Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1218
Clive Barker 1952-
English short story writer, novelist, playwright, and screenwriter.
As a short fiction writer, Barker is known primarily for the horror series Books of Blood, his six-volume set of short stories, published in 1984 and 1985. Barker's style is characterized by cinematic descriptions of blood and gore, as...
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- Critical Essays
Clive Barker 1952-
English short story writer, novelist, playwright, and screenwriter.
As a short fiction writer, Barker is known primarily for the horror series Books of Blood, his six-volume set of short stories, published in 1984 and 1985. Barker's style is characterized by cinematic descriptions of blood and gore, as well as unabashedly graphic sexual imagery. His stories are applauded by critics as imaginative and unique. Barker has adapted several of his own short stories and novellas to the screen, in motion pictures he himself directed, including the films Hellraiser, Nightbreed, The Thief of Always, and Lord of Illusions. In addition, Barker has served as executive producer on numerous films, such as Candyman, Gods and Monsters, Hellbound: Hellraiser II, and Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth.
Barker was born in 1952 and grew up in Liverpool, where his mother was a schoolteacher and his father an industrial relations worker. As a young man, Barker graduated from the University of Liverpool and worked for several years in the local theater. In his twenties Barker moved to London, where he spent eight years living on welfare while writing and painting. Barker eventually began writing comedy and horror plays for theater companies. He also found work as an illustrator, later illustrating some of his own works of fiction. A turning point in Barker's life came in 1981, when he read Dark Forces, an anthology of horror fiction. Realizing that there was a need for a new kind of horror fiction, Barker quickly wrote what became the first three volumes of Clive Barker's Books of Blood. This, and volumes four through six of the Books of Blood were published in various editions throughout the mid- and late-1980s. Several of Barker's stories were adapted to film, but he was disappointed with the results. Seeking greater artistic control over future screen adaptations, Barker began directing his own films. His debut as a writer-director was Hellraiser, based on his novella The Hellbound Heart (1987). He also wrote and directed the film Nightbreed, based on his novella Cabal (1988). Barker won the 1985 World Fantasy Award for best anthology/collection from the World Fantasy Convention for the Books of Blood, as well as receiving the Bram Stoker award and two British Fantasy awards from the British Fantasy Society.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Barker is best known for Clive Barker's Books of Blood (generally referred to as the Books of Blood), his six-volume collection of short stories and novellas encompassing the overlapping genres of horror and fantasy fiction. Barker's major themes are in keeping with the traditions of the horror genre. Many of his stories feature monsters or apparitions. Accordingly, Barker creates fictional worlds in which the boundaries between life and death are often blurred. In a number of his stories, death is welcomed by the protagonist as a transformation into a higher state of being. Various forms of bodily transformation commonly occur in Barker's stories, including the transformation of a man's body into that of a woman, through a supernatural process. Doppelgängers (evil doubles or counterparts) are also a staple of his stories. Barker's fiction often expresses the sense that the world of humans is as dark, violent, and evil as the monsters and ghosts who terrorize his protagonists. Volume one of the Books of Blood (1984) includes the title story, “The Book of Blood,” in which ghosts wreak revenge against a man pretending to be a medium by torturing him and writing the stories of their lives and deaths into his flesh. These stories are their “Books of Blood,” written in the language of pain. The second volume of the Books of Blood (1984) includes “Jaqueline Ess: Her Will and Testament,” in which a woman attempting to commit suicide discovers that she has psychokinetic powers to alter the bodies of other people—such as transforming a man into a woman. “Hell's Event” takes place in a cave of ice deep beneath the streets of London which turns out to be a tunnel to the Ninth Circle of Hell. Volume three of the Books of Blood (1984) includes “Rawhead Rex,” a story about a baby-eating monster, which was adapted to the screen in a 1987 film of the same title. In “Human Remains,” an ancient statue becomes the doppelgänger of a young male prostitute. The fourth volume of the Books of Blood (1985) was published in the United States as The Inhuman Condition: Tales of Terror (1986). In the title story of this volume, a knotted-up piece of string is discovered to hold supernatural powers. In “The Body Politic,” a man's hands rebel against him, and the right hand tears the left hand off of his body in order to liberate it. The left hand then scurries off to start a revolution. Volume five of the Books of Blood (1985) was published in the United States as In the Flesh: Tales of Terror (1986). In “The Forbidden,” a young woman investigating urban graffiti learns of a supernatural creature, known as Candyman, who commits acts of brutal violence against the inhabitants of an impoverished neighborhood. In 1992 “The Forbidden” was adapted to the screen in the film Candyman. The sixth volume of Books of Blood (1985) was published in the United States as The Life of Death: Tales of Terror (1986) and includes the title story as well as “How Spoilers Breed,” “The Last Illusion,” “On Jerusalem Street,” and “Twilight at the Towers.” In “The Life of Death,” a woman finds her way into an ancient crypt hidden beneath a cathedral, where piles of human bodies, killed by an ancient plague, lie strewn about the floor. After contracting the plague from her contact with these corpses, the woman begins to see herself as an agent of death, spreading the ancient disease to hundreds of people in the modern world.
Barker is widely considered the most outstanding author of horror fiction since Stephen King. Stephen King—known since the mid-1970s as the czar of horror—himself observed that, on first discovering Barker's fiction, he felt like Elvis Presley watching the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show for the first time. King was thus among the first, and most vocal, to hail Barker 's work. Barker's fiction exploded onto the scene in 1984 with the publication of his three-volume collection of short stories, Clive Barker's Books of Blood. Critics and readers alike, most of whom had never heard of Barker, immediately hailed him as the creator of a new era in horror fiction. Barker is applauded for his originality, innovative style, and well-crafted stories. Critics generally describe the world of Barker's fiction as bleak, hopeless, and nihilistic, devoid of any redeeming qualities such as love, hope, or redemption. On the contrary, some critics find inklings of romanticism and optimism amidst the grotesqueries of Barker's moral landscape. Critics also often praise his strong dialogue and deft use of humor. Barker has been criticized for his weak characterization, populating his stories with protagonists who are neither fully drawn nor appealing to the reader. While critics differ as to whether or not Barker's stories are truly frightening, most agree that his highly visceral descriptions of violence can be “stomach-churning.” In recent years, feminist cultural critics have discussed Barker's depictions of women, examining his stories in the broader context of the horror genre in general, particularly in terms of representations of the gendered body.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 274
Clive Barker's Books of Blood, Volume One 1984
Clive Barker's Books of Blood, Volume Two 1984
Clive Barker's Books of Blood, Volume Three 1984
Books of Blood, Volumes 1-3 (one-volume edition) 1985
Clive Barker's Books of Blood, Volume Four 1985; also published as The Inhuman Condition: Tales of Terror, 1986
Clive Barker's Books of Blood, Volume Five1985; also published as In the Flesh: Tales of Terror, 1986
Clive Barker's Books of Blood, Volume Six1985; also published as The Life of Death: Tales of Terror, 1986
Books of Blood, Volumes 4-6 1986
The Hellbound Heart [originally published in Night Visions, 3, edited by George R. R. Martin, 1986] 1988
London, Volume One: Bloodline 1993
Saint Sinner 1993-1994
Clive Barker's A-Z of Horror [compiled by Stephen Jones] 1997
Clive Barker's Books of Blood [contains volumes 1-6] 2002
The Damnation Game (novel) 1985
Underworld (screenplay) 1985
Rawhead Rex [adapted from his short story of the same title] (screenplay) 1986
The Secret Life of Cartoons (drama) 1986
Hellraiser [adapted from his novella The Hellbound Heart] (screenplay) 1987
Weaveworld (novel) 1987
The Great and Secret Show: The First Book of the Art (novel) 1989
Clive Barker, Illustrator (artwork) 1990
Nightbreed [adapted from his novella Cabal] (screenplay) 1990
Imajica (novel) 1991
Illustrator II: The Art of Clive Barker (artwork) 1993
The Thief of Always: A Fable (novel) 1993
Everville: The Second Book of the Art (novel) 1994
Lord of Illusions [adapted from his short story “The Last Illusion”] (screenplay) 1995
Sacrament (novel) 1996
Galilee (novel) 1998
The Thief of Always [adapted from his novel of the same title] (screenplay) 1998
*Essential Clive Barker: Selected Fictions (excerpts of fictional works and author commentary) 1999
Coldheart Canyon: A Hollywood Ghost Story (novel) 2001
*This collection contains excerpts from Barker's novels, plays, and screenplays, along with commentary by the author and a foreword by Armistead Maupin.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3317
SOURCE: Morrison, Michael. “Clive Barker: The Delights of Dread.” Fantasy Review 8, no. 2 (February 1985): 35-37.
[In the following review, Morrison explores thematic and stylistic aspects of the short stories in the first three Books of Blood.]
In 1984, Sphere Books unleashed upon the unsuspecting world Clive Barker's Books of Blood, three volumes of tales by a writer heretofore unknown in the genre. Although traditional in form and style, Barker's stories are original, disturbing, and as discomforting as anything in contemporary literature. This collection heralds the arrival of a major new talent in horror fiction.
Some of the stories in Books of Blood are inventive variations on traditional themes. For example, “Son of Celluloid” and “Human Remains” are vampire and doppelganger stories, respectively; and “The Midnight Meat Train” is a zombie story that might give George Romero nightmares. But in works like “In the Hills, the Cities” and “The Skins of the Fathers,” Barker has created brilliant, pyrotechnic tales unlike anything else in the field. The power of his vision derives from the intensity of his consistently bleak world view, from his visceral, graphic horrors, from the thematic sub-texts that enrich many of his stories, and from his willingness to take risks.
SPLATTER, SEX, SICK JOKES
The first story, “The Book of Blood,” provides a frame for the collection. The set-up is almost trite. Simon McNeal, a cocky, twenty-year-old medium, is ostensibly helping a group of Essex University parapsychologists search for ghosts in a decaying, reputedly haunted house at No. 65, Tollington Place. In fact, McNeal is a con man; seduced by promises of wealth and notoriety, he is faking manifestations of the dead: noises, voices, ghost-writings on the wall.
The dead are not amused. To avenge their wounded egos, they inscribe their “testaments” on the naked, pain-wracked body of McNeal, who becomes “… their page, their book, the vessel for their autobiographies … the revelation of life beyond flesh, written in flesh itself.” In this neat and nasty turn on Ray Bradbury's The Illustrated Man (1951), McNeal's skin illustrations are etched in his own blood.
In this short tale we find most of the characteristics of Clive Barker's fiction: explicit sex and violence; a sprinkling of humor—usually verbal, often sick; a vivid, cinematic style; and a grotesque, nihilistic, yet fundamentally Romantic world view.
Barker's unrestrained imagination overwhelms realism, reason and rationality, creating a primitive universe that is relentlessly inimical to man, a dangerous place where the most innocent of actions can lead to the most horrible of consequences. Thus, in “Rawhead Rex,” when a farmer named Thomas Garrow, clearing his land one late September day, uproots a large stone from the sodden ground, he unleashes an ancient, incredibly vicious monster—“the Beast of the Wild Woods,” “the child-devourer”—which promptly lays waste to Garrow and his town.
The moral landscape revealed in Books of Blood is devoid of hope. This stance is the culmination of a tradition that stretches from the ironic, bleak stories of J. Sheridan Le Fanu straight through hundreds of volumes of English ghost stories to the subjective, nightmarish masterpieces of Ramsey Campbell. “It's a vast, devouring world,” writes Oliver Vassi, the doomed lover of Jacqueline Ess in “Jacqueline Ess: Her Will and Testament,”
… it's easy to believe the world means you no harm … But to think that the world is harmless is to lie to yourself, to believe in so-called certainties that are, in fact, simply shared delusions.
Oliver's philosophy is vivified by the events of his story. Jacqueline, a “burning Madonna” with “a Gioconda smile,” is disgusted with “the boredom, the drudgery, the frustration” of her life, and, at the beginning of the story, tries to kill herself. In the extremity of attempted suicide, she discovers within herself the psychokinetic power to wreak limitless physiological changes on the human form. (In one of Barker's characteristically gruesome set pieces, Jacqueline uses this killing gift to turn her boorish, sexist male physician, Dr. Blandish, into a woman!) Initially, she sees in this power the possibilities of a new identity and of liberation from a male-dominated world, and she sets out to learn how to use her “peculiar talent.” But in Barker's world, freedom does not come from mere power, however awesome. By the story's end, Jacqueline has become a whore, bereft of hope and consumed by self-hate, locked with Oliver, the one man who truly loves her, in an embrace of mutual annihilation.
Barker's apparent philosophy is again clearly stated in his most radical story, “Dread.” At the heart of “Dread” is Quaid, a sinister, sadistic student at an unnamed University. Quaid, with his “basilisk-like stare” and “vulpine” smile is a chilling personification of intellectual evil; he hovers over this tale—and over Books of Blood—“like a carrion-bird at the sight of some atrocity.”
… there was a bitter humour in his vision of the world. People were lambs and sheep, all looking for shepherds. Of course these shepherds were fictions. … All that existed, in the darkness outside the sheep-fold were the fears that fixed on the innocent mutton: waiting, patient as stone, for their moment.
Everything was to be doubted, but the fact that dread existed.
This grim world view is reflected in the physical landscapes of Books of Blood,” oppressive, threatening wastelands redolent with menace. Thus “Pig Blood Blues” is set in Tetherdowne, a grey, prison-like reform school that squats menacingly in a rank wilderness on “drought-hardened ground.” And much of “Hell's Event”—Barker's most overtly political story—takes place in a glittering natural ice cavern beneath London, a tunnel that plummets straight to the Ninth Circle of Hell.
Barker evokes these landscapes through vivid sensory images. His imagery is particularly potent in “Scape-Goats”—a lesser tale about four unlikeable young people who are shipwrecked near the Inner Hebrides. The island setting is certainly no paradise; it is a “vile, stinking, insane island,” enshrouded with thick, clammy mist. The beach is covered with “a slick film of grey-green algae, like sweat on a skull,” with slimy strands of seaweed, and
… the usual detritus washed up on any beach: the broken bottles, the rusting Coke cans, the scum-stained cork, globs of tar, fragments of crabs, pale-yellow durex. And crawling over these stinking piles of dross were inch-long, fat-eyed blue flies. Hundreds of them. …
If Barker's natural landscapes are bleak and decaying, his cities are even worse. The New York City to which Leon Kaufman comes in “The Midnight Meat Train” is “a slut,” “sluggish and ugly, indifferent to the atrocities that were being committed every hour in her throttled passages.” The perpetrator of the atrocities is the Subway Killer Mahogany, whose “sacred duty” is the butchery of the city's inhabitants. But the monsters of this slaughterhouse, Mahogany and his ancient and horrible masters, are barely distinguishable from the human debris that chokes the city and its subways. To live in this “Palace of Delights” mankind must pay a price far higher than mere death, as Kaufman learns when his subway train unexpectedly detours deep into the bowels of the city.
DIALOGUES OF THE DAMNED
Through these landscapes wander Barker's spiritually destitute characters, persecuted by the omnipotent forces of evil that animate his cosmos. Characterization is not yet Barker's strong suit; most of his people are too unsympathetic or downright repellent to encourage identification. Often he gives us so little background they seem to lack a history. But he writes superb dialogue, and his most memorable creations—Gavin, the benumbed, narcissistic male prostitute of “Human Remains”; Richard Walden Lichfield, the regal “guardian angel” who oversees the spectacular last rites of the Elysium theater in “Sex, Death, and Starshine”; Birdy, the gutsy survivor who battles “the flesh behind the fantasy” of the movies in “Son of Celluloid”; all come alive through their speech.
Like Leon Kaufman, Gavin, and Birdy, most of Barker's “walking wounded” are victims, guilty of little more than ambition, curiosity, or a mild voyeuristic fascination with violence. Often they are doomed by mere happenstance, by the capricious malevolence of Barker's cosmos. This absurdist evil is the motive force in “In the Hills, the Cities.” The protagonists of this audacious tale—Mick, a 25-year-old dance teacher and Judd, his right-wing journalist lover—lose their way while on a “caravan through the graveyards of mid-European culture.” In the lonely, desolate hill country of Yugoslavia, Mick and Judd wander into “a corner of hell” where the twin cities of Popalac and Podujevo are waging an ancient, ceremonial battle, “the game of giants.” There is certainly nothing in the histories or actions of these “innocents” to justify their terrible fates. Characteristically, the relationship between Mick and Judd is barren, redeemed only momentarily by loveless sex. They lack emotional bonds that might enable them to cope with the incomprehensible. Mick and Judd can find solace only in the arms of horror and death. As the gargantuan, crumbling tower of flesh that once was the city of Popalac lurches towards them, they watch, “rooted to the spot”:
They knew this was a sight they could never hope to see again; this was the apex—after this there was only common experience. Better to stay then, though every step brought death nearer, better to stay and see the sight while it was still there to be seen. And if it killed them, this monster, then at least they would have glimpsed a miracle, known this terrible majesty for a brief moment. It seemed a fair exchange.
This theme—that the sting of death is preferable to the enervating awfulness of life—runs like acid through the horror fiction of Clive Barker. In stories like “Confessions of a (Pornographer's) Shroud,” only the violent dead are free. This wry, heavily ironic tale is the saga of Ronald Glass, a straight-laced accountant who is framed as a pornographer and then tortured and murdered by the head of a vice ring. The spirit of Glass returns, a grotesque, murderous parody of Casper the Friendly Ghost, hungry for vengeance. Only in his living death does Glass find joy and freedom:
He existed in mutiny against nature, that was his state; and for the first time in his life (and death) he felt an elation. To be unnatural: to be in defiance of system and sanity, was that so bad? He was … resurrected in a piece of stained cloth; he was a nonsense. Yet he was. No one could deny him being, as long as he had the will to be. The thought was delicious; like finding a new sense in a blind, deaf world.
LIFE AFTER DEATH
The paradox that the only life worth living is to be found after death infuses one of Barker's finest tales, “Sex, Death, and Starshine.” This romp of the dead is set in the Elysium, an old, decaying Redditch theater. A cynical, embittered director named Terry Calloway is trying to save his production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, a truly Sisyphean task. Terry must contend with Hammersmith, the Elysium's hostile, mercenary manager; with Diane Duvall, a dim, thunderously inept soap opera queen whom Terry has been forced to cast as Viola; and with a cast that neither understands nor gives a damn about the play. But these are the least of Terry's problems: although he does not know it, his will be the last production at the Elysium, a command performance for the reanimated corpses of the actors and stage hands who, in better days, loved and cared for the theater.
The living and the dead of the Elysium embody alternate possibilities of existence, and Barker leaves no doubt which is to be preferred. On the one hand, the dull grey horror of life is expressed by Tallulah, an elderly woman who has looked after the theater and its box office since she was 15. Her life is “a slow and joyless march through a cold land. There were mornings now, stirring to another dawn, when she would turn over and pray to die in her sleep.” Terry and his actors are less aware but no better off, playing vacuous roles and pointless games of “sex, booze, and ambition” as they age and decay like the theater itself.
The dead, however, are genuine, vibrant, and full of conviction. They are led by the corpse of Richard Walden Lichfield, former trustee of the Elysium and husband to the beautiful, talented (and dead) actress Constantia, whom Lichfield considers a more suitable Viola than the dreadful Diane Duvall. Lichfield is a wonderful character: witty, urbane, and animated by his love for the theater. He and his shambling troop of corpses are determined that their “temple of dreams” shall “die a good death,” which indeed it does in Barker's spectacular climax.
“Sex, Death, and Starshine” closes with a marvelous scene of Lichfield and his merry band standing by a motorway, preparing to “imitate life” for a very special audience:
… their new public, awaiting them in mortuaries, churchyards, and chapels of rest, would appreciate that skill more than most. Who better to applaud the sham and passion and pain they would perform than the dead, who had experienced such feelings, and thrown them off at last?
Death has granted Calloway, Tallulah, and a few other lovers of the theater surcease from life, and freedom to indulge their art. Lichfield, addressing his traveling players, succinctly summarizes Barker's theme: “To you, who have never died, may I say: welcome to the world!”
Many of Barker's stories contain scenes of spectacular chaos, scenes that actually mitigate somewhat the effect of his grey physical and moral landscapes and his nihilistic philosophy. After the unremitting bleakness of such tales as “Scape-Goats,” “Dread,” and “New Murders in the Rue Morgue,” the gleeful carnage of the death of the Elysium theater, the marauding destruction of “Rawhead Rex,” the assault on the town of Welcome, Arizona by a horde of capering demons in “The Skins of the Fathers,” and many other set pieces in Books of Blood come almost as a relief.
Barker's uninhibited mayhem sets his work apart from that of his contemporary Ramsey Campbell, who is nonetheless closest among modern horror writers to Barker's world view. But Campbell's nihilism is undiluted. Both have, for example, written stories about haunted cinemas. But, although their stories reflect a common view of the world, they differ enormously in intent and execution. Campbell's “The Show Goes On” (in Dark Companions, 1983) is an almost surreal psychological horror story, while Barker's “Son of Celluloid” is an extravagant, extroverted exploration, of several themes, including film performers' need for adulation, the dangers of confusing fiction and reality, and the cost movies exact from their viewers.
In “The Show Goes On,” urban paranoia and childhood memories merge in the mind of a lonely Liverpool shopkeeper who is searching for thieves in the long-disused cinema behind his store. Characteristically, Campbell constructs his subjective tale from subtle, taut images rather than from overtly horrific scenes. Nevertheless, this nightmare of barely-heard, ominous sounds and half-glimpsed, menacing shadows is profoundly disturbing.
Barker's tale, on the other hand, is a graphic, grotesque comedy about a vampiric monster born of the cancer of an escaped cop-killer who takes refuge in the back of a seedy, decaying movie theater. This truly revolting creature is given life by the vicarious emotions of the thousands of movie-goers who have attended the Movie Palace over the years, “pressing their sympathies and their passions on to the flickering illusion, the energy of their emotions, gathering strength like a neglected cognac …” The creature can assume human forms—Peter Lorre, John Wayne, and Marilyn Monroe make cameo appearances—as well as the many shapes of nightmare. And it can distort the reality of its victims, on whom it feeds both literally and psychically. “The Main Feature” in this bizarre tale is a wildly imaginative, often gross confrontation between the monstrous parasite and two humans: Ricky, the theater manager, and an overweight employee named Birdy.
Although Barker's carnage is more vivid (and disgusting) than Campbell's introverted obsessiveness, it is less unsettling. “Son of Celluloid” is an exceptional story, but not a haunting one; it does not linger in the mind as does “The Show Goes On.” This contrast is not restricted to these two tales; in spite of its violence, Barker's writing thus far lacks the deeply disturbing psychological overtones of Campbell's.
As a counterpoint to the spectacle, a rich current of manic wit runs through many of the stories in Books of Blood. Like the carnage, these comedic elements alleviate slightly the tales' grim tone. Barker's wit ranges from wild slapstick to subdued word play, but his humor is always at the expense of the human characters. The funniest of Barker's stories is “The Yattering and Jack,” in which a “lower demon” meets his match in Jack J. Polo, a wily gherkin dealer. The war of wits between the demonic practical joker and “a no-account, one of nature's blankest little numbers,” contains scenes worthy of Max Sennet, including a pitched battle between Jack and a half-cooked Christmas turkey:
… The bird inside [the oven] had apparently no intentions of being eaten. It was flinging itself from side to side on the roasting tray, tossing gouts of gravy in all directions. … 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.
But “The Yattering and Jack” is atypical in mood and tone; in most of Barker's stories, the wit is subdued, heavily ironic, and primarily verbal. In “Pig Blood Blues,” for example, Barker toys with the euphemism pig for policeman; the protagonist is a former cop whose name, Redman, is an anagram of remand, which is also the name of the “Center for Adolescent Offenders” where the story takes place. Even in so dark a tale as “Human Remains,” in which Gavin, a cynical, narcissistic male prostitute, meets an apt if starkly horrific end, occasional puns lighten the mood. At one point Gavin is threatened by a sadistic pimp named Preetorius: “Allow me to rearrange your face for you. A little crime of fashion.”
Barker is also a merciless satirist. In “Sex, Death, and Starshine,” he describes Diane Duvall, the soap-opera-queen-turned-Shakespearean-actress:
With all the skill of an acrobat she contrived to skirt every significance, to ignore every opportunity to move the audience, to avoid every nuance the playwight would insist on putting in her way. It was a performance heroic in its ineptitude, reducing the delicate characterization Calloway had been at pains to create to a single-note whine.
Since Barker's satire is always directed at humans, they usually compare quite unfavorably with his monsters. The “gorgeous array” of “vast and monumental creatures” that come to Welcome, Arizona to claim their changeling son in “The Skins of the Fathers,” are far more sympathetic and full of joie de vivre than the “impressive array of mean-minded, well-armed people” who live there. The sheriff of Welcome is one of Barker's most scathingly drawn characters, a “hick town Mussolini” who exudes an “atmosphere of hand-me-down machismo.” In this and other stories, Barker leaves little doubt who the real monsters are.
Volumes 1-3 of Clive Barker's Books of Blood have already made their mark on the field of dark fantasy; at the 1984 World Fantasy Convention, Stephen King remarked that the name of the future in horror fiction may well be Clive Barker. And we shall soon hear more from Barker. His first novel, The Damnation Game, is forthcoming from Weidenfeld in September, 1985, and Volumes 4, 5, and 6 of Books of Blood are due from Sphere in June. Several of the stories in the first three volumes have been sold to Limehouse Productions, for whom Barker is also working on a horror film entitled Underworld.
All this is good news for the genre. Barker's stories are consistently ambitious, original, and skillfully rendered. His work is as provocative, powerful and well-crafted as any fiction being written today.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 464
SOURCE: Morrison, Michael A. “Blood without End.” Fantasy Review 9, no. 6 (June 1985): 15.
[In the following review, Morrison provides a generally favorable assessment of Barker's first three Books of Blood.]
The publication of this massive collection of well-crafted, original, disturbing stories heralds the arrival of an important new voice in horror fiction. The reader new to Barker's fiction is struck immediately by the gleeful carnage, graphic violence, and explicit sex that abound in these tales: monsters devastate whole cities; demons caper through the night; the “violent dead” slaughter innocent and guilty alike, while the living maim, torture and kill one another by physical or psychic means. Barker's characters, living and dead, engage in a variety of sexual acts, from conventional—if loveless—heterosexual and homosexual couplings to the outer limits of perversion. All this carnality and mayhem is lovingly described in Barker's vivid, sensory cinematic style.
Yet Books of Blood cannot by dismissed as mere splatter fiction; the philosophical and thematic content of these visceral stories elevates them from this category. Indeed, Books of Blood bristles with ideas: feminism [“Jacqueline Ess: Her Will and Testament”], the interplay of fiction and reality [“New Murders in the Rue Morgue”], man's attitude towards violence [“Dead” and “Midnight Meat Train”], and a host of others.
With a single exception—the hysterically funny “The Yattering and Jack”—Barker's fiction reflects a bleak, nihilistic world view. His characters drift through grey, hopeless lives that are interrupted only by random encounters with the appallingly powerful evil that rules his cosmos.
The bleakness of this vision is alleviated solely by the strong current of manic wit that surges through most of these stories. His humor ranges from satire [“Rawhide Rex”] to slapstick [“The Yattering and Jack”], but its dominant mode is word play: puns, literal incarnations of slang expressions, etc.
Barker sometimes loses control of his material, the excessive blood and gore overwhelming story ideas. Also, many of his characters are so unsympathetic that we are hard pressed to care about or empathize with them. Perhaps because of these faults, Barker's stories are rarely terrifying—in the sense that, say, Shirley Jackson's The Haunting Of Hill House or parts of Stephen King's The Shining are terrifying. We devour Barker's feast of horror gripped not so much by fear as by stunned fascination, wondering what appalling grotesquerie awaits the turn of the page.
Although similar thematically to the stories of Ramsey Campbell, who contributes a laudatory introduction to these books, Barker's horrors are closest to the no-less-extreme films of David Cronenberg. Like Cronenberg, Barker forces us—by his craftsmanship and intelligence—to confront our deepest anxieties about the nature of man and life in the late 20th century. And, like Cronenberg's films, Barker's radical stories are sure to provoke controversy, even among aficionados. Highly recommended.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 347
SOURCE: Morgan, Chris. “Harrowing Horror.” Fantasy Review 8, no. 8 (August 1985): 16-17.
[In the following review of Books of Blood, Volumes 4–6, Morgan describes Barker as a highly talented yet inconsistent writer.]
Clive Barker is a young English writer who produces horror novelettes, generally supernatural, with contemporary settings and very graphic detail. Hardly a story passes without a maiming, a disembowelment or a gruesome death; the smells of blood and excrement frequently hang in the air. Sphere have seen fit to issue his work in trilogies of slim volumes, each containing four or five stories. (Volumes I, II and III [of Books of Blood] were issued simultaneously in the spring of 1984.) Barker is a highly talented writer—a natural writer rather than an experienced craftsman. Hence his stories vary from very good to very bad, though there is frequently an unevenness of style within stories, too. What he needs is a strong editor to correct these literary lapses and warn him away from his worst ideas. One of the latter is in “The Body Politic,” the first story in volume IV, where a man's hands declare independence; the right cuts off the left, which creeps off to raise the revolution.
