Countdown–Robert R. McCammon’s Top Ten Works of Short Fiction: #2, #1

[For the previous countdown post, click here.]

 

2. “Nightcrawlers” (1984; Masques)

McCammon’s story opens with some strongly atmospheric scene-setting: “Wind whined around the front door like an animal trying to claw its way” inside a south Alabama diner “stuck out in the countryside, […] a long way off from civilization.” Diner owner and tale narrator Bob Clayton reads an ominous news story about a gunfire massacre at a motel down in Daytona Beach, foreshadowing the arrival of a gaunt, exhausted-looking stranger named Price. Price proves to be a Vietnam vet, the sole surviving member of a Special Unit nicknamed the Nightcrawlers. But Price believes he, too, should be lying dead with his fellow soldiers back in Southeast Asia, because he only escaped by running from a battle and driving the other Nightcrawlers into the mud as he stepped on their bodies. “And you better believe,” Price says, “I’m in that rice paddy in ‘Nam every time I close my eyes. You’d better believe the men I left back there don’t rest easy.” Now Price is desperate to stay awake, in order to avoid more than just bad dreams. Doused with a potent defoliant dubbed Howdy Doody while serving in the war, Price has developed the ability to turn his thoughts into momentarily tangible projections (“What’s in your head comes true”). And after an overzealous state trooper foolishly knocks Price unconscious, all hell breaks loose: Price’s ghoulish platoon manifests and launches a deadly assault on the diner. “We were all caught in Price’s nightmare,” Bob narrates, “and the Nightcrawlers that Bob had left in the mud were fighting the battle again. […] The Nightcrawlers had come back to life, powered by Price’s guilt and whatever that Howdy Doody shit had done to him.” McCammon’s narrative has a distinct Twilight Zone quality (it was adapted as a stellar episode of the 1980’s reboot of the series), with Bob sounding like a Rod Serling stand-in near story’s end, discussing men lost “in a foreign place they hadn’t wanted to be, fighting a war that turned out to be one of those crossroads of nightmare and reality. I’ve changed my mind about ‘Nam because I understand now that the worst of the fighting is still going on, in the battlefields of memory.” The fantastic elements added to the story accentuate the sociopolitical commentary, highlighting the haunting nature of the Vietnam War–during both the fighting itself and its long, unsettled aftermath. There have been plenty of genre works (by preeminent writers such as David Morrell, Peter Straub, and Jack Cady) that have dealt with the horrors of Vietnam, but none finer or more frightful than “Nightcrawlers.”

 

1. “Best Friends” (1987; Night Visions 4)

This unforgettable novelette starts off as a slow burn before turning into a napalm blast of grisly horror. A sense of foreboding abounds (“It was Alabama autumn at its worst, humid and heavy enough to make bones moan”) as the protagonist, Dr. Jack Shannon, arrives at Marbury Memorial Hospital to help determine whether a criminal held there is psychologically fit to stand trial. Jack’s case file contains “the life history of a monster”; looking over the crime scene photos, Jack feels as if he’s “sweating on the inside of his skin, the outer surface cold and clammy.” A white-painted suburban home, “all-American and ordinary[-looking],” has been transformed into an utter abattoir, with a gruesome scrawl of “HAIL SATAN” on the bloody walls overlooking “a pile of broken limbs that had been flung like garbage into a room’s corner. […] A smashed head lay in a gray puddle of brains. Fingers clawed upward on disembodied hands. A torso had been ripped open, spilling all its secrets.” Even more shockingly, the perpetrator wasn’t some Manson-Family-type intruder, but seventeen-year-old Tim Clausen, “a boy who had torn his mother, father and ten-year-old sister to pieces.” When interviewed by Jack, Tim admits to being an aspiring demonologist, and claims that his family’s deaths were the grim handiwork of his “best friends”–a trio of summoned hell-fiends he calls Adolf, Mother, and Frog. Unfortunately for all involved, Tim is telling the truth. A scene of body horror (one that might make David Cronenberg squirm) erupts: “suddenly the boy’s left eye shot from its socket in a spray of gore and flew across the room. It hit the wall and drooled down like a broken egg. […] The boy’s face rippled, and there came the sound of facial bones popping and cracking like the timbers of an old house giving way.” The creatures had been “hiding inside [Tim] and holding him together like plaster and wire in a mannequin,” but now break free of Tim’s head to reveal themselves in all their grotesque glory and sublime deadliness (e.g. McCammon’s description of the nightmarishly arachnid Mother, who sports fangs like “saw-edged diamonds”: “Mounted on a four-inch stalk of tough tissue was a head framed with a metallic mass of what might have been hair, except it was made of tangled concertina wire, honed to skin-slicing sharpness.” The demonstrably monstrous demons waste no time in embarking on a murderous, carnivorous rampage through the psych ward. McCammon’s narrative offers much more than pulpy graphicness, though. The victims are not anonymous fodder, thanks to the author’s commitment to establishing his cast of characters in the opening pages. The extended confrontation with Tim’s unfriendly comrades is genuinely terrifying, the action at once breathtaking and bloodcurdling as Jack battles to defeat the demons before they can reach their apparent destination: the maternity ward, where they hope to feast on baby flesh. A splatterpunk extravaganza for the Satanic Panic era, “Best Friends” forms one helluva rip-roaring story.

