It was sometime after seeing Hellraiser that I finally read Clive Barker’s third volume of his Books of Blood series. There was a glimmer of hope that nestled within the pages was a story that might shed some additional light on his first film. This was pre-internet, a strange time when information was at a premium, especially when it came to horror. Most horror fans relied on outlets such as Fangoria, or magazines like New Blood, for horror news, and even at that time, very little was known about the British sensation. Later I discovered The Hellbound Heart, which allowed me another view of the labyrinth of hell Barker had created in the original form. The good news is that Barker’s third volume of his series contained five more hellish tales, each succinctly different in execution and scope in a way rarely seen in single author collections.
Beginning with ‘Son of Celluloid’, we see a strange hybrid of crime and horror. Barbario, on the run from heavies, cancer-ridden and wounded, seeks a hiding place, and finds it behind the screen of a local movie theater. The trope was already old, but Barker infuses new life into it, and he effortlessly turns the concept on its head with a totally different kind of body horror. Films have a life of their own, and a single scene, even an iconic screen character, often lives in our imagination long after the end credits have rolled. The life of film resurrects a tumor, and the result is one of the best scary movie theater stories ever. Barker head-hops from one character to the next, killing off his cast in inventive ways, each scene upping the ante. Definitely an excellent opener for the collection.
‘Rawhead Rex’. Forget the film and read the story. (Actually, the film isn’t that bad, it’s just not that good. It could have used better special effects, a better edit, a more streamlined … eh, okay, it is that bad, never mind.) Barker is the master of creating mythologies and casting great characters within for a more personal experience. The mythology is simply a springboard, a catalyst to get to the real thrust, in this case a large demon reborn in the modern age. Rawhead, named because his head looks like a sunburnt and peeling penis, his mouth full of fangs, is ravenous, and relentless in his quest for total annihilation of the human race. This vile creature may be the best representation of a demon ever written, and Barker doesn’t shy from the violence. In fact, he celebrates it. There’s one scene involving a conflicted priest that is burned in my memory forever, and reading it again was just as effective as it was the first time. Epic in scope, this story stands the test of time, and is an excellent showcase for Barker’s unique style.
With ‘Confessions of a (Pornographer’s) Shroud’ Barker slows the pace with a little revenge. When vengeance comes for all the right reasons, it’s easy for the reader to align with the main character, and here we find a lot to relate to with our hero Ronnie. Capturing some of Barker’s ability to make us root for the monster—or in this case, to cheer on the victim in his pursuit of revenge—Ronnie starts off as weak and pretentious. After realizing his employers are peddling violent pornography, Ronnie wants no part of it. But it’s too late, he’s seen the evidence. Brutally murdered by the gang, we instantly align with Ronnie, unwilling to let them get away with their dirty deeds. Maybe it’s the complete ‘wrongness’ of his death, or his will to survive to make things right, Ronnie’s essence inhabits the very shroud placed over his body in the morgue. Another brilliant example of a different kind of body horror, Ronnie uses every ounce of his will to exact his retribution. They may have ruined his name and reputation, but they’ll never live another day as long as he can shape the shroud in his personal method of destruction. At times hilarious in a dark way, with Ronnie trying to form a featureless body with the shroud, this story is as tender as it is horrifying.
‘Scape-Goats’ may be my favorite story in this volume. For me, reading it again, I think being older and more experienced has allowed me to warm to Barker’s initial deliberately slower pace here. Run aground on a seemingly uninhabited island, our partying yachters carry more baggage than just their luggage and supplies. Barker spends just enough time with these characters before bringing the creepy, which makes us care about them even more. It’s interesting to note that we shouldn’t care about any of these characters, but they are compelling enough to find common ground. They are relatable, and care about each other in ways that are often conflicting and complicated. When the creepy starts, the stakes increase with each incident. With the way the currents run around this island, it pushes whatever is at the bottom of the ocean to the shore. Unfortunately, many a sailor has met their inevitable demise at the island, and sometimes the dead won’t stay that way. Just like life is a series of currents crossed by others, the intersections can be as deadly as they are harmless and, at times, welcoming. Extra points here for Barker’s use of setting as an instrument of harm, which gives the tale a definite weird edge not usually found in his short fiction.
If there’s a story in this collection that remotely resembles Hellraiser, it is the final tale, ‘Human Remains’. Gavin peddles his flesh on the street corners and hotel lobbies. Fresh faced, lover of men and women, he’s independent and extremely popular with his clientele. He meets a man of apparent wealth, they strike up a conversation, and soon he’s hired for the evening. This man is strange, a collector of art from far off lands and cultures. Then come the sounds from the back of his mark’s apartment, and soon the weirdness begins. Here we see a common theme emerge; the use of blood to make something not only alive, but also to become more human. In Barker’s skilled hands, he takes the story in directions we do not anticipate, concluding unpredictably, but serving the character with a profound resonance.
Tattered Tomes will return in September with a revisit of volume four, known in the states as The Inhuman Condition. I’m thrilled that Benoit Lelievre of Dead End Follies has been taken so dearly to the early works of Clive Barker, and you should definitely check out his review of the first three volumes of the Books of Blood. I’m definitely behind with my reading this year due to other commitments, but again, this isn’t a race as much as it’s a hybrid review/retrospective of an author’s work throughout a year. Who knows who we’ll read next year. In the meantime, there’s plenty of Clive Barker’s work to keep everyone busy.
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