Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Books of Blood, Vol. 6 by Clive Barker (1985): Only the Living Are Lost

Originally published in paperback by Sphere Books in the UK in July 1985, Books of Blood Vol. VI completed Clive Barker's era-defining collection of short stories. Written in the evenings by hand after working days in London's underground theater circuit, these 30 stories in total were '80s horror fiction's watershed and its high-water mark. This final volume can stand with the rest; before turning to his unique brand of epic dark fantasy novels, Barker ended his Books on a high and inspired note of horror, a talent fully matured (these stories weren't published in the United States till 1988, when they appeared in hardcover under the title Cabal, the name of Barker's then-latest work, which they  accompanied).

Barker's own handwritten ms. for the Books of Blood

Readers and publishers loved to compare Barker to King and - gack! - Koontz back in the day, and that has always seemed an ill-fitting comparison to me. While Barker may, at least in these early writings, have lacked the human warmth and bestseller plotting mechanics that gave K&K their huge middle-America audience, Barker is worlds ahead of them when it comes to style and imagination; he is also literary in a way those guys aren't. Barker easily employs irony and wit to his horrors; an erotic and perverse sexuality is threaded throughout; the metaphysics, if you will, of his stories aren't borne out of old monster movies or tawdry thriller novels but from ancient mythology, classic European art and philosophy, and obscure religious history (bet you didn't know a cenobite was a real thing!). Not content to simply scare us, Barker's world is one in which characters confront death, confront monsters, and learn to accept that sometimes banishing "the other" will result only in a world less worth living in, one that's been sanitized and banalized till it's fit for consumption only by toothless children.

The first story is "The Life of Death," and one might think it a trite title but the tale itself lives up to that literalization. It also is a perfect example of how facing fears enables us to see the world afresh... even as we see it for the last time.The world of Elaine Rider, a 34-year-old woman who's just had a hysterectomy and almost died twice during the surgery, has now become wintry and dull; she cries all the time and feels utterly bereft. That is until she happens upon the excavation of a 17th century church, All Saints, and meets near the underground crypts an interesting man, Kavanaugh, who piques her curiosity about whatever lies within those walls. He had legitimised her appetite with his flagrant enthusiasm for things funereal. Now, with the taboo shed, she wanted to go back to All Saints and look Death in its face. But it won't be as simple as all that, of course, not with Barker at the helm.

The jungles of South America, and the greedy foreign interlopers looking to exploits its riches, feature in "How Spoilers Bleed." Confrontation between those deceitful men and a tribal chieftan ends in death; curse is imposed; watch the bodies felled. But it is the precision of the curse, its nightmare delicacy, that unsettles:

 In the antiseptic cocoon of his room Stumpf felt the first blast of unclean air from the outside world. It was no more than a light breeze... but it bore upon its back the debris  of the world. Soot and seeds, flakes of skin itched off a thousand scalps, fluff and sand and twists of hair; the bright dust from a moth's wing... each a tiny, whirling speck quite harmless to most living organisms. But this cloud was lethal to Stumpf; in seconds his body became a field of tiny, seeping wounds. 

Oh, that's not going to end well at all.

One of Barker's strengths, I think, is that he never dipped into that seemingly bottomless well known as the Cthulhu mythos. He wasn't above mixing genres, however, in several of his stories he went to other wells - here, hardboiled crime fiction in "The Last Illusion," and Cold War spy fiction in "Twilight at the Towers." The latter has spies, no strangers to shedding and changing skins, subjugating personalities that, upon discovery, could get them killed. Surely there is power in that half-forgotten personality, power still within reach? Ballard is sent on the trail of potential KGB defector Mironenko, but petty bureaucracy and petty, angry men seem always in the way. Mironenko, Ballard will find, has more in common with him that he thought, and the defector will show that beneath the skin - ever-changing - the two are brothers. Becoming a spy, Ballard lost a part of himself, but the thing he was becoming would not be named; nor boxed; nor buried. Never again.

1992 French paperback

Harry D'Amour is one of Barker's few characters that spans stories and novels and movies, and he appears in "The Last Illusion," a New York City detective in the classic world-weary Bogart tradition. But D'Amour is otherworldly-weary, dealing as he does - for a price, of course - with real magic and real demons. The Castrato is one of those:  

It did not carry the light with it as it came: it was the light. or rather, some holocaust blazed in its bowels, the glare of which escaped through the creature's body by whatever route it could. It had once been human; a mountain of a man with the belly and the breasts of a neolithic Venus. But the fire in its body had twisted it out of true, breaking out through its palms and its navel, burning its mouth and nostrils into one ragged hole. It had, as its name implied, been unsexed; from that hole too, light spilled.

Sept 1989 Pocket Books paperback - probably the worst of Barker's book covers

A short-short tale ends Volume VI, one that didn't appear in Cabal; it is "The Book of Blood (a postscript): On Jerusalem Street," and it brings the entire story arc back to the beginning, the very first tale told in Volume I, quite nicely. I hadn't read this volume in well over 20 years; in fact, I'd never finished "The Last Illusion," and the only one I recalled anything about was "How Spoilers Bleed," and that because of its perfectly abrupt ending. Again, Barker in no way let me down as I found these final pieces a fitting end to perhaps '80s horror fiction's greatest artistic achievement. Volume VI might not be my favorite - to be fair my favorite tales are spread across all the Books - but it is, as virtually all of Barker's '80s output, essential horror reading.