 

Countdown–Robert R. McCammon’s Top 10 Works of Short Fiction: #4, #3

[For the previous countdown post, click here.]

 

4. “Yellowjacket Summer” (1986; The Twilight Zone magazine)

“Yellowjacket Summer” forms the lead story in McCammon’s collection Blue World for good reason: it is a premier work of horror. Riding on E, protagonist Carla Emerson (traveling with her children Joe and Trish to meet up with her husband) pulls her van into a decrepit gas station in the backroads town of Capshaw, Georgia. Joe makes a beeline for the rest room, but in the middle of relieving himself realizes that the ceiling is crawling with myriad yellowjackets: “One landed on his left cheek and walked toward his nose. Five or six of them were crawling on his sweaty Conan the Barbarian T-shirt. And then he felt some of them land on his knuckles, and–yes–even there too.” The vulnerable boy is saved (for the moment, at least) when the young attendant Toby summons the yellowjackets via a “low, weird whistle.” The narrative turns into more than a tale of natural rampage; Toby’s possession of the “beckonin’ touch” and his tyrannical terrorizing of the adults remaining in the almost-ghost town steers readers straight into Twilight Zone country (shades of the classic episode “It’s a Good Life”). Desperate to make an exodus from this nightmare place, Carla attacks Toby, holding a knife to his neck as the yellowjackets threaten to strike. Toby ratchets up the tension by recounting the fate of a state trooper who stumbled upon Capshaw: “And he was gonna put a call through on his radio, but when he opened his mouth I sent ’em in there. They went right smack down his throat. […] They stung him to death from the inside out.” In turn, Toby threatens Carla: “I’ll make ’em sting your eyeballs out and go up your ears.” As if matters weren’t harrowing enough, the character Mase that (touched-in-the-head) Toby was conversing with earlier in the story is revealed as a Norma Bates-esque husk: “The yellowjackets had burrowed a nest inside the dead man, and now they were pouring out of him by the thousands.” And such terrifying discovery isn’t even the climax of this phobia-poking shocker. If readers don’t have a deep fear of wasps going in, they certainly will dread the yellow and black harriers by tale’s end.

 

3. “Lizardman” (1989; Stalkers)

