Mob Scene: “Rawhead Rex”

“Rawhead Rex” (ranked #1 on the recently-concluded Dispatches from the Macabre Republic countdown) is the ultimate monster story in Clive Barker’s Books of Blood collection. The titular carnivore–“the Beast of the Wild Woods,” the “Lord of the Hardon”–is Barker’s raging, R-rated, phallic-associated answer to King Kong. There’s also a certain Universal-Horror-vibe to Rawhead’s terrorizing of European villagers. It should come as no surprise then, that the story features a mob scene. Or two scenes, if one counts the passing mention (Rawhead’s recollection) of the monster’s capture/live-burial centuries earlier. His hunters used a traditional weapon of the torch-and-pitchfork crowd to smoke the beast out of his lair: “He had been flushed out of his fortress with streaming eyes, confused and fearful, to be met with spike sand nets on every side, and that…thing they had, that sight that could subdue him.”

This all anticipates the mob scene dramatized in the story’s modern-day climax. Rawhead once again suffers from impaired vision, having roasted his own eyeballs while vengefully employing fire against the villagers of Zeal. The real eyesore for Rawhead, though, is the sight of the rediscovered sheela na gig, a stony symbol of female fecundity wielded by protagonist Ron Milton. As Rawhead stands enthralled by the frightful image, he is set upon by his human antagonists. The unsubtly-dubbed “gathering Zealots” attack with their bare hands (“Fists beat on his spine, nails raked his skin”) until someone takes up a knife and savagely hamstrings Rawhead. Immediately, the angry villagers seize the opportunity provided by the beast’s toppling, “overpowering him by sheer weight of numbers.” Rawhead senses his imminent demise yet goes down fighting: “He snaps off a finger here, a face there, but they would not be stopped now. Their hatred was old; in their bones, did they but know it.”

At long last, the Zealots have bested their ancient enemy, but it’s the outsider Ron who delivers the killing blow. Ron, who earlier had witnessed his young son’s head being chomped by the murderous Rawhead, returns the favor by pulverizing the creature’s skull with the dreaded stone: “The King went out…once and for all.” Out, in keeping with Barker’s unflinchingly graphic narrative, in a “brain spattered” blaze of gory.

 

Lore Report: “Toxic” (Episode 166)

Thankfully, history is full of stories that can enlighten us, and at the center of many are the very ingredients found inside that little hidden toolkit. They might grow right outside our door, but they’ve played a role in countless events that have shaped the course of human civilization. And along the way, they’ve become something more. All someone had to do, it seems, is pick their poison.

Episode 166 of the Lore podcast puts a special emphasis on the deadly. Starting with the hemlock cocktail forced on Socrates, host Aaron Mahnke traces an array of poisonings throughout world history. Some exotic concoctions are discussed, from the legendary Chinese gu to Sicily’s dreaded Aqua Tofana. Deaths accidental (the demise of silent-film actress Olive Thomas) and deliberate (those orchestrated by England’s first female serial killer) are recounted, but what keeps the episode from turning into just another true-crime podcast is Mahnke’s commitment to connecting the concept of poisoning to the folkloric. Brimming with interesting examples, “Toxic” is a narrative brew that Lore-lovers will have no problem swallowing.

 

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.

 

Fright Manual: Five Great Hand-Themed Horror Stories

Hands have figured prominently throughout the cinematic history of the horror film, but what about in horror fiction? Here’s a handful of short stories likely to leave readers with sweaty palms. (A few disclaimers: the list is confined to human hands–hence no raising of “The Monkey’s Paw”–and leaves out Clive Barker’s superlative story “The Body Politic,” only because I have already addressed that piece in a recent Countdown post.)

 

1. “The Flayed Hand” by Guy de Maupassant (1875)

Not the first horror story focused on a Hand of Glory, and certainly not the last, but no doubt one of the most frightful ever penned. The character Pierre is way too flippant about the morbid relic he has obtained from the effects of a recently deceased sorcerer, laughingly hanging the titular appendage as the handle of his door-bell. Naturally, Pierre comes to regret his error, as he’s subjected to some heavy-handed supernatural vengeance.

