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”).

 

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.”

 

 

Dark Turns: Tim Burton’s Ten Best Directorial Efforts

Today is the 62nd birthday of the Macabre Republic”s preeminent filmmaker. In honor of the occasion, here is a countdown of Tim Burton’s top ten directorial efforts (i.e. the list excludes works for which he was only a producer, most notably The Nightmare Before Christmas).

 

10. Beetlejuice (1988)

The effects are now quite dated, and I’ve always found Michael Keaton’s performance more grating than entertaining. No film, though, has ever made more inspired use of Harry Belafonte, Jr. Charmingly cartoonish, Beetlejuice brims with mordant wit, and puts Burton’s fertile imagination on full display.

 

9. Vincent (1982)

This short film from early in Burton’s career is long on greatness. The stop-motion animation ranks with any of of the director’s later feature-length efforts, and Vincent Price’s narration is pitch (black) perfect. The story–centered on the Price- and Poe-obsessed, morbidly imaginative seven-year-old Vincent Malloy–has a fullness, and resonance, that belies the narrative’s six-minute runtime.

 

8. Dark Shadows (2012)

This film tends to be underappreciated, perhaps because it’s not quite what people expected. While adapting the characters and main plot points from the popular Gothic soap opera of the late 60’s and early 70’s, it presents a much different tonality. But the quirky wit that Burton infuses is fantastic, and the Collinwood Manor setting is astounding.

 

7. Batman Returns (1992)

No colorful shenanigans from Jack Nicholson as the Joker, and no Prince-ly “Partyman” playing in the background here; this sequel is much darker (and more adult-humored) than the original Batman movieNot since The Nightmare Before Christmas has there been such a dark carnivalization (courtesy of the Red Triangle Gang’s strategic attack on Gotham) of the Christmas season. Batman might get title billing, and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman forms a fine feline femme fatale, but one senses that Burton considers Oswald “The Penguin” Cobblepot (an unforgettable grotesque embodied by Danny DeVito) the main attraction of Batman Returns.

 

6. Ed Wood (1994)

Any lover of Monster Culture can’t help but be enthralled by the portrayals here of such figures as horror hostess Vampira and Tor Johnson (played, in a brilliant bit of casting, by wrestler George “The Animal” Steele). And Martin Laundau gives a career-defining, deservedly-Oscar-winning performance as a long-in-the-tooth Bela Lugosi. Burton’s black-and-white biopic presents an endearing portrait of the oddball director Wood and the outre troupe who assisted him in creating some of the most legendary bad films in the history of cinema.

 

5. Corpse Bride (2005)

While no doubt overshadowed by The Nightmare Before Christmas, this film arguably features sharper animation, more memorable songs, and a stronger storyline than its popular predecessor. The foray into the Land of the Dead is quintessential Burton, a vibrant vision of a realm populated by a slew of offbeat characters. Underworldly nuptials have never made for a more rousing ceremony.

 

4. Edward Scissorhands (1990)

A Universal monster movie reset in a retro California, Edward Scissorhands offers both a cutting satire of suburban banality and an amazing array of sight gags. It is also the most moving of Burton’s films, with its message of overlooking difference and embracing otherness. Hands down, the best (if most understated) role of Johnny Depp’s career.

 

3. Mars Attacks! (1996)

Never before or since has Burton put together a more stellar cast (Jack Nicholson even plays dual roles). But the film–a hilarious spoof of Golden Age sci-fi/horror–trots out its cast of human characters only to do most of them in, in spectacularly violent fashion. Delivering yuks and “acks” aplenty, Mars Attacks! splashes black humor across the screen in bright comic-book colors.

 

2. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

What at first sounds like a recipe for disaster (Johnny Depp doing showtunes?) ultimately turns out to be a smash hit as both a musical and a horror film. Thanks to the source material’s rooting in revenge tragedy, Sweeney Todd constitutes the darkest and most relentlessly grim of any of Burton’s cinematic narratives. (For further discussion, see my piece published in the 2011 volume Butcher Knives & Body Counts: Essays on the Formula, Frights, and Fun of the Slasher Film [reprinted as a Free Read here on my website].)

 

1. Sleepy Hollow (1999)

I have written extensively on what I believe to be the crowning achievement of Burton’s career as an auteur (check out my essay commemorating the 20th anniversary of Sleepy Hollow‘s release). So there’s not much more left to say here, other than the fact that Burton takes Washington Irving’s legendary story (the best known and most renowned spook tale in all of American Literature) and reworks it into an ultra-atmospheric film that proves just as enchanting and widely influential.