In terms of the popular consciousness, Stephen King is the face of contemporary horror. In terms of the genre’s subculture, in my opinion, it’s all Clive Barker. He may have been part of a larger movement, but he became a symbol for all the kinds of changes that were happening in horror literature at the same time as the horror film renaissance. In terms of film, his most influential contribution is probably Hellraiser, adapted from his novella The Hellbound Heart, but in terms of literature it’s all about the Books of Blood. This is a series of six collections published in 1984 and 1985, each running about 200 pages with around five stories. Having now read the first two, I can say that there’s a lot of variety here—in terms of tone, subject matter, and quality. Some of the stories are very good; unfortunately these were pretty much all in the first collection, which isn’t the one I’m looking at today.
Barker’s skill lies in the scenarios he conjures. He has a genuine creativity, which is one of the things that allowed him to revitalize a very self-referential genre. While no one, including Barker, is free from derivative stories, some of his best pieces (“The Book of Blood”, “In the Hills, the Cities”) remind me of nothing else I’ve encountered earlier—although the influence is definitely felt in later works by others. This does occasionally lead to sub-par pieces as well, particularly his more flippant pieces and those that rely on a sort of presumption of Christian theology—he has a lot of comedic treatments of demons that just strike an odd chord between his bizarre stories and genuinely dark, Lansdale-esque material like “Dread” and “Pig Blood Blues”.
His style isn’t particularly notable, beyond being occasionally subject to some very purple prose, but his content has some oddly objectionable material. Suffice to say, there’s been a lot of stuff that I’ve uncomfortably suggested might be misogynist; I’m pretty comfortable saying that some elements of certain stories, particularly “Sex, Death, and Starshine” and “Jacqueline Ess”, are sexist. More than that, his stories are incredibly heteronormative, often taking essentialist views about sex—although we’ll get to that in the review. I have no problem with portraying horrific acts of sexual and racial violence in literature (although Barker doesn’t get much into race; that’s more Lansdale’s territory) but it needs to be treated with care, and the sexual violence in Barker seems too often flippantly treated. His female characters are often stereotypes of femininity, more often Juliette than Justine but never moving beyond the dichotomy, limited by a complete lack of verisimilitude, which isn’t true of his male characters. It makes his fiction very difficult to read, because good ideas are hamstrung by this continual problem.
THE SKINS OF THE FATHERS
He also has a taste for horrible puns, but a lot of horror authors seem to. Can we take a moment to address this, as a general problem of horror literature? I open up the book and see this: “Everybody is a book of blood; wherever we’re opened, we’re red.”
Alright, so our story starts out with city man Davidson’s car breaking down in the middle of the Arizona desert. He hears music and, needing help, starts toward it. It appears to be some sort of parade through the desert, and he has come upon the back end of it. “It was, he began to believe, a carnival of some sort, extraordinary as that seemed out here in the middle of God’s nowhere. The last dancers in the parade were definitely costumed, however. They wore headdresses and masks that tottered well above human height—there was the flutter of brightly-colored feathers, and streamers coiling in the air behind them.”
He calls out to them for help, and walks up to them. However, as he gets close, within a half a mile, he can clearly see that they aren’t costumed—they are “monsters whose appearance beggared the nightmares of insanity”. A whole variety of Boschian monstrosities makes up the parade. One in the back comes after him and he runs away, but instead of attacking him it goes for his car, pulverizing it before accidentally starting a fire in the process.
In the nearby town of Welcome, the sheriff and other people confront this creature—one eye, mouths in its hands—when it appears as a burning, smoldering wreck and collapses in the middle of the town. The sheriff is attacked by one of the hand-mouths, his fingers bitten off, and another local, Eleanor Kooker, shoots the creature and kills it.