Barker's great advantages are his willingness to set stories anywhere—Texas, New York, a Greek island, South America, Berlin, inside London's Pentonville Prison—and his determination to carry his ideas right through to the bitter end, however unpleasant. The prison story, “In the Flesh” in volume V, is probably the best; it's also the longest. A young man has deliberately committed a crime in order to get into Pentonville and commune with the spirit of his grandfather, who was hanged there for murder fifty years earlier. Just for a change, “The Age of Desire” in volume IV is horrific SF, while “Babel's Children” from volume V is an absurdist fantasy (or perhaps even the truth!). None of the stories are quite as horrifying as “Dread,” which appeared in volume II, but Barker is undoubtedly a cut above most horror writers. His first novel is due to be published very soon.
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SOURCE: Meeks, Fleming. Review of Clive Barker's Books of Blood, Volume One, by Clive Barker. Los Angeles Times Book Review (10 August 1986): 6.
[In the following review, Meeks asserts that the stories in the first Books of Blood are neither original nor frightening.]
At rush hour, it always seems like there's at least one person in every New York subway car reading a novel by Stephen King. And while a good scare may provide an effective release at the end of a long day, King on a crowded train at 8 a.m. adds new dimension to the concept of horror. But for all it's long-winded charm, King's oeuvre is exhaustible. (One person I know read seven of his novels in 10 days, while vacationing on Nantucket.) After King, to whom do horror fans turn? …
Clive Barker's American debut comes heralded by no less than Stephen King himself. “I've seen the future of horror …,” he writes in a blurb for the British author, “and its name is Clive Barker.” King, of course, exaggerates. Books of Blood, the first of three collections of Barker's stories, is calculated to shock, but in that it's hardly new or unique.
In “The Midnight Meat Train,” a butcher rides the New York subways late at night, looking for bodies to flay and deliver to the former city fathers, zombies who live beneath the streets and feed on human flesh. In “The Yattering and Jack,” a low-level demon torments his human prey (a mild-mannered gherkin importer) with tricks like reviving a half-roasted Christmas turkey: “It's wings stretched themselves out to either side of its stuffed bulk and it half hopped, half fell on to the oven door, in a mockery of its living self. 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.”
In “Pig Blood Blues,” a reform school boy gets eaten by a gluttonous, anthropomorphic pig on the school farm. And in “Sex, Death and Starshine,” a troupe of zombies rises from the grave to usurp the final production of Twelfth Night in a London theater scheduled for demolition.
Barker, who occasionally spices things up with a dash of aberrant sex (if that's the proper way to describe a coupling between zombie and human) gives good value in the weird and creepy department, though, perhaps because of the limitations of the story form, he never comes up with “the big scare.”
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SOURCE: Winter, Douglas E. “Clive Barker: Britain's New Master of Horror.” Washington Post Book World (24 August 1986): 6.
[In the following review of the first three Books of Blood and The Inhuman Condition, Winter asserts that Barker is the most important horror fiction writer of the 1980s.]
During a 1983 visit with Britain's leading writer of horror fiction, Ramsey Campbell, I was presented with a mountainous manuscript of short stories by an unpublished Liverpool playright named Clive Barker. “You're about to read the most important new horror writer of this decade,” Campbell told me. After reading 50 of the thousand-plus pages, I was convinced that he was right.
The manuscript, divided into three volumes, was published in England in 1984 as Clive Barker's Books of Blood, and its author became horror fiction's hottest property since Stephen King. Barker soon captured a World Fantasy Award and several motion picture contracts; his first novel, The Damnation Game, was nominated for England's prestigious Booker Prize; and a second trilogy of Books of Blood was commissioned. Along the way, Barker became something of a cause célèbre, championed in magazines as diverse as Fangoria, Omni, Publishers Weekly, and Andy Warhol's Interview.
There is little mystery about Clive Barker's sudden success. The Books of Blood offer a strikingly bold vision, and some of the most provocative tales of terror ever published. Barker's charismatic personality and boyish good looks have made him a darling of the interview set. The only real mystery is why his first American publisher delayed the release of the Books of Blood for nearly two years, and then issued them only in paperback editions with garish, downmarket covers.
The Books of Blood are patterned after Ray Bradbury's The Illustrated Man, each story said to be etched into the skin of an unfortunate charlatan whose psychic shenanigans have offended the dead. Any resemblance to Bradbury's gentle fantasies (or, indeed, those of Stephen King) ends, however, with the series' first story, “Midnight Meat Train,” a harrowing sojourn that depicts the New York subway as a rolling abattoir. It is what the reader will come to recognize as quintessential Barker: graphic, grotesque, and yet compellingly readable. He is the literary equivalent of those special-effects geniuses who unleash convincing and blood-splattered monstrosities on the motion picture screen.
Never has horror fiction been as consistently explicit in its sex or violence or indeed, in its linking of the two. Barker's creations include “Rawhead Rex,” a babyeating monster of pure sexual appetite, and “Son of Celluloid,” a moviehouse cancer that spawns bloodthirsty replicas of classic film actors. On the face of it, the Books of Blood might seem just the thing to set the hearts of the Meese Commission aflutter. But Barker never panders; indeed, he seems intent on forging something that might well be called the antihorror story.
Conventional horror fiction progresses from the archetype of Pandora's Box: the tense conflict between pleasure and fear that is latent when we face the forbidden and the unknown. The Books of Blood are founded on the proposition that there are no taboos, no mysteries. Barker's eye is unblinking; he drags our terrors from the shadows and forces us to look upon them and despair or laugh with relief.
Conventional horror, particularly in film, has also always been rich with Puritan subtext: if there is a single certainty, it is that teenagers who have sex in cars or in the woods will die. Most horror stories offer a message as conservative as their morality: Conform. Their boogeymen are the hitmen of homogeneity. Don't do it, they tell us, or you will pay an awful price. Don't talk to strangers. Don't dare to be different. And the monsters (who, by definition, are different) are typically destroyed by proper behavior, whether symbolized by virginity, silver crucifixes, or, indeed, conformity.
For Barker, conformity is the ultimate horror; many of his characters are dimensionless by design. Only through the intrusion of horror, he tells us, may we see our world clearly, know both its dangers and its possibilities. Otherwise, like the citizens of his most memorable story, “In the Hills, the Cities,” who form into a giant and march off to battle, we are doomed:
“Popolac turned away into the hills, its legs taking strides half a mile long. Each man, woman and child in that seething tower was sightless. They saw only through the eyes of the city. They were thoughtless, but to think the city's thoughts. And they believed themselves deathless, in their lumbering relentless strength. Vast and mad and deathless.”
The Inhuman Condition begins a second cycle of Books of Blood (whose second and third installments, In the Flesh and The Life of Death, will appear early in 1987). Their packaging, in hardcover editions geared toward the broader readership that Barker deserves, is not the only change. These stories reflect a decided maturation of style and find Barker relying more often on craft than sheer explicitness of image to convey his horrors.
But the extremity of Barker's aesthetics has not flagged. In the collection's title story, a knotted string, symbolic of life's mysteries, brings violent death to its possessors as it is unraveled. “The Body Politic” imagines human hands tearing themselves from the wrists of their masters and crawling spiderlike to a bloody revolution. In “The Age of Desire,” a powerful aphrodisiac unleashes ghastly sexual urgings whose fulfillment can be found only in mating with death.
“There is no delight the equal of dread,” writes Barker, and it is precisely this enthusiasm for invoking terror that propels his fiction. His prose, particularly in the first three Books of Blood, is rough-edged (he has, among other things, a lamentable propensity for anarchic shifts of point of view), but its energy is unstoppable. Like Stephen King, with whom he must inevitably be compared, he is unashamed to confront the terrors of our daily lives, and to do so in a genre that is too often relegated to the ranks of tawdry-looking paperbacks. But while King, the avuncular storyteller, holds our hands as we face a darkening world, Barker thrusts us forward into the night: “I think it's very important that people accept, embrace, celebrate the capacity for the monstrous in the world,” he said in a recent interview. “That way, stories about fear may even teach one not to live in fear.”
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SOURCE: Tucker, Ken. Review of The Inhuman Condition, by Clive Barker. New York Times Book Review (21 September 1986): 26.
[In the following review, Tucker praises the stories in The Inhuman Condition, which he contends effectively “create an atmosphere of dread and foreboding.”]
Clive Barker is a young Englishman who writes short stories that regularly veer into the category of horror fiction. He avoids the breathless tone that makes most modern horror tales seem foolish, instead setting scenes in a measured voice with meticulous details that accumulate to create an atmosphere of dread and foreboding. This sets you up properly for the scary parts—in this, Mr. Barker is mindful of such predecessors as H. P. Lovecraft and Arthur Machen. What he adds to this tradition is a wicked willingness to use vivid images of violence to provide a jolt of R-rated realism to his fiction. Try to imagine “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” with a screenplay by V. S. Pritchett and you have some idea of Clive Barker at his most effective in these five tales [in The Inhuman Condition]. The title story begins as a serenely clinical study of an English youth gang but soon slips into the hyperbolically supernatural, as one gang member finds a piece of string with mysterious powers. “The Age of Desire” is sort of an erotic parody of “Frankenstein,” as a group of doctors develop “an aphrodisiac that actually works”—all too well, turning an ordinary man into an uncontrollable psychotic, as Mr. Barker's prose moves from the Gothic to the graphic in a sleek, subtle shift. The most powerful story here is “The Body Politic,” whose premise sounds like a joke—a pair of hands literally sever themselves from a man's body and scramble off, dragging a hatchet, in the hope of persuading other hands to “liberate themselves” from their bodies. It's a measure of Mr. Barker's cool control that he makes this bad dream seem not only creepily disturbing but plausible.
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SOURCE: Morrison, Michael A. “Visions of the Joyous Apocalypse.” Fantasy Review 9, no. 9 (October 1986): 19.
[In the following review, Morrison asserts that the stories in The Inhuman Condition are adventurous but pale in comparison to the first Books of Blood trilogy.]
The Inhuman Condition is aptly named. These five “tales of terror” from the first volume of Barker's second Books of Blood trilogy, tell of humans transformed into something more than human. It is their obsessions—sexual, religious, or intellectual—that drive Barker's protagonists to transformation, fulfillment, and doom. Although some of the characters are superficially drawn, their reactions are rarely stereotypical.
Take, for example, Jerome Tregold, the hapless test subject of an experiment in drug design that goes awry; suddenly inflamed with sexual cravings, he is compelled to a variety of vividly rendered excesses (“sex without end”) that presage the dawning of “The Age of Desire,” Like most of the transformed humans that people Barker's tales, Tregold reacts to his new state of being not with panic or revulsion but with exuberance and relief.
Or consider Virginia Gyer, the pill-popping wife of an insufferably pious evangelist in “Revelations.” Set amid the storm-swept landscapes of East Texas, in a rundown motel on the outskirts of nowhere, “Revelations” is soap opera gone mad, a passion play of the damned in which John Gyer and his entourage share rooms with Buck and Sadie, a pair of ghostly lovers returned to their love-nest thirty years after they turned it into a slaughterhouse. Virginia's response to her chance encounter with the dead is to take command of her destiny in a wry completion of the “bloody farce” begun thirty years earlier.
There is also the slight fable “Down, Satan!” in which a rich businessman and lapsed Catholic seeks to restore his faith by luring Satan himself to a newly constructed “hell on earth … a modern inferno so monstrous that the Tempter would be tempted”; this is one of Barker's wittiest tales. However, none of these stories are the equal of the best in the first trilogy; none, for example, have the powerful imagery of “In the Hills, the Cities” or the morbid fascination of “Dread.” Still, Barker remains daring, imaginative, and self-assured, and there is much to savor in this collection: Sadie's joie de morte in “Revelations”; the inspired metaphor for evolution underlying the knotty problem posed in the title story; a macabre romp of liberated limbs in the wacky “The Body Politic.” Seekers after the off-trail who have not experienced Barker's bizarre fiction are in for a treat; the rest of us can only await whatever else he has in store.
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SOURCE: D'Ammassa, Don. Review of The Inhuman Condition, by Clive Barker. Science Fiction Chronicle 8, no. 3 (December 1986): 46.
[In the following review, D'Ammassa offers a brief description of some of the stories in The Inhuman Condition.]
This collection of five stories [The Inhuman Condition] was originally published in England as Books of Blood, Volume IV. The title story concerns a twist of knotted rope that releases demons into our world. “The Body Politic” is a satire, with human hands revolting against their condition of servitude. Ghosts return to a motel room in “Revelations” and the ultimate aphrodisiac turns a man into a monster in “The Age of Desire”. Barker has quickly established himself as a force to be contended with. It will be interesting to see if he can produce a novel of comparable quality to his superb shorter works.
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SOURCE: D'Ammassa, Don. Review of Clive Barker's Books of Blood, Volume Two, by Clive Barker. Science Fiction Chronicle 8, no. 3 (December 1986): 50.
[In the following review, D'Ammassa maintains that the five stories included in the second volume of the Books of Blood are of uniformly high quality.]
Clive Barker has been widely touted as the British Stephen King, with some justification. This is the second volume of short fiction I've read [Books of Blood, Vol. II] by him, and it is certainly the highest quality original short story collection I've read in some time. The five stories are of uniformly high quality. My favorite is probably “Jaqueline Ess: Her Will and Testament”, a gory story of a woman who can physically alter the bodies of others. “New Murders in the Rue Morgue” is a fine pastiche, “Dread” is a story of a just revenge on a callous experimenter, “Hell's Event” tells of a marathon whose outcome could alter the world, and “The Skins of Our Fathers” is a haunting story of a boy sired by demons. Barker is certain to become one of the major voices of modern horror fiction if he can maintain this level of quality.
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SOURCE: Keis, Cosette. Review of Clive Barker's Books of Blood, Volume Three, by Clive Barker. Voice of Youth Advocates 9, no. 6 (February 1987): 282.
[In the following review of the third Books of Blood, Keis observes that Barker is an innovative writer in the horror genre, and that Barker's stories appeal to those who are prepared for the bloody details that characterize his fiction.]
Hailed as the hot “new” horror writer, Clive Barker has been going at it in England, where horror books are sometimes called “nasties.” A series of six books with Barker's long short stories are now being issued in quick order in the U.S. An innovative writer in the genre, Barker's tales are for readers with strong stomachs who delight with ghoulish relish over different twists in the horror short story genre.
The first story in this collection of five tales [Books of Blood, Vol. III,], should serve to illustrate Barker's original thinking and writing. “Son of Celluloid” deals with the horror of cancer, but in this case, the cancer has become a horror entity in itself, moving from body to body, spreading its terror as it goes. It is forced to lie dormant for a while in a hidden corner of an old movie theater, but it gets its chance to escape and continue to survive and grow. The unlikely heroine of the piece, Birdy, is the only one who knows about the cancer and knows the necessity of destroying it. Her final victory is almost unexpected, which is the mark of good horror writing.
The books in the series are nicely designed, each with a different grotesque mask on the cover. The brave librarian might wish to use some of the stories for booktalks, but probably only for hardened lovers of the horror genre.
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SOURCE: Gleick, Elizabeth. Review of In the Flesh, by Clive Barker. New York Times Book Review (15 February 1987): 20.
[In the following review, Gleick observes that the stories included in In the Flesh are ingenious and intelligent, and effectively play upon unconscious human terrors.]
Those staples of recent American horror tales are nowhere to be found in the four novellas here [in In the Flesh]; this prize-winning British author has no need for bloody limbs or disembodied heads, for ax murderers or nubile camp counselors. Instead, Clive Barker plays upon our unconscious terrors—a man transmutes into a woman after a strange sexual encounter, leaderless world governments are on the verge of running amok, a man realizes he has the potential to commit murder—and also on our innate fascination with the lurid. The author has not selected his victims arbitrarily; they are naturally adventurous and compassionate, and like the avid reader, they search out the horrible, compelled against their better judgment to discover the very worst. The title piece shows Mr. Barker at his most adept. In it, Cleve, a petty criminal who is in jail for the third time, spends his days reading theories about how sin came into the world (being in jail, he's pretty skeptical about the subject). When his new cellmate, Billy Tait, calls forth the ghost—no, something infinitely more horrendous and complex—of his grandfather, a murderer who is buried on the prison grounds, Cleve follows Billy in his dreams to an acropolis where he discovers firsthand the birth of evil. “The Forbidden” plays upon our need as a society for horror tales; when Helen, who is writing her thesis on graffiti, visits a slum and doubts the gruesome stories she hears there, classic yarns about a man with a hook for a hand who stalks the inhabitants, she comes face to horrible face with him. Mr. Barker's intelligence and humor creep out of these tales from the unlikeliest places—what a breath of fresh, if chilling, air.
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SOURCE: Coven, Laurence. Review of In the Flesh, by Clive Barker. Los Angeles Times Book Review (14 June 1987): 15.
[In the following review, Coven praises the stories of In the Flesh as grotesque, graphic, and disturbing.]
The four tales of horror in Clive Barker's In the Flesh are not made for fireside reading. These are disturbing tales that emerge from a profound sense of despair and desolation.
Barker is a young English author, and In the Flesh is the fifth of a six-volume English collection, the Books of Blood. Indeed, blood oozes, splatters, drips and gushes from these stories in great abundance. In the title story, Barker describes the result of a fight between two prisoners. “The man had been ripped open, his eyes put out, his genitals torn off. Nayler, the only possible antagonist, had contrived to open up his own belly.”
The story concerns Cleve, a veteran prisoner who must look after his new cell mate, a frail, young, reclusive lad named Billy Tait, who would otherwise become “easy meat.” Billy, however, has intentionally gotten himself imprisoned in order to find his grandfather, Henry Tait, who was hanged 50 years ago for butchering nearly his entire family, and then was buried in an unmarked grave somewhere on the prison grounds. Billy confides to Cleve that he must somehow reach his grandfather with whom he claims to share some terrible power.
In searching for the location of the grave, Cleve questions an old prisoner known as The Bishop. His response demonstrates Barker's ability to chill with a clammy hand as well as shock with a bloody one.
“The Bishop raised a cautionary forefinger. … ‘You see, the land this prison is built upon has special properties. Bodies buried here don't rot the way they do elsewhere … whenever they've had to exhume a body from the plot, it's always been found in almost perfect condition.’”
The story's denouement comes only after an incredible series of twistings and turnings, none of which enables Cleve or Billy to escape a dreadful and inevitable fate.
In “The Forbidden,” a powerfully crafted tale, an academician must confront the repugnant reality of life in a tenement slum. While doing research for her thesis on the social patterns of graffiti, Helen encounters, in an abandoned flat, a portrait of a vast, nightmarish head painted around a door that serves as its mouth. Next to it is written the unlikely, phrase “Sweets to the sweet.”
Fascinated by her discovery, Helen interviews residents of the slum and is regaled with hideous tales of death and butchery: a retarded boy found sliced to ribbons in a public toilet, an old man murdered, his eyes put out by a hook-handed maniac. Are these stories true or merely fables spread by those who can afford little else to entertain themselves?
Helen's academic colleagues, all of whom Barker somewhat superficially portrays as vacuous twits, scoff at the stories. Helen, however, persists in her investigation, finally encountering the living image of the painting, a wrenching horror known as the Candyman. “… The contents of his torso had rotted away, and the hollow was now occupied by a nest of bees. They swarmed in the vault of his chest, and encrusted in a seething mass the remnants of flesh that hung there.”
The Candyman is a personification of the most terrifying urban myths and legends, yet a legend that can never be totally disbelieved, for just when it seems to be expunged from human memory, that is the moment when it will somehow claw its way back into actual existence, dead, but yet “immortal in gossip and graffiti.”
Barker's stories are mostly successful and never predictable. At his best, he attacks our senses and our psyche, seeking not so much to tingle our spine as to snap it altogether.
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SOURCE: D'Ammassa, Don. Review of In the Flesh, by Clive Barker. Science Fiction Chronicle 8, no. 11 (August 1987): 52.
[In the following review, D'Ammassa asserts that the title story of In the Flesh is the best of those included in this volume.]
Clive Barker provides four more novelets of the supernatural in this latest collection. The title story [of In the Flesh] is easily the best, the tale of a young man who deliberately commits a crime in order to visit the prison grave of his grandfather, and who finds himself visiting a city of the dead. Nearly as good is “The Forbidden”. A young woman is doing some research in a poor community when she hears conflicting tales of recent murders. Her investigations bring fiction to life in a bizarre ending. The remaining two stories deal with a secret institute and a ghostly seduction.
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SOURCE: Review of The Books of Blood, by Clive Barker. Science Fiction Chronicle 10, no. 113 (February 1989): 38.
[In the following review of the compilation The Books of Blood, the critic asserts that Barker is a major innovator in modern horror fiction.]
Sixteen of the 17 stories in this book [The Books of Blood] were originally published as the first 3 volumes in Barker's Books of Blood series. They are undeniably among the most powerful and impressive short stories published in the horror genre in recent years. Among the best are “Rawhead Rex”, recently made into a full length movie, but almost all of the others are of first class quality. This omnibus hardcover collection should establish him beyond question as one of the major movers in the modern horror movement.
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SOURCE: Anderson, Ken. Review of The Books of Blood, by Clive Barker. West Coast Review of Books, no. 5 (May 1989): 32.
[In the following review of The Books of Blood, Anderson observes that Barker's effective mingling of the realms of life and death in his short stories uplifts the horror genre.]
Just when you thought a horror story had to consist of a deranged psycho who slashes up teenagers for no apparent reason, along comes Clive Barker. This collection of short stories [The Books of Blood] proves many times over that there are plenty of new plots in the horror genre. Barker's imagination has produced a series of surreal, gruesome tales that overlap the hazy borders between everyday life and the disturbing realm beyond.
Obviously not a book for everyone, even horror fans will be startled by Barker's shocking depictions of life, death, and the stages in between. If you're looking for more than a run-of-the-mill horror plot that still contains ample amounts of blood, gore, and general mayhem, then these stories are what you're looking for. Horror buffs will find that Barker appears to be, quoting the master Steven King, “the future of the horror genre.”
This volume combines Barker's Books of Blood Volumes I, II, and III, dating back to 1984, and includes a recently added postscript. The sixteen stories all come from the premise of a young man who was punished for fooling with the spiritual world by having tales of death scrawled into his skin. The resulting scars, on every inch of his body, tell the bloody stories of the disturbed spectres he encountered.
The images of life and death interact to the point that it's almost hard to separate the two. Late night New York City subway riders become food for underground dwellers, demons are released from fitful slumbers, and a dead man's shroud comes to life. The varied plots are matched by the gruesome dismemberments, disfigurements, and untimely deaths of a wide range of characters. Barker adds off-handed humor to his hauntingly believable tales.
“The dead have highways,” writes Barker to start the book, and these highways have intersections where the road becomes worn and the two worlds meet. This mingling of life and beyond, through Barker's unprecedented imagination, take horror to a new level. Barker's work is different, innovative, and, as horror should be, a little disturbing.
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SOURCE: Burns, Craig William. “It's That Time of the Month: Representations of the Goddess in the Work of Clive Barker.” Journal of Popular Culture 27, no. 3 (winter 1993): 35-40.
[In the following essay, Burns examines images of powerful females in Barker's short fiction, particularly the stories “Raw Head Rex” and “The Madonna.”]
Until recently, the Western world has lived under the grip of male domination. It is only within the last century that women have begun to speak out for themselves, to fight for more rights, more “equality,” through what has been labeled a “Woman's Movement.” It is interesting to note that there is, in human history, a tradition of matricentral tendencies, a trait which is also extremely common, and practically the rule, in the animal kingdom, as Marilyn French points out in her book Beyond Power: On Women, Men, and Morals. And as illustrated in historical records and present-day “ancient societies,” in “every past society known, a matriarchy has preceded the present patriarchy” (Bly 29). These matricentral societies centered on more of what we today see as a feminine aesthetic, as opposed to the force- and domination-oriented patriarchal societies of today. Their religions also reflected these attitudes, with the main deity generally being a goddess, an “earth mother,” with whom the women of the culture shared some sort of intimate rapport. In these societies, as we see in elephant societies, the males were often pushed out, or rejected from the core group. It is likely some subconscious recollection of this exclusion which led to some of the animosity that exists between the two sexes today.
Needless to say, nearly all of these feminine ideals have been destroyed by the present patriarchal societies, in which the United States and Europe play a great part. It would be folly to say that the “mothers” gave up their power readily, for there was obviously a great struggle for power, which is another cause of much of the animosity between the two sexes today. The patriarchal societies, in a tradition that has carried through to modern times, made an attempt to destroy any and all record of the female-dominated societies that ruled before them. Though it would seem from the many traditions and male-dominated power structures that the present manner is the correct one and the way it has always been, recent evidence as well as overriding proof in the natural world has proved to change this concept.
As stated, this animosity that seems to exist naturally between the two sexes is something historical; a learned behavior stemming from that unrecorded and forgotten war. Additionally, it must be noted that the existence of feminine influence was deep enough that it could not be completely destroyed, no matter how much men tried, but was assimilated into what we now consider to be original creations of a patriarchal society. Even today, in popular literature, this tradition of feminine power lives on, as does evidence of the animosity between the sexes, particularly in the work of English author Clive Barker. In his short stories “Rawhead Rex” and “The Madonna,” Barker addresses the mysterious internal powers of women in a manner which reveals a kind of covert sexism stemming, not necessarily from his own personal beliefs, but from this ancient tradition of animosity.
In “Rawhead Rex,” the title character, a creature of the forest, a variety of pagan god, possibly stemming from the tree-worshiping celts of the islands that are Barker's home, escapes his place of entrapment and begins to wreak havoc on a small English town. Faced with killing a woman who is menstruating, “there was no way he could bring himself to touch this woman; not today. She had the blood cycle on her, he could taste its tang, and it sickened him. It was taboo, that blood, and he had never taken a woman poisoned by its presence” (Barker, “Rawhead Rex” 49). Rex, symbolizing power, strength, constitution, all the things that a man should be, by Western society's definitions, is chastised when approaching a woman in the midst of a process in which he can have no part. He is frustrated by it and ultimately turns a hateful eye against menstruation, as man did overtly in the past and more covertly as time progressed.
Barker brings Rawhead, with a face repeatedly described as “huge, like the harvest moon, huge and amber,” (Barker, “Rawhead Rex” 46) a pagan symbol for a pagan god, into the sense of logic and reason that man feels he needs with use of the stable image of the moon. This relationship with the image of the moon reinforces his fear of menstruation. The moon is fairly constant, moving in a roughly one-month cycle, a parallel of the menstrual cycle. Rawhead Rex, like Western man, feels the need for control and power. This blood which flows in roughly the same type of cycle as the moon is one over which he has no control, and it is precisely this not being able to control all natural cycles that drives him to frustration.
We also can see, more clearly, that it is the image of life that goes along with menstruation. The protagonist of the story, having acquired the statue of a goddess, which we find what drives Rawhead's fear: “It was just a symbol of course, a sign of the power, not the power itself, but his mind made no such distinction. To him the stone was the thing he feared most: the bleeding woman, her gaping hole eating seed and spitting children. It was life, that hole, that woman, it was endless fecundity. It terrified him” (Barker, “Rawhead Rex” 87). Rawhead is frightened of life and reproduction, eternal symbols of womanhood and femininity. This fear is representative of the fear suffered by all men, and the location of the goddess symbol demonstrates the historical base of this. The goddess statue is located behind an altar in a Christian church, under the altar cloth. “All this time, under the cloth and the cross, they'd bowed their heads to a goddess” (Barker, “Rawhead Rex” 85). There is indication here of the borrowing that modern religions, namely Christianity, practiced from the preceding matricentral societies. In this image Barker gives indication of the connection between Christianity and the goddess traditions of the past. The fact that the alter cloth only covers the box containing the image of the goddess shows that Christianity is only a cover, or a part of, that feminine tradition, a point he develops more fully in “The Madonna.”
A trait Barker shows is his representation of the goddess as a creature less-than-attractive by modern standards: “A woman … a Venus … her belly swelling with children, tits like mountains, cunt a valley that began at her navel and gaped to the world” (Barker, “Rawhead Rex” 85). He continues this image of fecundity and repulsiveness in a more covert manner in “The Madonna.” Upon seeing the Madonna, the protagonist “knew indisputably that this creature was female … too vast by far to be human … [with] neither head nor limbs recognizable as such” (Barker, “The Madonna” 194-95). The images he gives of this goddess is grotesque and huge, something greater and more powerful than man that personifies the fears felt by men in a post-matricentral society, yet these images hold with the ancient ideals of women as producers and the bearers and source of life.
