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.

 

Skin Fic: Clive Barker’s Books of Blood Tales, Ranked–#12, #11, #10

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

 

12. “The Skins of the Fathers” (from Vol. 2)

Appropriately, the desert procession of “monumental creatures” at the start of the story is considered by the viewpoint character “a carnival of some sort,” because Barker’s approach here in “The Skins of the Fathers” is nothing less than carnivalesque. Societal norms are upended and genre expectations are challenged: the narrative–which reads like a prequel to Cabal–clearly favors the so-called monsters over their human antagonists (the intolerant inhabitants of the ironically-named community of Welcome, Arizona, whose sheriff is a “hick-town Mussolini” leading an “army of mean-minded, well-armed people” on a lynching mission against the demonized “savages”). Barker relishes the opportunity to describe the Fathers’ “extraordinary anatomies” and to depict instances of incredible metamorphosis, but he also concludes with one of the most horrifying and unforgettable set pieces in the Books of Blood canon. The overbearing humans get cast down into the literal muck, as the Fathers-induced “rising mire” engulfs the militants and then promptly concretizes. Those who are trapped with parts of their upper bodies exposed become unwilling participants in a terrible tableau (the labels given them–the Torso, the Head, the Mouth–suggest a reduction to the status of freakshow exhibit). They might have escaped asphyxiation, but their partial burial leaves them in an unenviable situation: before help could be fetched from Welcome, “the wilderness would have had the best of them. The sun would have boiled their brain-pans dry, snakes would have nested in their hair, the buzzards would have hooked out their helpless eyes.” In this scene of Boschean nightmare, the human devils get their due.

 

11. “Son of Celluloid” (from Vol. 3)

Barker’s penchant for using the base of crime narrative as a springboard to dark fantasy is once again in perfect evidence. Barberio, a bullet-wounded and unwittingly cancer-riddled escaped prisoner, holes up in a secret niche behind the screen of a Movie Palace; as he dies, the air around him–supercharged by the emotional energy moviegoers have projected toward the film screen over the years–catalyzes his cancer sells and revives him as the titular mutant. Like some glamor-wearing vampire, the Son of Celluloid cloaks himself in movie images and draws vitality from rapt/entrapped viewers: “I need to be looked at, or I die,” he admits. “It’s the natural state of illusions.” The result is one wildly visual (in a perfect world, David Cronenberg would have adapted Barker’s novella as an episode of Masters of Horror) and unabashedly visceral tale. In its guise as Marilyn Monroe, the monster stashes a previous victim’s eyes inside the starlet’s most private part; in its true state, this “dreaming disease” is the epitome of grotesquerie (“It was a filthy thing, a tumor grown fat on wasted passion. A parasite with the shape of a slug, and the texture of raw liver….it brought to mind something aborted, a bucket case.”). There’s substance to go with all the splatter, though, as seen in the story’s jab at Westerns. Harassed by the Son of Celluloid in the form of John Wayne, the character Ricky reacts: “This face, so mockmanly, so uncompromising, personified a handful of lethal lies–about the glories of America’s frontier origins, the morality of swift justice, the tenderness in the heart of brutes.” Nevertheless, a sense of celebration overshadows critique; Barker’s cinephilia (and wit) is splashed all across the page (my favorite moment is when the bogey quotes Bogie–“Here’s looking at you, kid”–as it manifests as “a single vast eye”). The author appears to have had great fun scripting “Son of Celluloid,” creating a delightful frightfest that fans can devour like a heaping tub of buttered popcorn.

 

10. “In the Flesh” (from Vol. 5, In the Flesh).

