Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Cabal by Clive Barker (1988): Stand Me Up at the Gates of Hell

Weren't there, among those creatures, faculties she envied? The power to fly, to be transformed, to know the condition of beasts, to defy death?... the monsters were forever. Part of her forbidden self. Her dark, transforming midnight self. She longed to be numbered among them.

Another prime example of Clive Barker's consistent concern with monsters and the humans that dwell in their midst, Cabal came out at perhaps the height of his success as a bestselling horror author. The 250-page novella was published in hardcover in the US along with the stories from Books of Blood Vol. VI, while in the UK it was issued as a standalone title. Then a year later Barker began adapting this work for the screen as Nightbreed, the storied, troubled production of which probably most horror fans of that era are familiar with. I'd read Cabal twice but oh so long ago: once before the film was out in early 1990 and once not long after. A couple weeks ago I watched the recently released director's cut of Nightbreed and afterward reread Cabal. Not as a "compare and contrast" exercise, which is a bit too English Comp 101 for me, but the movie had gotten me thinking: how has a quarter century's passing affected my affinity for the Tribes of the Moon (a phrase found only in the film)? Would I still be as excited and eager about the Nightbreed as I am in this photo?

Clive Barker and me; he's signing my Nightbreed poster. 
January 1991

Spoilers! Cabal is the story of Aaron Boone, a young man on the run from his psychiatrist Dr. Decker, a secret madman who plans to blame Boone for his own serial killer crimes. Boone is being chased by Lori, the woman he left but who loves him still. If all that's not enough, Boone is attempting entry into a fabled world where the monsters live. It's a vast forgotten cemetery near an abandoned town called Midian in the Canadian wilds, a catacombed necropolis beneath the earth in which hide the monsters of myth and legend, exiled from a fearful, vengeful humanity. But Boone is not the monster Decker's convinced him he is... yet.

He'd heard the name of that place spoken maybe half a dozen times by people he'd met on the way through, in and out of mental wards and hospices, usually those whose strength was all burned up. When they called on Midian it was a place of refuge, a place to be carried away to And more: a place where whatever sins they'd committed--real or imagined--would be forgiven them. Boone didn't know the origins of this mythology nor had he ever been interested enough to find out. He had not been in need of forgiveness, or so he thought. Now he knew better...

Harper Collins, Toronto, 1989

Boone's entrance to Midian is foolhardy and near-fatal: a bite from a Breed member "more reptile than mammal" called Peloquin--who can instantly sense Boone's guiltless, Natural self--gives Boone a kind of immortality, which comes in handy when Decker brings the police force to Midian and they shoot Boone dead. But he's not dead. Now, as a walking dead man, he's become the Breed, and escapes the morgue. But his return bodes unwell for the inhabitants of Midian, who fear he will reveal them to Man. Boone defies the laws of the Breed when he rescues faithful Lori from blood-hungry Decker outside Midian's gates, which causes all sorts of problems. However, here in horror Boone's truest self's revealed:

In Decker's presence he'd been proud to call himself monster: to parade his Nightbreed self. But now, looking at the woman he had loved and had been loved by in return for his frailty and his humanity, he was ashamed. 
His will making flesh smoke, which his lungs drew back into his body. It was a process as strange in its ease as in its nature. How quickly he'd become accustomed  to what once he'd once have called miraculous. 

To make up for his folly Boone demands to see Baphomet, the Nightbreed god who created Midian as a haven for these creatures.  Following Boone, Lori gets a glimpse of a column of flame and:

There was a body in the fire, hacked limb from limb... this was Baphomet, this diced and divided thing. Seeing its face, she screamed. No story or movie screen, no desolation, no bliss, had prepared her for the maker of Midian. Sacred it must be, as anything so extreme must be sacred. A thing beyond things. Beyond love or hatred or their sum, beyond the beautiful or the monstrous or their sum. Beyond, finally, her mind's power to comprehend or catalog.

This meeting is a moment out of all man's primitive religions: the holy fire, the sacred other, that once seen cannot be unseen, and once experienced the profane is transformed. There is no going back. Boone is a Moses and Baphomet his Yahweh; prophecy foretold. Barker has always gotten good mileage out of this comparative mythology aspect of his fiction, mileage I'm always happy to travel. While Lovecraft parodied and satirized religious beliefs with his "Yog-Sothothery," Barker recognizes that humans have a need for transcendence, but not one that annihilates, one that transforms. Boone bravely embraces his true nature; he is no Outsider reaching out in cowering fear and touching a mirror.

And so the tale continues, and closes, with redneck cops--led by the truly odious Eigerman--and a gaggle of shotgun-wielding yahoos on loan from Night of the Living Dead descending on Midian thanks, again, to Decker. He's set on killing Lori, who now knows his secret. He loathes the Breed, cannot wait to participate in their destruction: "They were freaks, albeit stranger than the usual stuff. Things in defiance of nature, to be poked from under their stones and soaked in gasoline. He'd happily strike the match himself." They rout the Breed in a final confrontation that will create a new enemy and destroy another. Boone is renamed Cabal--"an alliance of many"--by Baphomet and ordered to rebuild ("You've undone the world. Now you must remake it"). Lori and Boone are reunited at last.

But the Nightbreed are not ended. Irony abounds, even until the very last line: "It was a life." Lori's words to Boone after he rescues her from death and gives her his Breed balm (heh, and yes, he does this figuratively and literally) are, "I'll never leave you," which the astute reader will recognize as the words in the opening paragraph, words Boone considers a lie. What does this irony mean? Barker knows how to leave readers wanting more by undermining expectations; the tale ends just as it's beginning!

