The Great and Secret Show

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Palomo Grove, California, an almost Midwestern small town (except for the somewhat incongruous addition of surfers), is the setting for Clive Barker’s latest outing into the supernatural. The book starts in the true Midwest: Omaha, Nebraska. It is here that Randolph Jaffe spends his time sorting letters in the Omaha Central Post Office’s Dead Letter Room. In that winter of 1969, he begins to notice a strange pattern to much of the correspondence being relegated to the incinerator. Many of these letters speak of the Art, though Jaffe is not quite certain of what that is or who is behind it.

Jaffe’s boss, Homer, however, tries to separate him from the dead letters, which precipitates Homer’s murder by Jaffe and the start of Jaffe’s adventures with the Art. Jaffe (now styling himself as “the Jaff”) then goes to Baja California, where he installs an eccentric mescaline-addicted scientist named Richard Wesley Fletcher to discover the great secret of life. Fletcher makes his discovery but realizes that the Jaff is too evil to use it wisely. Their battle and its side effects, which include impregnating four teenage girls, take up the rest of the book, though the climax of their war comes twenty years later (conveniently placing the horror and danger in the present as well as providing a sinister explanation for some of California’s earthquakes).

Barker, a British author probably better known for his films HELLRAISER, HELLBOUND, and NIGHTBREED, seems to be an admirer of Stephen King. Certain references (as to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death”) echo King’s allusions in THE SHINING, and the plot bears a passing resemblance to parts of THE STAND. Yet, Barker does not merely serve up a derivative adventure. THE GREAT AND SECRET SHOW is a compelling tale, marred only by its tediously drawn-out ending and by Barker’s too-obvious desire to make this novel the first of a series, with a happy ending that still leaves a cloud hanging over the book’s survivors.