Meanwhile, we encounter a family living in the nearby desert, consisting of Eugene, an abusive drunk, Lucy, his fancifully-minded wife, and Aaron, his young son, who he seems to irrationally hate. It’s the stereotypical abusive household that we’ve seen a million times, and while it may be true to reality in many cases, Barker doesn’t write it with the verisimilitude of King. We find out that six years previous, the couple was in the desert when suddenly a swarm of the monsters came upon them during sex and Lucy was repeatedly raped by them. She apparently thinks back fondly on this experience. It’s pretty clear that Aaron was conceived in this moment, and from here you can probably guess the direction the rest of the story is going to take. Since it’s a fairly long story compared to what we’ve been looking at (all those in the collection are), I’m just going to breeze through a summary of the next little bits:
Davidson appears in town, tells them what he saw, and they decide to form up a posse. Eugene is horrified when his son is ‘abducted’ by the monsters, which is to say that they show up and he runs to them calling out ‘papa!’ Eugene, heading to town, meets up with and joins the posse, and Lucy runs off into the desert.
We find out the history of these things. “The creatures who were his fathers were also men’s fathers; and the marriage of semen in Lucy’s body was the same mix that made the first males. Women had always existed: they had lived, a species to themselves, with the demons. But they had wanted playmates: and together they had made men.” Then of course they realized their error, when “women were made slaves, the demons killed or driven underground, leaving only a few pockets of survivors to attempt again that first experiment, and make men, like Aaron, who would be wiser to their histories.” Barker, let me be clear: this is not how you do feminism. It may seem like you’re celebrating femininity, but reducing half the human race to this sort of primordial essentialism is really just another way of disregarding individual agency. Yes, I get that it’s an attempt at rewriting Genesis with a gender switch, but in doing that it just repeats the mistake. It also denies the possibility of a Utopian future by implying that violence is a necessary part of masculinity rather than a historically contingent part. At best, this is the kind of Earth-mother misandry that constitutes the ideology of a straw man feminist.
The posse attacks the demons, there’s a lot of chasing, fighting, and dying, pretty well written in a pulpy action style. Eugene encounters Aaron, but when Aaron begins a transformation into a demonic form, Eugene kills him. The ground around the posse becomes like mud and everyone sinks into it to varying degrees, Eugene and several others being completely engulfed. Then, suddenly, the mud solidifies. “From the lips of every face that still took air came a fresh cry of terror, as they felt the desert floor stiffen around their struggling limbs.”
Everyone is totally trapped, most of them beneath the surface. “Only Eleanor Kooker, Davidson and two other men survived. One was locked in the earth up to his chin, Ealeanor was buried so that her breasts sat on the ground, her arms were free to beat uselessly at the ground that held her fact. Davidson himself was held from his hips down. And most horribly, one pathetic victim was seen only by his nose and mouth. His head was tipped back into the ground, blinded by rock. Still he breathed, still he screamed.”
The only person outside the rock is Lucy, and Eleanor and Davidson call out to her for help. Lucy wanders off, not sure how she can get help. The sun is rising. “The air would soon be blistering. In Welcome, three hours walk away, she would find only old men, hysterical women and children. She could have to summon help from perhaps fifty miles distance.” Yes, because of course old people, young people, and ‘hysterical’ women are incapable of doing anything.
Basically she decides there’s no way she can help them. She runs away.
This story, like most of Barker’s stories, had so much potential. It’s a great idea: inhuman creatures from the Earth that humans hate based on appearance and are clearly a metaphor for the way that Native Americans were portrayed in early westerns. That ending moment, everyone trapped in the ground, is really disturbing to me. It’s a horrific idea to imagine being still alive, but unable to move—particularly the one who is buried except for his mouth and nose. But there’s problems here, and the biggest one is the way that Barker writes people. The only character who is far enough from a cardboard cliché to be interesting is Davidson. The character in the most interesting position her, Lucy, is instead given no character at all, literally just being a vessel for the machinations of the two male races. And there’s all that junky sexist backstory which has no need to be there; there’s no reason Barker had to explain what was happening beyond what we could easily see of it.
And that’s the general state of things with Barker’s fiction: a lot of great ideas, but poor execution. I wish Barker would team up with Poppy Z. Brite, because with Brite’s powerful decadent writing and Barker’s original plots, some really great works have the potential to exist here. As it is, you should probably read Barker, and you’ll be interested in and amused by his ideas, but it lacks the quality it could have; I’m continually haunted, when reading, by what could have been.
Tomorrow we look at some gothic literature from the very beginning of the British ghost story tradition: Elizabeth Gaskell.