The image of powerful femaleness and the meekness of the male is continued in other facets within “The Madonna.” There are several instances in which Barker utilizes certain images to express a point on the relationship between man (meaning men only) and the goddess and the relationship between the goddess and Christianity. The monster, for lack of a better term, “is the Madonna. The Virgin Mother” (Barker, “The Madonna” 195). This image is meant to conjure a picture of the Virgin Mary, one of the very few women considered holy in our patriarchal society, and that only because she gave birth to Jesus, the Son of God. Barker maintains this comfortable image, and the relationship between what was and is by repeating the motif of the mother. The Madonna gives birth to children, only they are amphibious creatures that bear little resemblance to the humanity they represent. The Madonna is protected by a guard consisting of four beautiful, naked women who seduce and copulate with any man who enters the labyrinth of the pools where the Madonna resides. We see that these women, all a part of the goddess, of course, suckle the young. Barker is demonstrating the monstrosity that mankind has become having left behind the order of the feminine consciousness, noting that, though man has become something deformed and grotesque, it is still being fed from the goddess' own breasts.
The first person to fall victim to the seductions of the women is a man by the name of Ezra Garvey. It is of interest to note that Garvey wears a crucifix around his neck (Barker, “The Madonna” 166), yet still falls before the pagan goddess. This can be interpreted as the goddess being stronger than the power the crucifix represents or, more likely, that the goddess is actually a facet and a part of the power represented. The second man, Jerry Coloqhoun, actually communicates with the Madonna and, like Garvey, couples with one of the goddess's female guardians. It is not the coupling, however, which is of interest; it is the result. Both men, having left the abandoned bath house where the Madonna resides, forget what happened to them and later wake to find themselves changed; metamorphosed into something that is not themselves. Garvey, “[h]is body … taken from him while he slept and this changeling left in its place … peered at his groin [and] seeing what deformities were in progress there …” (Barker, “The Madonna” 200) eventually kills himself. These same deformities are suffered by Coloqhoun, yet he takes them much more in stride. Both men have been transformed into women, and seeing the two different responses to the condition, we can make certain inferences.
Garvey, who committed suicide, was more willing to die than to join himself with the goddess. It must be noted here that, before his experience in the pool, of which we are told nothing, he kills one of the Madonna's children. What he is doing, then, is renouncing what the child stands for, and renouncing that part of him that is the goddess. His response to his transformation is explanation in itself, and he represents one of the possible avenues for humanity in the future. It is a spiritual question, bordering on the pagan, which is how we react to the presence of the goddess. Matricentral societies and the goddess are older than our patriarchal and war-bound societies of the Biblical era and before, so there can be no denying that there is some learned behavior that has been passed down from era to era in the form of stories, legends, and traditions that help the goddesses tradition continue. Yet Garvey would deny the goddess, deny her keepers, and deny her child and the part of himself that is represented in that child, and he ends up dying by his own hand, in the end rejected by even the river into which his corpse falls. In this sense, his body is the “trap; its shape, its size, its very gender was a trap” (Barker, “The Madonna” 193) that Barker describes it as.
Coloqhoun's reaction, on the other hand, represents the alternative route for man to take. His acceptance of his condition and subsequent joining with the goddess, following her into realms uncertain, risking his life for the change she has wrought upon him and the things she may yet show him, illustrate what may happen when the man embraces the goddess and her mutant child that is himself. Barker's point is that no one religion will suffice, particularly not a religion that is both patricentral and patriarchal, to create a beautiful, healthy child. The Madonna “needs no husband” (Barker, “The Madonna” 196) and we see what kind of children such asexual reproduction breeds. It is the coupling of the god and the goddess which will produce the pure offspring that is the potential of man. The problem that we face, then, is not a threat from the goddess, but the threat from ourselves, as seen in Garvey's denial of the goddess and Carole's (Coloqhoun's girlfriend) reaction to his transformation as “vile [and] revolting,” (Barker, “The Madonna” 207) and she makes the problem perfectly clear when she says simply, “I don't want to see” (207).
Clive Barker has made use of his inbred fears of the goddess tradition, but he has also presented a solution, which is in the reconciliation of the Father and Mother forces that reside in all mankind. In “Rawhead Rex,” he addresses more the fears and horrors that men have of the other sex and the mysteries that surround solely female happenings such as menstruation. Rawhead, the image of man, eventually falls prey to the image of the goddess which frightens him so, and is destroyed. The power of the goddess to debilitate man is shown therein. In “The Madonna,” however, Barker approaches the issue from both sides of the fence, showing the results of an eventual coupling of forces. The “Women's Movement,” mentioned earlier, and the spin-off “Men's Movement,” both take negative approaches at this and look to solve the matter in a social, political and economical manner, none of which will suffice. Barker puts forth that the afflictions of man; the mutant children of the Madonna, and Rawhead Rex; are spiritual. They are discontent with the conflict that has been created between the past and the present, the Christian and the Pagan. That conflict has been plaguing us with its presence since the original attempts to absorb this mysterious and unknowable culture into our own masculine lore. As Barker illustrates, that conflict and mystery will only be solved with the resolution of our own spiritual conflicts between what we have been taught is “decent,” and “pagan.”
Barker, Clive. “Rawhead Rex.” Clive Barker's Books of Blood. Vol. III. New York: The Berkley Publishing Group, 1984.
———. “The Madonna.” In the Flesh. New York: Pocket Books, 1986.
Bly, Robert. “I Came Out of the Mother Naked.” Sleepers Joining Hands. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1973.
French, Marilyn. Beyond Power: On Women, Men, and Morals. New York: Summit Books, 1985.
Ouellette, Laurie. “That Time of the Month.” Utne Reader July/Aug. 1991: 34-36.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 19179
SOURCE: Hoppenstand, Gary. “Embracing Imagination: Uncollected Short Fiction and Final Comments.” In Clive Barker's Short Stories: Imagination and Metaphor in the Books of Blood and Other Works, pp. 171-209. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1994.
[In the following essay, Hoppenstand offers an overview of the major thematic concerns of Barker's short fiction.]
“Lost Souls” is the second Clive Barker short story to feature the occult private investigator Harry D'Amour. It was originally published in the magazine Time Out (issue number 800; December 19, 1985-January 1, 1986). Later, it was reprinted in the horror fiction anthology edited by Dennis Etchison entitled Cutting Edge (1986). “Lost Souls” follows the tradition of the Victorian Christmas tale, imitating the seasonal ghost story as exemplified by Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol (1843). The Christmas ghost story typically celebrated the miracle of Christ's birth with stories about the supernatural. The holiday season ghost story was an annual literary event that was practiced in the popular serial publications appearing in England from Dickens's era to the early twentieth century, when such eminent authors as Henry James and M. R. James made their own respective contributions to the tradition.
Clive Barker's rendition of the Christmas ghost story, though ostensibly working within the tradition, becomes during its telling an anti-Christmas story, one that lampoons the problematic spirit of giving as made famous by Charles Dickens's Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, and one that also mocks the morally hypocritical institution of the modern Church. Barker portrays the Church as destroying miracles before they take root, or fanatically preserving the status quo, even though such fanaticism leads to murder, and more important, to the destruction of miracles. Taking Barker's argument to its logical, ironic conclusion, if the Church had its way, there would be no Christmas and no Christ. The author thus suggests to us that self-determination (as perhaps exemplified in Harry D'Amour's character), rather than religious despotism, reveals the process by which one should conduct his or her life. It's the only way that true miracles can be nourished.
Two plots co-exist in “Lost Souls.” The first of these plots recounts Harry D'Amour's efforts to track down and destroy the “sublimely malignant” demon from Hell named Cha'Chat. Within this narrative, Barker inserts his parody of A Christmas Carol. The second plot updates and burlesques the Biblical nativity scene of Christ's birth, though in Barker's rendition, the Church prefers things as they are and through one of its assassins—Darrieux Marchetti, also known as the Cankerist—literally murders a potential modern-day Messiah.
Both plots concurrently take place in New York City immediately preceding Christmas. Barker contrasts the seemingly joyous seasonal atmosphere with the antics of the creature from Hell, Cha'Chat. Yet Barker blurs distinctions between good and evil in the story, and what would otherwise appear to be the season of goodwill also is described by the author as the season of suicide. What is good about Christmas (i.e. love, compassion, tolerance) is vulnerable and open to attack from either supernatural evil or mortal evil. In fact, both Cha'Chat and Marchetti are flip sides of the same ugly coin. They each—as supernatural agent and mortal agent of evil respectively—exploit or seek to harm the symbolic nobility of what Christmas actually means beneath the tarnished veneer of commercialism and religious exploitation. Hence, that which initially appears a profound contrast in the setting of “Lost Souls” instead acts as a narrative reinforcement of the duplicity and hypocrisy that are the cornerstones of Barker's message. Indeed, the author describes the Christmas atmosphere as paradoxically being conducive to Cha'Chat's activities. Evil preys voraciously upon naïveté and ignorance and the mundane. Barker writes, “… it was almost Christmas in New York; season of goodwill and suicide. Streets thronged; the air like salt in wounds; Mammon in glory. A more perfect playground for Cha'Chat's despite could scarcely be imagined.”
Harry D'Amour is thus compelled to solve quickly the problem that Cha'Chat presents to the mortal world (“Just as long as Cha'Chat didn't see Christmas Day this side of the Schism,” the author informs the reader). He is assisted by a psychic called Norma Paine, who at first directs him to a “derelict house on Ridge Street” where she believes the demon is hiding. When Harry arrives at the house expecting the worst, he instead encounters a young, “undernourished” woman of “Puerto Rican extraction,” Linda, who is “heavily pregnant”—a sign he takes as proof that the demon is nowhere in the area since she would have made a “perfect victim” for the monster. Disappointed at the prospect of possibly having to search the entire Manhattan Island area, Harry returns to Norma Paine's apartment. Norma assures Harry that she is “never wrong,” that she “saw power in that house on Ridge Street … sure as shit.” Harry actually encountered the same “power” that Norma had described: he simply was looking for the wrong type of power. This early brief encounter between the P.I. hero and pregnant woman later becomes a significant coincidental irony when Harry meets her one more time near the story's conclusion, though we, as readers, come to know that he might have sincerely wished he hadn't seen her again.
A bitingly sardonic episode in “Lost Souls” serves as Clive Barker's critique of the now clichéd Scrooge character, the miserly individual who, at Christmas time, undergoes a moral conversion via supernatural means, and because of this re-birth of the soul subsequently becomes outlandishly generous to others. Disguising its form in the body of a grossly obese woman, Cha'Chat approaches a hapless mortal named Eddie Axel as he staggers drunkenly out of his favorite bar. Eddie is the owner of a “highly lucrative” grocery store known as Axel's Superette. Barker writes, “He [Eddie] was drunk and happy; and with reason. Today he had reached the age of fifty-five. He had married three times in those years; he had sired four legitimate children and a handful of bastards.” Barker's pointed remark about Eddie's sexual prowess underscores his character's limited, self-centered mentality. The things that make Eddie happy are proficient sex and a proficient business. Otherwise, he offers the world little else. Desiring to have some wicked fun, Cha'Chat confronts Eddie while floating before him in the air. The disguised demon warns Eddie that he will die soon and that his immortal soul (visibly portrayed to Eddie as a very real, pathetic-looking creature) is in jeopardy because of his “paucity of good works.” When the terrified Eddie asks what he should do, Cha'Chat replies, “Tomorrow, turn Axel's Superette into a Temple of Charity, and you may yet put some meat on your soul's bones,” thus setting the stage for a grisly joke. For when Eddie opens the doors to his grocery store to give away food, he causes a riot in which thirty people are killed and sixty people injured.
Cha'Chat fulfills its nature and achieves what it so desires—making a grim mockery of the spirit of giving during Christmas. Yet Barker accomplishes more in this scene than the enactment of a fictional evil. He is also commenting about the hypocrisy of a faked Christmas generosity. Barker tells us that the act of giving gifts during the holiday season may be frequently motivated by selfish reasons. He implies that the Christmas spirit should not be bought and sold as if it were a commodity huckstered in Macy's Department Store. By inference, we understand Barker's argument to suggest that generosity must come from the soul rather than from the wallet. Giving, if done for the wrong reasons, can be quite destructive, as demonstrated in “Lost Souls” with the Axel's Superette disaster. No doubt Barker would tell us that the same thing might have happened when Scrooge opened his coffers at the conclusion of A Christmas Carol. His contrived generosity would have probably caused a similar riot in Victorian London. Clive Barker understands that magnanimity cannot be superficial. One should not give something while expecting something in return.
Harry senses Cha'Chat's vile hand in the calamity when he sees it reported on television, and he goes to the location to continue his hunt for the demon. Arriving at Axel's Superette on Third Avenue, Harry spots Cha'Chat (he overhears two young boys discussing the terrible smell of a woman, and he knows he has discovered the demon because all the “infernal brethren” possess this same odoriferous attribute) and pursues the creature. Barker develops a scene that wonderfully deflates our trite, horror fiction expectations when Cha'Chat defies Harry D'Amour's verbal incantations, at which point Harry draws his gun and shoots the demon. Though not fatally wounded, Cha'Chat is embarrassed at having received so ignoble a scar. Before Harry shoots the creature from Hell a second time (“It was almost impossible to slay a demon of Cha'Chat's elevation with bullets; but a scar was shame enough amongst their clan. Two, almost unbearable”), Cha'Chat offers Harry what it considers important information in order to be spared further humiliation. It tells Harry, “There's something going to get loose tonight, D'Amour … something wilder than me,” and when Harry demands more information, the demon replies, “Who knows? … It's a strange season, isn't it? Long nights. Clear skies. Things get born on nights like this, don't you find?” Harry presses Cha'Chat for the location of this miracle, and after telling the occult P.I. what it knows, it tricks Harry with an ingenious disguise (“suddenly it was Norma who was bleeding on the sidewalk at Harry's feet”), thus facilitating its escape (“The trick lasted seconds only, but Harry's hesitation was all that Cha'Chat needed to fold itself between one plane and the next, and flit. He'd lost the creature, for the second time in a month”). Barker is deliberately vague when he has Cha'Chat tell Harry that “something wilder” than itself is about to “get loose.” Does the demon's remark mean that this entity will be a harbinger of good or evil? Barker probably would say to us at this point that questions of good and evil are irrelevant, that the more correct issue might be the intrusion of the wondrous into the world of banality, and banality's fatal reply as an answer, via the actions of the insipid Church.
Unfortunately, Harry's failure was not the only loss of the evening; Christmas was to lose a potential miracle as well. Harry locates the “small hotel” that Cha'Chat had told him about (“The place was empty. It had been elected, Harry began to comprehend, for some purpose other than hostelry”). After overpowering a young man who attempts to stop him in the hotel's lobby, he climbs the stairs and hears a woman's cry and then sees a “man in a gray suit [who] was standing on the threshold [of a door at the end of the corridor], skinning off a pair of bloodied surgical gloves.” Harry “vaguely” recognizes the man as Darrieux Marchetti, who is “one of that whispered order of theological asssassins whose directives came from Rome, or Hell, or both.” Barker's use of paradox in suggesting that Marchetti's orders come from Rome or Hell is fitting in that Marchetti, as a symbol of the Church, is a profoundly evil individual. Earlier in the story, when Marchetti is tracking the pregnant Linda, he is listening to a woman singing “some tragic aria” in Italian. Barker writes,
Marchetti regretted having to forsake the show. The singing much amused him. Her voice, long ago drowned in alcohol, was repeatedly that vital semitone shy of its intended target—a perfect testament to imperfectibility—rendering Verdi's high art laughable even as it came within sight of transcendence. He would have to come back here when the beast had been dispatched. Listening to that spoiled ecstasy brought him closer to tears than he'd been for months; and he liked to weep.
As illustrated in the above scene, Marchetti (and, by implication, the Church) revels in fallibility. He is a vicious sadist in that, for him, life (read: art) is best appreciated when perfection is within sight, yet still tragically unattainable. Marchetti is proficient at spoiling ecstasies. He is moved to tears—a most appropriate emotion for him since it signifies more in the way of humor than of grief—when he recognizes in others some glimpse of high talent that is ignobly wasted. True art terrifies Marchetti and his masters since it grants us a glimpse at perfection, at the divine, at the miraculous. Ironically, Marchetti's job is to destroy miracles, to make perfection imperfect, to encourage art to be laughable.
Marchetti also recognizes Harry D'Amour in turn by name. When Harry demands to know what has just happened, Marchetti replies “Private business,” and warns Harry to come no closer. However, Harry sees two bodies “laid out on the bare bed”: one is the pregnant woman named Linda he met earlier in the house on Ridge Street, the other her aborted child. Marchetti informs Harry that the woman fatally protested, that all he wanted was the child, but that he had to kill both. Harry demands to know if the child was a demon, to which Marchetti replies, “We'll never know. … But at this time of year there's usually something that tries to get in under the wire. We like to be safe rather than sorry. Besides, there are those—I number myself amongst them—that believe there is such a thing as a surfeit of Messiahs.” Marchetti then tells his assistant, Patrice (the youth who had grappled with Harry in the hotel lobby), to fetch the car, because he is late for Mass. Appalled, Harry says to Marchetti that he is not above the law, but Marchetti simply walks away when his assistant places a knife at the base of Harry's skull as a warning not to interfere.
To Harry's chagrin, Marchetti and the Church are indeed above the law. They are, in fact, a law unto themselves, a law that enforces senseless ritual and that prosecutes the unusual, judging and condemning to death without a fair trial that which might threaten the status quo. Barker leaves us in doubt as to whether Linda's murdered child will be a power for good or for evil, but because this supernatural power exists at all is a dire threat to an institution that preaches the belief in supernatural miracles, yet doesn't practice what it preaches. We are left after reading “Lost Souls” with the understanding that there are two monsters in the story. The one monster is recognizable. We expect it to do what it does because of its nature. The other monster, the mortal monster, is less comprehensible, and hence more frightening. Both creatures utilize duplicity in what they do, in the evil that they perpetuate, but Marchetti's brand of deceit is infinitely more terrifying than Cha'Chat's because what Marchetti does is so antithetical to the sacred ideology that he is supposed to represent. Marchetti's actions are unnatural because the firm he represents is supposedly in the business of miracle births. If one is looking for answers to the important questions in life, if one is attempting not to be one of the “lost souls,” if one is looking for the true meaning of Christmas, if one is even looking for Christ, then the place not to look is the Church.
Instead, Clive Barker argues a type of self-determinism in “Lost Souls.” After showing his reader the despotic attitude of the Church, Clive Barker gives us a viable alternative, one that denies political and or religious ideology and that encourages optimism in the very process of living life from moment to moment. Barker has Harry D'Amour provide a sanguine philosophical contrast to Cha'Chat and Marchetti. “Lost Souls” concludes with D'Amour presumably resuming his hunt for Cha'Chat (the demon was “Still out there somewhere. In a foul temper …”). Harry contemplates how no two snowflakes are alike, and this image allows Barker, through his protagonist, an opportunity to outline a hopeful future, despite the grim events that have previously taken place in the story. Barker writes,
Each moment was its own master, he [Harry] mused, as he put his head between the blizzard's teeth, and he would have to take whatever comfort he could find in the knowledge that between this chilly hour and dawn there were innumerable such moments—blind maybe, and wild and hungry—but all at least eager to be born.
Barker's birth metaphor in the above passage is an appropriate one. The future and all that the future has to offer are like the child that Marchetti murdered. Each metaphoric child, each new instance in time, suggests great potential and new hope for a better tomorrow, and though the Church butcher Marchetti may have destroyed one such hope, many more will rise to take its place. The Church attempts to protect a past that is dead, while Harry prepares for the future. Barker breaks with the roman noir formula by having his detective hero face the future as master of his fate instead of the reverse. Not defeated by living, Harry adapts to life, being reborn himself like the snowflake into each subsequent fresh minute. Barker has thus transformed what is otherwise a traditionally pessimistic narrative form into an existential vehicle that denies Fate and Fate's control over human actions. In “Lost Souls,” Clive Barker takes the noir out of the roman noir. Harry may be battered and beaten, but he faces the next moment as a father would his new child, with equal measures of trepidation and intense joy.
“COMING TO GRIEF”
Barker had originally intended to include “Coming to Grief” in the Books of Blood, but the story instead found its way to publication in the October 1988 issue of the British edition of Good Housekeeping magazine. It appeared in book form in Douglas E. Winter's anthology of horror fiction entitled Prime Evil (1988). Looking in retrospect at Clive Barker's corpus of short fiction, “Coming to Grief” is perhaps the most difficult tale to approach critically because of its subtle tone. It is also one of the most rewarding.
“Coming to Grief” is a story about how a thirty-something-year-old woman named Miriam comes to personal terms with the death of her mother, Veronica Blessed. During the course of Barker's narrative, Miriam is not only learning how to approach an understanding of the death of a loved one—and concurrently an understanding of guilt and the dilemma of facing one's own mortality—she is also coming to terms with her past childhood memories. Barker explores the irrational nature of memories and the way they serve to define adult emotions. Miriam's adult confrontation with a dreaded, nameless monster lurking in the dark Liverpool quarry framed by the “Bogey-Walk” articulates her conquest of death and her fear of death. Miriam's monster is representative of her id, but it also, as the reader notes in the story's marvelous twist ending, is an actual, physical creature that lures the unwary to their death using the victim's emotion of grief as bait. Equally as important, Miriam, during her rite of social reintegration, deals with peripheral issues such as the terror we feel at the prospect of being alone in the world, and also the joy we should feel with living itself.
When Miriam returns to the Liverpool of her childhood, eighteen years have elapsed. She was nineteen years old when she left, the author tells us, “to taste the world: to grow; to prosper; to learn and to live.” She arrives from her new home in Hong Kong a successful, fulfilled woman, having both a husband who “idolized” her and a daughter who “grew more like her with every year.” Since leaving Liverpool, she has achieved her life's ambition. She has become “a wholly sophisticated woman of the world.” She has become “universally adored.” However, despite Miriam's many successes in life, she still harbors within her soul several tenebrous weaknesses, such as a fear of death and of the unwanted prospect of facing the death of her recently deceased mother.
Early in the story when Miriam enters her mother's house, the thought occurs to her that her mother isn't dead, that she is “camouflaged in the house somewhere, pressed against the wall or at the mantelpiece; unseen but seeing.” Interestingly, this is a similar image that Barker uses to describe Miriam's camouflaged monster of the dreaded Bogey-Walk. Both monster and mother represent for Miriam the same fear, the same dread: the inevitable reality that death cannot be avoided or conquered. Yet, as Miriam discovers within herself during the course of the narrative, death may be an unbeatable foe, but the fear of death can—and must—be subdued if one is to proceed with the day-to-day reality of living. Miriam begins this process simply enough with the trivial business of organizing her mother's things. Barker writes, “The task of dividing, discarding, and packing the remnants of her mother's life was slow and repetitive. The rest—the loss, the remorse, the bitterness—were so many thoughts for another day.” As noted elsewhere in Clive Barker's fiction, banality is viewed negatively; it is the antithesis of imagination, of divinity, of the things in life that are worthwhile. However, in “Coming to Grief,” Barker recognizes the value of using mindless ritual to arrive at mindful contemplation. The author shows us in Miriam's early actions in the story that inane activities, though otherwise reprehensible, can temporarily soothe strained, wounded emotions.
One of the causes of Miriam's emotional wounds is her sense of guilt regarding her difficulty in learning how to come to grief. As her mother's death is an alien thing for her to deal with, so, too, is her willingness to tap the depths of her feelings about what has happened. Miriam experiences guilt when she anticipates returning to Hong Kong, wishing her mother's funeral was “soon done.” Barker writes, “Ah, there was a guilt there: the ticking off of the days until the funeral, the pacing out of her mother's ritual removal from the world. Another seventy-two hours and the whole business would be done with, and she would be flying back to life.” In this passage, Barker has perceptively tagged our repressed, ambivalent sentiments concerning the death of a family member or other significant loved ones. When someone we deeply care for dies, frequently we all experience a galaxy of conflicting emotions ranging from anger to remorse to guilt to fear. We are uncomfortable with death because of its finality. We are equally uncomfortable with the social rituals of death—like funerals—because they seek to organize our emotions into socially acceptable patterns of action that endeavor to lead us away from grief rather than allowing us to confront it, to deal with it, and subsequently to conquer it. Clive Barker features in “Coming to Grief” a subtle, but nonetheless effective, criticism of the funeral business—in the loathsome guise of Mr. Beckett, the funeral home director—and how this business uses empty ritual and masked professional indifference to exploit people who are having a difficult time with the difficult process of coming to grief.
Interestingly, Miriam is not as impassive about her mother's death as she would like to believe. At one point early in the narrative Clive Barker tells his reader that, “Grief … had battened upon her and sapped her will to fight,” thus explaining in some measure Miriam's outward appearing emotional lethargy. Inwardly, however, Miriam's emotions are anything but lethargic. For example, while she is “Organizing the disposal of [her mother's] personal items,” she comes across some photographs of her father and herself when she was a child. The author writes that, “She could hardly bear to look at some of them. She burned first the ones that hurt the most.” Miriam's seeming indifference, the reader notes, as she proceeds with the business of burying her mother is an act, a sham, a mask that covers the seething emotions deep within her. It is a contrivance that nearly succeeds in protecting her from the terrible hurt, nearly, but not quite. Several times, as illustrated by her burning of the photographs (and later in the story by her nearly suicidal leap from the Bogey-Walk), the act falls apart when closely scrutinized. The sham is revealed for what it is; the mask cracks.
What is revealed by the author as lurking beneath Miriam's actions is her reluctance to confront her own mortality. Miriam creates a cognitive dichotomy for herself in “Coming to Grief.” At the one end of this dichotomy is her subconscious perception of Liverpool as being emblematic of death. It is the setting of her childhood fears of dying, the infamous locale of the Bogey-Walk. It is also the scene of her mother's funeral, which serves as a reminder of the prospect of her own impending and irreversible loneliness in life (i.e. over the loss of that part of her that needs her mother) without having the benefit of her mother's presence to comfort her. Finally, Liverpool is the place where, because of death, Miriam has to face the prospect of dying. She contrasts Liverpool (as the place of death and dying) with Hong Kong. While working in her mother's house, she thinks of Hong Kong, and of her husband and her life there. Barker writes,
In Hong Kong, she thought, Boyd would be on duty, and the sun would be blazing hot, the streets thronged with people. Though she hated to go out at midday, when the city was so crowded, today she would have welcomed the discomfort. It was tiresome sitting in the dusty bedroom, carefully sorting and folding the scented linen from the chest of drawers. She wanted life, even if it was insistent and oppressive.
Miriam indeed prefers life, with all its limitations and irritations, to the “tiresome” business of death. Death may be an absolute state, but it is a state lacking vitality, lacking motion. The “discomfort” of living is preferred by Miriam; the simplicity of death is not.
A narrative conflict in “Coming to Grief” centers on Miriam's battles with her own personal weaknesses. The weaknesses of the present, such as her inability to face death and her unwillingness to express her true feelings about her mother's funeral, are linked to the weaknesses of her childhood. Miriam's general fear of death and dying as a child are rolled up into one specific fear: the Bogey-Walk monster. The rational side of Miriam's nature attempts to explain the Bogey-Walk in rational terms. The quarry is nothing more than a quarry her adult mind tells her; there is no monster lurking there to trap the unwary. But her adolescent mind, framed in the stark, powerful hues of a child's vivid nightmares, is more attuned to the real actuality. Miriam becomes aware of the Bogey-Walk monster's existence in her dreams, which is entirely consistent with Clive Barker's belief that dreams and dreaming are noble, wonderful things, and that they allow us to enter worlds of imagination that nurture and strengthen us. In her dreams, Miriam visualized the monster as climbing the walls of the quarry to capture her. The author writes, “But in those dreams she always woke up before the nameless beast caught hold of her dancing feet, and the exhilaration of her escape would heal the fear; at least until the next time she dreamed.” By escaping the Bogey-Walk monster in her dreams, she symbolically escapes death, thus conquering it for the time being and “heal[ing] the fear” of dying. This triumph of life over death in the dream is the adolescent Miriam's temporary victory over her fears.
Of course, Miriam enacts in real life an escape from the Bogey-Walk monster. Near the conclusion of the story, as she is walking past the newly formed break in the red brick wall, she confronts—and is almost destroyed by—the monster of her childhood nightmares. It tempts her toward the edge with the image of her dead mother's face (“Horribly bloated to twice or three times its true size, her jaundiced eyelids flickering to reveal whites without irises, as though she were hanging in the last moment between life and death”) and nearly succeeds in drawing her over the cliff's edge. She is saved from death by an old, childhood friend, Judy, who is an admitted lesbian and who is also a nurturing person. By not succumbing to the Bogey-Walk monster, the adult Miriam finally triumphs over her fear of death and her even greater fear of her mother's absence. Her personal, epic confrontation with the image of her deceased mother, an image very much like a putrefying corpse, parallels Miriam's ultimate confrontation and acceptance of the physical reality of her mother's death. Miriam is able to come to grips with mortality and is saved from a fate worse than death (in the truest sense of the cliché) with her friend's much-needed help (“Miriam felt Judy's arms around her, tight; more possessive of her life than she had been”). Clive Barker thus implies in this concluding act of grace that one of those things stronger than death, stronger than fear, is friendship. We need the support of our parents while we are children, Barker might suggest to us; however, when we become adults and our parents pass away, emotional support may be (and must be) found in our circle of friends.
