Thursday, November 30, 2017

Ranking Clive Barker's Books of Blood stories

I'm not a big fan of modern horror. I prefer my spooky stories cobwebbed and prudish, where tentacles are just tentacles and everyone's far too busy tracking down old manuscripts and losing their minds to have time for that sort of thing.

But after Hellraiser successfully creeped and grossed me out as an adult, I was intrigued to read more from Clive Barker in a way I'd never felt after watching the TV movies of Stephen King. Sorry, Langoliers.

That dark voyage has been going on for a decade now and hasn't all been smooth sailing, but the perverse peaks were worth the tedious troughs. For reasons unknown, I persevered with unpalatable bloated sagas but barely touched the appetising short stuff before now. Here are The Top 30 Tales Of Books Of Blood.

Unimaginative key:

Volume One
Volume Two
Volume Three
Volume Four
Volume Five
Volume Six

30. The Age of Desire

It feels like Barker's knowingly self-parodying in this sub-par tale of a dangerous aphrodisiac. Either that or he realised the fourth book hadn't satisfied its violent sex quota, so needed an excuse to have his protagonist run around permanently priapic and poking any man, woman or other that comes across his path, whether they like it or not (none of them likes it).

The sci-fi element has as much thought put into it as when Vyvyan in The Young Ones invented a potion that turned people it into an axe-wielding homicidal maniac, except here it's an unpleasantly rapey maniac.

29. On Jerusalem Street (a postscript)

This brief epilogue doesn't achieve much that the longer 'Book of Blood' prelude didn't do already, and better, but I appreciate the symmetry all the same. Though it makes me wonder why we never got a faux-human-leather-bound collected edition. They missed a trick there.

Maybe this only exists so Volume Six didn't look like a cheapskate with only the four stories. The American edition swapped this for the much chunkier Cabal.

28. Hell's Event

Barker would come up with a memorable, idiosyncratic interpretation of Hell in Hellraiser/The Hellbound Heart (which became a lot duller by The Scarlet Gospels), but here he plumps for a collage of various established literary and mythological sources instead.

Since it turns out to be a weird satire, Hell and its vacationing inhabitants aren't the main focus, so making them more interesting presumably would have distracted from the point. Not that the point makes a lot of sense.

27. The Madonna

Volume 5 is an unusually good one for women elsewhere, so that error had to be rectified at some point. The ending of this one tries to make up for all the rape and perversion, but it ends up being more like a desperately adult version of a children's story.

Before that silliness, it's another story where we're trapped with unlikeable characters, this time disreputable businessmen. One of whom turns out to be a paedophile, just to make it an even more pleasant read, leading to some scenes that are distasteful even for the Books of Blood. Mainly in how they linger for way too long, like he's aware some people will be enjoying this tale in a different way to most and he doesn't want to leave any demographic unsatisfied.

26. The Yattering and Jack

This diversion into black comic relief might be the least impressive entry in the first volume, but it's nice to see Barker making the effort to mix things up all the same.

A lower demon's stuck with the thankless task of tormenting a frustratingly nonchalant gherkin importer, who becomes wise to the mischief and plans his own holy campaign in return. It didn't get as Tom & Jerry as I was hoping.

25. Jacqueline Ess: Her Will And Testament

It's not like Barker was going for a girl power story, since the murderous Mrs. Ess' vigilante psychic justice isn't doled out fairly or with reason. But it would have been better if we'd stuck with her perspective for all of it, rather than having most of the tale recounted by an admirer who ends up making things more sexist than they usually are already.

It's horror though, innit? What did you expect? It gets a pass for some of her executions being creatively (and literally) twisted.

24. Sex, Death and Starshine

This was a slow builder, spending the longest time as an entertaining yet seemingly pointless tale of theatrical rivalry and bitchiness before it finally took the dark turn we knew was coming.

These undead players and punters are more conventional horror tropes than we're used to from Barker, but then he brings it back with some explicit necrophilia. So that's nice.