 

2. “Hands” by Sherwood Anderson (1919)

This quietly haunting story–the first in Anderson’s “Book of the Grotesque” that comprises Winesburg, Ohio–veers toward the American Gothic rather than outright horror. The eccentric Wing Biddlebaum, “forever frightened and beset by a ghostly band of doubts,” is noted throughout Winesburg for his nervous hand gestures. He also has a fear of physically contacting others with his hands, and when the cause for Wing’s strange behavior is at last revealed, the end result is a tale of an angry mob’s rush to judgement and the warping effects of frustrated self-expression.

 

3. “Survivor Type” by Stephen King (1982)

Richard Pine, a heroin-smuggling ex-surgeon who finds himself shipwrecked on a remote island, goes to the most extreme lengths to survive: wounded and wracked by hunger, he resorts to amputation and auto-cannibalism. Pine’s journal entries continually emphasize the need to take care of his hands (integral to his professional life, and now his means of keeping himself alive via grim surgery), but desperation and madness drive him to bite the hand that feeds him. The ghoulish final line of this gory piece is worthy of the cackling Crypt-Keeper.

 

4. “Minutes” by Norman Partridge (1994)

This short-short is long on creepiness: a terrified wife awakens at midnight to the repeating sequence of a booming slam, a scream, and squelching against the bedroom windowpane. The climactic reveal furnishes a natural and psychologically-plausible answer to the mystery, and forms a cringe-worthy instance of hand trauma. Partridge has written deftly about hands elsewhere (“Red Right Hand,” “Dead Man’s Hand”), but the dreadful imagery/incident here has stayed with me for many years.

 

5. “City in Aspic” by Conrad Williams (2001)

While Williams claims the classic horror film Don’t Look Now as a primary inspiration, de Maupassant’s story cited above can also be detected as an influence here. An off-season hotel security guard keeps finding lost gloves during his sojourns through wintry Venice. The discoveries coincide with a series of vicious murders in which the victim has been left with a skinned left hand. Veteran ghost-story readers will likely anticipate the climactic plot twist, but the fun resides in getting there, thanks to Williams’s chillingly atmospheric prose.

 

Later: A Review of Stephen King’s Latest

Stephen King’s publications with Hard Case Crime have been a mixed effort. The first novel, 2005’s The Colorado Kid, proved frustratingly inconclusive (and not very hard-boiled). 2013’s Joyland, a coming-of-age-type narrative involving ghostly apparitions and murder at a summertime amusement park, made for a much more representative King showing. The author’s third Hard Case novel, though, stands as an instant classic.

Later is narrated by Jamie Conklin, a 22-year-old reflecting back on incidents from his youth. Jamie was born with a very special ability to see dead people, but not in any facile, Sixth Sense type of way. The dead appear to him more solid-looking than spectral (sporting the clothes they died in, and sometimes the fatal wounds they incurred), and can hold conversations with him. This paranormal gift is both a blessing and a curse, helping Jamie and his single-mom Tia solve problems but also leading to dire predicaments. Part of the fun of the novel is the way King carefully establishes the rules of interaction with the dead, then complicates them significantly when one particularly menacing revenant refuses to fade into the hereafter.

The novel presents a seamless mix of crime and the supernatural. A serial bomber, a sadistic drug lord, and a femme fatale in the form of a crooked cop number amongst the cast. From the outset, Jamie insists that he is telling a horror story, and the subsequent narrative gives zero reason to doubt him. There are deadly images here (both natural and supernatural) guaranteed to haunt the reader just as they have Jamie.

King reinforces his reign as America’s consummate storyteller (his mastery allows a complex narrative to unfold fluidly and realistically). The retrospective nature of the tale (foregrounded by the title and reiterated by Jamie) enables King to trail precisely-placed breadcrumbs of suspense throughout. Featuring engaging characters and a compelling premise, the book is a quintessential page-turner. There’s an added intimacy (not to mention a succinctness) when King writes fiction in the first person, and this novel draws readers in with its narrative magic as easily as do The Body, The Mist, and Dolores Claiborne.