In the frightening scene that concludes the story—where the Bogey-Walk monster lures the “husband of the late Marjorie Elliot” to his death by enticing him with the image of his dead wife to leap into the quarry, in essence, encouraging him to destroy himself because of his grief—the reader finally learns that Miriam's monster exists, that it is not a figment of her childish imagination. Death is a fact of life waiting for its proper cue. And like the monster of Miriam's Bogey-Walk, it may hide for a time lurking in the recess of life's shadows, but eventually it will make itself known and exact its due.
In the story's other major confrontation, Miriam faces for the first time the body of her dead mother in the funeral home. The moment is a moving one. It is quietly emotional without being mawkishly sentimental. It is gentle without being affected and false, powerful without being stifling. Miriam represses the desire to “reach into the coffin and shake her mother awake.” She mentally wills her mother to wake up. She says “Mama” but once. Barker writes,
She took hold of the side of the coffin to steady herself, while the tears dripped off her cheeks and fell into the folds of her mother's dress.
So this was death's house; this was its shape and nature. Its etiquette was perfect. At its visitation there had been no violence; only a profound and changeless calm that denied the need for further show of affection.
Her mother, she realized, didn't require her any longer; it was as simple as that. Her first and final rejection. Thank you, said that cold, discrete body, but I have no further need of you. Thank you for your concern, but you may go.
Miriam's apparent indifference to her mother's death simply conceals a powerful apprehension: that her mother no longer needs her. As do we all, Miriam possesses that very real desire for a parents' affections, and when death forever robs us of their attention, we feel cheated, hostile, angry, or in Miriam's case, we pretend indifference. What really bothers Miriam in “Coming to Grief” is the anticipation of being alone in the world. She loves life (in part, out of a fear for the alternative), but a life where others—her children, her husband, her mother—need her. Being dead is the same as being alone, from Miriam's perspective, and she likes neither. She counters this unwanted apprehension of being alone during the course of the story with thoughts of Hong Kong and her family awaiting her return. She also learns to fight the feeling of loneliness with the help of her friend, Judy. Following her nightmarish confrontation with the Bogey-Walk monster, Miriam is comforted by her companionship with her friend. The author writes,
They stayed together through the night at the house, and they shared the big bed in Miriam's room innocently, as they had as children. Miriam told the story from beginning to end: the whole history of the Bogey-Walk. Judy took it all in, nodded, smiled, and let it be. At last in the hour before dawn, the confessions over, they slept.
Miriam's “confessions,” her telling of tales, is a cleansing experience for her soul in the truest of religious acts. The process of storytelling purges sin and evil (as Clive Barker also shows in his Books of Blood). It mends and makes whole what has otherwise been damaged or destroyed. And thus we see that even though “Coming to Grief” is a sad tale, though the story's atmosphere is melancholy in nature (a funeral dirge of sorts), it nonetheless offers a profound message of hope. Fear, death, loneliness: we are able to conquer all of these mortal ills, just as Miriam has conquered them, with the gentle guidance of a friend's hand or with the assistance of a loving spouse's support. For Miriam, her “coming to grief” opens the way for her “coming to joy,” with the anticipation of living life to its fullest extent.
CLIVE BARKER'S SHORT STORIES OF DARK IMAGINATION
The remainder of this [essay], as a summary of what has been discussed previously, will examine a number of important topics concerning Clive Barker's short fiction. First, Barker's own remarks about several of his short stories appearing in his Books of Blood will be explored, as well as Barker's generalizations about what his Books of Blood are intended to accomplish within the parameters of the horror genre. Second, an outline that summarizes the significant themes that appear in Clive Barker's short fiction will be developed, an outline that clarifies the artistic sophistication of his writing. Third, additional significant themes evident in Barker's writings will be compared to the work of three British literary giants of the past who wrote tales of dark imagination, including Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593), Mary Shelley (1797-1851), and Saki (pseudonym of Hector Hugh Munro, 1870-1916). Finally, Barker's literary corpus as a whole will be evaluated both inside and outside the formulaic confines of the horror genre, with the judgment being advanced that Clive Barker transforms and transcends the horror genre. He incorporates horror not as the end result of his craft, but as instead one of many narrative elements. I will suggest that Barker is not so much a horror fiction writer as he is a modern-day allegorist, a contemporary teller of morality plays (very much in the tradition of the fifteenth-century European allegorical plays in which human action is personified). Barker envisions good (i.e. well-crafted) horror fiction as being confessional in nature (the entire Books of Blood are a collection of confessions). His artistic roots are, in fact, quite European and quite apart from the heavily genrefied American publishing tradition, a tradition that fostered the overcategorization of fiction in dime novels and pulp magazines (the later being the medium of H. P. Lovecraft's weird fiction) of the past century in order to sell more conveniently fiction as a commodity. And finally, as I began this book's discussion of Clive Barker's short fiction with a comparison between Barker and Stephen King, so, too, will I conclude my analysis with another comparison between Barker and King, a comparison that argues the relative difference between Barker's inventional approach to writing and King's conventional approach and that highlights the flexible durability of the literature of the fantastique (since it equally allows both Barker and King into its fold).
While describing his affection for his story entitled “The Age of Desire,” Barker claims in his interview for the Winter 1987 issue of American Fantasy magazine that he tries not to duplicate other authors' efforts. He says that he “reads in the genre” a great deal, since by doing this he can avoid wasting his time “doing stuff which other people have already done better” (“British Invasion” 47). The reason why Clive Barker's short stories, novels, illustrations, and films seem so wildly inventive is because they are wildly inventive. He simply is not interested in traveling the well-worn path. He seeks instead to forage in new areas, to blaze his own, highly individual trail. We as his readers may become confused for a moment at the direction he takes us, but eventually we marvel at the new sights we see, the new landscape we travel, sights and landscapes that we've rarely, if ever, encountered before in the creative efforts of others. Those readers who cannot come to Barker's short fiction with an open mind, and those who come with rigid expectations to a slavish formula, will probably be disappointed with what they read. Barker does not want to indulge his reader by offering “convenient answers.” He says in his American Fantasy interview, “I don't want to get to the end of the [horror] story and get readers all charged up and then say, by the way, the solution to this really complex and difficult problem is a silver bullet or garlic. To me that's bad storytelling, unless you're doing a pastiche” (“British Invasion” 47).
In his short fiction, Clive Barker occasionally toys with pastiche. Referring to his tale “New Murders in the Rue Morgue,” Barker suggests his efforts at pastiche pay tribute to the original. His rendition of Poe (and of Poe's invention, the detective story) pays “homage to Poe,” and to Poe's imagination. Elsewhere in his Books of Blood, Barker recognizes the talents of other authors. He states, “there's story called “The Forbidden” … which has a nod and a wink to Ramsey Campbell. And there's a few Lovecraftian monsters that lurk around the corners in some of my stories, and certainly some stuff towards Arthur Machen. I mean I'm aware that I am in the company of brilliant writers” (“British Invasion” 47). In addition, Clive Barker imitates the spy thriller in “Babel's Children” and “Twilight at the Towers,” and roman noir in “The Last Illusion” and “Lost Souls.” “Lost Souls” also resounds with images of the Victorian Christmas ghost story, while “Confessions of a (Pornographer's) Shroud” and “Revelations” both flirt with the traditional ghost tale. Yet when Barker mimics another story or another writer, his interpretation soon disembarks from the confines of simple imitation, in the process redefining the pastiche into complex parody or satire. If Clive Barker tinkers with the ideas of others, he does this either to challenge those ideas or to transform them into new ones, into new visions that express Barker's own unique voice. By the conclusion of his pastiche, he has often flipped it on its head, reversing conventions, formulas and expectations.
Barker identifies “Revelations” as being one of these flipped stories in which the heroes are monsters and the monsters are heroes. Barker says,
[In “Revelations,”] the evangelist is the monster and the ghosts, well Buck is sort of an unintentional hero and Sadie … I'm very fond of Sadie. I'm very fond of that story. Partly because it's got a sort of delicate humor to it, and also because it's got a very up ending. The evangelist is dead, the ghosts have found their place in the system, and Virginia is on her way to jail with a smile on her face. Which is great.
[“British Invasion” 48]
The problematic question of what type of fiction Clive Barker writes thus becomes an interesting debate when he injects healthy doses of humor and optimism into the horror formula. We see that Barker not only flips pastiche upon its head, but he also flips the entire horror genre, writing stories that are neither wholly horror nor wholly anything else. Barker himself fuels this debate when he claims that, “There are a lot of stories in the Books of Blood which simply aren't horror in any conventional sense. They're imaginative stories but not horror stories, and my commitment is to imaginative fiction; to worlds of the imagination” (“British Invasion” 45). Barker goes on to suggest that writing horror fiction, in part, fulfills his obligation to the “worlds of imagination,” but that horror is only one of many ways for him to access his imagination. He says, “I just want to write fantastic literature of various kinds, and some of it will be called horror” (“British Invasion” 45).
As noted, Clive Barker's desire to write fantastic literature is not limited to one medium. His work crosses media boundaries as easily as it does formulaic boundaries. For example, Barker incorporates material from his theatrical experience in his story “Sex, Death and Starshine.” He also envisions a close relationship between movies and his short fiction. In his interview conducted with Tim Caldwell for Film Threat magazine, Barker links the cinematic metaphor he creates in “Son of Celluloid” with the act of viewing films. He identifies this cinematic metaphor in “Son of Celluloid” as being a walking, talking cancer that performs movie star imitations; Barker reminds us that the chameleon-like cancer calls itself a “dreaming disease” in the story, and he argues that viewing movies is like having this dreaming disease (17). Barker's wild contrast between dreaming, a concept denoting marvelous things, and disease, a word generating negative images like corruption and death, is entirely consistent with how he frequently incorporates in his writing the similar contrast between the grotesque and the beautiful. Indeed, the entirety of Clive Barker's fiction is a “dreaming disease.” His writing establishes a medium of imagination that blends the unusual with the recognizable and that thus encourages the reader to join with the author in envisioning new worlds and new people, but worlds and people that seem familiar, and because of that familiarity allow us in our imagining to pierce the heart of our own reality with a powerful scrutiny.
Reality for Clive Barker, however, does not necessarily mean a physical truth. He is more concerned with psychological truth. In the Lupoff and Wolinsky interview published in the August 1988 issue of Science Fiction Eye, Barker relates the story about being “invited to address a science fiction class” in London, in which a student challenged him about the logical veracity of “In the Hills, the Cities.” This student identified himself as being a science fiction fan, and said that even though he liked “In the Hills, the Cities,” the story, he said, didn't “make sense.” He claimed that constructing a walking giant by tying together ten thousand people just, in the fan's words, “wouldn't work, they'd … fall over.” Barker learned that the science fiction fan would have been happier with the story if Barker had included a “spurious explanation,” like a force field that holds the giant together. Barker answered the fan by arguing a difference between the science fiction fan and himself. Unlike the fan, he is not interested in dealing with “artificial explanations” in his writing. Barker states in the interview,
What's important to me is to get it psychologically true, is to get it right on a dream level, is to get it right on a subconscious level, is to get it right on a Jungian level. If you get it right on that level, the inventing of the names of machines that will make this all plausible becomes academic. In fact, it almost begins to condescend to the reader. Because what it implies, to me anyway, is that the reader doesn't have the imagination or the breadth to actually say, “This idea makes sense to me, I embrace this idea. I do not need you to invent something from Doctor Who to make this work.”
Clive Barker's point is an intriguing one because it reveals his expectations of his audience. Barker wants his reader to meet him half way, so to speak; he wants him or her to employ imagination in order to appreciate better highly inventional stories of imagination. Imagination may be stifled, Barker suggests to us, by an overdependence upon narrative particulars. In other words, Barker doesn't want us to lose sight of the major issues he's discussing in his fiction because we are searching for other irrelevant trivia. He is an “idea” author, not a “device” author. In fact, Barker sees his work as being anti-mechanistic, which locates him outside the formulaic limitations of science fiction (a genre defined by its reliance upon gadgets and scientific plausibility) and thus places him securely within the much larger parameters of fantasy. His literary sensibility is much more attuned to Mary Shelley's novel of dark Gothic imagination, Frankenstein (often incorrectly cited as the first modern example of science fiction), than to the efforts of Jules Verne or Hugo Gernsback, the former identified as being the most significant person to popularize science fiction in both Europe and America before the turn of the twentieth century, and the latter credited with successfully bringing science fiction to the American pulp magazines during the 1910s and 1920s. Verne, Gernsback, and their following articulate in their writings a powerful adherence to realism. Though they would undeniably also argue that their fiction is highly imaginative, nonetheless the school of Verne and Gernsback upon close scrutiny looks something like the school of Realism (that also initially flourished approximately the same time as did early modern science fiction), where characters and setting must demonstrate some sort of primary association to an empirical reality. Clive Barker's writing, conversely, looks more like the fiction of the English Romantic Movement (circa 1770-1848) with its sense of social progressivism and the transcendental; specifically, Barker's writing resembles the Gothic novels of Mary Shelley and William Beckford—after all, the Gothic novel as practiced by Shelley and Beckford found its roots in the Romantic Movement, and, in fact, is little more than an exaggerated branch of Romanticism. As were the Romantics and their Gothic descendants, Barker is concerned in his fiction of the dark fantastique with an investigation into the function of evil (read: close-mindedness, mean-spiritedness) that impacts the individual or the individual's society at one level, and at another level he is interested in exploring the dynamic range of the forces of our imagination, people and places that are paradoxically beautiful and grotesque concurrently. These twin areas of artistic interest, though manageable within the Romantic's worldview, differ sharply with the concerns of the literary realists, the hard-core science fiction enthusiasts, which hence explains why Barker's young critic experienced difficulty with “In the Hills, the Cities.” He was looking for the type of litter wedged between the city/giant's toes, while Clive Barker was instead relating to the rest of us the city/giant's dreams (or the dream of the city/giant).
A SURVEY OF MAJOR THEMES IN CLIVE BARKER'S SHORT FICTION
Many authors writing within the horror genre today are producing works that lack a larger artistic unity. For the most part, these authors are primarily concerned with simple entertainment, with providing their readers with a moment's diversion, and by inference, concerned with writing commercially successful fiction. They display no true inner voice, no message that speaks something important and something essential to us. They simply are offering a commodity that they hope delivers some measure of financial return for their investment of time. They are in the business of selling the scare, pure and simple.
This may sound like a “put-down” of ninety percent of the horror genre's writers, or like the reductionist observations of a critic gone wild, but neither is the case, really. The paperback horror novel is actually no worse than the paperback western or the paperback romance or the paperback mystery. All popular fiction possesses a rather uncomplicated commercial purpose (as perhaps does the entirety of fiction, both high and low), and the authors of this fiction should not be condemned out-of-hand because what they do has so singular a commercial motive. After all, a number of so-called canonical authors we revere today as being foremost among the artistic elite—such erstwhile literary giants as Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), Charles Dickens (1812-1870), Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), and Mark Twain (pseudonym of Samuel Clemens, 1835-1910), to name just four prominent examples—were motivated in large part to write to make money. And yet artistic integrity and commercial success need not be mutually exclusive concepts. They don't necessarily need to work in opposite directions and are frequently most rewarding when they work together in unison. The marriage of art and money in contemporary literature does not seem to pose a problem when one is discussing Joyce Carol Oates or Kurt Vonnegut. But bring up the names of Dean R. Koontz or John Saul or Anne Rice or (that most horrid of best-selling heretics) Stephen King, and the reception within the community of critics is quite frigid indeed. Perhaps this sad state of affairs should not be surprising. Historically, the horror genre has been one of the most suspect in the literary critic's mind because it seeks foremost to entertain its audience, and if that's not bad enough, to accomplish this entertainment via the reader's gut, rather than his or her mind. It's tough for the horror writer to break out of the “genre ghetto.”
Clive Barker is one of the few to have escaped the horror “ghetto.” Contrary to the attacks leveled against the horror tale, and contrary to the majority of authors who write horror fiction, Clive Barker in his work endeavors to establish a sound artistic voice and cohesive thematic unity. And the fact that he has achieved a certain degree of critical respect for his literary endeavors, while also experiencing a great measure of commercial reward, is a testament to his ability to defy both the falsely perceived aesthetic limitations of the genre and the deep-rooted prejudices of the critic. Barker goes for his reader's viscerals and mind with equal dexterity.
The following outline, then, as illustration of Clive Barker's complex yet wholly integrated story-telling skills, offers a brief summary of the major narrative themes in Barker's short fiction. The titles of the nine themes are: 1) “Text as Metaphor”; 2) “The Game and Game Playing”; 3) “The Deceptiveness of Appearances”; 4) “The Beautiful and the Grotesque”; 5) “Heightened Senses”; 6) “The Messiah Figure”; 7) “The Critique of Institutional Authority: The State”; 8) “The Prison (or Trap) Setting”; and 9) “The Feminist Critique.” This list is neither inclusive nor comprehensive, but it does reveal the author's ability of communicating to his audience, through the entire corpus of his writing, a number of coherent and fully integrated philosophical views about life and death and imagination and the evils of banality.
TEXT AS METAPHOR
For Barker, text has significant meaning as a complex metaphor in his writing. It expresses for him the power of creative thought and is a physical representation of his own love for books and all that books embody, such things as magic and imagination. One of Clive Barker's messages to his readers in his fiction is that the telling of stories—as a specific narrative element of the text—is both a cleansing act, where old sins are purged (much like confession, in a religious sense), and an act of creation, where miracles are engendered. Barker also equates text images with how his characters survive their respective confrontations with good and evil. If, on the one hand, the Barker protagonist is literally able to read correctly the writing upon the wall, then he or she may expect not only to triumph, but also to benefit from the acquired knowledge. In “The Book of Blood,” Mary Florescu, for example, by interpreting the writing carved upon Simon McNeal's body is able to decipher images of wonder and amazement that lie beyond and behind our otherwise mundane everyday experiences. McNeal himself, who was once a reprehensible individual, becomes a walking miracle after the dead use his tortured body as the medium for the telling of their stories. Barker suggests to his reader as well that the object or the person who bears a textual reference also most likely possesses some type of subtextual design that is equally significant when deciphered. If, on the other hand, the Barker protagonist is unable or unwilling to interpret the meaning of texts, then he or she is damned, destroyed. Because Helen Buchanan in “The Forbidden” is not able to identify in time the deadly meaning lurking behind the Spector Street Estate graffiti, she becomes victim to the Candyman's nasty, fatal embrace. Clive Barker, then, with his writing and in his writing has become a spokesperson for writing, and for the importance of literary empowerment. The relationship between texts and the reading of those texts generates power, and magic. All his characters (and we as his audience) can touch magic by tapping into the power of reading.
THE GAME AND GAME PLAYING
Several tales in the Books of Blood feature the game or game playing as an integral part of the story. Because of his duplicitous game playing, Simon McNeal in “The Book of Blood” is punished by those dead spirits that he pretends to have contact with for his arrogance and for his disrespect. Jack Polo in “The Yattering and Jack” plays an elaborate game with a demon from Hell. The stakes are high—life and death (and perhaps even more importantly, the integrity of Polo's family). On the surface, the contest of wills between Jack Polo and the Yattering may seem humorous, but underlying the humor is a grim, ugly battle. The type of game played in “Hell's Event” seems simple enough, a foot race, but as in “The Yattering and Jack” the context behind the game reveals Hell as being the contestant opposing the continued well-being of humanity. The stakes of the game are about as high as they can get—the end of the world. Thankfully, humanity wins this particular race and thus postpones the apocalypse for the time being. In “The Inhuman Condition,” Karney's game, the unraveling of a simple puzzle in the form of a knot, is seemingly less grand than that in “Hell's Event,” but it is by no measure less significant. By untying the knotted cord, Karney unknits and reknits the age-old conflict between science and religion, in which each is fighting for total dominion over possession of humanity's knowledge. The wealthy, insane Gregorius plays a game of hide-and-seek with Satan in his Xanadu-like New Hell, discovering at the conclusion of “Down, Satan!” that he has become a great deal like that which he so desperately sought, that he himself has become the Devil incarnate. Both “Babel's Children” and “Twilight at the Towers” establish a specific relationship between game playing and politics. Barker portrays political games in these stories as being, at times, respectively obtuse or silly; however, they are equally deadly and far-reaching in their impact on others. Ultimately, the game, Barker suggests to us in his short fiction, is a useful narrative device by which he can critique the actions of individuals or institutions. The process of playing games discloses both the strengths and weaknesses of human character, and of inhuman character. It highlights during the process of play an ideal conflict where dramatic action is enhanced, and where the personalities of characters are more fully delineated.
THE DECEPTIVENESS OF APPEARANCES
Frequently in Barker's work, people or places are not what they appear on the surface. False appearances mask the good and evil (most often evil) that lie beneath that surface. Clive Barker's love of metaphor manifests itself in this thematic device. His interest in masking and then unmasking the surface appearance of things allows him the opportunity of creating a wide range of metaphoric images that comment upon the nature of reality and of our often flawed perception of it. A number of Barker's tales feature settings that conceal either bright magic or black mystery. With “The Forbidden,” “The Madonna,” and “In the Flesh,” commonplace settings—respectively, a housing project, a dilapidated pool and bath house, and a prison—are, in reality, the residences of demons or angels. Barker's short fiction is populated throughout as well by people harboring secret selves. Mary Florescu is unaware in the beginning of “The Book of Blood” of Simon McNeal's actual duplicitous nature. Karney is initially unaware in “The Inhuman Condition” of the tremendous power that the derelict Pope hides beneath his unwashed exterior, while in “The Life of Death,” an otherwise seemingly ordinary woman is the carrier of the new black plague and is the walking embodiment of death itself in the modern world. Those characters who are deceived by false appearances in Barker's stories at least experience great terror, and, at worst, experience death. Yet those who are able to penetrate false appearances are more likely not only to survive, but to become stronger individuals in the process. Miriam, for example, in “Coming to Grief” does not submit to the monster falsely bearing her mother's face (though she is helped by her childhood friend), and consequently does not submit to death. She is strengthened by her ordeal at the Bogey-Walk. She regains control of her life because of her confrontation with the chameleon-like monster. Mr. Elliot is not as fortunate as Miriam. He is deceived by the Bogey-Walk monster into thinking he is seeing his departed wife, Marjorie, and soon joins her in death.
THE BEAUTIFUL AND THE GROTESQUE
One of the wildly inventive aspects of Clive Barker's short fiction is the paradoxical contrast he develops between the beautiful and the grotesque. In several of his tales, ugliness is good and beauty is evil; or the wondrous is made wondrous by images of the grotesque; or inner moral strength and virtue are housed in the body of a monster. Barker enjoys incorporating opposing physical, spiritual, or visual characteristics because he continually desires to challenge his reader's conventional expectations. Thus, after startling us with portrayals of good and evil (or more important, of some unique blending of good and evil), he directs us away from the boundaries of convention into a new direction, a direction where he encourages us to re-examine those important things in life that we otherwise ignore or take for granted. In “Sex, Death and Starshine,” Barker counterpoises the hideousness of death with the beauty of artistic perfection. Lichfield and his troupe of actors are the walking dead, yet these actor/zombies are more committed to theatrical art and the correct performance of that art than are their human counterparts. Barker blends the humorous with the grotesque in the story “Dread” when he portrays the transformed Stephen Grace as an axe-wielding murderer done up in a clown's costume. Lurking behind the beautiful face in “Human Remains” is either the intellectually vacuous, narcissistic, male prostitute Gavin, or his vampire-like doppelgänger. In each instance, Barker shows us with this character and with this creature how beauty without substance is both an empty beauty and an evil beauty. Near the conclusion of “The Body Politic,” Barker interjects a scene into the story that is quite bizarre—the rain of amputated hands following Charlie George as he leaps from the hospital roof—and is seen by the nurses and hospital patients who witness the event and perceive it as being wondrous, miraculous. Magic and terror are not mutually exclusive concepts, Barker implies with this moment; they might be the flip sides of the same coin. Evil done to mankind is what the amputated army of hands promise in “The Body Politic.” Good done to womankind is what is promised in “The Madonna.” The Madonna creature is described as being visually freakish, shockingly incongruous. In direct contrast to this grotesque appearance, the Madonna is the physical symbol of female procreative power. To the chagrin of the male characters in the story, the Madonna is not only able to birth the children of dreams (who are also grotesque looking), but she is able to produce gender transformations.
She changes Jerry Coloqhoun and Ezra Garvey from men into women, turning them from silly, pathetic, victimizing males into women who are, after the metamorphosis, not too unlike the Madonna.
The senses play an important role in Barker's writing. His fiction resounds with a love of sensory images. He is very skilled at providing detailed descriptions of scenes and characters that are easily visualized in the mind's eye. We see and smell terror when he wants us to. We hear beauty. We touch magic.
In several of his short stories, the physical senses have an even more important role as a thematic motif. Mary Florescu in “The Book of Blood,” for example, because of her unexpected contact with the supernatural, develops otherworldly senses. Barker utilizes meta-sensual images in “Confessions of a (Pornographer's) Shroud” in discussing Ronnie Glass's interesting transformation (from man into ghost), intending them to act as a means to access the sublime (or the tragic, or the comic). Barker's somewhat humorous, somewhat hideous depiction of what happens when the ultimate aphrodisiac drug escapes the confines of the laboratory setting in “The Age of Desire” relies in large measure upon the detailing of the hapless Jerome's abnormally exaggerated senses (which inflame his lust), senses that make him a dangerous sexual freak. Images of shadow and darkness frame the narrative action within and without the confines of the Pentonville prison setting from “In the Flesh.” What inmate Cleve Smith witnesses or can't witness—because it is obscured by thick, mysterious, frightening shadows—enhances the stark, dramatic tension of the plot.
Tactile impressions of heat, water, and humidity, as well as fantastic visions of beautifully grotesque women and their children, are symbolic of women and the procreative power of women; their use reinforces Barker's intention in “The Madonna” to create a profound feminist allegory. Indeed, perception (both visual and intellectual) is crucial for Barker. In order to see the subtext of life, in order to see the reality beneath the surface appearance, in order to see the miraculous, in order to see the romance in life that is obscured by the debris of everyday banality, one must have a perceptively acute eye that can observe clearly in Heaven and in Hell, and in the world that lies in between.
THE MESSIAH FIGURE
There exists in much of Barker's writing a healthy dose of social satire. He frequently criticizes various secular and religious institutions that in his view negatively affect the way we live our lives. In particular, Barker is fascinated with the workings of religious fanaticism and how fanaticism manifests itself in the Messiah figure. Interestingly, Barker's scrutiny of the Messiah figure in his short fiction appears to be somewhat ambivalent. He writes about good and evil Messiahs, but the unsavory variety seems to crop up more often in his work than the other, and this might suggest that fanaticism, though it may be something that enriches our existence or something that may destroy us, more often than not is something we should avoid. The Messianic Quaid from the story “Dread” preaches a new religion of terror, and definitely is a distasteful character. The insane Dr. Welles in “The Age of Desire” (like Quaid) represents the evil side of our nature in that he wants to propagate a new age not of simple perverted sexual desire, not of a manic scientific mindset, but a new age of havoc and ruin, an age of the black plague's reappearance in the world. In “The Skins of the Fathers” and “Lost Souls,” Barker caustically suggests that the modern world does not act charitably toward prospective young Messiahs, since the Messianic children in each tale are either destroyed by a narrow-minded and intolerant secular society (as seen in “The Skins of the Fathers”), or by a narrow-minded and intolerant Church (as seen in “Lost Souls”). When the State and the Church assassinate these aspiring prophets, Clive Barker is suggesting that when the offspring of the truly divine are murdered by institutional society, then institutional society is effectively maintaining its mind-numbing control over people by stifling their ability to touch the miraculous, to experience imagination in its most wondrous form, to worship the divine.