23. Son of Celluloid

Many of these 'short' stories are more like novellas. This means there's time to unwind with unnecessary but entertaining character insights and banter on the side, but some of the flimsier stories like this one hardly justify the length.

I like the core idea that an unwholesome individual's cancer would be super-malignant to the point that it survives him and proceeds to devour other people. Setting that story in and out of old stock film scenes, complete with gratuitous celebrity cameos, probably seemed like a clever, postmodern comment on society or whatever at the time. Now it just seems silly.

22. Twilight at the Towers

It's the last book, so if Barker wants to write an MI5 spy story, why shouldn't he?

Don't worry though, it doesn't take long for things to become as blood-smeared as usual. And when the killer's identity is revealed, this turns out to be Barker's riff on another classic horror trope. One that I've never found especially interesting, unfortunately.

21. The Body Politic

This is one of the more memorable and outlandish ones, even if I'm not totally on board with it. It turns out that our hands are self-aware entities that are itching for independence, although they've been almost entirely complacent on this point until now. And how can they speak?

Horror and comedy is one of my favourite blends, but this is just a bit too silly. At least the occasional absurd one like this proves that Barker has a sense of humour and isn't some kind of Garth Marenghi. If you've always felt that Thing was a criminally underused member of the Addams Family, you should get something out of it.

20. The Skins of the Fathers

Priapic, diphallactic demons make sure you know this is a Clive Barker story from the onset, because otherwise it's less distinctive. The demonic swarms are almost Lovecraftian, though more Ghostbustersian than anything, cocks notupstanding.

The Deep South setting makes for a decent racism allegory with benevolent demon forefathers standing in for Injuns, but it feels less authentic than his city stories, and its wife-battering patriarchs and yeehaw cops aren't his finest characterisation. Worst of all is his revelation that women are the only true humans while men are perpetually violent half-breed savages, which might have been some kind of apology for 'Jacqueline Ess,' but comes off as patronising as suggesting we hail from different planets.

19. The Midnight Meat Train

Barker's unflattering 'tribute' to New York paints it as a city of death, where the feckless lambs clock on and off and ride the punctual subway like clockwork, ignorant of the ever-present danger as shady characters chomp away at the Big Apple from the shadows. I guess he didn't like the place very much.

I'm not the biggest fan of ultra-violent splatterfests generally (not since I was about 12, anyway), and the loopy killer who's convinced he's performing a sacred duty was as predictable as his eventual encounter with our regular office-working hero. But then it gets weird and it turns out the crazy killer wasn't crazy after all, just an ordinary obsessive-compulsive homicidal sociopath.

18. How Spoilers Bleed

We go deep into the Amazon rainforest for this episode, for a postcolonial, tree-hugging condemnation of tribal genocide that still makes time for the requisite body horror. All well and good, except that the sermon is presented as a cautionary tale from the perspective of the racists.

Barker has a habit of making us hang out with the worst characters in his stories. I suppose that makes it more satisfying when they get their inevitable comeuppance.

17. The Inhuman Condition

I'm not sure what came first, this or The Hellbound Heart, but its addictive, intricate knots that you really shouldn't have untangled feel like a precursor to the puzzle box. They could even be the first threads that loomed Weaveworld.

This is one of those horror stories where the characters are so vile, you find yourself rooting for the demons. They're as insufferable as the kids from Akira.

16. In The Flesh

Rapey prison implications aside, this is a more traditional type of horror story, concerning ancestral evil and a murderer victimising his naive grandson from beyond the grave.

It's about 2% dreamy, surreal fantasy mixed in with the 98% grim prison reality. I could have done with more of the former.

15. Confessions of a (Pornographer's) Shroud

Each volume so far has had its sort-of-comedy installment, and this is as close as the third book gets. Though we're talking a third-series League of Gentlemen type of approach to pitch black humour, and that depends on whether you find the concept of a spirit manifesting through its burial shroud – making it a literal ghost in a sheet – a funny one.