Fontana UK movie tie-in, 1990

In a 1989 Fangoria interview with journalist/author Philip Nutman, Barker talked about the motivation in making Cabal a novella:
"I wanted to do the reverse of what I did in Weaveworld, which was to really cross the t's and dot the i's, give every detail of psychology and so on. In Cabal I wanted to present a piece of quicksilver adventuring in which you were just seeing flashes of things, Boone, Lori, the Breed, each character's psychology reduced to impressions. Part of the fun for me was to write it in short, sharp bites." 
I quote this because it explains what at first I disliked about Cabal on this reread: strokes were too broad; too much time giving impressions and not specifics; characters were moved about like a kid playing with action figures--so much to-ing and fro-ing! After the short sharp shocks of the Books of Blood and the epically-drawn dark fantasy of Weaveworld, maybe the novella format was not good idea. But as I read, Barker's writing grew in its conviction; he's more adept at the contradictions and ambiguities of murderers and marauders than he is with the banalities of everyday life. Still, some frustrations:
Decker's psychopathy could have been expanded; the creepiest moments belong to him, like when Ol' Button Face, the glib nickname Decker has for his killing mask/personality, chatters hungrily to him while it resides in his briefcase. The conflict of his inhumanity versus that of the Nightbreed is sketched in here and there, none more illuminating than when Barker writes of Decker: "The thought of his precious Other being confused with the degenerates of Midian nauseated him." Decker is a fascinating character; the witless police not so much.

Fans of the film looking for bizarre monstrosities will have to be satisfied with only glimpses of the Nightbreed. Unlike some of the detailed creatures that inhabited Barker's earlier short stories like "Rawhead Rex," "In the Skins of the Fathers," or "Son of Celluloid," the reader is given mostly impressions. With a surrealist's eye Barker gives us intriguing hints but doesn't belabor the descriptions. When Lori first descends into Midian:

...was it simply disgust that made her stomach flip, seeing the stigmatic in full flood, with sharp-toothed adherents sucking noisily at her wounds? Or excitement, confronting the legend of the vampire int he flesh? And what was she to make of the man whose body broke into birds when he saw her watching? Or the dog-headed painter who turned from his fresco and beckoned her to join his apprentice mixing paint? Or the machine beasts running up the walls on caliper legs? After a dozen corridors she no longer knew horror from fascination. Perhaps she'd never known.

1989 Pocket Books edition

Yes, Barker's mantra has always been thus. In the monstrous there is beauty; the normal course of daily things is a horror. But I wanted more. Cabal works better if one considers it as allegory, as fable, and its politics are a liberal dream: evil is not evil, it's an alternative lifestyle! Witness the callous crude cruelties of doctor, cop, and priest: the first is a psychopath literally wearing a mask; the second an egomaniac concerned only with his brand of law, order, and notoriety; the last is a hypocrite. The undoing will be at the hands of these traditional authorities; it is they who will squeeze the life out of the untamed, the unwanted, even the undead. Cabal ends clearly stating that the enemies are still active, still enraged, still stung by humiliation and eager to bring a comeuppance.

Poseidon Press 1988 US hardcover 

I guess I'm saying there's a theoretical distance in Cabal which prevents me from really, truly enjoying it the way I do so much of Barker's other work. Maybe it's the movie, which I like all right in its new incarnation but have never been overly fond of (although this version is a more faithful adaptation, Nightbreed remains irredeemably cheesy in a way Cabal is not), intruding upon my imagination; I can't at all recall how I envisioned the story before its film adaptation. And it reads, and ends, like a prequel. This has been a problem with Clive Barker since, well, since 1988. He's always intended to continue the story of Cabal. To continue the story began in The Great and Secret Show. And Galilee. And Abarat. Later this year we'll finally get The Scarlet Gospels, which apparently concludes the stories Harry D'Amour and Pinhead, an apotheosis of two aspects of Barker's art. His ambition might outreach his vision, his health, and dare I say it, his life. But again, it pays to see Cabal as a fable, a beginning, a story for us about us: fans of the Breed are the Breed, "The un-people, the anti-tribe, humanity's sack unpicked and sewn together again with the moon inside." That is a story that continues, and continues, and continues.

Barker '88


Jason said...

I don't mean any disrespect to Clive Barker or Stephen King, both horror writers who rose to prominence and world acclaim during the 70s (King) and the 80s (Barker) but personally speaking they've done much to destroy the reputation of good horror rather elevate it.

While I enjoyed King & Barker back when I was a teenager in the 80s, revisiting the works of both he and Barker now is horrifying for all the wrong reasons.

Maybe partly it's due to age. I don't appreciate the kind of horror that drew me in as a kid.

Give me T.E.D Klein, Robert Aickman or Ramsey Campbell. They are (in my opinion) in another league entirely.

Algernon Blackwood & Arthur Machen would be other authors whose work outshines anything Barker ever produced.

Sorry if it comes across as a rant. It's not meant to.

Love your site and always read your interesting entries.

Jack Tripper said...

While I still believe Barker to have been a groundbreaking new voice in the 80s, one that was desperately needed, I've had a similar "meh" reaction when re-reading his stuff now. I think it's more that my taste's have changed than anything. Plus, he's been so influential that many of his ideas that were fresh and new at the time lose a little of their impact after being copied for decades. Still pumped to read The Scarlet Gospels, though.

Keep up the great work, Will. Don't know how I got by during the pre-TMHF days.

Griff said...

Hey Will, what you recommend to read first for someone who has yet to read Clive Barker?

Will Errickson said...

Griffin--all six volumes of BOOKS OF BLOOD, and in chronological order.

Unknown said...

My favorite books of all time are the first two books of the Art Trilogy "The Great and Secret Show" and "Everville", although Hellbound Heart and Cabal are great too. I've given up on him ever making the third book in the trilogy and at this point I don't even care, I'm just thankful for the first two books.