THE CRITIQUE OF INSTITUTIONAL AUTHORITY: THE STATE
Elsewhere in his short fiction, Barker attacks secular institutional order. “Hell's Event” provides a biting satire of politics, claiming that politicians are in league with the powers of Hell (which explains a great deal, Barker would tell us). “The Body Politic,” as its title might imply, is a parody of political terminology. It also critiques political social movements and the senseless ideological rhetoric that accompanies violent revolution. Barker moves from criticizing politics to lampooning the police state in “Rawhead Rex” and “The Age of Desire.” Both stories feature policemen who are something less than heroic, who are, in fact, ignorance-loving incompetents acting to impede justice rather than working to protect it. Barker negatively portrays the related areas of world politics and political espionage in “Babel's Children” and “Twilight at the Towers.” He sees both as subverting the personal freedoms of the individual. Governments, Barker suggests, are only interested in gaining power and in the maintenance of power, abandoning all sense of ethical decency in their blind, greedy pursuit of that power. In addition to a serious question about the morality (or lack of morality) in how governments govern in several of Barker's tales, the corrupt legal system is placed under close scrutiny in “How Spoilers Bleed,” with Barker coming to the conclusion that the law is manipulated by those in authority in order to subvert social justice and that the phrase “legal rights” is an oxymoron. Barker contends in “How Spoilers Bleed” that legal rights and moral rights are mutually exclusive terms. Business as an unethical institution also attracts Barker's attention. In “Coming to Grief,” he examines the hypocrisy of the funeral business and how this business exploits the grief of others (by trivializing emotion and by ritualizing how we confront—or fail to confront—death in our culture). All in all, Clive Barker regards secular institutional authority as being antithetical to the interests of the individual. It also tends to stifle imagination in our lives by attempting to enforce silly rules and senseless regulations. If left unchecked, if left unexamined, the State in Barker's short fiction is a vicious brute, dogged in the extreme, and extreme in its attack upon individual liberties. The organized mind—the cop, the bureaucrat, the spy, the businessman—as agent of institutional authority, according to Barker, is uncomprehending of magic, is destructive of wonder, and is flagrantly insensitive to our basic intellectual and emotional needs.
THE PRISON (OR TRAP) SETTING
One institution in particular which seems to manifest itself often in Clive Barker's short fiction is the prison. Barker uses images of prisons or traps to dictate the tone and setting of several tales and to underscore dramatic tension. Prisons are emblematic of persecution. They embody the physical (and sometimes the mental) tyranny of banality, the persecution of the socially disenfranchised. An individual's triumph over the trap, the escape from the prison, when rarely (if ever) enacted suggests to us an escape from cruelty and despair. The domestic prison setting of “The Yattering and Jack” encourages us to sympathize with the plight of the Yattering, a demon trapped by his mission to torment Jack Polo, and who is thus tormented in return, being nearly driven insane by the horrors of the suburban lifestyle and by Polo's pretended indifference. In “Pig Blood Blues,” Tetherdowne, or the Remand Center for Adolescent Offenders, is little more than a prison for children. The young boys are entrapped at Tetherdowne by a system indifferent to reform, and more importantly, by a looming supernatural evil (a new, wicked religious cult, in fact) powerful enough to possess even the adult authorities of the system. The fear of returning to prison ironically traps the monstrous Barberio, the escaped convict from “Son of Celluloid,” into metamorphosing into a vicious monster of cinematic images. “In the Flesh” features an actual prison for its setting in which Barker scrutinizes how inmates cope with day to day life. He features an afterlife prison in the story as well, in which he shows us the punishment (and the redemption) awaiting those who murder others. The activities of the one prison are framed by the generally unperceived existence of the other. Together, they allow Barker to demonstrate how characters react with the prospect of entrapment by an uncaring, antagonistic legal bureaucracy or of an otherworldly entrapment where sins committed in life serve to chain people to those sins in death. Helen Buchanan experiences another type of prison in “The Forbidden,” a prison hypocritically intended to be a humanitarian social welfare housing project called the Spector Street Estate (a housing project that is anything but humanitarian or social), where the inmates are poor families and where the jailers are ignorance and violence. Helen herself is eventually trapped by the supernatural warden of this welfare prison, a serial killer known as the Candyman. Her punishment, decreed by the Candyman at the conclusion of the story, is death.
THE FEMINIST CRITIQUE
A great deal of what's to be found in the horror genre tends to be sexist in nature. For the most part, women are rarely granted an equal footing with men in regards to intelligence or courage, and often they serve no better purpose in the horror story than being the damsel in distress. As evidence, note the cinematic parade of “slasher” films where sexually promiscuous women are violently murdered by a male slasher figure; intriguingly, however, Carol J. Clover in her book, Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (1992), suggests a feminist interpretation of the slasher film that is more sympathetic to the roles women assume in these movies. Nevertheless, for the most part, the tradition of horror has not been kind to women through the years. As the genre evolved from its distant Gothic origins, two general types of female characters have emerged. The first type comes to us from Horace Walpole (1717-1797) and his short novel The Castle of Otranto (1764/1765), which is commonly thought to be the first modern example of the Gothic story. In this novel (and the many others that imitated it), women are passive, domestic creatures, who are in need of men's protection and moral reverence, as nicely illustrated in Walpole's narrative of Hippolita and Isabella. These women are subservient to men, victimized by men, then perhaps rescued by men. The second type of Gothic—the romantic (or woman's) Gothic—was first popularized by Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823), and the literary tradition as it descends from Radcliffe does show a greater, more active involvement in the genre by women authors, who write about women for women. Radcliffe's most famous novel is The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), in which she features, instead of the male protagonist common to the Walpole model, a female protagonist named Emily St. Aubert. However, Emily is little better than Walpole's Hippolita or Isabella. Regrettably, Radcliffe's heroines in many ways are just as encumbered by the restrictions of social conventions as are Walpole's female victims. And the disciples of Radcliffe—popular women authors such as Daphne du Maurier (1907-1989) with her romantic Gothic novel, Rebecca (1938)—have done little to change the situation.
Clive Barker, on the other hand, has adopted a strong feminist stance in much of his writing. Several of his short stories document the victimization of women by men; they also depict the strong feminist response to this victimization. In “Jacqueline Ess: Her Will and Testament,” the female protagonist of the story is tormented by the men in her life, until she discovers a tremendous supernatural power within herself that she then uses to antagonize her antagonists. As in “Jacqueline Ess: Her Will and Testament,” “The Madonna” also portrays a conflict between men and women where women triumph (physically and symbolically) over their male oppressors. The gender battle lines are even more clearly drawn in “Rawhead Rex”—where men are representative of destruction, chaos, and death, while women are representative of order and of life. In the epic conflict which ensues, the power of woman triumphs, and the evil harvest king is defeated by the earth mother queen. Closely related to Barker's feminist stance is his use of strong female protagonists. “Scape-Goats,” “Revelations,” “Babel's Children,” “The Life of Death,” and “Coming to Grief” all emphasize female protagonists who are intelligent, compelling, and realistically courageous in their actions. In fact, Clive Barker seems to create some of his best ideas while working within the woman's point-of-view. Indeed, more than any of his contemporary male peers writing in the genre, Barker—as one of the major authors today of the fantastique—is profoundly sensitive to women's issues.
CLIVE BARKER AND THE BRITISH TRADITION OF THE FANTASTIQUE
Our discussion of the major themes readily evident in Clive Barker's short fiction continues in this section as we examine Barker's use of: 1) “The Faustian Pact Tale”; 2) “The Tale of Transformation”; and 3) “The Joke as Narrative Motif.” In the W. C. Stroby interview published in the March 1991 issue of Writer's Digest, Clive Barker, by implication, places himself within the British tradition of fantasy that includes as some of its authors Bram Stoker, C. S. Lewis, J. M. Barrie, J. R. R. Tolkien, H. G. Wells, and Mary Shelley. Referring to the large number of British writers who have also written tales of dark imagination over the years, Barker adds that “the list goes on” (27). He tells Stroby,
I read those books [of science fiction, horror fiction, and fantasy fiction] as forbidden pleasures, never was taught them in school, never heard them celebrated from the mouths of educators whom I admired. So it took me three or four years after I started writing to get past the fact that this was a forbidden form—not even forbidden, that gives it too much mystique, but just a disparaged fiction—to realize that this was where my strength lay and that these forms of fiction could be extraordinarily vital and rich. And I wish to God someone had said that to me.
In part, Barker is discussing in the above passage how the literature of the fantastique in England is the literature of protest, and the literature of intellectual rebellion. And as such, because of its profound anti-establishment flavor, historically it has failed to achieve a comparable artistic recognition with the school of literary Realism: as invented in the novel and practiced by the likes of Samuel Richardson or Henry Fielding.
Though the Romantic movement in England and Europe enjoyed a substantial measure of critical success in the genre of poetry—such as that received by William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats—for some reason, the Gothic novels which were an offshoot of this same Romantic movement engendered considerably more scorn from the critics, despite their popularity with the mass readership. John Langhorne's review of Walpole's Castle of Otranto published in the February 1765 issue of the Monthly Review, though fairly complimentary of Walpole's novel, is nonetheless generally indicative of the literary critic's disregard of the artistic merits of the Gothic imagination. Langhorne wrote, “Those who can digest the absurdities of Gothic fiction, and bear with the machinery of ghosts and goblins, may hope, at least, for considerable entertainment from the performance before us: for it is written with no common pen” (Sabor 71). Exotic invention was then perhaps more palatable in the guise of poetry, or maybe the Gothic novels of the time were too deeply rooted in folklore and in a culture indigenous to the lower classes. Perhaps Langhorne's “ghosts and goblins” suggested a repulsively common entertainment that was more emotional in its appeal than intellectual, and thus more suspect to the educated elitist. Whatever the reasons, for the European literary critics the fantastic imagination worked throughout the nineteenth century in poetry, but not in prose. And this is the artistic, historical context that fostered the prejudice against fantasy that Barker identifies in his Writer's Digest interview.
Ironically, the embryonic Gothic imagination in America was better tolerated than in Europe. It was, in fact, the impetus that inspired much of what was published throughout the literary era known as the American Renaissance. During the relatively same period in the nineteenth century, while the Gothic in Britain was little more than a guilty pleasure of the English middle-class reader, in America the psychological Gothic tale was the narrative form of choice of such talents as Charles Brockden Brown, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville. It, unlike the European Gothic, was the fiction of the culturally elite, written by the New England elite for the New England elite. It was rarely challenged as being sub-standard or sub-literate, as was its European cousin. Though Americans appeared more comfortable with stories of dark imagination than did their British counterparts, this is not to say that horror and dark fantasy were beaten into total oblivion in Europe. Instead, the authors of the fantastique disguised what they wrote. Some of the finest British horror, for example, was not written by horror writers. Instead, it was written by authors—like Barker himself—who were not limited by the strict confines of genre expectations, and who, in fact, were more mainstream (and thus more acceptable in the eyes of the London Times literary critic) in their overall approach to their craft. Rather than being the focus of their stories, horror was only one narrative element from among many that they selected to construct their tales.
There's no denying Clive Barker's use of the horror genre as a form of artistic and ideological protest against the school of Realism (or more correctly, against the mainstream), but I would also argue Barker's connection to the legitimate British literary heritage, a heritage of fantasy equally as important as the American. This section, then, intends to trace three additional major themes in Barker short stories to specific works of literature written by three significant British authors—Christopher Marlowe, Mary Shelley, and Saki—works that are difficult to pigeonhole as genre fiction, yet nevertheless house a core of dark imagination beneath their otherwise respectable appearance. The time frame involved in this brief survey ranges from the Elizabethan through the Edwardian periods.
CHRISTOPHER MARLOWE'S DOCTOR FAUSTUS, AND THE FAUSTIAN PACT TALE
In a book entitled Horror: 100 Best Books, edited by Stephen Jones and Kim Newman, Christopher Marlowe's play Doctor Faustus (first performed in 1594, and first published in 1604) is ranked as the top entry, though technically speaking, Doctor Faustus is not a “book” in the sense that a novel is a book. Clive Barker wrote the entry entitled “The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus” (which was later reprinted in Clive Barker's Shadows in Eden), in which he discusses the appeal of Marlowe's play, and in which he defines Doctor Faustus as an essential story. In Barker's own words, he describes the essential story, “It is not that the old stories are necessarily the best stories; rather that the old stories are the only stories. There are no new tales, only new ways to tell” (“Tragical History” 11).
The specific essential story that interests Barker in Doctor Faustus is the Faustian pact tale. Sylvan Barnet recognizes a religiously conservative theme in Marlowe's play, a didactic conservatism that “teaches us to adhere to traditional Christian behavior rather than to practice the unlawful things that exceptional minds give themselves to” (viii). Barker identifies this Christian conservatism in his analysis of Doctor Faustus as the fall of an “ambitious man, brought down through an excess of pride, or curiosity, or half a dozen other sweetly human qualities” (“Tragical History” 12). Barker's attraction to the Faust legend is thus understandable because much of what Clive Barker writes celebrates emotional passion and intellectual excess, which are to what Faust's ambitions ultimately lead him. For Barker, Faust is a type of tragic hero who envisions himself as a rebel, much as Barker envisions his own writing as an act of rebellion against and challenge to the status quo. Barker is also fascinated by Faust's quest for forbidden knowledge, the vulnerable mortal seeking to know and control divine (or demonic) forces, and who, conversely, despite his magnificent efforts is the one controlled by those forces, the one destroyed by his aspirations and his flawed pride. Again, Clive Barker's artistic interest in this particular aspect of Doctor Faustus is understandable, since many of Barker's characters search for forbidden knowledge of some type. Often, Barker's characters possess sinister ambitions or mask shadowy recesses within their psyche. They frequently thirst for that which is just beyond their reach and are damned for having the thirst in the first place. Noble evil (or ignoble goodness) is a paradox that Barker is most interested in writing about. He fashions moral paradox to motivate better his characters' actions in their quest for knowledge. Barker further identifies the relationship of the Faustian pact story, the horror story, and the essential story in the following passage,
[The pact] story [as an essential story] will survive any and all reworkings, however radical, because its roots are so strong. That far-sighted backward glance I spoke of earlier [in the essay]—the one that leads back to the rocky place—shows us in the Faust tale one of the most important roads in all fantastic fiction. At its center is a notion essential to the horror genre and its relations: that of a trip taken into forbidden territory at the risk of insanity and death.
[“Tragical History” 13]
Clive Barker incorporates the Faustian pact story in several of his Books of Blood stories, as well as in his novella The Hellbound Heart, and in his first novel, The Damnation Game. “The Yattering and Jack” highlights the consequences of making a bargain with Hell and the attempt to renege on that bargain. Jack Polo must suffer for the sins of his mother, for it was she who made the infernal pact. Like Daniel Webster from the Stephen Vincent Benét tale, Polo successfully beats Hell at its own game. The Faustian pact story also appears in “Hell's Event.” Gregory Burgess, a distinguished Member of Parliament, is in actuality an agent for Hell, having sold his soul for political power. With Burgess, Barker is satirically illustrating the evil self-interest that underlies the motives of a number of politicians, and the evil of politics in general. Burgess is punished for his perverted ambitions, and he is damned as well as dead at the story's conclusion—a just fate, Barker implies in the story, for the duplicitous politician. Young Billy Tait from “In the Flesh” makes a pact with his dead grandfather, Edgar Tait (who is the story's equivalent of Lucifer), for the promise of supernatural power. What the naïve Billy doesn't know about the nefarious Edgar is the maleficent reason that compels his grandfather to share his secrets. Billy is ultimately doomed in his bargain and must pay a terrible price for his foolishness. The lure of forbidden knowledge, as it tempted Billy Tait, tempts the magician Swann in “The Last Illusion” as well into selling his immortal soul in exchange for the ability to perform real magic. Then, disappointed with the bargain, Swann spends the remainder of his life showing the power of magic to be trivial, thus antagonizing his fiendish masters into retributive action. Swann is similar to Jack Polo from “The Yattering and Jack” in that each character endeavors to trick Hell into terminating the conditions of the pact instead of terminating them. However, Swann's physical body is already dead as “The Last Illusion” opens (murdered by the demonic Mr. Butterfield; score one for Hell), though his soul may still be saved from the diabolical tortures planned for it. To enact this salvation, the private investigator Harry D'Amour is recruited, the designs of Hell are thwarted, and Swann escapes his punishment.
MARY SHELLEY'S FRANKENSTEIN, AND THE TALE OF TRANSFORMATION
The atmosphere of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus is undeniably bleak; it even has moments of genuine terror. As the editors of Horror: 100 Best Books have correctly identified, Doctor Faustus is a first-rate horror tale. And yet, why did Elizabethan audiences—who, though more broad minded and tolerant than their distant medieval relatives, were still profoundly superstitious in a religious sense—not reject such a fantastic story? Why did they not outright condemn the play as blasphemy? Part of the reason why Marlowe got away with the horror story of Doctor Faustus is that he effectively disguised it by making it look like something other than a horror story. Marlowe—as expert storyteller—knew that his audience was fascinated with magic and evil and demons from Hell (as were the readers of Dante's and John Milton's epic poetry, and as are horror film audiences today), and that's exactly what Marlowe gave them. But he packaged his horror story as moral allegory. He flirted with scary, blasphemous things in his play, yet he also presented a conclusion that judiciously punished the people who sought these scary, blasphemous things. His audience entered the realm of cultural taboo in Doctor Faustus, looked at it, thought about it, and then was led back to the social norm in the end, seeing sinners properly punished (lest it look too inviting) and God glorified over Satan. The threat of damnation made nice, frightened, cooperative men and women of his play's viewers. Indeed, Doctor Faustus is fundamentally dressed up as a cautionary tale. Mary Shelley successfully follows this same tradition in her most famous novel. However, unlike Doctor Faustus, Frankenstein is not an effective horror story; it's not even mildly frightening. It is undeniably a Gothic novel in its use of setting, and it obviously originates from Walpole's model. But Shelley's effort is much less terrifying than, say, Matthew Gregory Lewis's The Monk (1796), or even the Walpole original. Rather than generating horror for the sake of horror (or shock for the sake of shock, as did Lewis and Walpole), Frankenstein is Shelley's rather tame, sometimes slow-moving debate about revolutionary knowledge, specifically about what constitutes forbidden wisdom. As in Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is a story about the sin of human pride gone wrong, and of mortal humanity tragically seeking that which is (and must remain) God's divine province. Marlowe is simply more frightening in the way he discusses sin than is Shelley.
The subtitle of Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein is The Modern Prometheus, thus suggesting to her readers that the novel's narrative focus should be on the creator rather than the monster. We know from our Classical sources that Prometheus stole fire from the gods to give to humanity and was punished for his theft. Shelley intends there to be a thematic connection between the scientist Frankenstein and Prometheus, the metaphoric “fire” in question being the secret of giving life to lifelessness. Unfortunately for Shelley, history has shown her audience through the years to be decidedly more attracted to fire than the bringer of fire. The monster, and not the creator, has sparked and inflamed our imaginations. Regrettably, however, those readers of Frankenstein drawn to the novel expecting Boris Karloff will be disappointed; Shelley's monster is certainly less horrifying than the Universal Studios' version, yet infinitely more interesting in that he is such an atypical character, such an inventive combination of Adamic figure, melancholy philosopher, pitiful murderer, and persecuted freak. He, rather than Frankenstein, offers the fully realized Romantic ideal, the tragic, yet noble, Byronic figure. Victor Frankenstein himself is little more than a melodramatic protagonist, an arrogant sap and a fool who gets what he deserves. His monster, on the other hand, is both tragic and sympathetic. Nothing quite like him was written before Shelley's novel, and he represents—as does no other aspect of her story—the novel's great genius.
If, then, Frankenstein's monster is the proper focus of our attention in Shelley's non-horror, horror novel, then one of the more important aspects of the monster's story is the tale of transformation, and this is specifically where Barker's own short fiction philosophically and artistically connects to Shelley. The monster basically undergoes three significant types of transformation in Frankenstein: 1) a physical transformation, where the monster's body is physically re-born (via Frankenstein's science) from lifeless clay to living tissue; 2) an intellectual transformation, where the monster's intellect evolves from being a tabula rasa to becoming that of a sophisticated savant; and 3) a moral transformation, where the monster's new soul, which at first is good and devoid of sin, changes into something evil—a murderer's soul—because of his persecution and because of his maniacal desire for a mate like himself. The tale of transformation is what, in part, makes Mary Shelley's Frankenstein one of the great works of dark imagination, and Barker, in his own fictional efforts, seems to mine the same literary fields as did Shelley.
Numerous characters in Clive Barker's short fiction, like the monster in Frankenstein, undergo some manner of physical, intellectual, or moral transformation. Simon McNeal and Mary Florescu from “The Book of Blood” are each radically transformed—the one physically, the other intellectually, both spiritually. In “Pig Blood Blues,” boy becomes pig, in the process becoming cult leader; in “Sex, Death and Starshine,” the living die, then are re-born into a more perfect, a more aesthetic state-of-being. With “In the Hills, the Cities,” giants walk the earth, giants whose frames are composed of the innumerable bodies of otherwise simple townsfolk. Normal Stephen Grace in “Dread” changes into an abnormal axe-murderer; victimized Jacqueline Ess in “Jacqueline Ess: Her Will and Testament” changes into formidable victimizer; Phillipe Laborteaux's ape in “New Murders in the Rue Morgue” changes into something closely resembling a human; and the criminal named Barberio in “Son of Celluloid” changes into cinematic vampire. Ronnie Glass from “Confessions of a (Pornographer's) Shroud” physically transmutes from man to ghost, as does Frankie in “Scape-Goats.” In “Human Remains,” a young male prostitute named Gavin completes his metamorphosis into a soulless echo of humanity, and the echo, in turn, assumes Gavin's former role. A knotted cord in “The Inhuman Condition” transforms into the riddle of evolution; and people's hands in “The Body Politic” transform into a murderous army of revolutionaries, rebelling against their former bodies. Immaterial ghosts become material briefly in “Revelations.” A religious fanatic morally evolves into the mortal equivalent of the Devil in “Down, Satan!” A human guinea pig in “The Age of Desire” becomes an inhuman sexual freak. A prison inmate from “In the Flesh” changes into a murderous smoke-like creature; killers and victims are made into the stuff of folklore and legend in “The Forbidden”; men are made into women in “The Madonna.” A woman dying of disease becomes Death incarnate in “The Life of Death,” inflicting upon others the unwanted gift of the plague. Imperialistic Europeans from “How Spoilers Bleed” change into the semblance of rotting fruit before they die of a supernaturally infectious jungle rot. Werewolves are made into agents of espionage in “Twilight at the Towers,” while a master illusionist becomes a master magician, becomes dead, then becomes saved in “The Last Illusion.” And finally, Miriam's moral transformation in “Coming to Grief” makes her a stronger person in the end, a person toughened by death enough to confront death squarely.
More than any other thematic device evident in Barker's fiction, the tale of transformation is the most prevalent, and obviously the author's favorite. Clive Barker's frequent use of transformation as a narrative motif reinforces his philosophical connection to the Mary Shelley school of Gothicism, and to the larger school of nineteenth-century Romanticism. Barker is enamored with telling stories of magical metamorphoses because these changes represent for him the defeat of the commonplace and the celebration of imagination. Imagination, for Barker, is change, is a crucially needed change if we, as humans, seek to improve our lot in life. Barker recognizes that physical, intellectual, and moral transformations are the stuff of life itself, and of death. Those characters who are better suited for change, those characters who are not disillusioned nor destroyed by change, in a Nietzschean sense become stronger in the process, more magical and more divine than what they had previously been or previously known. Even the act of Clive Barker writing his tales of the fantastique involves several levels of metamorphosis. At the most basic level, the author transforms words and sentences into meaningful texts. At another, more abstract level, these texts are read, and interpreted as a philosophic dialogue between the author and the reader. At a final level, this philosophical dialogue becomes a part of the reader's own imaginative process, so that, returning full circle, the product of Barker's imagining motivates us into imagining, and we are each inclusively changed by the catalyst of our imagination.
SAKI'S “THE UNREST-CURE,” AND THE JOKE AS NARRATIVE MOTIF
Perhaps the British author who Clive Barker resembles the most in his short fiction is Saki. Like Barker, Saki is a true craftsman of the written word, where each sentence, each scene, and each character are carefully devised for the precise effect, and, in addition, like Barker, Saki in his exquisitely wrought short stories relies heavily upon the joke as narrative device. For both Barker and Saki, the joke serves as an effective means by which people and people's attitudes may be closely examined and satirized. A representative tale from The Chronicles of Clovis (1911) entitled “The Unrest-Cure” nicely illustrates how Saki employs the joke as social satire, while also outlining the points of comparison between Saki's and Clive Barker's work. Basically, Saki's “The Unrest-Cure” attacks complacency and routine—in the guise of J. P. Huddle and his sister—by making fun of these traits, as do many of Barker's stories. “The Unrest-Cure” also attacks the conventions of organized religion (as well as its prejudices and its hypocrisies). A number of Barker's tales criticize organized religion, including (as a sampling) “The Midnight Meat Train,” “Pig Blood Blues,” “Rawhead Rex,” “Confessions of a (Pornographer's) Shroud,” “Revelations,” “Down, Satan!,” and “Lost Souls.” Both Saki and Barker see the bureaucracy of organized religion as being silly, or self-serving, or just downright vicious. “The Unrest-Cure,” lastly, elevates the trickster figure—a character named Clovis, who also appears elsewhere in a number of Saki's other short stories—to a heroic level. Clovis represents Saki's “voice” in the narrative, and through Clovis, Saki is more effectively able to parody that which needs parodying in the Edwardian upper-middle class. Clive Barker, though he doesn't employ a specific persona who is consistently featured in a variety of adventures, nevertheless, as does Saki, frequently assumes a character's point-of-view in the story in order to comment specifically about our modern day foibles.
Saki's so-called cruelty in his stories has often been unfortunately misunderstood. His critics, uncomfortable with his seeming delight in constructing the bitingly caustic joke in his fiction, attempt to draw biographical connections to an unhappy childhood (hence, the explanation for the unhappy child protagonist in a number of his stories) or to a repressed homosexuality. Auberon Waugh, writing in his introduction to the Penguin Modern Classics edition of The Chronicles of Clovis, would like us to view Saki's humor as “a lonely cry for pity and understanding,” so that we, as “normally kind-hearted” readers, will not feel too guilty for enjoying his stories (xii). This remark not only condescends to Saki's immense storytelling abilities, but it also takes that frustratingly familiar critical stance that anyone who writes about the dark side of human nature must necessarily be part of that same dark side. Barker's fiction is most definitely not a “cry for pity and understanding” (nor, I suspect, is Saki's). Instead, it is an assault against that which Barker finds malevolent (or marvelous, or both) in our society, and in us. The joke, as Saki and Barker well know, is a way in which cruelty may be instructive.
Indeed, there is a serious didactic element to Barker's use of humor. “The Book of Blood” and “Dread” each have characters who play cruel practical jokes, and who, as a consequence of playing jokes, in turn become the butt of even crueler jokes. Simon McNeal from “The Book of Blood,” for example, pretends that he is a psychic capable of communicating with the dead. He is making fun of something that should not be made fun of; he is mocking a powerful social taboo. Offended by McNeal's sense of humor, the dead decide to play their own joke on McNeal, transforming the pretend storyteller into a literal (and a more precise) teller of tales. The deranged Quaid in “Dread” plays an even more vicious variety of practical joke on Cheryl Fromm and Stephen Grace. Ostensibly conducting scientific research about the emotion of fear, Quaid is instead merely enacting his own sadistic fantasies at the expense of innocent others. With Stephen Grace, Quaid goes a bit too far in his joke, becomes trapped by it, and dies because of it. Two Books of Blood short stories that take the joke to an extreme are “The Yattering and Jack” and “Hell's Event.” Barker decimates the stereotypical domestic Christmas setting in “The Yattering and Jack” with slapstick images of homicidal turkey dinners, spinning Christmas trees, and the silly antics of an intellectually slow-as-molasses demon, who humorously vents his hellish rage (a rage that should make the strong tremble in fear) upon simple house pets. “Hell's Event” is less outrageous, but no less comical; the story takes the apocalypse and turns it into a sporting event, poking fun at both religion and sports in the process. The tale also has some fun making fun of politicians. As evidenced in the above-mentioned examples, the levels of sophistication of Clive Barker's narrative jokes are great, ranging from the merely amusing to the outrageously farcical, from light to grim humor. Sometimes Barker develops his jokes throughout the course of the entire narrative, one amusing event stacked upon another until it all becomes burlesque. Other times, Barker focuses his attention upon word play. In many of his short stories, for example, he puns in order to attack clichéd expressions, to mock expectations, to lampoon conventions of communication. One of his stories in particular, “The Body Politic,” takes word play to the limit, ridiculing the trite language of political movements to such an extent that the story itself becomes one huge pun. Barker's love of the word (and the symbolic context of language) is most evident in his love of puns; they provide the careful reader of Barker's fiction many entertaining moments of amusement.
CLIVE BARKER AS ALLEGORIST
The domain of the dark fantastique is flexible enough to accommodate equally the likes of both Stephen King and Clive Barker. It permits each author to prosper in his own unique fashion, and it rewards each with a substantial devoted following. In fact, King and Barker frame the opposite ends of the fantastique. Their efforts detail radically different approaches to the writing of their craft. Both approaches work well; they both share the same basic realm of Gothic imagination, yet they also express an artistic point-of-view that is quite distinct from one another.
In his autobiographical article entitled “On Becoming a Brand Name” that discusses his rise from obscurity to the status of best-selling author, Stephen King proclaims that he is a “brand name” writer, the “Green Giant of what is called the ‘modern horror story.’” He defines a brand name author as, “one who is known for a certain genre of popular novel” (15). King's willingness to identify himself as the producer of a market-sensitive commodity does his honesty about his writing justice, yet it also reveals how securely his fiction is tied to his understanding of the commerciality of literature, and how typically part of the current American publishing scene he is.
