One of my favorite places in all the world when I was growing up was the local Walden Books. This is back when horror was actually a separate genre, shelved apart from science-fiction and not lumped together with general fiction. Once a month I’d go there and search through the titles, looking for anything new to add to my growing collection. On one such outing, facing out near the beginning of the horror section was a slim paperback with a weird face on the cover and the blurb: “I have seen the future of horror … and it is named Clive Barker.” –Stephen King. My first thought was ‘yeah, right …’ but then I realized it was something Stephen King actually said. The name of the book was Volume One of Clive Barker’s Books of Blood. I’d never heard of Clive Barker before, but that was all about to change.
It was 1985, and Barker was just getting warmed up.
Released from 1984 through 1986, Clive Barker’s Books of Blood series came to the US at a time when we really needed something to shake up the horror industry. What Barker brought to the table was a fearless intensity to build new mythologies built on classic horror tropes, producing hellish visions of depravity with a language as lush and vivid as the most esteemed literature. The first volume, filled with six stories, basically novelettes, was a game changer. Readers were growing tired of ghosts and psychic kids and demonic possession. Freddie Krueger was just starting to slash up kids in their dreams, Jason was about to get another sequel, and people were still trying to figure out why Halloween III: Season of the Witch wasn’t about Michael Myers. Horror was beginning to change, to evolve, and yet, the world still wasn’t ready for Clive Barker. These six stories set the stage for the nightmares to come.
Beginning with ‘The Book of Blood’, Barker dives right into the gruesome with the strange tale of Simon McNeal. To be truly honest, this first story has never moved me the way the others have, and it wasn’t until I finally read the final volume, which contains the end story of this frame, that I finally understood it’s meaning. Nonetheless, it is still a glorious bloody mess, and perfectly sets us up for what’s to come. ‘The Midnight Meat Train’ starts off quite innocently, slowly bringing us up to speed, as there’s a viscous killer on the subways in New York. Had Barker left it at that, the story would have been quite boring, but just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, he pulls the wool from your eyes and shows you what’s really going on, and that’s the stuff that will keep you up late at night, unable to sleep. In another writer’s hands, this story wouldn’t have the impact, as the ending is revealed in such a way that even as fantastical as it sounds, it makes sense. This manipulative skill, of leading us down a path through the thickest part of the woods, where everything is too dark to see what’s ahead, is Barker’s main strength, and it’s amazing to see it in action if you know where to look. What’s even more powerful is that even though you know he’s doing this, he’s used enough misdirection that you can’t see the zipper down the monster’s back.
‘The Yattering and Jack’ is one of my favorite stories, and it was so nice to revisit it again. The Yattering is a minor demon sent to destroy the life of our hero Jack. Persistent and inventive, our little demon continuously fails in its mission, as Jack seems completely oblivious to its antics. Or is he? Once we realize Jack is definitely aware, and how he’s using every ounce of willpower to exact some personal karma on the little demon, the story takes on an even more sinister edge, while still managing to make us chuckle. Barker takes some chances with his tale, with shifting points-of-view, something you typically didn’t see in too many short-stories around that time. Certainly nothing new in the world of fiction, and it only proves that he was a force to reckoned with even that early in his career.
‘Pig Blood Blues’ is a definite change of pace. Barker falls right into step here, introducing us to a new voice, and a story that is somewhat ambiguous without causing the reader too much frustration. Here we have a missing boy, believed by the other children to be spiritually possessing a giant pig. And it certainly seems that yes, this may be the case, but is it really what’s going on? Barker manages to ramp up the creepiness, and gore, especially near the end, and it’s written so damn good that you really don’t care what’s going on, you just know it’s something pretty bad, and anyone who lives through it will be scarred for life. The next story, ‘Sex, Death, and Starshine’ is one of my least favorite stories, but it does have quite a bit of merit, especially as an awesome change of pace. Barker started off as a playwright, writing and producing several plays throughout his career, and his knowledge of the theater definitely shines in this story. Revisiting it, I tried to pay special attention to the ebb and flow of the story, and I have to admit the pacing, while a little slow for my tastes, actually helps build the dread quite nicely.
The final story in the volume, ‘In the Hills, the Cities’ is one of my personal favorite stories, and the one that sticks with me the most from this volume. Two young lovers, quite miss-matched, traveling by car in Europe. Barker, establishing through shifting POVs the cities from the title, and the terrible ritual they must endure, easily goes from one character to another, building the intrigue. The pacing here is flawless, as he only gives us just enough information to make us turn the page, eager to discover more about these two young men, and the gruesome site they will soon be witnessing. And what a spectacular sight they happen upon. For generations, these two cities have battled each other, as one, united, in a towering mass of gigantic limbs, their heads reaching to the clouds. The sheer audacity of it all, two giants made completely of people, pushing forward, breaking bones, crushing bodies, relentless until the end, and so much death, so much blood flooding the countryside. Accompanying this nightmarish vision is a strange backstory that’s just as interesting as witnessing the carnage. The effect is breath-taking, and lingers on in the mind long after the last page is turned.
Six stories, and really just a taste of the incredible talent that is Clive Barker. Already, we see evidence of his world-building abilities, and his knack for creating compelling, unforgettable characters to fill those worlds. Bloody, but with a perception and class that is undeniably all his own.
King was right in his assessment.
Tattered Tomes returns in March with a profile of Volume Two of the Books of Blood. Until then, please take the time to check out my partner in crime for this Barker-Rama, Benoit Lelievre of Dead End Follies, and his profile/review of the first three volumes of The Books of Blood. Seems there was a little confusion in volumes, so he’s managed to read the first three ‘Books’ in the series. And that’s fine and well. Ah, maybe. Or, maybe I’ve created a monster with this little endeavor, because Benoit is now unable to stop reading Barker. Our other partner, Christopher Novas from Penboys Reviews, should be posting his own profile of Volume One, so keep an eye out on social media for that when it arrives. Until then, keep reading, and rereading.