There aren't a lot of laughs outside of that, what with all the vengeance and people turning inside-out and everything.

14. Babel's Children

The only story in the Books of Blood that decides to forego the horror shade, this is more of a cerebral sci-fi satire. Even its name has the air of a Ray Bradbury story or '60s Star Trek episode.

It's not the most subtle criticism of how the world's run, but the journey of discovery that gets us there is an enjoyable one. Unless you don't enjoy the slower, less action-packed stories, or you're primarily reading these for the gore, in which case you won't be impressed.

13. Dread

You should never let yourself get attached to characters from the Books of Blood. Maybe by the time I'm a few more books in, I'll start to remember that. As the good stories tend to, this starts out as a realistic, relatable drama before all of a sudden going ludicrously dark. Sometimes I prefer the first halves.

Maybe I felt affinity for Stephen because he has tinnitus. Or it could just be that he's one of those innocent folks who did nothing to deserve this, except choose his mentors poorly.

12. New Murders in the Rue Morgue

This is another slow burner that won't go down well with less literary horror readers craving another 'Dread' or 'Midnight Meat Train.' I hope they stuck with it through the 'boring' scene-setting, as they'll be rewarded with an unwholesome sex scene even by Books of Blood standards.

This is a fitting tribute to Poe's original that's as loyal as Barker can bear to be, before he gives in to temptation and pushes some aspects to unpalatable extremes. Coming at the end of the second volume of similarly depraved tales, it's nothing shocking by now. But I hope it's found its way into a Poe tribute anthology or two to catch unsuspecting newcomers off guard.

11. Pig Blood Blues

The Wicker Man meets Lord of the Flies and a twisted Babe in this detective story, in which an ex-cop investigates disappearing children at a juvenile offenders' prison.

It's no surprise when the dots are connected back to the pigsty, but when the pig speaks and the boundary between human and porcine becomes increasingly blurred, things get sinister and demented. The pig's a despicable racist in her dining preferences too.

10. Scape-Goats

This story of yachting yuppies beached on a (seemingly) desolate island feels like a classic maritime weird tale, calling to mind Lovecraft's 'Dagon' and Hodgson's Sargasso Sea Stories in particular. And probably some other things I don't happen to have read, I'm not a complete knowitall.

It won't surprise anyone when the curiosities of abandoned sheep, lethargic flies and unexplained odours escalate to waterlogged, fish-picked zombies. What's more surprising at this point is Barker telling the story from a female perspective, which becomes a common occurrence from now on.

9. The Book of Blood

The poetic introduction to this whole thing takes a much more literal approach to the 'Book of Blood' than I'd expected. With its demonic parallel world encroaching on ours, unflinching mutilation, buckets of blood and guilty passions, it's a fitting overture to Clive Barker generally.

It's even got a sort of weird happy, romantic ending, if you can skew your worldview a bit. You'll get plenty of practice as we move along.

8. Human Remains

Barker's candid confessions about how he got by during the lean Books of Blood years have given this story an uncomfortable autobiographical edge nowadays. Not that it was a light-hearted jape to begin with.

The identity of the shadowy shadower isn't much of a mystery, and Barker doesn't insult our intelligence and genre familiarity by stretching it out. Instead, he lets the monster explain itself matter-of-factly as we witness our protagonist losing his humanity at a more accelerated pace than these things usually happen, courtesy of the short format.

I liked this story, but it was better when Arthur Machen wrote it.

7. Down, Satan!

This is one of the shortest stories of the lot, and I like it for that. I'd happily exchange a few of the long-winded ones for a few more blackly comedic character portraits in this mould.

The fact that it's short and distant makes it enjoyably fable-like too, as we witness the self-destruction of a pious philanthropist who's sick of being ignored by his God, so decides to get the adversary's attention instead by constructing a state-of-the-art Hell-on-Earth, in the hope that'll make God sufficiently angry to bloody well show himself. It's not ambiguous that he's a nutter.