Stephen King and Clive Barker are each preeminently successful fantasists. Each, as mentioned in the first chapter, are recognized by their peers, their audiences, and the critics as two of the foremost of today's horror fiction writers. Yet the one author is comfortable with the designation of horror fiction writer, while the other is not. King writes to fulfill his reader's and his publisher's expectations. Clive Barker does not. King follows (and frequently imitates) what has worked well within the strict confines of the horror genre as established by the recent past (and has even written a detailed analysis of the genre's immediate history, Danse Macabre, in which he demonstrates his formidable knowledge of what has preceded his own work). Barker defies formulaic conventions, undermines expectations, and continually tests the limits of his publisher's willingness to experiment. Both King and Barker are very skilled at what they do; they just go about it from opposite ends. For the most part, Stephen King sees genre fiction as being a good thing. Clive Barker does not. Stephen King has co-opted the commercial prerequisites of the horror genre. He has adapted—and has certainly thrived by—the dictates of the literary marketplace. He has directly or indirectly profoundly reinforced with his “brand name” reference the ability of the industry to designate for the author artistic standards of conduct. King greatly empowers his readers and his publishers with the ability to determine the direction of his work. And he has done all these things while still writing some of the very best popular fiction being published today.
Returning to an earlier notion developed in the first chapter of this study, Clive Barker is very British (read: very non-traditional and very suspicious of the horror genre tag) in his approach to writing fantasy, while Stephen King is very American (read: very traditional and very comfortable with the horror genre designation). King is more intimately part of the recently evolved American business of publishing for profit than is Barker. The American publishing scene, when it made the transition from cottage industry to mass media business during the latter half of the nineteenth century, also made what was previously not condemned as being sub-standard literature—the Gothic horror story—and turned it into something that sold immensely well and that became reviled by the American critic as artistic trash. When the Gothic narrative was packaged as genre fiction (in order to be sold for profit), it lost respect in this country as a legitimate art form. And as the American popular press became even more commercial around the turn-of-the-century, as genre became even more codified as the essential medium of the dime novel, the pulp magazine, and the paperback best-seller, then genre fiction—like the horror story—became ensconced as “lowbrow” entertainment.
In Europe and America during the nineteenth century, the tale of horror was not understood to be the sole province of the unwashed masses. It was more integrated (as was discussed in the previous section) throughout the total literary culture of the period than it is today. But as our culture itself began to organize along vertical lines rather than horizontal, the Gothic horror story—as commercial entertainment—toppled to the bottom of the artistic hierarchy. What was once highbrow in American literature became lowbrow. Lawrence W. Levine argues in his study, Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America, that the notions that define high, middle, and low culture in our society are primarily determined by the prevailing ideology, the definitions of which are constantly in flux rather than permanently fixed. Levine also goes on to say that during the nineteenth century, American culture was a more “shared” experience than it is today (8-9). He states,
What I mean, in referring to a shared culture, is that in the nineteenth century, especially in the first half, Americans, in addition to whatever specific cultures they were part of, shared a public culture less hierarchically organized, less fragmented into relatively rigid adjectival boxes than their descendants were to experience a century later.
I would argue that American fiction was fragmented into Levine's designations of high and low culture (what I would phrase “elite” and “popular”) about the same time as the entertainment print mass media began to establish its dominance over how the business of publishing was conducted in this country, a time frame encompassing the Civil War to World War II. Even the hardcover novel, once the sole domain of the cottage industry book seller/book publisher, by the end of the nineteenth century defined its success in commercial, rather than artistic, terms with the advent of concept of the “best-seller” (Tebbel 180). As each segment of the mass media handled genre fiction—the dime novel from approximately 1860 to 1910; the pulp magazine from approximately 1910 to 1950; and the paperback book from the late 1930s to the present—it was attacked more vigorously by Levine's newly evolving cultural elite. By the time Stephen King inherited the distinction of being one of the top best-selling authors of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, the damage caused horror fiction by its very popularity with a mass audience was complete. King's tremendous success engendered mistrust and dislike by the literary critic. And yet, King found solace in his sales figures, comfort in his multimillion dollar contracts, protection from the stabbing barbs of the hostile New York Times book reviewer. The American Gothic horror novel, with King's defiant assistance, is now both successful and vilified. It has relinquished the hold it once enjoyed upon the American literary imagination of the nineteenth century (as outlined in the previous section). It has become primarily concerned with cheap thrills, with the scare, with shock value, because these things sell to a large audience.
If the European Gothic novel was intellectually suspect during the nineteenth century, it never added to that problem the additional problem of being commercially suspect as well. The British authors identified in the previous section did not have to combat the equivalent of the contemporary American commercial press. The British did have their “penny dreadfuls,” but these never defined the standards of the entire British publishing industry. Having not been cursed (or blessed, depending upon your perspective) with a dominant commercial press where the financial bottom line reigned supreme, authors like Shelley and Saki were given a much freer hand in writing fantasy, in incorporating fantasy as part of their larger narratives, in utilizing dark fantasy for something more than mere shock-for-shock's sake entertainment. And this is where Barker again differs fundamentally from Stephen King. Barker wants to transform the horror genre, King wants to enforce it.
Clive Barker makes known his dislike of popular genres in the following statement,
Genre makes a most reliable noose; a man could strangle himself a dozen times attempting to separate the threads of one fictional form from another. It's true that both publishers and booksellers make the process seem easy, dividing Romances from Thrillers from Science Fiction from Horror Fiction, as though these definitions were self-evident. To slicken the process still further, many authors actively strive to produce work that merely echoes previous pieces (their own, or other people's) thus offering little challenge to the generic status quo.
[“FT Forum” 3-4]
What is obvious, finally, in our comparison between King and Barker is that King endeavors to entertain his readers, while Barker wants to instruct them. Clive Barker's creative efforts, like Christopher Marlowe's and Mary Shelley's and Saki's and a handful of others, are didactic in nature, and the subject of their instruction is Mystery. Indeed, Barker's writings are similar to the European mystery plays where sin is examined and divine passion is revealed to an audience. Like these mystery plays, Barker balances reality with fantasy, subjectivity with objectivity. He employs fanciful concepts to explain that which desires to become fanciful. Barker is a modern-day allegorist. His fiction, as I hope I have illustrated, is replete with subtextual references. It contains extended metaphors, complex structures of socio-political references, ideas crammed with double meaning, rich symbolic narratives that reveal the world to us, while concurrently mystifying it. First and foremost, Barker strives to teach us in his writings, to show us how to approach imagination, embrace imagination, revere imagination. Barker is less the horror fiction writer, and more the instructor. If we read Barker's short fiction carefully, we may become enlightened by his instruction.
In leaving our analysis of Clive Barker's short fiction, a scene in Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) reminds me of Barker's Books of Blood. At the end of the tenth chapter of Wilde's novel, Lord Henry Wotton gives Dorian Gray a “yellow book” (yellow representing to the Victorian mind evil, corruption, death). This book comes to define Dorian's descent into decadence as being equally as important in Wilde's narrative as is Dorian's magical portrait that records his every wrinkle and sin, while leaving the picture's subject eternally young and beautiful. This book is but another attempt on the part of the depraved Lord Henry to corrupt further the morally declining Dorian Gray. Wilde writes,
After a few moments [of reading] he [Dorian Gray] became absorbed. It was the strangest book that he had ever read. It seemed to him that in exquisite raiment, and to the delicate sound of flutes, the sins of the world were passing in dumb show before him. Things that he had dimly dreamed of were suddenly made real to him. Things of which he had never dreamed were gradually revealed.
Dorian's initial experience with Lord Henry's book of forbidden knowledge is the quintessential metaphor for the Gothic itself. Power, albeit dark power, is revealed to Dorian, a power that fundamentally and forever alters the course of his life. Dorian is eventually consumed by this power, his life forfeited in the bargain, yet power he does possess for a brief time, the power of moral transformation, of altered perceptions of life and death, of the knowledge of gods and devils. The book has force. It has vitality. It has the ability to affect reality. It sparks desire and thought, divines or obscures the truth, makes profound change.
Wilde's sinister book-within-a-book is closely analogous to Barker's texts-within-texts. For Barker, the book symbolizes magic. It represents dreams and nightmares and the entire realm of human thought existing in-between. The book for Barker is the medium of instruction. It is the medium of confession. It is the place where people, living and dead, tell their tales, and are cathartically purged during the telling (as we are perhaps cathartically purged during the listening). It is the source of redemption, the dictionary of inspiration, and the encyclopedia of ingenuity. Wilde's rendition of the efficacy of the book and of the process of reading the book, however, only shows the negative side. Barker approaches imagination from both the dark and the light, since both qualities are essential components of the human condition (and of divinity). Wilde's book is only dark, while Barker's books disclose the totality of our experience, and of our dreams. At times, Barker's message is grim, but equally it is hopeful. At times, Barker writes of horror and of death, but equally he writes of love and fellowship. At times, Barker shows us ugly demons, but equally he shows us beautiful angels.
Most certainly, Clive Barker's Books of Blood—as well as his other uncollected short fiction—are his generous gifts to imagination, and we are most thankful for the fine presents.
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Barker, Clive. “FT Forum: Speaking from the Dark.” Fantasy Tales. Eds. Stephen Jones and David Sutton. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1991. 3-8.
———. “An Introduction: The Bare Bones.” Clive Barker's Shadows in Eden. Ed. Stephen Jones. Lancaster: Underwood-Miller, 1991. 389-392.
———. “The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus.” Horror: 100 Best Books. Eds. Stephen Jones and Kim Newman. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1988. 11-14.
Barnet, Sylvan. Introduction. Doctor Faustus. By Christopher Marlowe. New York: Signet, 1969.
Birkhead, Edith. The Tale of Terror: A Study of the Gothic Romance. New York: Russell & Russell, 1963.
“The British Invasion: Clive Barker.” American Fantasy. Win. 1987: 42-48, 50.
Brown, Michael. “So Many Monsters, So Little Time. …” Pandemonium. Ed. Michael Brown. Staten Island: Eclipse, 1991. 17-21.
Brunvand, Jan Harold. The Study of American Folklore: An Introduction. New York: W. W. Norton, 1968.
Caldwell, Tim. “Clive Barker: Wherein Film Threat Peels Back Layers to See What Makes Him Tick.” Film Threat 19 (1989): 16-23.
Carroll, Noël. The Philosophy of Horror: or, Paradoxes of the Heart. New York: Routledge, 1990.
Carter, Margaret L. Specter or Delusion?: The Supernatural in Gothic Fiction. Ann Arbor: UMI Research, 1987.
Cawelti, John G. Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.
Dalby, Richard. “Stevenson, Robert Louis.” The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural. 1986 ed.
Daniels, Les. Living in Fear: A History of Horror in the Mass Media. New York: Scribner's, 1975.
Grixti, Joseph. Terrors of Uncertainty: The Cultural Contexts of Horror Fiction. New York: Routledge, 1989.
Gross, Louis S. Redefining the American Gothic: From Wieland to Day of the Dead. Ann Arbor: UMI Research, 1989.
Hoppenstand, Gary. “From Here to Quiddity: Clive Barker's The Great and Secret Show.” Clive Barker's Shadows in Eden. Ed. Stephen Jones. Lancaster: Underwood-Miller, 1991. 227-260.
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Kendrick, Walter. The Thrill of Fear: 250 Years of Scary Entertainment. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1991.
King, Stephen. Danse Macabre. New York: Everest House, 1981.
———. “On Becoming a Brand Name.” Fear Itself: The Horror Fiction of Stephen King. Eds. Tim Underwood and Chuck Miller. New York: Signet, 1985. 15-42.
Lackey, Mike. “The Clive Barker Interview.” Marvel Age. Dec. 1991: 8-14.
Levine, Lawrence W. Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1988.
Lovecraft, Howard Phillips. Supernatural Horror in Literature. New York: Ben Abramson, 1945. Introd. E. F. Bleiler. New York: Dover, 1973. (Note: A draft of this essay was published circa 1927 in W. Paul Cook's The Recluse.)
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Maddox, Mike. “Clive Barker: On the Beauty of the Beast.” Amazing Heroes. Dec. 1989: 24-31.
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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 13941
SOURCE: Badley, Linda. “Clive Barker Writing (from) the Body.” In Writing Horror and the Body: The Fiction of Stephen King, Clive Barker, and Anne Rice, pp. 73-104. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996.
[In the following excerpt, Badley applies contemporary cultural theory, including feminist theory, to an analysis of representations of women in Barker's fiction.]
With Books of Blood, an obscure playwright and illustrator named Clive Barker launched the “post-King era of horror fiction,” as William Gibson has called it (“Introduction” xv). “You read him with book in one hand and an airsick bag in the other,” King joked in 1986, adding “That man is not fooling around” (qtd. in Kanfer 83). Perhaps more importantly, Barker was as intellectual and politically subversive as King was not.
Barker challenged the modern horror genre as King had exemplified and defined it. “A lot of horror is written to reassure people the values they bring to the book are … correct,” Barker said in 1990, with King in mind, adding, “I'm not writing horror to reassure people” (Booe). King's “white soul” domesticated and mainstreamed horror; Barker privileged the different or marginal. His protagonists were people on the fringes: actors, gays, prostitutes, small-time crooks, women, and often the monsters themselves. King's horror stories were the product of a brilliant stereotypography and overstatement in which clichés are lived out fully. Barker claimed to “deromanticize” and “renew” the genre, “stripping” it of “knee-jerk conventions” (Strauss 92). Beyond that, “I like to think there's a kind of ‘celebration of perversity’ in Books of Blood,” he said in 1986, “that's a response, simply, to normality” (Wiater, “Catching” 46).
Douglas Winter's term “anti-horror” points out this subversive element in Barker's work. Anti-horror inverts “the typical horror story … on itself,” asking the reader to “view the traditional images in a new way” (Nutman, “Douglas E. Winter”). As King had reinvented the horror novel, Barker revitalized the tale of terror, relocating it in the iconic, the grotesque, and the ironic. For he also made it a vehicle for ideas, forcing a “reactionary” genre to take on taboos and open up to controversial issues: the politics of gender, feminism, male violence against women, homosexuality, AIDS, urban blight, Marxism, violence in the media, pornography, and censorship. Using a title that promised blood to attract hard-core fans to a form they did not usually read, Barker turned “splatter” into an iconography of confrontation and paradox. He enhanced horror's capacity to disturb with techniques adapted from theatre, literature, and visual arts. Like King, Barker realized that horror could reach a mass audience with ideas they might not otherwise entertain. “I'm trying my damnedest,” Barker has explained, to address “quite complex and elaborate ideas,” and if “you give people a chance, if they want it, they'll get it” (qtd. in Burke 72).
Barker's early literary career as a playwright explains a great deal. He was the center of The Dog Company, a marginal theater group that specialized in mime, improvisation, anti-theatre, and Grand Guignol. Their sketches often depicted the miscegenation of fantasy and reality, of image and word. The plays, most of which Barker wrote and directed, provide glimpses of the later writer. Poe, an early one-act mime play, presented the author's dream life in a series of images and vignettes. Dangerous World (1981), which (according to the program notes) followed poet/painter William Blake from his deathbed into the “garden of his imagination,” presented such delights as “the blood-sipping Ghost of a Flea,” “the epic allegorical figure of London,” and the marriage of Heaven and Hell (Dangerous World program notes). Colossus was an improvisational piece about Barker's favorite artist Goya. Books of Blood would extend this cross-referencing of visual and literary arts. In The Secret Life of Cartoons (1983), an anarchic comic strip rabbit entered the lives of real people.
It was The Dog Company, with its roots in the absurd and various theatres of cruelty, that seems to have inspired much of Barker's anti-horror.1 He carried over the same perverse anti-theatricality, spectacle, shock, and emotional ambivalence. He mixed comedy, the erotic, the disgusting, and the pathetic, maintaining an exhilarating tension in the modulation from one emotion into the next.
But before he was a playwright or student, Barker was an illustrator, and probably the most obvious characteristic of his early work was his visual imagination. For Barker, writing seems to be another kind of iconography, and he refuses to make distinctions between painters like Goya and Bosch and “visionary” writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jorge Luis Borges. Two heroes are William Blake and Jean Cocteau, for whom any genre was subordinate to “inner vision” (Burke 19-20). Barker envisions his concepts, often sketching them first and only later articulating them as words. Visiting his studio in 1989, Stanley Wiater found drawings scattered over the floor, “Midnight sketches, done feverishly,” which became “a starting place for something” the next morning (“Clive Barker” 11). Everything he does is by hand to maintain the connection of hand, eye, and word.
As “powerfully visionary” in the larger sense “as he is gruesome” according to Ramsey Campbell (xi), he practices a politics of subversion that originated in the act of reading and writing from the body. A collection of his drawings entitled Clive Barker, Illustrator (1990), and ranging from early expressionistic brushwork pieces to elaborate color illustrations for Books of Blood, reveals the extent to which his iconography is based in the human figure. Because writing is imaging, Barker feels an almost moral imperative to show precisely what others think should in all decency be covered. He says he owes as much to Mapplethorpe as to Poe:
The kind of horror fiction I write is primarily interested in tearing away the veil. Confrontation with the image, seen clearly. I'm trying to see what the wound means. And the only way … is to look at the wound.
(qtd. in Gracey-Whitman and Melia 418)
Monique Wittig has written that the “fascination for writing what was never previously written and the fascination for the unattained body proceed from the same desire” (10). Barker uses the metaphor of the literalized body to express in flesh and blood that which Freud, Lacan, Barthes,, Kristeva, and Foucault have merely discoursed of. The Books of Blood were a perverse “recitation” of the body as a text—a dissection, an “exploratory probe,” as William Gibson says. Each “reading” presumes the metaphor in which the literal body stands for the real and transgresses the law of the symbolic order. In this metaphor, “opening” the body means reading our deepest (pre-Oedipal) selves. Biological images are metaphors for ideas. Flesh becomes word, text becomes wound, part becomes whole, and cliché is embodied, often painfully. The titles alone are multivalenced with word play: paradoxes (“The Life of Death”), puns (“In the Flesh,” “The Skins of the Father”), metonymies (“The Body Politic”), oxymorons (“The Confessions of a Pornographer's Shroud”), inversions (“The Inhuman Condition”), allegories (“The Age of Desire”), allusions (“Son of Celluloid”), and ironically twisted clichés (“Human Remains”).
In Barker's ink brush piece entitled Minds at War (in Burke 3), two male figures in profile square off belligerently, reenacting some archaic antagonism, as from their heads just the smoking ruins of ancient cities. “In the Hills, the Cities” (in Books of Blood, Volume I) works with a similar visual concept of power and conflict: the people of the Yugoslavian city Popolac join together in a network of straps and harnesses to construct a colossus and march out to perform ritual battle with their twin city Podujevo. The colossus is “the body of the state,” explains Vaslav. “It is the shape of our lives” (“In the Hills,” 201). As a citizen, he has watched it form, “a living proverb,” “a spectacular reality” beyond ideology. It is “the head [literally] in the clouds.” From the perspective of two English tourists, however, it is a terrifying negation of the human subject, its legs taking “strides half a mile long,” each man, woman, and child “sightless” and (they thought) “deathless, in their lumbering, relentless strength” (197).
Popolac is a revision of the science fiction cliché of society as machine by way of Michel Foucault's vision of power embodied and harnessed through a network of forces and relations, economic, social, and political. The description of Popolac, recalling Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975), suggests
a masterpiece of human engineering: a man made entirely of men. Or, rather, a sexless giant, made of men and women and children. All the citizens of Popolac writhed and strained in the body of this flesh-knitted giant, their muscles stretched to the breaking point, their bones close to snapping.
(“In the Hills” 206)
Terror leads to horror with the breakdown of structure: someone “buried in the weak flank” of Podujevo dies of the strain, beginning “a chain of decay in the system. One man loosed his neighbor and that neighbor loosed his, spreading a cancer of chaos through the city” (187-88). When Podujevo falls, creating a river of blood clogged with human corpses, Popolac goes mad with confusion.
“In the Hills, the Cities” is also a study in structural contrasts: between order and chaos, between the collective and the individual, the citizens that are the city and the English tourists who are threatened by its fall. Mick, a shallow clothes designer, and Judd, a political journalist, are a homosexual couple touring Yugoslavia who have discovered that they are temperamentally and politically incompatible. When making love, however, they are a miracle of movement: “They locked together, limb around limb, tongue around tongue, in a knot only orgasm could untie, their backs alternately scorched and scratched as they rolled around exchanging blows and kisses” (177). Like the people in the city they are choreographed into a thing of grotesque beauty. Realizing the meaninglessness of their relationship and his life up to glimpsing this miracle, Mick catches on to the giant's foot as it leaves the ground and is swept up, the earth “gone from beneath him … a hitchhiker with a god” (209).
Barker has explained that the colossal image was directly inspired by two paintings by Goya (The Colossus and Saturn Devouring His Children) and more generally the magic realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, which defamiliarize common concepts by literalizing them in marvelous images and events. The grotesque elements of the scene are matched by terror and moments of revulsion by the awe that terror generates; what political position or which set of emotions prevails is left up to the reader. The story is typical only in demonstrating Barker's ambivalence—his qualification of one issue with another one that bears on it, and a complementary technique of reversing emotions midway through a story and putting a spin on the conclusion.
“In the Hills, the Cities” is a metonymy, a literalization of the idea of the state by way of a Foucauldian metaphor of bio-power. “The Body Politic” from The Inhuman Condition (1986, originally Books of Blood, Volume IV) depicts a paradigm shift in which the stable ego and centered identity, the self enthroned in the head and defined by the parameters and functions of “its” body, is overthrown by a revolt of hands. The right hand, a synecdoche and a Messiah, a temporary protagonist, severs the left from the wrist of Charlie George, a packager whose hands ordinarily work for him all day long. The freed limb, dragging a hatchet, liberates other hands and limbs, leading to a bloody revolution of the body from “the body.”
As we have seen, part of the fun in “The Body Politic” comes from witnessing a Dionysian dismemberment of the Freudian ego. Charlie's psychoanalyst Dr. Jeudwinde is discredited early on, when he attempts to interpret Charlie's dreams: “Usually the penis predominated in his patients' dreams, he explained, to which Charlie replied that hands had always seemed more important than private parts. After all, they could change the world, couldn‘t they?” (65). Dr. Jeudwinde's faith in the Freudian ego breaks down under overwhelming evidence of “Charlie,” a body with several minds of its own. He wonders whether attempting to be rational about the human mind is a contradiction in terms (86). “Mind” as the self's center or unity is negated and revealed as a construct of language. As Charlie tries to put his thoughts into words, he finds metaphors insufficient:
The hands were everywhere, hundreds of them, chattering away like a manual parliament as they debated their tactics. All shades and shapes, scampering up and down the swaying branches. Seeing them gathered like this the metaphors collapsed. They were what they were: human hands. That was the horror. (97-98)
Language betrays us in the most common figures of speech, as Barker's sight gags demonstrate: “her nails, her pride and joy, found her eyes, and the miracle of sight became muck on her cheek” (149). Charlie learns that the unity he has considered himself is a figure of speech. After a struggle in which he uses the (attached) Left to lure the Right, he is followed by its mob of revolutionaries up a fire escape. As he jumps to their collective death, the revolution of hands is defeated. But Charlie's martyrdom is ambivalent, ending in his euphoric contemplation of the koan “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” (88).
Barker has in mind several schools of postmodern psychology that view the individual as changeable and multiple rather than stable and singular. “The Body Politic” ends with the meditations of a doubtful identity named Boswell, who has spent his life “going wherever his legs would take him” (89). After colliding with a train, he wakes in intensive care and encounters his amputated legs, tagged for the incinerator but livelier for the separation. “Having made their presence known to him they left him where he lay, content to be free” (102).
And did his eyes envy their liberty, … was his tongue eager to be out of his mouth and away, and was every part of him, … preparing to forsake them? He was an alliance … held together by the most tenuous of truces. … [H]ow long before the next uprising? Minutes? Years? He waited, heart in mouth, for the fall of Empire.
The Marxist themes of “The Body Politic” are real enough, as in “In the Hills”: the story is set in the drab, aimless oppression of the working classes of the Thatcher era, and the hands seek and find masses of homeless brothers, beginning with the YMCA on Monmouth Street. But the Marxism comes by way of Deleuze and Guattari's schizoanalysis, which opposes psychoanalysis with ego breakdowns and “breakthroughs.” Against the “oedipalized territorialities (Family, Church, School, Nation, Party), and especially the territoriality of the individual, Anti-Oedipus seeks to discover the ‘deterritorialized’ flows of desire” and to escape the established codes, celebrating the dissolution of the self (Seem, Introduction xvii). In “The Body Politic,” Barker's stroke of genius is to take the Freudian Body literally and depict its trauma in graphic terms. Even more to the point is “The Age of Desire,” from the same volume, which uses schizoanalysis against phallocentrism. Jerome Tredgold, a test subject at the [David] Hume Institute, succumbs to a “chemically induced state of compulsive sexuality” (Meyer and Van Hise 116). The experiment is part of Dr. Welles's plan to initiate an “Age of Desire”: “the Dream of Casanova,” of “Sex without end, without compromise or apology.” “The World had seen so many Ages: the Age of Enlightenment; of Reformation; of Reason. Now, at last, the Age of Desire. And after this, an end to Ages, perhaps to everything” (“Age” 200). Like the citizens of Popolac and Podujevo, Jerome is the ordinary man “deployed” as bio-power.
At first, his erotically enhanced vision merely shows him that as Deleuze and Guattari explain, “sexuality is everywhere” and that capitalism is an economy of desire (293) dominated by a specular-phallic economy of signs: “on advertising billboards and cinema marquees, … the body as merchandise. Where flesh was not being used to market artifacts of steel and stone, those artifacts were taking on its properties. … [B]uildings beleaguered him with sexual puns” (“Age” 201). Jerome is eventually consumed by a fire somehow fueled by the “beady eye at his groin” (“Age” 200), the phallic gaze. He becomes
just a plinth for that singular monument, his prick. Head was nothing; mind was nothing. His arms were simply made to bring love close, his legs to carry the demanding rod any place where it might find satisfaction. He pictured himself as a walking erection, the world gaping on every side. Flesh, brick, steel, he didn't care—he would ravish it all.
Thus the gaze is linked with sexual violence. (The experiment is coyly named Project Blind Boy in honor of Eros and his misplaced arrows.) Jerome visualizes clichés from romantic songs—metaphors of “paradise, of hearts on fire; of birds, bells, journeys, sunsets; of passion as lunacy, as flight, as unimaginable treasure” (186), and his lust culminates in grotesque literalizations of romance. “Give me your heart,” he croons to Officer Boyle (191) before tearing out and physically possessing that organ. In this phallic-specular economy, Jerome fetishizes whatever he sees and is compelled to pry open and make visible, to possess and “feminize” whatever is “hidden.”
But Jerome's phallocentrism is transcended in an important shift of emphasis. He becomes an embodiment of Deleuze and Guattari's desiring machine, which calls into question the established order of the society that creates it. From a more Foucauldian perspective one might say that an “implantation of perversions” in Jerome confuses his sexuality. Rather than opening, penetrating, and possessing, he begins filling holes—any holes—figuratively healing wounds and intermingling with the natural world. The serial rapist becomes polymorphously perverse and at one point has sex with a wall: “The sun had fallen full upon it, and it was warm; the bricks smelled ambrosial. He laid kisses on their gritty faces, his hands exploring every nook and cranny. Murmuring sweet nothings, he … found an accommodating niche, and filled it” (194). As his body changes, Jerome regresses to pre-Oedipal empathy with the world and comes “alive to the flux and flow of the world around him”—the paving stones seem to catch fire from him and then burn with their own flames. The world thus fantastically eroticized, his mind is “running with liquid pictures: mingled anatomies, male and female in one indistinguishable congress,” a “marriage of his seed with the paving stone” (194-95). In the final scenes, he merges with “all the suffering world” (215), and in an affirmation of life, revolts, like Sisyphus, against all death. He confronts his creator Dr. Welles, who is burning records and killing monkeys, and pleads for their lives.
“The Age of Desire” concludes in one of Barker's perversely “happy” endings. Engineered in every sense of the term by the Hume Institute, the metabolic chaos that Jerome becomes is perversely liberating, and like Frankenstein's creature or Robocop, the monster as victim, Jerome has a radical innocence that destroys his makers. He becomes the revolutionary “desire machine” that wreaks havoc within the System, the machine of coercion. Most of his victims are associated with the Hume Institute or the law, and the majority of them are men. Jerome comes to represent, in addition to compulsory sexuality under late capitalism or a Freudian dream of castration denial, the transcendence of the body through the body. He experiences a terror and ecstasy that transcends conventional pleasure and unitary standards of value.
