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.

 

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.

 

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.

 

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”).