10 October 2010

"Books of Blood" by Clive Barker

Books of Blood-1998
The 1998 special edition. Source
Before I knew of Clive Barker, I knew of his work, thanks to Hollywood. Two horror movies that scared me when I was younger were Hellraiser and Candyman. I didn't make the connection that the characters and premises of the films were a product of Barker's creative mind, but later as an adult, I found the stories again in Barker's short fiction anthologies and his novel, The Hellbound Heart.

If you aren't yet ready to dive into one of Clive Barker's novels, I strongly recommend taking a look at Books of Blood, Volumes 1-3. This anthology of short fiction demonstrates the variety of skill Barker possesses, with stories in every mood and tone that horror is capable of exploring. For the horrific or the humorous, I would read Barker's stories "Rawhead Rex" and "The Yattering and Jack." These serve as an excellent introduction to Clive Barker, who is probably one of my favorite horror writers, period.

Rawhead Rex


This story centers around an evil, ancient creature that was buried alive centuries ago deep within the grounds of the old English country town, Zeal. The monster is awakened and uncovered when Thomas Garrow digs into the field to clear it for ploughing, and immediately Rawhead Rex begins his hungry, murderous rampage.

Barker prefaces this story with a description of the town of Zeal:
Of all the conquering armies that had tramped the streets of Zeal down the centuries, it was finally the mild tread of the Sunday tripper that brought the village to its knees. It had suffered Roman legions, and the Norman conquest, it had survived the agonies of the Civil War, all without losing its identity to the occupying forces. But after centuries of boot and blade it was to be the tourists--the new barbarians-- the bested Zeal. [...]
Gradually these city-weary people began to work a gentle but permanent change on the village. Many of them set their hearts on a home in the country; they were charmed by stone cottages set amongst churning oaks, they were enchanted by doves in the churchyard yews. [...] At first few, then many, began to make bids for empty barns and deserted houses that littered Zeal and its outskirts [...] So, as the years passed and the natives of Zeal were picked off by old age, the civil savages took over their stead. [...] 
Indeed, as time went by the invaders found a yet more permanent place in the heart of Zeal, as the perennial demons of their hectic lives, Cancer and Heart Disease, took their toll, following their victims even into this new found land. Like the Romans before them, like the Normans, like all invaders, the commuters made their profoundest mark upon this usurped turf not by building on it, but by being buried under it (362-363).

I thought this was a brilliant way to establish context before diving into death, blood, and gore, as this sets up an opportunity to garner a strange kind of sympathy for the monster that is Rawhead Rex.

The issue of the demise of village / country life is a very serious one, especially in England and Wales. The "out-of-towners" buying their way in to revamp homes, or simply to own homes just for the duration of summer, is a major cause of contention, as Barker's story suggests. It erodes some of the way of life, history, and tradition that has existed in these areas for hundreds of years. These towns may bustle with life during tourist seasons, but then when "peak season" is over, the towns are virtually empty, leaving only a few permanent residents, who tend to be the descendants of families who have resided in these areas for years.

When I lived in Wales to study six months at what was then known as Trinity College in Carmarthen, I also studied Wales and Welsh culture, in addition to visiting many locations all over the country, ranging from the more populous (Cardiff) to the rural (Anglesey). As I visited and learned about these areas, the issue "tourist invasion" certainly came up. The "tourist invasion" is not unique to Wales, but Wales has a unique perspective on it.

In Wales, it is seen to a certain degree as another attack on Welsh identity, with the tourist invasion coming mainly from England (and there are centuries of conflict between both countries, literally, metaphorically, culturally). This is where I first heard of the group Sons of Glendower. This nationalist group is portrayed as both heroes and villains (depending on who is doing the talking) and were known for setting fire to vacation homes purchased by "outsiders" (mostly the English). Here are some articles on this group and the issue of invasion--notice the varying tones in reportage and the different interpretations of the problem:
On one hand, those moving to these areas have the right to purchase property and live where they choose, and could argue that they are improving the area by revitalizing the homes they are purchasing. On the other hand, there is the concern that the village culture is being eradicated, the value of the area is going down (due to "the dormitory lifestyle"), and natives are being pushed out by the wealthier tourists. The issue is not black and white, and there are many, many layers to it. But as soon as Barker mentioned the slow invasion of the city folk, I knew right off the bat that I would be more inclined to hold sympathy for the old Zeal as opposed to the new Zeal. And Rawhead Rex is definitely old Zeal...but he is a force of complete destruction, so he really isn't "the good guy" either.