The story of Jerome transgresses liberal-Marxist political correctness also, however, and manages to please no one completely. It disturbs idea mongers with its sexual violence and it disturbs gore hounds with its radical sexual openness. Barker frequently refers to his breaking the taboo in which horror's sexual subtext must remain hidden to “work” and says that he consciously brings “that subtext into the more prominent position of text” (Strauss 92). He refers to a need to address not only “the issue of sexuality in horror” but also “the issue of many kinds of sexuality in horror.”2 In his fiction, there are sex scenes of every sort, between men, between women, “there are orgies, there are people fucking walls—there is just a sense that we are sexual beings and that … horror fiction is about the body—which over and over again it is” (qtd. in Hughes 391). It is therefore not surprising when Barker's comments on fantasy refer to postmodern psychology and social theory. In addition to Deleuze and Guattari, Foucault, and Lacan, his ideas draw heavily on feminist psychoanalysts (such as Cixous and Kristeva) and object relations psychologists (Chodorow) who emphasize the pre-Oedipal relationship with the Mother. Collectively, Barker's comments cohere as a theory of fantasy as a subversive art. Like Rosemary Jackson, Barker thinks that fantasy subverts the norm by presenting alternative realities. The fantastic provides a vicarious regression to unstructured pre-Oedipal experience in which possibilities seem infinite, where the world is “full of tactile and potential sensual experiences, which are at root sexual, but also about pleasure in all its diversities. … Then … we get educated out of that. … We get told we have to be this way or that and preferably this!” (Barker, qtd. in Dair 393). Fantasy constructs scenarios in which “those barriers are broken down again. So many of the monsters … are about appetite and the fears of appetite” and the need to “tame” appetite. “And yet it stays with us as a possibility” (Barker, qtd. in Dair 393-94). For Barker horror or abjection, as in Kristeva, is the darker aspect of our recognition of what we desire, the experience of the “bisexual” Mother. By awakening the powers of horror, the fantastic brings us back to an infant's openness to possibility, in which life and death are relative states of metamorphosis, of changing shape at will, talking with the animals. There, like the transforming Jerome, we encounter our fears and desires as potentialities and are open to new experience.
The fantastic therefore becomes “usefully dangerous” in providing images for “socially subversive” ideas, says Barker (Gracey-Whitman and Melia 404). These images enter the dream lives of readers, making them receptive to change:
Our fears and hopes for our bodies, our ongoing anxiety about the decay that begins at eighteen. Our sense of ourselves as sexually whole; the part of us that remains polymorphously perverse. … [P]eople will accept those kinds of images and ideas in a fiction in a way that they … [wouldn't in a] psychoanalytic treatise. Or … through their analyst.
(qtd. in Gracey-Whitman and Melia 406)
Dark fantasy reconnects readers to the body experienced in childhood as a radical openness to experience, and so becomes politically subversive. In a similar way, Barthes, Kristeva, and Cixous intend to subvert the symbolic order by “writing” from the body.
BOOKS OF BLOOD AND ÉCRITURE FéMININE
Working in the genre that (outside of pornography) is most readily equated with misogyny, especially in film, Barker walks a fine line. On the one hand, he condemns the mass media's exploitation of women (Dair 394), indicting horror film as “the last refuge of the chauvinist” (Women of Horror). At the same time, Books of Blood advertised itself as the equivalent of splatter film in prose and courted hard-core horror fans. Barker's “tear[ing] away the veil” is problematic when the very act of looking at the body as an object, according to some feminist theory, means dehumanizing the subject.
French feminist Monique Wittig ran into a similar problem in Le corps lesbien, which subverts language as part of her effort to reclaim the female body for women. Her preface foregrounds the issue. There she stresses that she is violating not the female body but the symbolic order's construction of it as an object of male desire. It is the logos that she disrupts, voicing the unvoiced, unpreferred parts and celebrating natural processes. Violating taboos rather than bodies, Wittig nevertheless produces a physically disturbing text.
Barker, who often announces his intention to disrupt, works similarly. He foregrounds his text in semiotics and French feminist psychoanalysis. He cultivates ambivalence and openly “celebrates” perversity. From the start, in the outrageous (but semiotically accurate) title, Books of Blood, he employs “anti-horror” against conventional horror's misogyny. Taking on biological taboos “with a directness worthy of … David Cronenberg” (Campbell xii), Barker makes the wound his text's central metaphor and, through puns and ambiguities, its central issue. The issue becomes more problematic the longer we study it. Horror's victimization of women, epitomized in Alice Cooper's “Only Women Bleed,” is revised by Barker in the Books epigraph to “Everybody is a book of blood” [my italics]. According to the pun in the last line, reading (and writing) the body (as horror fiction does) means wounding (opening) it, just as wounding it inscribes it; “Wherever we're opened, we're red” (Books 1: ix). By bringing horror's psychoanalytic subtext (the female “wound”) into the prominent position of text and the body, Barker changes the violent act of reading and writing the (female) body into the central problem of the series. Barker advertises the sadism of the text at the same time as he stresses its diagnostic necessity. Thus he makes his fictions “usefully dangerous” and useful for women. In their diagnosis of gender distress as well as their radical sexual openness Barker's Books of Blood had less in common with Stephen King or splatter film than with contemporary Female Gothic writers who used he popular Gothic as a mode for expressing, in slightly disguised form, subversive ideas.
From 1982 through 1984, when he was writing the first three volumes of Books of Blood, slasher film violence against women was a primary issue in mass media and sexual politics. Barker kept the issue at the center of Books of Blood as he used the metaphor of the body as text to explore technologies of gender and desire. Barker's stories often position the reader as a woman; imagine female subjectivity with remarkable, if varying, degrees of success; and attempt to overturn misogynistic horror clichés, especially the “woman in peril” motif. His women are neither “mouthpieces for outraged feminism or cowering pretty things,” Craig Burns remarks. They are, for example, “chubby cynics who work in rundown movie theaters trying (and failing) to imagine a better life” (101). In Books of Blood, Carrie, with her female power in the blood, grows up.
Burns describes Birdy, the protagonist of “Son of Celluloid” (Books of Blood, Volume III, 1984), a haunted theater story that satirizes horror and Hollywood film stereotypes. Birdy is a savvy version of Moers's persecuted victim-heroine who in facing down the monster, the male gaze, confronts her own fear of self. This fear is grounding in her ambivalent relationship with female body images. Like most of Barker's protagonists, Birdy is unconventional to begin with: she is intellectual but also resourceful; she is strong and overweight and agile.
Literally a tumor, the “Son of Celluloid” feeds on emotions invested in movies and seduces its victims by impersonating dead movie stars and clichés. To Lindi Lee, whom the Son assesses as “easy meat,” it assumes the sentimental form of a Disney rabbit. The Son is also brilliant as John Wayne (male violence) and quickly dispatches Lindi's boyfriend Dean. But for the pseudo-intellectual, bisexual theater manager Ricky, who knows Wayne to be a “handful of lethal lies—about the glory of America's frontier origins, the morality of swift justice, the tenderness in the heart of brutes” (16), it must provide more potent seductions. As Marilyn Monroe the monster can tap directly into the male gaze. “I want you,” she says, “I need your loving looks. I can't live without them” (26). Ricky is seduced by the scene from The Seven-Year Itch, in which Marilyn's dress billows up above her waist. He looks at “the dream of millions,” at “the part of Marilyn he had never seen. … There was blood there. … As her muscles moved the bloody eyes she'd buried in her body shifted, and came to rest on him” (27). His glimpse of “monstrous” female subjectivity breaks the spell and almost saves him. But as a “pill-freak” and film buff, Ricky prefers the deadly, virtual Marilyn over real women, allowing the tumor to invade his body.
“Son of Celluloid” is like Videodrome in its attacks against the same visual pleasure that it exploits: the male gaze whose projection represents an elision of the female body. Assuming the form of a “single vast eye” that fills the doorway, or the male gaze and projection in one metaphor, the Son attempts to rape Birdy. Blinking “huge and wet and lazy, scanning the doll in front of it with the insolence of the One True God, the maker of celluloid Earth and celluloid Heaven” it jeers, “Here's looking at you, kid” (“Son” 30). Birdy weighs 225 pounds, and when it assaults her, she rolls over on it. Real flesh, unpreferred parts, and “good weight” triumph over body image, the literal and the feminine over the male symbolic.
Barker draws on his fringe theater experience here, interjecting farce—a bad fat-lady joke—into the scene in which Birdy rolls on the Son of Celluloid. The scene's ambivalence is strategic. The joke is positioned in a crucial way: while it stands on its own as a joke, on the one hand, it also is shown from Birdy's perspective as a heroic act (however mediated by her strong sense of irony). It is her joke rather than a joke on her. (In an earlier moment, her only weak one, Birdy relaxes her defenses in self-pity when images of Disney's Dumbo remind her of a cruel nickname from childhood.) Ultimately the Son forces her to confront her image of herself as abject, a “filthy thing, a tumor grown fat on wasted passion,” bringing to mind “something aborted, a bucket case” (“Son” 35). In looking directly at the body, however, she recovers her own strength.
Instead of her prized weapon, a pipe wrench she calls Motherfucker, Birdy recovers the power of her body, reclaiming it from negative inscription. In the final section, titled “Censored Scenes,” Birdy completes this process by tracking down Lindi Lee. Lindi is perhaps the ultimate literalization of the concept of the mass media stereotype—in her the Son of Celluloid has been born again, the celluloid Word Made Bimbo. The real tumor is the false ideal of female beauty projected by the heterosexual male gaze. In a parodic reversal of the Phantom of the Opera, Birdy pours acid on “tumor and human limb alike” (38). In this act, by creating a gap that the stereotype Lindi Lee once filled, Birdy also creates a space for herself. Her job done, she steps out into the street, confident in her “planning to live long after the credits for this particular comedy had rolled” (38).
The gaze and its images, hallucinations that we project or consent to, are the issues of “The Son of Celluloid,” and the particular targets are mass media images of women. Birdy is in the female Gothic tradition of the persecuted victim who becomes a heroine by using her intelligence and sense of reality to hold her ground.
The protagonist of “Revelations” (Volume V, The Inhuman Condition), Virginia Gyer, is not only a persecuted victim-heroine but also the Female Gothic madwoman. From the beginning, however, the narrator shares Virginia's vision of ghosts in her room in the Cottonwood Motel, presenting that vision, together with the ghosts' point of view, in a broadly humorous deadpan. Clearly in Barker's world the psychics, psychotics, and women (including the ghost Sadie, electrocuted for killing her oafishly philandering husband Buck) are sane. Barker juxtaposes this perspective against the horrifically fantastic prophecies of the Book of Revelations, which Virginia's evangelist husband John (like Carrie White's mother) declaims every night in a frenzied and oppressive ritual: “he rose on a spiral of ever more awesome metaphor: from angels to dragons and thence to Babylon, the Mother of Harlots, sitting upon a scarlet-colored beast” (118). As Sadie first tells Virginia, these are “comic book terrors, fit to scare children with.” The word of God is in turn “revealed” to be a misogynistic fantasy of doomsday violence. Sadie becomes Virginia's demonic advisor, assuming also the role of the perverse double. The ghost and the world of comic violence Sadie brings with her provide a sort of Bertha Mason to Virginia's Jane Eyre. Sadie speaks directly for Virginia's buried rage; moreover, her life's definitive act of shooting her husband (and remaining glad she did it) prefigures Virginia's final act. Reverend Gyer, who stands for patriarchy and logos, falls “like a toppled statue” (156). The story ends in high humor as Sadie counsels Virginia to plead insanity, counseling that “‘you'll be notorious. That's worth living for, isn't it?’ Virginia hadn't thought of that. The ghost of a smile illuminated her face” (156). Later, gazing at the moon, which represents the feminine as well as madness, and “putting on the craziest smile she could muster,” Virginia tells the assembled crowd, “The Devil made me do it” (157).
The sensitive and muted “Coming to Grief,” a story collected in Douglas Winter's anthology Prime Evil (1988),3 focuses on the central issue of the modern Female Gothic, the female body as maternal legacy. Barker's protagonist Miriam Blessed, married and with a daughter long ago disconnected herself from her mother in what seems to have been an act of disavowal. Miriam has been desperate not to be like her innocuous mother. Returning at her mother's death, Miriam must separate from the mother's body and experience the primary loss that is a biological and psychic necessity (Kristeva, Black Sun 79). In Kristeva's scenario, this means “coming to grief” in the sense of assuming the daughter's inheritance.
Miriam performs her funeral duties and feels very little: she returns to her mother's house, sorts through her things, views the body, reunites with a female friend, and visits the “Bogey Walk,” the site of her childhood fear centering on a huge quarry haunted by a Bogeyman. And in one sense there is a real Bogeyman. A vine covered wall conceals a gap where the bricks are crumbling and which, at her weakest point, after the funeral, draws Miriam forward and invites her to stop to look down among the shadows.
Barker has made several statements about his refusal to exploit the “woman in peril” scenario. The Bogey, Miriam realizes, is no man. It is rather the absence of anything so patriarchal or simple: no “hook-handed men and secret lovers slaughtered in the act of love” (83), no hell, no heaven, no haunting. In his/its place Miriam finds her mother's ordinary face in death. The Bogey is the daughter's matricidal rage both projected and internalized. It has been displaced onto a mythical “man” and also swallowed, preserved within herself as anger against herself and as self-devouring inner emptiness: “Stone. Cold stone. Thinking about absence, about the disguise required by a thing that wished not to be seen, she turned into her mother's road” (85).
In the end, the death-bearing, devouring mother has an other side in “Judy's voice, Judy's hands” (104). Judy, her childhood friend, finds her, calls her back, and heals her with her presence. Having survived more drastic separations—the death of her father, a divorce, and a choice of lesbianism—Judy comforts Miriam through the night, and the next day Miriam returns to her husband and daughter.
“Coming to Grief” is a sign of Barker's considerable range. More characteristically, however, Barker's texts expose the wound, confronting readers with its potency, analyzing it as an unstable sign, and transposing it into a sign of female power. Thus he asks readers to reconstruct their perceptions of the monstrous feminine. “Jacqueline Ess: Her Will and Testament,” “The Madonna,” and The Hellbound Heart reconfigure the fatal woman archetype. In “Jacqueline Ess” (Books of Blood, Volume II), the lawyer and archetypal lover Oliver Vassi provides a testimony as a third of the text: “She was no lamia, no succubus. … She didn't bewitch me; that's a romantic lie to excuse rape. She was a sea: and I had to swim in her. … I'd lived my life on the shore, in the solid world of Law, and I was tired of it” (“Ess” 87).
Barker is drawing on the French feminist program that advocates a kind of feminist terrorism: the hysteric fully possesses her body and attains the power of the sorceress, Goddess, or Amazon. He uses the metaphor of the literal body to “realize” the feminine within the text as “absence” violently “striving to become a presence” (Gilbert, “Introduction” xviii). Cixous tells women they should write in literal milk or blood. Cixous, Wittig, and Du Plessis write marginal, polymorphous forms: prose poems, crosses between novel and essay, lyric and epic. In this way they reverse the equation in which the male word is made female flesh and so transcend the linear and inscribed to achieve a “no where into which we can fly in a tarantella of rage and desire … where the part of ourselves that longs to be free … can dream, can invent new worlds” (Gilbert, “Introduction” xviii). Subverting logos, French feminists celebrate the body perverse, the body as a book of blood.
Anne Sexton's poem “Consorting with Angels” comes close to projecting such a semiotic utopia. Tired of being a woman, the speaker has an ecstatic vision of transcending gender through a grotesque transformation—of being opened, made “all one skin, like a fish” (l. 39)—rendered in the cadences of the Song of Solomon. Barker's women often triumph through similar transformations of the flesh, reinventing themselves. They are also the powerful agents of male transformation. Jacqueline Ess, who finds herself powerless in the patriarchal world of Law, lacking access to the Word, reconfigures the male body in a quest for female power and identity. The text “Jacqueline Ess: Her Will and Testament,” is a study of repressed anger and sexual power politics. It begins in the Cixousian myth of the hysteric who discovers the transforming rage of the sorceress within her body. Like Virginia Gyer (and Anne Sexton), Jacqueline is at first a mad housewife. Oppressed by “the boredom, the drudgery, the frustration” (75) of living as a woman, she attempts to succeed and fails. But precisely then, “from the deep trenches of her nature, faculties she had never known existed” swim up to the surface of her mind “like fish” up to the light.
She recovers these “faculties” through Medusan rage. Like the speaker in Adrienne Rich's “Phenomenology of Anger” (1968), who trains her hysteria into an image of pure “white acetylene” (57, line 59), Jacqueline first turns her hatred on her supercilious psychoanalyst Dr. Blandish, who refers to her “woman's problems” like an “All-knowing, all-seeing Father” (77). Feminism notwithstanding, Barker's special effects are derived from Brian De Palma (Carrie, The Fury) and Cronenberg (Scanners) as Jacqueline discovers her power to transform men's bodies. “Be a woman,” she thinks, willing “his manly chest into making breasts” until the skin bursts and his pelvis expands until it fractures at the center (78). Dry mouthed with shock, Dr. Blandish loses the power to speak except from the body: “it was from between his legs that all the noise was coming; the splashing of his blood … on the carpet” (78).
Jacqueline next trains her mind on that relation between speech, power, and violence, specifically her husband's speeches that turn into justifications that become accusations, “assaults on her character,” speeches that steal her space to be. Once again, she literalizes what we discover to be a violent metaphor. “Shut up,” she thinks, telescoping him “into smaller and smaller space” until, when he is “shut up into a space the size of one of his fine leather suitcases,” she thinks, “My God … this can't be my husband. He's never been as tidy as that” (81).
Jacqueline hopes to find freedom from male domination, female identity, and a voice in her newly born power. To learn mastery, she apprentices herself to Titus Pettifer, a crime boss, but discovers that such power can be another form of slavery. When Pettifer, who can neither live with her nor without her, begs her to kill him, calling her monster to inspire her rage, she turns him into a beast of “indeterminate species. Perhaps a crab, perhaps a dog, perhaps even a man. Whatever it was it had no power over itself” (109), not even the power to die. She moves from destroying men who pain her to using them as instruments for pleasure, but is unable to satisfy or even define her desire. “She'd gone through her life, it seemed, looking for a sign of herself, only able to define her nature by the look in others' eyes. Now she wanted an end to that” (98).
Jacqueline turns to several feminist fables of identity with ambivalent results. She writes her memoirs, but leaves off when she reaches her ninth year, “with the first realization of on-coming puberty” (103). But something shifts when she turns from the man and embraces her own monstrosity (“Monster he calls me: monster I am” ) by “writing” from her body. She finds that she can “will her body to ripple like the surface of a lake.” Without sex, her body becomes “a mystery to her again,” and she realizes the lesson of Our Bodies, Ourselves, “that physical love had been an exploration of that most intimate, and yet most unknown region of her being: her flesh” (102).
Then, however, Jacqueline finds that she must recover herself in relation to the Other. In Nancy Chodorow and Jessica Benjamin, women experience ego boundaries as fluid, in what Benjamin calls an “intersubjective space” (92). And so Jacqueline “understood herself best by embracing someone else; seen her own substance clearly only when another's lips were laid on it, adoring and gentle” (102). Conversely, in the language of power, destroying the Other means destroying herself.
By this time, engorged with power, Jacqueline concludes that she will be completely herself only when she destroys all witnesses to her power and becomes a whore who annihilates her clients. When Vassi, her one lover, comes to her in the conclusion, the story ends turning on a terrible paradox of human sexual dependence: Hell is Other People, especially people of the other sex; I am incomplete without the Other, and yet when completed in the Other, I am dead.
Jacqueline Ess's “Will and Testament” is a disturbing legacy. Its pessimism turns on problems raised in earlier Female Gothic narratives, many of which ended in death (George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss, Kate Chopin's The Awakening, and the lives of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton). Barker's narrative ends in a fiery love-death in which the masculine and feminine powers cancel each other out. At the same time, because it is composed of two texts, Jacqueline's story and Vassi's “Testimony,” it is an ongoing dialogue, an open text.
If Books of Blood demonstrate and even celebrate body as a source of female subjectivity and power, they also, like Cronenberg's films, depict men encountering the feminine. Barker's texts similarly “instruct” male readers in the pleasure and pain of embodiment, regendering them. Vassi sees himself as a man speaking (testifying) to men about the truth of female power. “We cannot believe, we men, that power will ever reside happily in the body of a woman, unless that power is a male child. … The power must be in male hands, god-given. That's what our fathers tell us, idiots that they are” (87). In “The Madonna,” from Volume V of Books of Blood, entitled In the Flesh (1986), two men witness the power of parthenogenesis and undergo a literal sexual metamorphosis. Jerry Coloqhoun, a small-time grifter (who turns out to be the protagonist), interests an investor, Ezra Garvey, in renovating an abandoned bath-house. The obscure structure mystifies them both and they become separated in its darkness. In separate instances Jerry and Garvey, who has always been afraid of water and feels more comfortable within walls of institutions, are lured into the center of the pool complex by a naked girl. She teaches them a hard lesson: “The body does not need the mind. It has procedures aplenty, lungs to be filled and emptied, blood to be pumped and food profited from—none of which require the authority of thought.” After fainting, Jerry becomes “aware of his body” as never before: “Its fragility was a trap; its shape, its size, its very gender was a trap. And there was no flying out of it; he was shackled to, or in, this wretchedness” (“Madonna” 167).
But Jerry's horror is just the beginning. As in “Jacqueline Ess,” “Skins of the Fathers,” and “Rawhead Rex,” men who encounter the Anima or Mother undergo a sea-change in which they are released from the false consciousness of gender. Garvey and Jerry (subjectivized by the narrator's increasing use of his androgynous first name) have very different perceptions of the experience, both of which the reader is asked to consider. When Garvey finds himself changing, he blames Jerry and persecutes him in a display of retaliatory bravado. We follow his transformation through a subplot bearing on conflicts that develop between him and his lover Carole. In the beginning, mystified by the pools' architecture, Jerry shows a map to Carole, who sees that they are constructed on the principle of a labyrinth or spiral, which represents the intricate irrationalities of the feminine as perceived by the “linear” masculine mind. Then Jerry and Carole argue hotly over the merits of a French film that seems to Jerry “completely lacking in plot … a series of dialogues between characters discussing their traumas and their aspirations. … It left him feeling torpid” (150). When Jerry later finds his apartment vandalized by Garvey's thugs, he feels that his body has been invaded. To escape feelings of vulnerability, he forces himself on Carole and subsequently experiences paroxysms of guilt.
Barker makes the test of character a radical openness to the experience of the body, and in this story, that experience means literally turning into a woman. Garvey is horrified at the monstrosities he sees sprouting above and below his waist: “the bitches had worked this rapture upon him,” he thinks as he slashes hysterically at the offending parts. Jerry is neither afraid nor “jubilant” but he learns to enjoy being a girl. He turns “his hands over to admire their newfound fineness, running his palms across his breasts.” This biological transformation brings with it a spiritual one; Jerry is born again into pre-Oedipal innocence (and politically correct polymorphous perversity), accepting “this fait accompli as a baby accepts its condition” (178). In contrast to Garvey, Jerry experiences the revelations of the body fantastic: “There were miracles in the world! Forces that could turn flesh inside out without drawing blood; that could topple the tyranny of the real and make play in its rubble” (178).
The reader's experience, like Jerry's, involves a gradual (spiral-like) acceptance of the Madonna as Garvey, and even Carole (who is disgusted by the new Jerry), fall away, victims to their gendered preconceptions. Barker describes the Madonna at first in terms of her beautiful, naked “daughters,” who at first seem to be conventional bathing beauties, then mermaids, and finally take on attributes of lamias, nursing strange, tentacled children—representing the prospect, under a matriarchy, of asexual reproduction. The Madonna herself, or the “eternal feminine,” when finally revealed and demystified, is a vast fleshy mountain, a womb turned inside out. The narrator's description runs up and down the evolutionary ladder:
As the ripples of luminescence moved through the creature's physique, it revealed with every fresh pulsation some new and phenomenal configuration. … Mother? Jerry mouthed. … [S]wollen flesh was opening; liquid light gushing. … The slit spasmed and delivered the child—something between a squid and a shorn lamb—onto the tiles.
This fleshy revelation leaves Garvey paranoid and sick with confusion. But by the end of the story, the narrator has transposed the terms and the emotions associated with the abject mother into an evocation of the sublime. As the whirlpool catches him, and like Tolstoy's Ivan Ilych (at the moment of his death) or John Barth's spermatozoan on his erotic “Night-Sea Journey,” Jerry swims toward the light at the end of the tunnel. From this new inner space, a womb's eye view,
Death was no more certain than the dream of masculinity he'd lived these years. Terms of description fit only to be turned up and over and inside out. The earth was bright, wasn't it, and probably full of stars. He opened his mouth and shouted into the whirlpool, as the light grew and grew, an anthem in praise of paradox.
The worship of the Madonna means not matriarchy but a “utopian dream of a monstrous world without gender,” such as Donna Haraway recommends (223), a world open to change. Like Vassi (“Jacqueline Ess”), Jerry, having lived his life on shore, in “the solid world,” is tired of it. The Madonna is “a sea” and he must learn to swim in her element. Also similar is the way “The Madonna” ends in one of Barker's reversals of the emotional dominant, which is usually horror, into its opposite.
In all the stories previously mentioned, Barker offers a happy ending that is also profoundly disturbing, or he establishes a tone of optimism in the presence of uncertainty. Such shifts deny conventional pleasure and conventional pain and are consequently provocative. As in absurdist theater, the point is to disrupt our normal categories for processing experience. Barker contrasts his position on physicality with David Cronenberg's: “There is an argument that he's being repulsed by the flesh he's writing [sic] about, whereas I tend to be having a good time with it. ‘Long Live the New Flesh’ would be a cry that would come from both our lips” (Barker, “Tearing” 269). “Having a good time with it” means using fantasy to shift aesthetic, moral, and political values lent to body images and so changing the way we construct ourselves. The stories also destabilize conventional emotional resonances and move the reader to experience gender in different terms.
In the several stories that explore the conflict of male and female principles, the spectrum of issues and dialogue of perspectives invites the reader to participate. The titillation and semantic play lead to a more serious form of play in which images of gender are transposed and reconstructed. Barker often exposes orthodox belief systems, the church, the law, and psychology in particular for handing down misogynistic mythologies of the body. “Rawhead Rex” (Books of Blood, Volume III), is a splatter-movie version of the walking erection in “The Age of Desire” and another deconstruction of Lacan's Phallus, the Law of the Father. Rex is a monstrous materialization of the phallus running rampant, making its bloody way through the Welsh town of Zeal. The battle of Good and Evil as configured between Christ and the Anti-Christ is referred back to a much older allegorical struggle of masculine and feminine principles.
In the religious allegory, Rawhead Rex is the last of a race of child-devouring Titans that owned the land “Before Christ. Before civilization” (57) and that is uncovered from centuries of sleep by a farmer removing a huge stone in a field. Rex recalls perhaps the “rough beast” or Anti-Christ Yeats predicted in “The Second Coming.” The spineless verger at the local Anglican church plays his John the Baptist, bowing to a “Lord of the Hardon” whose demands would be “plain, and real.” “Raw Head. The name was an imperative. It evoked a skinned head. Its defenses peeled back, a thing close to bursting, no telling if it was pain or pleasure” (6). Rex acknowledges the verger's apostleship by urinating copiously on him. Orthodox zealots, Barker thereby suggests, are really motivated by the physiology of sex, and most especially pleasure in the hydraulics of ejaculation.
The most striking reversal is of the symbolism of blood, associated in the Church with the crucifixion and the power of resurrection into spiritual life. Like Anne Rice, Barker deconstructs the Judeo-Christian myths of blood, recovering its origins in more ancient fertility rites, cannibalism, and menstruation taboos. In the latter, the woman who was “born to bleed” but did not die was both abject victim and immortal monster. The Christian totem of the cross has suppressed the pagan taboo (and the taboo has elided female power) to the extent that the subject of menstruation was rarely broached in horror or any literature until Anne Sexton's “Menstruation at Forty.”
In “Rawhead Rex,” one of Barker's most violent stories, images associated traditionally with the female “abject” are reconfigured as symbols of life. Rather than eliding or exploiting the taboo, as Hanson has accused Stephen King of doing in Carrie, Barker allegorizes the issue. At first, Gwen's period comes on as a biological defense reflex: she “didn't see the giant, but her innards churned. Damn periods, she thought, rubbing her lower belly in a slow circle. … This month she'd come on a day early” (49). The body language comes from Rex's perspective as well: there was
no way [Rex] could bring himself to touch this woman; not today. She had the blood cycle on her, he could taste its tang, and it sickened him. It was taboo, that blood, and he had never taken a woman poisoned by its presence.
Barker describes menstruation as a horror specifically to the monster Rex, thus foregrounding the issue in the primitive literalism of his perception. He is, after all, an embodiment of the phallus. Our reading of rape is also foregrounded when Rex remembers the good old days when he and his brothers had
taken women into the woods, spread them out, spiked and loosed them again, bleeding but fertile. They would die having the children of those rapes. … That was the only revenge … on the big bellied sex.