In this thrilling and atmospheric variation on a monster story (available as a free read on the author’s website), the titular hunter stalks a legendary gator called Old Pope, a “chawer of bones and spitter of flesh” with “a great gruesome snout” and “a heart as tough as a cannonball.” The grizzled, cigar-chomping Lizardman is surely no beauty in his own right, but counts that fact in his favor, figuring that it “took mean and ugly to kill mean and ugly.” McCammon paints a haunting Florida Gothic scene as Lizardman penetrates the “sargasso seas of the swamp,” littered with “the hulks of decaying boats” and the sunken remains of defeated hunters: “Their bones had moldered on the bottom, like gray castles, and slowly moss had streamed from their ramparts and consumed them in velvet slime.” Old Pope, meanwhile, is rendered mythic by the referenced tales of local Seminoles, which allege that the creature “was a ghost gator, couldn’t be killed by mortal man,” or that it “had ridden on a bolt of lightning into the heart of the swamp.” Suspense steadily mounts, with Old Pope remaining unseen throughout most of the story (at one point, the giant biter makes its presence known from underwater, chomping one of the Lizardman’s hooked gators right in half). When Old Pope finally surfaces in the climax, it proves no ordinary alligator but an eldritch horror with “yellow eyes set under a massive brow where a hundred crabs clung like barnacles to an ancient wharf” (hissing snakes likewise “clung to the thing’s gnarled maw”). Akin to Kong of Skull Island, Old Pope is a veritable “swamp-god, king of the gators.” McCammon himself warrants some lofty laurels here: it’s a testament to his narrative mastery that he can stage such an epic battle within the scant pages of a short story, and that he can take a tale of man vs. red-toothed/-clawed nature and add cosmic resonance to it.

Countdown–Robert R. McCammon’s Top 10 Works of Short Fiction: #7, #6, #5

[For the previous countdown post, click here.]

 

7. “Children of the Bedtime Machine” (2012; Shadow Show)

McCammon is no stranger to post-apocalyptic fiction, having produced several memorable examples (from the short story “Something Passed By” to the epic novel Swan Song). Here he envisions a post-technological world ecologically devastated by a global war. It’s a “sad and brutal world,” but the story (commissioned for an anthology celebrating the fiction of Ray Bradbury) does not prove some grim descent into Gothic horror: “There was no panic, and there was very little violence. The ones who had lived by that code were long dead. Now the remaining ones had taken on the thinness, the attitude and the patience of saints, as they waited for the end.” Emphasizing the lonesome rather than the loathsome, “Children of the Bedtime Machine” presents an isolated protagonist, an anonymous woman who lost both her husband and son long ago during the war. The melancholic gives way to the magical, though, when the woman comes across the titular gizmo while bartering at a store in “Douglasville”–a hand-cranked hologram projector designed as a sleep aid in the former age of the world. But when the machine later comes to life in the woman’s bedroom, it does not produce tranquil scenes of nature. Having already captured the tones, themes, and prose stylings of Bradbury, McCammon’s story takes a strong metafictional turn, as an exponentially-growing number of children are projected and ask the (soon-to-be-rejuvenated) woman to read to them aloud from her paperback volume of Bradbury stories. Accenting Bradbury’s ongoing generational impact, McCammon raises the possibility that these youthful figures are more than just “holograms and sparks.” The woman can’t help but wonder “if they were the spirits of children yet to be born. She wondered if when they came to real life, they would not have some memory of the stories, some feeling that they knew them even before they heard them the first time. Because she was sure that through these children the stories would live forever.” In an afterword, McCammon asserts that his narrative expresses his “feeling that Ray Bradbury’s work is timeless”; this hopeful fantasy story, a moving tribute to the Bradbury canon, promises to have a long shelf life of its own.

 

6. “Night Calls the Green Falcon” (1988; Silver Scream)

 

63-year-old Creighton Flint, a former star of Saturday matinee serials back in the 1940’s, is plagued by nightmares that replay scenes from his time as a crime-fighting superhero: “a reel of car crashes, falls from buildings, gunshots, explosions, even a lion’s attack. He had survived all of them, but they kept trying to kill him again and again.” Later in the novelette, it is revealed that Cray had suffered a nervous breakdown and spent time in a sanitarium in the early 50’s (after a storeroom fire at a theater where Cray was making a promotional appearance resulted in the deaths of fourteen children). Cray reverts to his old character, though, after his apartment-building neighbor Julia, a gold-hearted prostitute, is murdered by a john who turns out to be a slasher known as the Fliptop Killer. Hollywood indeed is “a city of masks,” and Clay dons his (as well as his old superhero suit) to catch Julia’s killer. Along with murderous thugs, Cray has to contend with his personal demons, his doubts of his own sanity: was he “just a crazy old man out for a joyride through fantasy”? His investigative efforts lead him into a series of adventures (including a classic showdown with a group of harassing bikers at a bar, in which Clay is born anew as a hero, a “righter of wrongs and champion of justice,” even as he quotes “lines from old scripts”). Just as “Night Calls the Green Falcon” echoes the title of one of Clay’s popular serials, McCammon’s narrative is structured to reflect the thrilling, episodic nature of such fare, complete with chapter-ending cliffhangers. Clay, who faces daunting tests as a masked crusader against modern decadence, at one point professes: “I think I’d rather die as the Green Falcon than live as an old man with a screwed-up bladder and a book of memories. I want to walk tall, just once more.” The Green Falcon gets to do just that, without ending up levelled: the serial superhero ultimately bests the serial killer, winning himself a new following in the process. Melding gritty horror with more wholesome fantasy, McCammon’s “Night Calls the Green Falcon” is deservedly revered by the author’s legion of fans.