Let's take a closer look at the monster that is Rawhead. The name Rawhead serves as the description for his head and face (skin rubbed raw, or like raw meat, if you will) and Rex is from the Latin, for "king." When Thomas Garrow uncovers the monster, we get even creepier details:
His head was breaking surface now, his black hair wreathed with worms, his scalp seething with tiny red spiders. [...] His torso was free. Shoulders twice as broad as a man's; lean, scarred arms stronger than any human. His limbs were pumping with blood like a butterfly's wings, juicing with resurrection. His long, lethal fingers rhythmically clawed the ground as they gained strength. [...] [Rawhead's face] was huge, like the harvest moon, huge and amber. But this moon had eyes that burned in its pallid, pitted face. They were for all the world like wounds, those eyes, as though somebody had gouged them in the flesh of Rawhead's face then set two candles to flicker in the holes (368).
In the story, Rawhead's physical description really unsettled me, and I was even more horrified by the indiscriminate ways Rawhead killed. Barker doesn't dumb things down or spare the gore--everything in this story happens quickly and without mercy. And there is so much that happens! Barker doesn't shy away from sexuality, fertility, archetypes, religion, myth, and paganism, and if these subjects get too heavy for you, don't worry, because it's balanced by KILL, KILL, KILL! The most horrific death for me--and horrific not so much by gore, but by the sheer "Oh my God!" factor, is the death of Ron's son, Ian (Pp. 394-398 in the 1998 collector's edition. Read it.).

Demon-chicken, 1544
The Demon of Calicut by Sebastian Munster (1544)

The Yattering and Jack


In this piece, The Yattering is a lesser demon from Hell who is commanded by "the powers" (Beezlebub & Co.) that he must torment a nobody named Jack Polo. The Yattering is at first excited by the prospect and schemes and plans things in his mind, but when he goes topside to haunt Jack and win his soul for Hell, he ends up having an extremely difficult time of it. Jack is generally oblivious, ho-hum, and mum. Jack's personal motto is "Che sera sera" (aka Que sera sera, "whatever will be will be") and this ends up being an infuriating taunt to the Yattering, who is unable to shake Jack's resolve (and he does work hard to do so: exploding cats, for crying out loud!).

When Jack's daughters visit for Christmas, the Yattering seizes the opportunity to torment Jack by tormenting his family. He is very close to reaching his goal, but the Yattering ends up violating a cardinal rule: as a lesser demon, he is restricted to the grounds of the man he is torturing. The Yattering can go through the house, but not beyond it outside, and he can use objects to touch his victim, but cannot touch his victim directly. After doing some creative stunts (spinning objects, bringing a cooked turkey in the oven to life) but still not quite reaching Jack, the Yattering loses its resolve and chases after Jack outside.

Interestingly, Jack has become aware of the demonic presence as each episode has gotten weirder and weirder. He has not let onto the fact that he is this aware, and by the end of the story Jack ends up manipulating the demon into coming outside after him and making physical contact with him (The Yattering tries to crush Jack's head in his hands)...which violates the rules. Thus the Yattering reveals himself completely to Jack, and in doing so, Jack becomes his new master. In defeat, the Yattering concedes with a "che sera sera." We've come around full circle in this story. It's a good tight piece with some creepy, funny moments and worth a read, and shows you Clive Barker's range as an author. Good stuff!


Works Cited:

Barker, Clive. “Rawhead Rex.” Books of Blood, Volumes One to Three. Special Collector's ed. Vol. 3. New York: Berkley, 1998. 362 – 407. Print.

Barker, Clive. "The Yattering and Jack." Books of Blood: Volumes One to Three. Special Collector's ed. Vol. 1. New York: Berkley, 1998. 43-64. Print.

6 comments:

  1. Nice thoughts on both stories. The movies never do the stories justice, though...
    Looking forward to the rest of your blog entries.
    Thanks!

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  2. Thanks for stopping by!

    I have to admit I am curious about the "Rawhead Rex" movie. When I was researching it on the web I came across it on a list of the worst English movies of all time. I think it was #2.

    It may be deliciously bad...or just bad!

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  3. Just bad. Really bad. Although, there were a few points that were true to the story, but for the most part it's people being chased around by an obviously rubber monster in goth-wear.

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  4. Incredible assessment of Rawhead Rex and Zeal. I, too, was impressed with our invasion of its territory and its revenge. When you stop to think about how we would react to an alien invading our space, Rawhead did just what we would do.

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  5. Incredible assessment of Rawhead Rex and his town of Zeal. I, too, was struck by the fact that it was only defending its land from invaders. I enjoyed the unpredictable blood bath.

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