The mundane is invaded by dark marvel, as the Pentonville prison becomes the site of “spiraling nightmare.” A narrow jail cell proves no safe haven from otherworldly phantoms, as well as a portal to a bizarre dream city in a desert wasteland (the “assemblage of charnel houses” is gradually revealed to be a “murderers’ metropolis”–a hellish realm where dead criminals are forced to occupy the rooms where their violent deeds were committed, and to ruminate on their mortal sins). New inmate Billy Tait, a nascent shapeshifter, has come to Pentonville hoping to make supernatural contact with his notorious grandfather Edgar, a multiple murderer who was executed and buried on the prison grounds years earlier. No willing tutor, though, the ancestral convict instead runs a con game, duping his grandson into taking his place in the necropolis so Edgar can escape into reincarnation. Billy’s cell mate, the protagonist Cleve, doesn’t fare much better. His visits to the dream city haunt him (dooming him to take up eventual residence there) even after he wins his release from Pentonville, because he’s now sensitive to the populace’s omnipresent bloodthirst: “They were everywhere, these embryonic killers, people wearing smart clothes and sunny expressions were striding the pavement and imagining, as they strode, the deaths of their employers and their spouses, of soap-opera stars and incompetent tailors. The world had murder on its mind, and [Cleve] could no longer bear its thoughts.” The novella both hearkens back to “The Book of Blood” (“I read somewhere: The dead have highways,” Billy tells Cleve. “You ever hear that? Well…they have cities, too.”) and looks forward, in its concerns with crime and punishment, with infernal debt and its discharge, to The Damnation Game. Sinister-toned and creepy to the extreme, “In the Flesh” constitutes a masterwork of horripilation.

 

 

Skin Fic: Clive Barker’s Books of Blood Tales, Ranked–#15, #14, #13

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

 

15. “Hell’s Event” (from Vol. 2)

The damnation game’s afoot in this fast-moving piece in which an ostensible London charity event to raise money for Cancer Research actually serves as a high-stakes race between humanity and the denizens of Hell (which is hoping to claim as its winner’s purse “enough souls to keep it busy with perdition another age”). The grim fates suffered by the various human runners as they are tracked down one by one by Hell’s representative give the narrative the feel of an 80’s slasher film, but Barker is also interested in making social commentary here. The black character Joel Jones, who has caught wise mid-race to the infernal shenanigans transpiring, thinks: “And he was not afraid of darkness; he was painted in it. Wasn’t that what made him less than human as far as so many people were concerned? Or more, more than human; bloodier, sweatier, fleshier. More arm, more leg, more head. More strength, more appetite. What could Hell do? Eat him? He’d taste foul on the palate. Freeze him? He was too hot-blooded, too fast, too living.” But the real horror, and the real joy, of the story comes from Barker’s depictions of devilish creatures (with features like “a fan of knives” or an animate wound–“oily bone locking and unlocking like the face of a crab”) and the icy Ninth-Circle hellmouth (in the bowels of London building) from which they spring.

 

14. “The Age of Desire” (from Vol. 4, The Inhuman Condition)

This sexually-charged recreation of the Frankenstein myth forms one of the most realistic (i.e. non-supernatural) and frightfully plausible narratives in the Books of Blood canon. What begins as your basic police procedural (the investigation of a murder scene at a laboratory) steadily unfolds into something darker and more disturbing.  Jerome, a nondescript everyman, transforms into a human monster and goes on a rampage of indiscriminate rape after volunteering as a research subject for a potent aphrodisiac drug (one that “operates directly on the sexual imagination, on the libido”). Following his escape from the lab, Jerome commits a slew of sexual violence, against others as well upon himself (in a scene guaranteed to make any male reader cringe, Jerome rakes his own member bloody while humping away at a niche in a brick wall). But like Mary Shelley before him, Barker elicits sympathy for his murderous monster, the tragic victim of a mad doctor. Some of the most moving sections of the story are those that delve into Jerome’s “spinning, eroticized brain” and present his viewpoint, his ecstatic yet catastrophic state as he is immolated from within by his uncontrollable, artificially-stoked lust.