Rex's hypermasculinity masks a terrified womb envy. What finally defeats him is the sign of the taboo raised on high as a totem, a stone icon of Venus, sign of the “bleeding woman, her gaping hole eating seed and spitting children. It was life, that hole, that woman, it was endless fecundity.” It is the power Hélène Cixous has described as the laugh of the Medusa. When neither the police nor the crucifix (the sign of the bleeding man) daunts him, the woman “terrifie[s] him” into submission (87), and he is forced back into the hole from which he last emerged.
“Rawhead Rex” begins as what seems to be a celebration of male sexual violence. But hard-ons don't last. At least half of the story is described through Rex's perspective, to the extent that much of the pleasure of reading it is designed with male action-movie lovers in mind. The narrator delights with Rex in phallic power as he devours the entrails of babies and urinates on the alternatingly groveling and ecstatic verger. But the story increasingly reveals the limitations of this Law of the Father—that he is the last of his breed, dooming his offspring (who kill their mothers as they are born). In Barker's characteristic turn, we learn that Rex has “never been a great thinker,” that he lives in the eternal present of the instinctual (49-50). In the last third of the story, the archeologist Ron Milton loses his son to the phallic principle and becomes a hero when he screams: “The scream had always belonged to the other sex, until that instant. Then, watching the monster stand up and close its jaws around his son's head, there was no sound appropriate but a scream” (78). “Dead sons,” he discovers, “were the crux of the Church after all” (50). Thus “Rawhead Rex” turns the mythology of the Church into myths of gender and images of the body fantastic.
“In none of my fiction,” Barker has said, “will you find any religious solution to a problem. Nobody ever whips out a crucifix and expects to keep a monster at bay with it. Those are old solutions. We have to find new solutions” (qtd. in Castaneda 59). In moving toward new solutions we should recover the artifacts buried under the altars, whose iconography is based in monstrous images of the body. Learning to see into these images, however, is merely the beginning. The goal is to re-imagine them and thereby re-invent ourselves.
Inevitably Barker's fiction returns to the idea of embracing the monstrous feminine in order to be fully human. And because the feminine is the marginal “sex which is not one” (Irigaray), it includes or implies androgyny. Barker's dialogues of gender suggest that within conventional constrictions, we are all misshapen fragments of whole people, or at best halves searching for the missing or possible Other. We are all seeking to re-imagine our present selves. Sexual metamorphosis is often positively self-transcending.
Barker's lively, myth-transforming “splatter prose” should be considered in a context that includes feminist artists Judy Chicago and Robert Mapplethorpe, who (while obviously quite different) have designed images of the body that make space for sexual difference. I am thinking of Chicago's The Dinner Party, a series of dinner plates designed to suggest the female genitalia in metamorphosis or flight and Mapplethorpe's reconstructions of the phallus. “The Madonna” and “Rawhead Rex” venture into revisionist mythmaking.
Feminist subtexts inform the discourses of the body that comprise Barker's six volumes. Books of Blood are fantastic voyages through the gendered body, with the male and female principles represented in images of its inner spaces. They show the extent to which psychoanalysis shifted its base in the mid- 1980s, from the subject's mind-centered emphasis on consciousness to the body-mind or the body fantastic. Books of Blood are also dialogues in which gender may be transposed or transformed; they are re-genderings of the body.
In “Rawhead Rex,” the perspective shifts from a randy phallocentrism toward gynocentrism, and turns from a splatter film into a dialogic text. “Jacqueline Ess” moves from female powerlessness to the monstrous feminine to the paradox of human sexual dependence. This paradox is embodied in a text in which Jacqueline's fatal and female “Will and Testament,” unwritten except in a fragment of a diary and the misshapen fragments of male flesh, is co-authored and made possible by Vassi, whose “Testimony” also represents a significantly revised version of the patriarchal law. Jacqueline's story proper provides a satirical mirror of the Word, and Vassi's passionate lyricism responds to and deflects Jacqueline's rage. Neither text would be complete without the other. The story, like the Books of Blood as a whole, becomes a collaborative text, a dialogue of positions, and a problem thrust on the reader.
As his move toward fantasy indicates, Barker's interest in essentialist concepts, including archetypal and psychoanalytic analysis, is superseded by what must be called his “faith” in change and his war against Blakean “mind-forged manacles.” Barker attacks Freud, for example, in “The Body Politic,” for fitting the mind in “neat classical compartments,” and suggests that his own viewpoint is more Jungian. At the same time, Barker exposes the stereotyping tendencies of archetypal approaches, celebrating variegation.
In presenting a spectrum, Books of Blood are subversive in form as well as content: each story is composed of several counterpointing characters or voices, each volume consists of four to six such tales, each playing off the others, the dialogic play destabilizing the whole, reversing and revising stereotypes. Instead of closure, Barker offers heteroglossia and transformation, which make for humorously black, weirdly optimistic, or triumphantly paradoxical endings. The six volumes provide a Bakhtinian Carnival in which normally suppressed voices are heard “in the flesh” as transformation and intertextuality triumph over patriarchy and logos. At the same time, as violent texts, Books of Blood subvert political correctness itself, sliding into ambivalence.
“CELEBRATIONS OF PERVERSITY”: BARKER'S FILMS
Transformation is the essential element in Barker's visual style, whatever the medium. This theme is perhaps most obvious in his films and screenplays. A case in point is Hellraiser, his enormously successful 1987 directorial debut, and an all-out, perversely dislocating splatter movie.4 The film's focus is the deconstruction and gradual reconstruction of Frank Cotton from a bit of slime and ganglia on up.
Based on his novella The Hellbound Heart (1986), Hellraiser cross references Faust, Frankenstein, and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and may draw on Barker's early Grand Guignol plays. Frank Cotton wishes to “redefine the parameters of sensation” and to release himself from “the dull round of desire, seduction and disappointment that ha[s] dogged him from late adolescence” (Hellbound Heart 187). By manipulating an exotic puzzle box, Frank summons the Cenobites, described in The Hellbound Heart as “theologians of the Order of the Gash” (187), masters of pleasure and pain and providers of private hells, imagined as a fleshy limbo. In the film these demons are visual puns, metaphors of sadomasochism—a head scored into perfect squares and studded with pins; a face trapped in a prison of flesh that covers all but the mouth and a set of chattering teeth. As Frank discovers, the Cenobites offer jouissance through ultimate sensational experience and physical transformation in exchange for his self. A flood, a “cacophony” of sensations is unleashed and “written on his cortex,” until he feels “close to exploding” (Hellbound Heart 193), as indeed he is. In the film his body is ripped apart in a literalization of deconstruction. However, eternal jouissance is paradoxically a type of entrapment. There is no exit.5 Julia, Frank's sister-in-law and lover, feels trapped in a conventional marriage and equally fractured into roles. Divining her lover's presence in the family house, she agrees to resurrect and literally raise him through a bloody ritual in which she seduces, bludgeons, and feeds a series of men to Frank's voracious remains.
In Hellraiser, the central image is Frank's radical dismemberment in the prologue and gradual reconstruction throughout the film in spectacular effects sequences. These reverse the traditional horror movie structure in which the monster is deconstructed and expelled at the end of the movie. The opening sequence concludes as fragments of the organs of his senses are displayed on hooks in artful tableaus in the style of Grand Guignol and Hieronymous Bosch. The reconstruction involves eight stages of clinically detailed effects that suggest the layered transparencies of a medical textbook.
In the transformation of Frank, Barker attempts to recreate the effect of the “very beautiful” sixteenth-century medical illustrations of the anatomist Andreas Vesallius, who portrayed “flayed men and women standing in classical poses or leaning against pillars. The whole atmosphere of these images is cool and elegant. …” With these etchings in mind, Barker and effects designer Bob Keene made Frank and the Cenobites “beautiful and repulsive simultaneously” (Barker, qtd. in Floyd, “Clive Barker” 313).
The resulting film is subversive, as Barker and Bob Keene, the effects technician, intended. Like Cronenberg's Dead Ringers, the effects reverse splatter film violence against the female and (perversely) flay, open up, and “feminize” the male. This skinless and continually “new” Frank is a walking wound, his anatomy his visible destiny. An excruciating reminder of our physiological limits, and thus Frankenstein's monster, Frank is alternately the body in pieces and the body in flux: “the map of his arteries and veins still being drawn anew,” “puls[ing] with stolen life” (Hellbound Heart 238).
Hellraiser is erotic in sexually dislocating ways. At his most rapacious Frank is portrayed as a growing fetus nourished in the chamber of Julia's desire. Like Rawhead Rex, he is a penis—rising from the floorboards with the gasp/roar/cry of a beast/child/orgasm, the mise-en-scène bringing the sights and sounds of birth, predatory violence, and sex into disturbing juxtaposition. In an oddly painful and compelling scene, Frank, newly born from the pool of slime that he was, has a cigarette as he chats with his mistress. Conventional horror “portrays women as more squeamish than men” (Women in Horror), Barker has complained, and he plays against stereotype, generating perverse overtones. As Julia bathes in the blood of her victims and mates with the slime of Frank on the floor of the womblike room—as she embraces villainy and abjection—she becomes paradoxically more beautiful. (In the novella The Hellbound Heart, she also becomes perversely maternal: “she [f]orsak[es] the dregs of her distaste,” touching the hair—“silken, like a baby's—and the shell of his skull beneath” ).
Equally dislocating is the film's “relativized morality,” which Nigel Floyd calls a “cruel parody of the old liberal maxim, ‘Everyone has their reasons’” (“Clive Barker” 313). Julia is no “fatal woman” stereotype, and she is especially sympathetic from a Female Gothic point of view. Seduced by Frank before her wedding to the kind but dull Rory, she nurses Frank back to life to give her pleasure. Like Jacqueline Ess, she chooses “masculine” knowledge, power, and creativity over traditional female roles and changes from a neurotic housewife to a woman possessed by desire. “She had made this man, or remade him, used her wit … to give him substance. The thrill she felt, touching this too vulnerable body, was the thrill of ownership,” the novella tells us (Hellbound Heart 240). Julia relishes the Female Gothic experience of “unnatural” authorship (surrogate motherhood) to Shelleyian “hideous progeny.” But as Nigel Floyd explains, viewers are torn between their sympathy for Frank and Julia and their “disorientation at being encouraged to identify with the forces of evil. Refused any single organizing moral point of view, the viewer is kept continually off-balance” (Floyd 318).
Hellraiser subverts the kind of certainty found in bourgeois horror films rooted in the nuclear family, whose purpose is to expel the monstrous. The film additionally tests the limits of the genre, using its conventions to unsettle viewers. Such reversals and paradoxes of Hellraiser defamiliarize splatter conventions and make viewers newly and uncomfortably conscious of the body as a process, as incessant transformation. Barker has explained that such “rearrangements of the flesh,” as he calls them, only show what takes place “on a moment-to-moment basis,” a process that he says is “kind of celebrated” in his fiction. In an interview with Morgan Gerard, Barker describes it in terms of “sitting together, growing old; our flesh minutely changing outside our control; our bodies responding to the alcohol we're taking in; our organs, for all we know, growing tumorous. The flesh can decide to get sick, to get upset, to make us desire” (qtd. in Gerard). Barker's images are confrontations with the wound that reveals change at the heart of things. This recognition Barker celebrates, paradoxically, because it requires (and also can free) us to re-imagine the world. The flux that is the body is ultimately a source of power.
Barker's drawings therefore portray characters who actively recreate themselves. Barker explains that they are “only just holding onto their coherence” (Burke 52), “exploding out of their condition into something else. Becoming” (Burke 38). We are “programmed socially, economically, emotionally, religiously,” but the possibility of “throwing over … self-restrictions” taught by “priests, parents, and psychologists” is always present. “Can we not erupt?” he asks rhetorically. “We re-invent ourselves anyway, day-to-day, friend-to-friend, moment-to-moment—it's just that we don't really perceive that” (qtd. in Burke 44).
This concept of the self in flux Barker expressed early in “The Skins of the Fathers” (Books of Blood II), which re-dressed H. P. Lovecraft's “The Dunwich Horror” in a radical imagery derived from the fantastic painters. In the “cosmic horror” of Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos, the demons are oozy, huge, and malign. Like many of Poe's horrors, they are “unnameable” and refer to a feminine monstrosity. Barker turns Lovecraft's coding wrong side out by making his equally marginal demons the heroes, the “true” fathers of the human species. When the patriarchs of Welcome, Nebraska, first encounter the demons, they see only a procession of apparent celebrants, a “gorgeous array” of shapes, colors, sizes, wearing “headdresses and masks that [totter] well above human height,” reeling “like drunkards, loping one moment, leaping the next, squirming, some of them, on the ground” (118-19). But these are not costumes, and the demons have reemerged, after several millennia, the last of their species, to celebrate the birth of their changeling son Aaron. Their “extraordinary anatomies, the dreaming spires of heads, the scales, the skirts” (153) and their empathic language (or is it song?) defy the townspeople's categories for body and gender types. (The denizens of Welcome call them “[d]irty, stinking, faceless fuckers” .) The demons dismantle biological norms and the larger natural order. When Aaron blossoms into the “soup of shapes” (154) of his/her truer form, an epic battle between authentic and false fathers and a grand apocalypse of a landslide ensues.
Barker explains that the “representatives of society, who, in most horror films, are figures of order and stability,” are in his works “models of moral depravity.” The fathers of Welcome are characterized as “fat white fists hot with guns” (147), and Aaron's human father abuses him for being a “sissy.” In a reversal that few male writers in any genre would attempt, modern patriarchy is portrayed as a violent moment following a golden prehistory in which women had always existed as a “species to themselves,” with the demons. “But they had wanted playmates: and together they had made men. What … a cataclysmic miscalculation. Within mere eons … the women were made slaves, the demons killed or driven underground” (147). The imagery links women further with the demons, associating them together with life-affirming plenitude, freakish diversity, and the Dionysian or Bakhtinian carnival. In the utopia Barker imagines, both “species” are sexually whole and embody a prehistoric version of pre-Oedipal polymorphous perversity. “Skins of the Fathers”: sins, foreskins, forefathers. The demons are all of these. “‘See, them black-eyed sons of bitches don't have no fucking heads,’ Eugene was screaming” (151). Their association with foreskins, reinforced by their appearances and their bisexual apparatus, is Barker's reconstruction of Judeo-Christian law in which the foreskin is considered unclean, tainted with the archaic Mother, and is removed from the son's penis. Aaron, the changeling son, looks like an ordinary boy—slender like the rod that prefigures him—until his real nature erupts in a manner that suggests both an erection and a polymorphous blossoming. In the typology of the symbolic, these skins more properly belong to “stinking, faceless mothers,” to This Sex Which Is Not One, or “male and female in one indistinguishable congress.”
Barker has described the natural world as “relentlessly beautiful, relentlessly inventive, relentlessly complex. And [in this respect] it celebrates the marginal in a way that human structure doesn't. … The Third Reich is the ultimate non-celebration of the marginal” (qtd. in Gracey-Whitman and Melia 412). “The Skins of the Fathers” displaces the phallic signifier here as part of the program to privilege the marginal as consistent with the variegation and transformation in nature. Although several stories tall, the demons cradle and croon to Aaron telepathically, surrounding him with a womb of sound and sensation. Alternately whimsical, exotic, awe inspiring, grotesque, and charming, “The Skins of the Fathers” is a hymn to diversity, asking readers to think about a world uninscribed by gender, culture, or species, and in which the human is disseminated rather than prefigured. As sands cover the demons and the Welcomers alike, the demons' song lingers over the “text” provided by the remnants of the Law: a head, a torso, a nose, and a mouth emerging from the sand. The story ends with a nod to Lovecraftian “cosmic” horror and awe as from the long perspective we view these “trivial forms,” these “[l]ittle dots and commas of human pain” (122).
It is not surprising that Barker was quickly taken up by the adult comic book industry. Epic Comics illustrator McLaurin, who draws the Hellraiser and Nightbreed series, explains: the Hellraiser series is not the kind of horror “you'd expect from an EC comic, where a twist ending bundles up the plot in one bloody package.” Unlike King, who deals in “everyday” horror, “Barker is set apart by his ability to create an entirely believable mythological universe, populating it with a menagerie of the monstrous” (Labbe 41).
After Books of Blood, The Damnation Game (1986), and The Hellbound Heart (in Night Visions series, No. 3, 1986), Barker moved away from splatter fiction and the iconographic toward the fantastique. This mode increasingly emphasizes variegation or creative diversification. Transformation becomes the subversive use of fantasy to re-imagine the self and the world, especially in Weaveworld, his “anti-fantasy” or meta-fantasy of 1988.
In emphasizing the social function of transformation and metamorphosis, Barker is in line not only with feminist revisionists but also with “magic realists” Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jorge Louis Borges, and Italo Calvino. Like these writers, Barker believes that the cultural attitudes toward the flesh, toward difference, and toward other species need to change. Like them he celebrates the marginal.
Barker's Bakhtinian vision is overtly presented in his 1989 film Nightbreed, based on his novella Cabal (1988). In its world, as described by Maitland McDonagh, “every day is a carnival … real carnival, a no-holds-barred celebration of the grotesque and the inverse” (60). Nightbreed is not a successful film. It is a nearly incoherent film unless it is viewed in part as meta-film, “read against” horror conventions. The videotape, however, begins with a helpful prologue. Barker is shown sitting dressed in black on a dark sound stage and surrounded by the masks of the Nightbreed monsters. The faces, including Barker's, are bathed in an eerie glow. “I've always loved monsters,” he announces. “A dark corner in all of us … envies their powers, … would love to … fly, or change shape at will.” Monsters are our transgressive desires. Therefore Barker has created Midian, an underground city “peopled with creatures of our darkest fantasies” and where consequently, “we can feel strangely at home.” He invites “you” to join in “flipping all the conventions of the horror movies, plunging you to a world of insanity and miracles, where dead men can be heroes, monsters beautiful, and the only place of refuge is the most forbidding place on earth.”
Like Hellraiser, Nightbreed undermines the categorical thinking behind concepts like sadism, masochism, and necrophilia, and “embraces the monstrous,” but by means of plotting, characterization, and conventions more properly associated with the fantastique. Midian is threatened by the forces of order represented in Eigermann the fascist sheriff, Ashbery the masochistic priest, Decker the sadistic psychoanalyst, and even the hero-enlightener Aaron Boone. The film begins with the twist that would have provided the clincher for the conventional horror movie, one that foregrounds the character of Decker and his cohorts. Dr. Decker has convinced Boone, his patient and scapegoat, that he is a serial murderer, having programmed Boone with his own psychopathic memories. Decker is a type, Barker's satire on psychologists as terrorists of the imagination, so that his hollowness as a character, his lack of authenticity, history, or motivation, is the point. He is also characterized externally through casting and visual metaphor. In the crucial role is horror film director David Cronenberg, directly imported from the fantastic clinicism of Dead Ringers (1989).
Performed with the chilly detachment of one of Cronenberg's doctors, Cronenberg-as-Decker also represents Dead Ringers's theme of “male horror and envy of female reproductive process” (Showalter 242), symbolized in “the breed” and their unruly proliferation of the fantastic. Cronenberg's presence at the extra-diagetic level interacts with the visual metaphor of Decker's alter ego, “The Mask” (as Decker addresses it in the novella), under whose authority he acts as a grim reaper. The Mask links Decker the psychologist unsettlingly with the icon for the teenage slasher movie, Jason's hockey mask. Decker's Mask is the cloth face of a sewing-box doll—“zipper for mouth, buttons for eyes, all sewn on white linen and tied around” With “the teeth … gleaming knives, their blades fine as grass blades” (Cabal 88). With these he accomplishes his mission of “sewing/sowing” culture. The construction of reality means the death of imagination, as represented in Barker's Carnival of shape shifters, freaks, and dark dreamers—the “children of the Moon.”
As a visual metaphor, and as a sign of genre, Decker's mask presents the antithesis to the protagonists, who are fantasy images, grotesques inspired by Goya and Bosch. In an interview with Nigel Floyd, Barker explains that the film contains a “generic collision” between the world “of the fabulist and the world of iconographic images” and representing the larger one between the world of Midian and the world of Law. The latter is represented iconographically by Cronenberg/as Decker/as psychologist/as slasher/as mask and is equated with the modern horror movie at its most conventional. Decker is a “reductionist, cold-hearted and soulless thing” (Floyd, “Frights” 345). Decker portrays the modern horror tradition as being “about throwing the monster out, about the rejection of the marginal” says Barker. Within his metaphorical worlds, however, “it's not possible to throw the monster out and assume that one's house has been purged … because the monster is part of our internal workings” (Floyd, “Clive Barker: Hellraiser” 312).
In the Nightbreed characters, the grotesque is a sign of Dionysian energy, to Barker the equivalent of soul. More specifically, the grotesque represents the self with potential for transformation. The Nightbreed are, as opposed to any one image or type, shape shifters. The visual metaphor of the mask gives the concept of transformation psychological and physiological force. Narcisse, the protagonist's sidekick, is an icon of the “authentic” man-without-a-face. In the beginning, as one of Decker's patients, he is a madman tormented by dreams of utopia (Midian). As a way of seeking admission to the city of his dreams, Narcisse suicidally strips the skin from half of his face, rendering it a mask, thus transforming himself into a dualism and a paradox, a freak “worthy” of such a utopia. Like R. D. Laing and Michel Foucault, Barker sees madness as the name given to those whose vision might subvert the symbolic order. In contrast to Narcisse and thus portraying a different kind of madness, the hero Aaron Boone erupts, smoke pouring from all orifices, and transforms his human face (or public mask) into the powerfully beastlike Cabal, the savior-priest who is also Midian's “undoing.” It is through the same deconstructive logic that Boone can fulfill his destiny only by dying and becoming a “beast,” by losing his heroic name (to the signification “Cabal,” from cabala and signifying magic) and by becoming Midian's unmaking. By causing the destruction of this refuge for Otherness, and however unwittingly, Boone forces Carnival back into the world where it can remain vitally subversive.
As Lisa Tuttle points out, Cabal/Nightbreed is Weaveworld, which she reads as a classic, “even archetypal, fantasy,” in reverse. By “archetypal fantasy” she means
the longed-for Other Place. … This longing—desire—is the engine which drives fantasy, just as in the horror story the engine is fear. But that desire and fear might be inextricably linked is something not usually commented on or explored by writers in either genre. … Perhaps now … artists are interested in exploring the nexus of fear and desire.
The shape-shifting Children of the Moon, together with Baphomet, their “god and goddess in one body” (Cabal 207), embody that nexus. They represent the possibility inherent in unconstructed—quilled, tentacled, multi-textured, and rainbow-colored—life. In the novella, confronted with the “true Midian” for the first time, the heroine Lori feels a mixture of horror and fascination:
Was it simply disgust that made her stomach flip, seeing the stigmatic in full flood, with sharp-toothed adherents sucking noisily at her wounds? Or excitement, confronting the legend of the vampire in the flesh? And what was she to make of the man whose body broke into birds when he saw her watching? Or the dog-headed painter who turned from his fresco and beckoned her to join his apprentice mixing paint?
The Nightbreed are Jungian masks or faces of the unconstructed self, grotesques, and they stand for Barker's concept of transformation. “You call us monsters but when you dream you dream of flying, changing,” one of the Children of the Moon explains to Lori. They also incarnate the modern view of life and death as relative conditions: some are predators (while others are not); some are alive and some are technically dead but “living” in the liminal state that Midian‘s underground space, otherwise signified as carnival, represents. Allusions to the classic film statements on carnival, to Tod Browning's Freaks and Fellini Satyricon, abound. Barker has explained the film as a hymn to variegation and in the fantastique tradition, including the paintings of Bosch, Goya, Blake, and Fuseli. The “generation of fresh imagery” is its purpose (Barker, qtd. in Floyd, “Frights” 343).
In Clive Barker's films, as in his fiction, the imagery of violence and the experience of pain are aspects of his metaphorics of transformation. Like Mapplethorpe's photography or Wittig's writing, his texts do violence to the body, opening it into a text, in order to shift the emphasis we call gender and articulate difference. Stephen King has said that horror “arises from a pervasive sense of disestablishment, that things are in the unmaking” (Introd. 22). But when Barker's anti-horror fantasy unmakes the world, he does so in part to open spaces, to appeal to the reader's or viewer's desire to recreate the world. People should “leave the moviehouse or put down the book knowing that they can begin to reinvent this,” he says, tapping an empirical table, “and our relationship to this,” he emphasized recently. “Works of the imagination are finally tools for change” (Strauss, “New King” 94).
See Rockett on horror as Theater of Cruelty.
Asked in an interview with G. Dair if he were confident in his own sexuality, Barker answered discreetly: “I'm confident in my own complexity and that really interests me, because of the ambiguities of sexuality, the ambiguities of metaphysics, and the metaphysics of sexuality are things which hugely influence what I write” (393). Unlike Stephen King (who maintains the image of a family man who can make his private life common knowledge and would publish his laundry list if he thought it would sell) or Anne Rice (who has a listed phone number and publishes her sexual fantasies for all the world to see), Barker has until very recently steered clear of the subject of his private life, intellectualizing the issue or referring back to his work. But this past year, after the manuscript of this book was complete, Barker spoke “as an openly gay man for the first time” in Out magazine (“The 1995 Out 100,” Out Dec.-Jan. 1996: 90). Featured in Genre's “Men We Love” section (Dec.-Jan. 1996), he says he is “first and foremost a gay man who imagines. How important the gay part is depends on the medium, but I can't imagine making art without some form of sexual content” (50).
“Coming to Grief” was also published in Good Housekeeping (Oct. 1988) in the United Kingdom.
Hellraiser won the Grand Prix De La Section Peur at the 16th Annual Avoriaz Fantasy Film Festival in France in 1989 and was the number one box-office hit in Europe in 1988.
Lord of Illusions, Barker's 1995 film, was released in October 1995, after I completed the manuscript for this book.
Barker, Clive. “New Fiction by Clive Barker: Animal Life.” USA Weekend 24-26 June 1994: 4-7.
Booe, Martin. “Deliciously Terrifying.” Interview with Clive Barker. USA Weekend 26-28 Jan. 1990: 8.
Campbell, Ramsey. “Introduction.” Barker, Books I xi-xiii.
Castaneda, Laura. “Britain's Clive Barker: Future King of Horror.” The Tennessean Showcase [Nashville] 24 Aug. 1986: 58-59.
Gerard, Morgan. “Clive Barker The Horror!” Graffiti Jan. 1988. Rpt. (as excerpt) in Jones 157.
Hughes, Dave. “Clive Barker in the Flesh.” Skeleton Crew 3-4 (1988). Rpt. in Jones 391.
Jones, Stephen, ed. Clive Barker's Shadows in Eden. Lancaster, PA: Underwood-Miller, 1991.
Morrison, Michael A. “The Delights of Dread: Clive Barker's First Three Books of Blood.” Jones 157-169.
———. “Monster, Miracles, and Revelations: Clive Barker's Tales of Transformation.” Jones 173-83.
—and Stefan Jaworzyn. “Meet Clive Barker.” Fangoria Jan. 1986 Rpt. in Jones, 185-89.
Van Hise, James. Stephen King and Clive Barker: The Illustrated Masters of the Macabre. Las Vegas: Pioneer Books, 1990.
———. “Catching Up with Clive Barker, Part Two.” Fangoria July 1986: 46-49.
———. “Clive Barker.” Dark Dreamers: Conversations with the Masters of Horror. New York: Avon, 1990. 9-17.
———. “Horror in Print: Clive Barker.” Fangoria July 1986. Jones 191-97.
———. “Talking Terror With Clive Barker.” Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone Magazine June 1987. Rpt. Jones 209-14.
Last Updated on February 5, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 197
Winter, Douglas E. Clive Barker: The Dark Fantastic. London: HarperCollins, 2001, 671 p.
Billed as “the authorized biography,” this comprehensive work includes bibliographic information.
Barbieri, Suzanne J. Clive Barker: Mythmaker for the Millenium. Stockport: British Fantasy Society, 1994, 62 p.
Explores Barker's use and creation of myth in his fiction, and discusses the history of English fantasy and horror fiction.
Jones, Stephen, ed. Clive Barker's Shadows in Eden. Lancaster, PA: Underwood-Miller, 1991, 465 p.
Compiles essays, interviews, and a bibliography of Barker's work.
Van Hise, James. Stephen King and Clive Barker: Masters of the Macabre II. Las Vegas: Pioneer Books, 1992.
Includes interviews with horror fiction writers Stephen King and Clive Barker, as well as discussion of the stories, novels, and film adaptations of each author.
Additional coverage of Barker's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 10; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 1; Bestsellers, Vol. 90:3; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 121, 129; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 71; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 52; Contemporary Popular Writers; DISCovering Authors Modules: Popular Fiction and Genre Authors; Discovering Authors 3.0; Major 20th-Century Writers, Editions 1, 2; and St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost & Gothic Writers.