6. The Forbidden

You have to wonder why he didn't call it 'Candyman' for clarity. Maybe to avoid pissing off impatient readers who'd be waiting nearly the whole novella for the eponymous villain to show up, and wouldn't appreciate it taking its sweet time to acquaint us with its determined protagonist before her clearly inevitable demise.

I haven't seen the film, but since this lends itself to that treatment more than anything else Barker's written, I don't imagine there'd be any problems with translation. An '80s paranormal slasher movie is probably its truest expression.

5. Rawhead Rex

Clive Barker's take on the rampaging monster movie isn't revolutionary, and at first I thought I was going to hate it. But it turned out to be a lot of nasty, filthy fun. Set in the green and pleasant Kent countryside rather than the big city, dealing with a primordial creature whose origin he doesn't bother trying to justify through technobabble, Barker takes nostalgic '70s folk horror and perverts it in his signature way.

Rawhead excites tumescence in his acolytes, baptises them in golden showers and sows his seed with abandon. He's as silently cunning as an Alien, but not subject to the whims of jittery test screening audiences. That plucky cat wouldn't have a chance.

4. Revelations

The Books of Blood are Barker's least mature work, and not just in the literal, chronological sense. That's not always a bad thing, and there's not an insubstantial part of his audience that would have preferred things to stay that way. But in each book, there's at least one story that feels like it was written by a wizened old master of the craft who's grown tired of the tits and gore and learned what makes characters tick. This is the best of those 'boring' ones.

It's a subversive modern ghost story about two unhappy couples: one alive (for now), the other less tangible. The preacher and his long-suffering wife, and the philanderer and his less forgiving wife, are all a little exaggerated in the way characters who don't get a novel's length of fleshing out tend to be, but we can learn much from their mistakes.

3. The Last Illusion

There are plenty of obscure delights in these books, so I feel despicably mainstream to be favouring the ones that got film adaptations, even if I they're not ones that I (or most people) have seen. But there's no denying the infernal appeal of this one, with its phalanx of repulsive demons that catch Barker at his most unhinged.

From Clive Barker and Alan Moore to The Real Ghostbusters, the '80s was a fine decade for colourful abominations. He even lays off the perverted sex for once, so all the family can enjoy this corpse-stealing caper with disembowelling devils making musical instruments out of their victims and shitting all over the place. As long as there's no sexual content, right?

This is the debut of Harry D'Amour, Barker's recurring occult detective who doesn't recur nearly often enough. Jim Butcher's Dresden Files have nothing on this. That also means that this story, and consequently the Books of Blood as a whole, in set the Hellraiser universe, if that sort of trivia is important to you.

2. In the Hills, the Cities

Volume 1 was a strong collection generally, but this final story is where Clive Barker's twisted genius really rears its head. A head comprised of countless writhing humans each performing its assigned anatomical duty like a twisted version of The Numskulls.

The reveal of the city monster itself, and its looming presence over the hills and getting closer, may be the highlight, but it rises above your humdrum monster movie by having fully-drawn characters who don't react to the improbable sight with the fear you'd expect, but with a response that's a lot more disturbing.

There are some stubborn people who wish Barker had never moved past the visceral horror, but this imaginative dark fantasy sets us off on the road to Imajica et al.

1. The Life of Death

Elaine's operation was a success, giving her a new lease on life. It doesn't take long for this optimism to descend into one of Barker's darkest and most nihilistic tales. It's got a notorious ending, but you'll likely be so desensitised and depressed by that point that it barely registers.

There's much to admire in Barker's suffocating treatment of despair, how he feints towards the supernatural before snapping us back to uncaring reality, the tragic hints he drops along the way, and the parallels he makes between the barren plague carrier and the church's crypt, inelegantly piled with corpses yet teeming with microscopic life. Masterful, but I wouldn't want to put myself through it again.

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