Not surprisingly for a novel in which one of the characters (Jamie’s mom) is a literary agent, Later makes plentiful references to other books and authors. Ghost stories by M.R. James and Charles Dickens are invoked, as is Bram Stoker’s vampire opus Dracula. But the greatest treat for Constant Readers is the intertextual connection (as the back cover copy alerts) that King weaves with his own classic work It.

Reminiscent of recent publications like The Outsider and the title novella of If It Bleeds, this book will greatly appeal to those who enjoy dark crime that shades off into horror. Later is a novel that King fans can’t pick up soon enough.

 

 

Just Added: Macabre Follows

I’ve just added a new page to the header menu: Macabre Follows. It is an annotated, hyperlinked list of online places (websites, blogs, podcasts, etc.) that lovers of horror and the Gothic will be thrilled to visit on a continuing basis.

Such cataloging is an ongoing project, and I am sure I will be adding to the page over time. I also welcome recommendations from readers of this blog (feel free to make your suggestions in the Comments section below, or to communicate them to me through the Contact form.

I hope this new page helps lead you down some delightfully dark pathways…

The Eight Greatest Openers/Clinchers in Clive Barker’s Books of Blood

The final installment of the Books of Blood countdown will be posted in the coming days. In the meantime, here are my choices for the eight best openings and closings in the collection.

 

Openers

The dead have highways.
–“The Book of Blood” (Vol. 1)

Why the Powers (long may they hold court; long may they shit light on the heads of the damned) had sent it out from Hell to stalk Jack Polo, the Yattering couldn’t discover.
–“The Yattering and Jack” (Vol. 1)

There is no delight the equal of dread.
–“Dread” (Vol. 2)

He had been flesh once. Flesh, and bone, and ambition. But that was an age ago, or so it seemed, and the memory of that blessed state was fading fast.
–“Confessions of a (Pornographer’s) Shroud” (Vol. 3)

Whenever he woke, Charlie George’s hands stood still.
–“The Body Politic” (Vol. 4)

The burning man propelled himself down the steps of the Hume Laboratories as the police car–summoned, he presumed, by the alarm either Welles or Dance had set off upstairs–appeared at the gate and swung up the driveway.
–“The Age of Desire” (Vol. 4)

Like a flawless tragedy, the elegance of which structure is lost upon those suffering in it, the perfect geometry of the Spector Street Estate was visible only from the air.
–“The Forbidden” (Vol. 5)

Wyburd looked at the book, and the book looked back. Everything he’d ever been told about the boy was true.
–“The Book of Blood–(A Postscript): On Jerusalem Street” (Vol. 6)

 

Clinchers

The city would go about its business in ignorance: never knowing what it was built upon, or what it owed its life to. Without hesitation, Kaufman fell to his knees and kissed the dirty concrete with his bloody lips, silently swearing his eternal loyalty to its continuance.
The Palace of Delights received the adoration without comment.
–“The Midnight Meat Train” (Vol. 1)

Then the sow smiled, and Redman felt, though he had believed himself numb, the first shock of pain as Lacey’s teeth bit off a piece from his foot, and the boy clambered, snorting, up his savior’s body to kiss out his life.
–“Pig Blood Blues” (Vol. 1)

“I told you to look at me,” said Hell, and went its bitter way, leaving him standing there, a fine paradox for the democrats to find when they came, bustling with words, into the Palace of Westminster.
–“Hell’s Event” (Vol. 2)

The sea has long since washed the plate clean of its leavings. Angela, the “Emmanuelle,” and Jonathan, are gone. Only we drowned belong here, face up, under the stones, soothed by the rhythm of tiny waves and the absurd incomprehension of sheep.
–“Scape-Goats” (Vol. 3)

“The Devil made me do it,” Virginia replied, gazing up at the moon and putting on the craziest smile she could muster.
–“Revelations” (Vol. 4)

He went away content, knowing at last how sin (and he) had come into the world.
–“In the Flesh” (Vol. 5)

He opened his mouth and shouted into the whirlpool, as the light grew and grew, an anthem in praise of paradox.
–“The Madonna” (Vol. 5)

Things came and went away; that was a kind of magic. And in between? Pursuits and conjurings, horrors, guises. The occasional joy.
That there was room for joy, ah! that was magic too.
–“The Last Illusion” (Vol. 6)