The dead have highways.

Only the living are lost.


Wallace Stroby said...

There's another short - but great - Harry D'Amour story floating around called "Lost Souls" that appeared in Etchison's CUTTING EDGE. And of course, his (still) years-in-the-making novel THE SCARLET GOSPELS is supposedly Harry D'Amour meets Pinhead in Hell.

Bob/Sally said...

It was the Books of Blood that hooked me so many years ago, with those garish, bloody, majestic self-illustrated covers starting back at me from the shelf. Being in Canada, we tended to get a lot of UK imports, so we were fortunate not to have to wait for Cabal.

Here's hoping 'The Scarlet Gospels' hit print in the next few years, although his obsession with the Abarat world, along with his 'adult' publisher dropping him and leaving the "Black Is The Devil's Rainbow" collection in limbo, makes it hard to keep the hope alive.

matthew. said...

I've always been drawn to Barker for the sensuality of his constructed worlds and of his prose. While I'm not sure if he's as literary as you so generously describe him, I'm still convinced of the fecundity of his concepts and ideas. I'm glad to see Barker getting some love around these parts.

me said...

The French edition is the same cover as the 1983 edition of Tanith Lee's Red As Blood Or Tales From the Sisters Grimmer DAW paperback.

Lovecraft In Brooklyn said...

It's funny you mention King. Two things: the "I have seen the future of horror" quote from King on a bunch of Barker books is a reference to the review that made Bruce Springsteen's career ("I have seen the future of rock and roll...")

and Imajica does the Dark Tower better than the Dark Tower

Doug said...

Excellent review! These were a hightlight of the late 80s and they impressed the hell out of me back then.

take care.

James Everington said...

Loved these books, but to be honest most stuff he's done since then not so much...

Anonymous said...

I was 13 when I encountered the Books of Blood. Young, too young to read Barker really, and I knew it - but that only seemed to add to the transgressive quality of his writing. I had been reading a lot of King and Barker blew my mind.
Great review, I'm definitely going to go and reread these.

Unknown said...

I always thought that changes is the only thing that are permanent in this realm. You have informatively tackle down such issue.

Phantom of Pulp said...

Great overview and critique of these amazing volumes, Will.

I was in my last year of high school when these came out in Australia (the UK paperback originals) and I was blown away by Barker's originality, perspective, and deft mix of eroticism, mysticism, sci-fi aspects ("In The hills The Cities").

Although I will always respect Barker's work, I've never found any of his books as amazing as these six volumes.

Titles such as "Son of Celluloid", "Pig Blood Blues", and "The Life of Death" evoke true horror, and none of these felt like anything but fresh.

Will Errickson said...

Wallace - I reviewed CUTTING EDGE a year or two ago & really liked "Lost Souls" a lot. As for SCARLET GOSPELS, I've heard the same, but in the past few years - decade? - Barker seems to only talk about his upcoming books, rather than produce them. Heartbreaking!

Wallace Stroby said...

I think he's been so wrapped up with ABARAT and his various health issues that all else has fallen by the wayside.
This is a longish interview I did with him back in the day, talking about his writing process, WEAVEWORLD and THE BOOKS OF BLOOD: http://www.wallacestroby.com/writersonwriting_barker.html

Will Errickson said...

I think you're right; Clive looked *very* ill in the video I've seen of the NIGHTBREED:CABAL CUT premiere earlier this year. And I'm almost positive I read that Writer's Digest issue back in 1990! So thanks for that, belatedly.

Will Errickson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Will Errickson said...

Bob - What first attracted me to BOOKS back in ye olde day was the possessive "Clive Barker's BOOKS OF BLOOD." I remember thinking it sounded so authoritative and commanding, I had to buy it! That, of course, and the King quote.

Matthew - There is *lots* of Barker love around these parts! I'm toying with the idea of reading his novels again, some for the third or fourth time, for review here.

Robert - I've noticed a large amount of European horror covers are repurposed over and over in a way you don't see in the States. Odd.

Robot - I can't remember now if in 1987 I knew that King quote was based on the one about Springsteen - I probably did, I'm from New Jersey! - but fortunately it did for Barker what it did for the Boss! Haven't read DARK TOWER, but I know lots of people who've read it but no other King, much less Barker...

Doug - And they're still totally impressive today.

James - I've heard that lament from other readers, but you won't hear it from me. IMAJICA reigns as one of my favorite novels ever of any kind, and EVERVILLE and SACRAMENT are just beautiful, personal works. COLDHEART CANYON though... not so much.

Victor - I think you'll dig rereading 'em.

Phantom - you're right, these stories always feel fresh, new, exciting, even lo these almost 3 decades later.

As always, thanks so much for reading & taking time to comment, guys.

S. said...

Randomly commenting to point out that it is very difficult for me to express how much I love this blog. Thanks for the awesome posts. I've found so much great stuff to read. All those scanned, slightly cracked paperback covers remind me of when I was a little boy. I'd get intrigued by the dark subject matter on the covers of my mom's Stephen King books that she always had by her nightstand.