Night Flier” by Stephen King. “Count Dracula with a private pilot’s license” (as the story’s Kolchakian investigator quips) doesn’t do justice to this atmospheric and allusive tale that forms a clever riff on The Night Stalker. Perfectly paced, the piece builds to a terrifying climax (the urinal scene furnished an image that has stayed with me for thirty years). One of King’s more underrated works of short fiction.

“Having a Woman at Lunch” by Paul Hazel. Hazel’s was (and ostensibly remains) the least recognizable name in the book, and his entry the least satisfying. The punchline of this brief, pedestrian bit of black comedy is captured by the story title, removing any real need to read further.

“The Blood Kiss” by Dennis Etchinson. Etchinson’s intricately structured story cuts back and forth between the script of a zombie-themed TV episode and the narrative of an accidental encounter with a psycho on Valentine’s Day. This one must have seemed very meta- and postmodern when it was first published, and doesn’t pale when looked back upon from a post-Scream vantage point.

“Coming to Grief” by Clive Barker. The immensity–not to mention the diversity–of the author’s talent is on full display in this understated meditation on mortality and mourning. Barker proves that his horror extends beyond graphic splashes across the page, while depicting a quarry-haunting Bogey that represents one of his most frightening creations.

“Food” by Thomas Tessier. The veteran horror reader can anticipate where this story (of awful apotheosis) is headed, but that doesn’t spoil the enjoyment of the journey. Tessier strikes a fine balance here between urbanity and grotesquerie.

“The Great God Pan” by M. John Harrison. Disclosure: as a teenager back in 1988, I didn’t know Arthur Machen from Arthur Treacher’s (and actually thought going in that the last word of Harrison’s title signified a frying pan!). Thirty years on, I’ve grown much more genre-aware, enough to know that Harrison’s tale, while rich in uncanny imagery, fails to stack up against its totemic namesake.

“Orange is for Anguish, Blue for Insanity” by David Morrell. What if David Morrell turned to writing a more Lovecraftian type of cosmic horror? One need not wonder anymore after reading this unforgettable tale of weirdly-caused artistic madness. One of Morrell’s most fantastic efforts, in every sense of the word.

“The Juniper Tree” by Peter Straub. Straub focuses here on the mundane horrors of parental neglect and sexual abuse (by a predator in a movie theater). I can remember being underwhelmed by this long, downbeat story when it was first published, and, unfortunately, it still falls flat for me in 2018.

“Spinning Tales with the Dead” by Charles L. Grant. This tale of a ghost-haunted fishing trip reads like a more horrific version of Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River.” For me, Grant’s trademark brand of quiet horror often straddles a fine line between obliquity and obscurity, but there’s no misunderstanding the shadows darkening this particular narrative.

“Alice’s Last Adventure” by Thomas Ligotti. The master of the eerie short story is in top form in this unnerving first-person account of an author haunted by the macabre and mischievous protagonist of her series of children’s books. Ligotti’s 1989 story “Conversations in a Dead Language” might be better known today, but his entry in Prime Evil is another terrific foray into Halloween horror.

“Next Time You’ll Know Me” by Ramsey Campbell. Campbell’s penchant for penning darkly witty and dreadfully realistic scenarios is evident in this monologue by a dangerous, deluded plagiarist. In retrospect, this succinct story also anticipates Campbell’s similarly deranged-author-themed novel, Secret Story.

“The Pool” by Whitley Strieber. A backyard swimming pool is transformed into a site of abysmal creepiness, and the horror of losing one’s child is given an otherworldly twist. Powerful in and of itself, Strieber’s story also intrigues because it is the first fiction the author produced following his controversial claims of alien abduction in Communion: A True Story.

“By Reason of Darkness” by Jack Cady. Cady draws readers into a Conradian heart of darkness inhabited by the literal–and decidedly unfriendly–ghosts of war. Exquisitely envisioned, and building toward a harrowing climax, Cady’s masterpiece of a novella should have long since been developed into a feature film.

With classic works by Morrell and Cady, and strong offerings by King, Barker, and Ligotti, Prime Evil bears out its titular hint at supremacy. The most important piece in the entire volume, though, might be Winter’s introduction. Tracing the nature (Winter famously defines horror as an emotion rather than a genre) and modern history of horror, the essay shines with insight. This nonfiction document alone made the anthology a must-read when first published, and makes it a must-find now for any fan or aspiring writer who wasn’t around back in the Eighties.

 

Seasonal Salute

Happy 66th birthday to Clive Barker!

It’s only appropriate that this celebrated creator of the dark fantastic was born in October. Time and again, his scare fare has featured an autumnal holiday seasoning. “The Forbidden” in Barker’s The Books of Blood stretches from late October to Bonfire Night, and features the worship of the urban-legendary Candyman via chocolates and bloody razor blades. Every night is Halloween at the magical Holiday House in The Thief of Always; alas, the house-haunting/-embodying monster Mr. Hood plays a “terrible trick” on visitors, as the price of each day spent there is the passage of an entire year out in the real world. The opening of Sacrament is set on Halloween in a remote community near the shores of Hudson Bay, and a pair of masked/costumed half-Inuit children–“two mournful spirits, posed in the twilight”–form symbolic stand-ins for the novel’s joint antagonists, Jacob Steep and Rosa McGee. In “The Departed,” Barker’s most Halloween-centric narrative, a phantom mother longing to see the son she left behind dons a physical costume and lovingly intercepts her trick-or-treating decedent.

The multi-talented Barker has also lent his artistic hand to the Dark Bazaar series of Halloween masks (see video above), and has designed haunted attractions (“Harvest,” “Freakz”) for Universal Studios Hollywood. Unfortunately, what might have been the greatest holiday endeavor of all–the rumored Michael Myers vs. Pinhead monster mash (with Barker writing the script and John Carpenter directing)–never came about. But at least we’ll always have Nightbreed, where a masked slasher squares off against a group of underworldly (here more demonized than demonic) creatures.

Wishing many more Octobers to Clive Barker, who hopefully who keep producing works that thrill audiences not just during Halloween season but all year round.