Instead, there is a polite informality, a deft and dry wit in his writing, as if to make the horrors more palatable, the deformities less alien, the grotesqueries a welcome respite from reality. A large part of Barker's horror philosophy, if we can call it that, was that horror should subvert our (often wrong) notions of normality and beauty. From "Scapegoats," which evokes the zombie-island nightmares of Italian exploitation film but is laced with an unexpectedly poetic tone:
And I, losing my life with every second, succumbing to the sea absolutely, couldn't take pleasure in the intimacy I'd longed for. Too late for love; the sunlight was already a memory. Was it that the world was going out - darkening toward the edges as I died - or that we were now so deep the sun couldn't penetrate so far? Panic and terror had left me - my heart seemed not to beat at all. A kind of peace was on me.
True, in a story like the infamous "Rawhead Rex" - made into a dismal film in 1986 that Barker disowned at once - there is a ravenous creature that has an enormous head like a skinned penis and a mouth like a vagina dentata. No holding back from the terrors of viscera and humiliation here. In "Son of Celluloid," another well-known story, a criminal's cancer, his literal cancer tumor, infests a fleabag second-run movie theater and brings to horrible life the ghosts on the screen that fascinate us so, but which need our eyes to exist. This incredible cover for the UK paperback edition from Sphere (below), with Barker's own art, presents one of that story's more memorable moments: our Norma Jean (the fuckable fiction, her hapless victim notes), teasing us with the fur divide that had been the dream of millions.
"Confessions of a (Pornographer's) Shroud" is a revenge tale of mobsters and meek accountants that would have not been out of place in the old EC horror comics that the generation prior to Barker grew up on; it contains one of his most inventive deaths, which my friends and I in junior high used to marvel over. A man takes possession of the linen placed over him in wrongful death; a wraith, an actual ghost that appears to be a person wearing a sheet as a Halloween costume, he seeks out the men who framed, tortured, and killed him.
His flesh and blood body was utterly deserted now; an icy bulk fit for nothing but the flames. Ronnie Glass existed in a new world: a white linen world like no state he had lived or dreamed before. Ronnie Glass was his shroud.
Why, that makes think of Barker's wonderful second novel, Weaveworld, in which an entire world is taken up inside an intricately woven carpet. Nicely done, sir. "Human Remains" ends this volume, a fine and sensitive work about Gavin, a gay hustler, and his doppelganger, come to steal his face, the only possession Gavin has worth anything. They meet when it rescues Gavin from sure death at the hands of a pimp:
"I am a thing without a proper name," it pronounced. "I am a wound in the flank of the world. But I am also that perfect stranger you always prayed for as a child, to come and take you, call you beauty, lift you naked out of the street and through Heaven's window. Aren't I? Aren't I?"
How did it know the dreams of his childhood?
..."Because I am yourself, made perfectable."
Gavin gestured towards the corpses. "You can't be me. I'd never have done this."
"Wouldn't you?" said the other.
"Human Remains" showcases Barker's penchant for marginalized characters that lurk in darkness and giving them a voice. A story that rather puzzled me when I was a teenager but rewarded a rereading as an adult, it's a highlight of the entire six-volume series, I believe.
Now, I wouldn't necessarily recommend Volume 3 as the best place to start if one has not read Books of Blood - one really should start at the beginning, go through to the end, and then stop, and begin again - but I am still thankful that it was the place I started with Barker and his brand new world of horror for the future. And I haven't stopped yet.