 

5. “He’ll Come Knocking at Your Door” (1986; Halloween Horrors)

“All sorts of good things” have happened to Dan Burgess and his family after the move to the small town of Essex (following Dan’s job loss when the steel mill in Birmingham closed back in February). In April, the once-again-employed Dan is promoted “from gravel-shoveler to unit supervisor at the cement plant.” In August, Dan receives a letter stating that the Burgesses “won five thousand dollars in a contest at the Food Giant store.” In October, though, Dan learns the price of such good fortune, when he is summoned to a strange Halloween night meeting of community members. The meeting’s host, Roy Hathaway, explains that Halloween is uniquely observed in Essex. On this night, a devilish wish-list is left on Hathaway’s doorstep, specifying the sacrifices Essex’s families must make to the town’s “satanic trick-or-treater.” As Roy pitches, “You can have anything and everything you want, Dan, if you give him what he wants on one special night of the year.” The story’s title heralds the fate of those who don’t hold up their end of the bargain, and come knocking is exactly what the dark adversary does after Dan refuses to engage in familial mutilation (he’s been told that the Devil “wants the first joint of the little finger of your child’s left hand”). A harrowing scene of home invasion ensues, but when Dan attempts to shoot the intruder he discovers to his chagrin: “There were no shells in the shotgun. Jammed into the chambers were [his wife] Karen’s pumpkin candies.” When Dan instead clubs the intruder in the stomach with the butt of the shotgun, the trickster spews the grisly evidence of his previous feasting this Halloween night: “a mess of yellow canary feathers, pieces of a kitten, , and what might have been a piglet.” Reading like an autumnal holiday version of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” “He’ll Come Knocking at Your Door” offers some wicked fun. Its delightful frights continue right up to its shocking finale, one that forces a hapless Dan to concede that “the Devil sure could come up with one hell of a Halloween costume.”

 

Countdown–Robert R. McCammon’s Top Ten Works of Short Fiction: #10, #9, #8

Robert R. McCammon no doubt is best known as an author of mammoth, epic-scale novels (e.g., Swan Song, Boy’s Life, They Thirst, Stinger, Speaks the Nightbird). He is not very prolific in terms of writing short fiction (short stories/novelettes): in his four-decade-plus career, McCammon has only averaged one such publication a year. When he does work at shorter lengths, though, McCammon typically produces strong pieces, which makes it difficult to narrow down his output to a top ten. But I will give it my best shot here at Dispatches from the Macabre Republic, counting down my selections over the next four Sundays.

 

10. “On a Beautiful Summer’s Day, He Was” (1990; The Further Adventures of the Joker)

A portrait of an archvillain as a young sociopath. This origin story of the Joker (think the Heath Ledger version, not the more cartoonish iterations of the character) is grim and harrowing. Fourteen-year-old “Junior” Napier is a lonely outcast, mocked by the older kids in the neighborhood as a “goony” as walks the streets of his Gotham suburb. His home life is even worse, as both he and his mother are terrorized by his mentally-unbalanced father’s terrible act. Comedy-obsessed, Junior’s father constantly fires off groan-worthy jokes, and gives new meaning to punchline with his bullying insistence on a mirthful reaction: “SMILE, I SAID!” There’s a dangerous rage lurking in the dark pools of the father’s eyes: “It flew out without warning, but most of the time it lay inside Dad’s head and simmered in its stew of perpetual jokes and gritted teeth smiles. Where that rage had been born, and why, Junior did not know, and he figured his father didn’t know either. But jokes were its armor and weapons, and Dad wore them like metal spikes.” The tyrannical, abusive Mr. Napier succeeds in warping more than Junior’s sense of humor. Like an incipient serial killer, Junior is fascinated with death, and builds macabre structures–secretly housed inside an old water tank–out of the bones of slain animals (in the story’s horrifying climax, Junior graduates to the procuring of a human skeleton). The missing last word from this American Gothic story’s title is “smiling,” prefiguring the vicious mischief that the eventual “Clown Prince of Crime” will one day unleash on Gotham City.

