Already smitten by the first volume of Clive Barker’s Books of Blood series, when volume two hit the streets it was an instant purchase. The book was a treat to myself, a present for raising my GPA enough to justify my parents paying for my college education. The book couldn’t have come at a better time for me; I was ready for my Barker fix after devouring the first volume the previous year.
It was 1986, and Hellraiser was still a year away.
Beginning with ‘Dread’, Barker’s aptly titled tale delivers the goods. Here we meet Steve, a somewhat quiet university student who becomes quite captivated by Quaid, a peculiar student with some very strange ideas. The two don’t hit it off right at first, but they keep running into one another over time, and after a few drinks, Steve becomes more approachable to Quaid, which turns out to be a rather bad decision. See, Quaid has a thing for fear. He is fascinated by the essence of what it is that scares people. What truly scares them. Quaid has decided to take his fixation of dread to the next level with a morbid experiment. He’s kidnapped a woman and is holding her captive with a steak in the room with her. But this is no ordinary woman; she’s a strict vegetarian. She dreads eating the meat, but as time goes by, she has to face her fears. The process unravels her beyond salvation. Sadly, she won’t be returning to university any time soon. Steve is shocked, and knows he needs to do the right thing and contact the authorities. Quaid has other plans for Steve—plans involving Steve’s own particular fear. Realizing he’s the next phase of Quaid’s experiments, Steve has to face his personal fears to survive. That’s usually easier said than done for some people, especially with the terrifying experiment Quaid has set up. Barker really amps up the tension with this story, expertly stretching out the scenes to the breaking point. The paranoia, the claustrophobia, the fear … it’s all there, out in the open, and it’s breathtaking to experience the dread Barker has cooked up here.
Changing the pace with ‘Hell’s Event’, Barker tackles one of his favorite subjects, Hell and all its denizens, with wicked gusto. Every hundred years, Hell runs in a marathon for the fate of the world. Of course, the Devil never plays fair, and uses all his devious techniques available to gain that much needed competitive edge. Through multiple narrators, Barker paints a somewhat wacky concept of hell, yet maintains his usual stylish flair and gruesome descriptions. With much of Barker’s work, we find him revisiting the same themes over and over again, contrasting sin and corruption with naiveté and innocence. The human runners don’t suspect a thing at first, until they begin to drop out dead, chased by a strange demon with an appetite for human faces. There are insider deals made based on the outcome for political gain, and determined human runners who refuse to let anything get in their way. With excellent pacing, shifting between quick character development and the action of the foot race, Barker keeps the race running, proving he’s just as adept with the physical narrative as he is with the introspective.
Discovery of supernatural powers fuels the next story, ‘Jacqueline Ess: Her Will and Testament’. After a botched suicide attempt, the beautiful Jacqueline finds herself bestowed with the power of a God, capable of manipulating flesh by sheer ‘will’. Her inner thoughts, once secret, manifest in the most literal interpretations, providing Barker a canvas to display his grotesque imagination to full-blown technicolor effect. Jaws don’t clamp shut, they crush and grind. Ribcages collapse, bones splinter, and lives are shattered. Turning to prostitution, Jacqueline uses her abilities to give men the sexual encounters of their lifetimes, which prove fatal in the end. Throughout all of this, one man seeks her out, unable to walk away from ultimate destruction. Jacqueline’s powers are so dangerous others must watch her while she sleeps, in case her nightmares cause her to harm herself. This theme of forbidden love follows Barker around in much of his fiction, yet he manages to wrestle new angles with every offering, as is the case here.
‘The Skins of the Fathers’ captures the essence of another one of Barker’s favorite themes, where the role of monsters and saviors are reversed. We see this in much of his work, most notably Cabal, where the monsters in Midian become the literal heroes of the story against the bigoted police determined to blast them from their homes. With this story, a traveler named Davidson comes across a strange sight on an Arizona highway. A caravan of misshapen monsters crossing the landscape in the distance. As he gets closer, Davidson begins to make out the details of this strange crew; colossal beasts beyond the confines of imagination, including one monster with a cone like head covered in teeth. The backstory here is just as horrific, as these monsters once descended into the town years before and had sex with one of the local women. This town, strangely named Welcome, is the home of this woman and her young son, and the monsters are coming to take back what’s theirs. Effortlessly switching perspectives, Barker gives us glimpses of ritualistic abuse of both the physical and emotional nature, and a town full of bigots fearful of the unknown. The pace is relentless, and the end will take your breath away.
Finally, ‘New Murders in the Rue Morgue’ gives us Barker channeling Poe, with astounding results. The tone is stately and fitting for the story, which at first glance appears to be cashing in on one of Poe’s most famous tales. But as we read, imitation becomes pure homage in Barker’s hands, and what transpires is a strange story complete with all the hallmarks we’ve come to expect from him. We see the ‘monster’ trying to become human by means of experimentation, and the pathos of knowing no matter how hard we try to aspire to something greater, there is no denying our true natures. Though not as gruesome as some of his other tales, this one is exceptionally well-written and is a nice closer for this volume. These books may be bloody, but there’s little doubt to Barker’s ability to wring as much suspense and emotional turmoil as he can between the horrific scenes.
Tattered Tomes returns in May with Volume Three of Clive Barker’s Books of Blood. With that article, I will have caught up with my partner in crime, Benoit Lelievre of Dead End Follies. I still haven’t seen any reviews of the Books of Blood from Christopher Novas of Penboys Reviews yet, but then, I’m well aware that sometimes life has different plans for us, and I just hope he gets to read these books and finds the same enjoyment from them as me and Benoit. Until then, I’ll be reading Volume Three again, and just might reread Barker’s first full novel, The Damnation Game. Until then, take some time out for yourself to read, or reread, these books; the stories are timeless and exquisitely detailed, a true testament to the will of Clive Barker.