 

13. “Pig Blood Blues” (from Vol. 1)

Barker’s poetics and politics are clearly revealed in this early Books of Blood entry. The setting of Tetherdowne is called “a Remand Center for Adolescent Offenders but it was near as dammit a prison.” This bastion of “Law and Order” doesn’t appeal to the protagonist, the new employee Redman, who–in a passage that serves as a perfect gloss for Barker’s colorful and uninhibited artistry–thinks: “Minds weren’t pictures at an exhibition, all numbered, and numbered in order of influence, one marked ‘Cunning,’ the next ‘Impressionable.’ They were scrawls; they were sprawling splashes of graffiti, unpredictable, unconfinable.” A place of entrapment and an unsettlingly repressive institution, Tetherdowne grows even more Gothic as a site of violent death, ghostly return, and the monstrous presence of a possessed, man-eating sow (beautiful and grotesque, “a seductress on trotters,” the beast is both feared and worshiped by the cult-like boys remanded to the prison-farm). “Pig Blood Blues” reads throughout like a mix of “Children of the Corn” and Lord of the Flies, but in its gruesome conclusion reaches the level of true, Wicker Man horrific-ness.

 

 

Skin Fic: Clive Barker’s Books of Blood Tales, Ranked: #18, #17, #16

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

 

18. “Jacqueline Ess: Her Will and Testament” (from Vol. 2)

In the most overtly feminist tale in the Books of Blood, the eponymous housewife attempts to escape “the boredom, the drudgery, the frustration” of her life via suicide; her wrist-slitting fails to prove fatal, but Jacqueline succeeds in developing the paranormal ability to bend/rend flesh with her thoughts. From here, she proceeds to transform her condescending male therapist into a woman, and her adultery-blathering husband Ben is fantastically compressed, “shut up into a space about the size of one of his fine leather suitcases, while blood, bile, and lymphatic fluid pulsed weakly from his hushed body.” The Cronenbergian extreme of body horror, though, is reached when Jacqueline reorganizes her deliberately-abusive, death-wishing lover Titus, “his hands knotted into paws, his legs scooped up around his back, knees broken so he had the look of a four-legged crab, his brain exposed, his eyes lidless, lower jaw broken and swept up over his top jaw like a bulldog, ears torn off, spine snapped, humanity bewitched into another state.” With its erotically-charged and graphic mix of sex and violence, the narrative of Jacqueline Ess (who at one point sprouts “needles she’d made out of her own skin and muscle, like a flesh cactus”) anticipates Barker’s The Hellbound Heart and HellraiserThe lovestruck Oliver, who grows obsessed with Jacqueline, even voices the proto-Cenobite sentiment that “with her, there were no limits.”

 

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

Another narrative forerunner of Hellraiser, with its unnerving vagrant character Pope and its featuring of a puzzle whose solving releases fantastic monsters. Pope initially seems a mere street bum, but gradually emerges as a twisted “priest” after a quartet of thugs harass him, and the least objectionable of them (the protagonist Karney) pockets Pope’s string of knots. The cord itself proves quite uncanny: Karney experiences “a bewildering sensation of intentionality” in it, as the knots find “their surreptitious way into his hand” and begin to tease themselves loose after Karney compulsively plucks at them. Barker’s tale builds in a series of suspenseful set pieces, corresponding with the emergence of each grotesque creature. But for all the bloody mayhem they cause, these monsters ultimately are not painted as villains; that role is reserved for Pope himself, an arcane Cain who has spellbound his own brother in the knots, forcing him to suffer an evolutionary split into “reptile, ape, and child.” And despite his own character flaws, Karney proves a quintessential Barker hero in his determination to transcend banality and embrace the sublime. Recognizing the threat posed by the dark magic embraided in the cord, Karney continues to probe at the puzzle regardless: “just to die a little less ignorant of mysteries than he’d been born” makes the very risk worth taking.

 

16. “How Spoilers Bleed” (from Vol. 6)

Stephen King’s Thinner meets Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in this harrowing tale of biters bit (or more accurately, spoilers spoiled). A group of racist, land-grabbing Europeans descend upon a native tribe in the Amazon jungle (a confounding locale that, from the invaders’ perspective, threatens to “rot reason altogether”) and end up cursed by a vengeful tribal elder following the fatal shooting of a young Indian boy. The Europeans’ moral corruption is literalized, transformed into a physical disease, as they grow putrescent as overripe fruit. They are ravaged by everything they encounter, no matter how incidental the contact or infinitesimal the object. The innocent rub of his shirt against the murderous Cherrick’s skin chafes “his nerve endings. The shirt might have been sackcloth, the way it abraded him.” A beetle’s “imperceptible tread” on the forehead leaves a “trail of tiny wounds,” and in a climactic bit of spectacular comeuppance, the hapless character Stumpf is scourged by dust motes and skin flakes that hit him like “a hail of minute razors.” There’s message in all this messiness, though, as Barker’s narrative offers cutting remarks on greed and materialism, cultural oppression and genocide.

