Monday, April 29, 2013

The Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3

by Clive Barker

based upon the evidence of Books of Blood 1-3, Clive Barker sprung into the literary horror world fully-formed, a writer all grown up, already past the awkward growing pains of an adolescent period that other writers of his stature and widespread appeal suffered through before reaching their full powers. his ability to construct and sustain an intriguing narrative, his resonant themes, his stylistic flourishes, his use of irony and dread and gore and comedy, his strength at detailing truly real and deeply developed characters' lives, his expertise at creating an entire world within the space of a story... these are all the traits of an author writing at his peak, and so early in his career.

Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3the stories within these collections are truly sensational: their power comes from his consistent strength at conveying sensual, physical sensation. this is not to mean that he writes sexy horror stories; rather, he is a writer who knows how to write "body-based horror". in many ways, these stories parallel the themes and goals of the films of David Cronenberg - the body as something alien, the body as a sacred space, the body as a target or vehicle or ideal, the body turning against itself.

Peter Straub - an intellectual writer - locates his horrors within the mind: a place of murky motivation and potential evil, a site of invasion and transformation; his horrors are often as ambiguous and as ambivalent as mindspace itself. Stephen King - an emotional writer - places his horrors in scenarios that are wellsprings of sentiment and feeling, often squarely within the family unit or painful adolescence or the various dreams and ambitions of the heart itself; his horrors are often explicitly tangible things that exist to tear apart humanity's most beloved institutions. unlike those two, Barker's horrors are centered in the body as a battleground, a place where the mind and the heart are often at war. his horrors blur the boundaries of right and wrong; the various transfigurations that occur throughout his stories are often so dreadful because they are both unnervingly ambiguous and disturbingly familiar, intimate on a physical level - and in the end, almost infinitely unknowable. his bodies are places of both terror and wonder.

Barker illustrates how the body can be a site of fearsome splendor and violence in the collection's first story: The Book of Blood, in which a fraud's appealing body exists first as a landscape encouraging erotic contemplation and then as a horrific diary of the dead. in the masterful Dread, a psychopathic guru lives to sadistically push his trainees past their base physical fears, and eventually meets his match in a student who has learned his lessons all too well. the horror of Jacqueline Ess comes from the terrifying protagonist's ability to wield utter control of the body itself. New Murders in the Rue Morgue revisits the classic story with a new (and rather sympathetic) focus on the idea of what truly, physically, makes a man? and in Confessions of a (Pornographer's) Shroud, the story serves as both an ironic commentary on pornography's rigorous mono-focus on body parts and as a clever rejoinder to the idea that a meat-based body is even necessary to create horror - let alone to enact bloody vengeance.

the author's themes remain intact and even more visceral in those stories that are straight-up, traditionally structured servings of familiar, monster-based horror. The Midnight Meat Train features ancient, physically mortified beings who must be paid their due in flesh and has a classic "ambiguous" protagonist who finds his goals in life may soon be adjusted in favor of a more transformative purpose. Pig Blood Blues is wonderfully bizarre (its malevolent foil... a demonic sow!) and explicitly depicts potential physical change and transformation as an undeniable terminus for its victims, villains, and hero alike. and the now-classic Rawhead Rex has a monster whose mind dreams of domination and whose physical body yearns for both freedom and the flesh of children; his achilles' heel, his personal horror... the fertile woman, the menstrual cycle.

Barker can also do comedy with an expert touch. The Yattering and the Jack is laugh-out-loud funny, a wry tale of a lower-level demon vs. The Most Boring Man in the World, a man who apparently has no terrors or temptations based in the flesh or other physical things. the quaintly nostalgic and drily amusing Sex, Death and Starshine sees the decay of the flesh and a rotting life existing beyond the grave as, well, not so bad, really.

there are a few stories that are less successful, although they are by no means abortions. Hell's Event - Deadliest Marathon Ever! the entire world is at stake! - centers its horror within a runner's body. Son of Celluloid finds a lonely cancerous growth making its own body and invading a fading movie palace. Scape-Goats' horrors rise from the undisposed corpses of the long-dead and their reaction to a quartet of obnoxious tourists who obliviously pay their bodies no respect.

there are three stories that are now amongst the finest modern horror stories that i've ever had the pleasure of reading.

Books of Blood Volumes 1 - 3The Skins of the Fathers is an often amusing send-up of gun-toting hick americana. more importantly, in its unsettling tale of the male gender's First Fathers and their practice of holy/unholy procreation, it decribes not-so-alien physiognomies in detail - but makes the key decision to replace disgust with awe, to replace the Terrible Other with Ancient Adam (and his many brothers).

Human Remains is a mordant and moody story of the escalating relationship between a street hustler/ wannabe gigolo and a being that seeks to not just mimic (and protect) that hustler's body, but also endeavors to recreate that poor fool's history into a life that contains emotional depth - rather than a life of empty ambition, callowness, and apathy.

my favorite story of all 3 books is In the Hills, the Cities. this is a truly awesome tale, in all sense of the word "awesome"... a mind-boggling, bizarre, many-leveled account of two very different travelers and lovers, of two very similar rural villages, of an archaic tradition that replaces a many-bodied battle with two very unique bodies, of bodies coming together to create something greater, something terrible - something that the two travelers choose to either turn away from in horror or to embrace as a new form of physical being. the story is amazing.


musical accompaniment

Coil: Gold Is the Metal, Hellraiser Themes
DJ Spooky: Songs of a Dead Dreamer


  1. This is a great essay, and one of the most succinct and cogent breakdowns of the styles of King vs Straub vs Barker. I bow down to you.

  2. thanks Trudi! i really need to read more Barker. i think i may go for his non-horror Galilee next.