 

9. “Black Boots” (1989; Razored Saddles)

A fugitive, bank-robbing gunslinger, Davy Slaughter, flees across a desert hellscape in the Wild West: “The sun, white as a pearl in the emerald air, was burning the moisture out of [him]. Davy thought he could hear his skin frying.” He is also wounded, sporting a bullet-scorched hand courtesy of his last run-in with a bounty hunter dubbed Black Boots. This dead-eyed desperado’s predicament seems to extend beyond natural concerns, though, as revealed when Davy claims to have already gunned down Black Boots “eight damn times.” Davy has to keep moving, because he believes the hunter is still on his trail in the form of a relentless revenant who “gets a little faster” on the draw every time he returns from the dead (as described by Davy, “This man who wears black boots is tall and skinny. He looks like he ain’t had a good meal in a long time. He looks hungry. His face is dusty-white, but you can’t set eyes on him for very long because you feel cold inside”). McCammon’s narrative is marked throughout by startling imagery that might be the product of Davy’s sunbaked derangement–or might have more ominous origin. A vulture hovering in the sky begins “to fall to pieces, drifting apart like dark whorls of smoke.” A bartender’s face suddenly becomes covered with “a mess of flies”; moments later, a rattlesnake wiggles from the man’s apparently empty eye socket. With increasing paranoia mounted on top of an already surly disposition, Davy grows dreadfully quick-triggered, and the rotten gunman ultimately finds himself fresh out of bullets when he needs them most. From its opening one-line paragraph (“Under a hard green sky, Davy ran from Black Boots”) that echoes Stephen King’s The Gunslinger, to a wicked clincher that hints that the titular “crafty bastard” might have bested Davy with infernal trickery, “Black Boots” blazes an exemplary Weird Western trail.

 

8. “The Deep End” (1987; Night Visions 4)

Glenn Calder is understandably grief-stricken following the drowning death of his sixteen-year-old son Neil in an “Olympic-sized public swimming pool.” But the man descends into Louis-Creed-like obsession after he catches up with the pool’s history of tragic mishap over the past few summers. Glenn has become convinced that the “small, circular purple bruise” found on the back of a previous victim’s neck was a “bitemark,” and that Neil was likewise killed by some alien predator. Now, Glenn is hellbent on revenge, and desperate to act before the next day’s draining of the pool: “Tomorrow would be too late. Because tomorrow, the thing that lurked in the public swimming pool would slither away down the drain and get back to the lake where it would wait in the mud for another summer season and the beckoning rhythm of the pump.” The story builds tremendous suspense as Glenn breaks into the pool grounds at night and explores the murky waters (wearing snorkeling gear and wielding a speargun). Glenn has to proceed carefully, considering the countless places the chameleon-like creature could hide: “It could be lying along a black line, or compressed flat and smooth like a stingray on one of the colored tiles. [Glenn] looked across the pool where the false ladder [that had lured Neil in] had been–the monster could make itself resemble a ladder, or it could curl up and emulate the drain, or lie flat and still in a gutter waiting for a human form to come close enough. Yes. It had many shapes, many colors, many tricks.” “The Deep End” is perfectly titled, doubling as a description of the pool’s most dangerous section and as a comment on Glenn’s sanity–the possibility that he has slipped “right off the deep end” in the wake of Neil’s death. At this point, it is probably no great spoiler to note that Glenn’s imagined predator proves to be real and suitably monstrous, making for a frightful climactic battle. Just as Peter Benchley’s Jaws chased legions of beachgoers out of the ocean, McCammon’s horrific tale threatens to scare the swimsuit off the reader, who will think twice about ever testing the waters of a public swimming pool again.

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.