 

 

Skin Fic: Clive Barker’s Books of Blood Tales, Ranked: #21, #20, #19

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

 

21. “The Life of Death” (from Vol. 6)

Barker evokes Poe in this tale centered on death and transgression (a minor character is tellingly named Bernice, while the male antagonist fixates on the female lead Elaine’s “beautiful teeth”). When morbid curiosity causes Elaine to explore an excavated crypt, her investigation triggers a sudden onset of spoilage: “Now, with the violation of this secret chamber, the heat of decay had been rekindled, and the tissues were deteriorating afresh. Everywhere she saw rot at work, making sores and suppurations, blisters and pustules.” The Gothic begets the grotesque, as the underground crypt proves to be a plague pit, and Elaine’s unwitting “pestilential education” turns her into a carrier of deadly disease. The narrative is also ripe with dark irony: the stranger Kavanagh, whom Elaine mistakes for Death personified, ultimately exposes himself as “a common killer, a street corner Cain.” Nevertheless, Elaine’s climactic murder and postmortem violation transforms Kavanagh, elevating the mundane predator into a contagion-spreading Grim Reaper. An unsettling tale in and of itself, “The Life of Death” strikes as even more horrifying when read during the present coronavirus pandemic.

 

20. “Human Remains” (from Vol. 3)

Arguably the most uncanny story in the Books of Blood canon, as a London street hustler named Gavin sees his looks and his life usurped by a doppelganger (a Roman Britain artifact that turns out to be more than a dead relic). Barker once again displays his facility for melding horror and noir, perhaps best illustrated in the scene where Gavin is accosted by the vicious pimp Preetorius (“Allow me to rearrange your face for you. A little crime of fashion,” the razor-wielder menaces, believing that Gavin is responsible for the bloodletting of one of his male prostitutes). Gavin is saved from mutilation by his double, who savages Preetorius: the trumping of an everyday villain by an extraordinary creature. Gavin considers the thing as a “fantastic vision,” a “painted miracle”; he “begins to see the creature not as a monster terrorizing him, but as his tool, his public persona almost.” The irony, as Barker’s narrative critiques Gavin’s vanity and superficiality, is that the imitation ultimately forms a better specimen than the original (when posed an existential question by his double, “Gavin shrugged. What did he know or care about the fine art of being human?”). All told, “Human Remains” is a fine addition to the tradition of the Gothic doppelganger established by writers like Shelley, Poe, Stevenson, and Wilde.

 

19. “The Yattering and Jack” (from Vol. 1)

Hands down, the most outrageously funny entry on the countdown. Barker’s variation on the Faustian-pact narrative pits a petulant demon against an infuriatingly stoic Englishman (whose soul was pledged to Hell by his Satan-worshipping mother). The titular (whimsically-named) Yattering no doubt is a perpetrator of “ridiculous horror,” no more evident than in the unforgettable scene in which it sets Jack Polo’s Christmas turkey dancing: “Headless, oozing stuffing and onions, it flopped around as though nobody had told the damn thing it was dead, while the fat still bubbled on its bacon-strewn back.” This is not to say, though, that this tale of a high stakes cat-and-mouse game is devoid of graphic horror. The Yattering spectacularly destroys Jack’s cat after tiring of the animal’s constant nail-sharpening on the nylon carpet: “The noise put the demon’s metaphysical teeth on edge. It looked at the cat once, briefly, and it flew apart as though it had swallowed a live grenade.” This highly entertaining story is noteworthy as one of Barker’s earliest ventures into the lower depths and depictions of the infernal Powers that be (“long may they hold court; long may they shit light on the heads of the damned”).

 

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.