The dead have highways.
They run, unerring lines of ghost-trains, of dream-carriages, across the wasteland behind our lives, bearing an endless traffic of departed souls. Their thrum and throb can be heard in the broken places of the world, through cracks made by acts of cruelty, violence and depravity. Their freight, the wandering dead, can be glimpsed when the heart is close to bursting, and sights that should be hidden come plainly into view.
Clive Barker exploded onto the 1980s horror scene with force and vigor; he quickly earned a reputation in the field and was heavily endorsed by popular authors, including Stephen King, who famously blurbed, “I have seen the future of horror, and it is named Clive Barker.” Things didn’t quite work out that way—most of Barker’s work in the last fifteen years has been fantasy, in particular his Abarat series for young adults—though he does return to horror and dark fantasy on occasion.
The Books of Blood were his first mainstream success, short-fiction collections that caused Barker to skyrocket in popularity; originally three short anthologies were planned, though by the end the series consisted of six volumes. I’m not kidding when I say they’re short; each one contains four to six stories and is some 200 pages long. It’s surprising that such brutal things can be packed into such small packages.
“The Book of Blood” starts the series off and acts somewhat as a frame story, with a pyschic researcher employing a medium to study a haunted house. Said medium turns out to be faking his powers, sitting alone in a room whilst screaming and writing ghostly messages on the walls. After a while, the ghosts really do come for him almost in retribution, and carve their own stories onto his flesh—which, the narrator claims, make up the content of the Books of Blood. A decent lead-in to Barker’s work, it is something of a gorier Illustrated Man, a well-written tale showing a rich imagination. It lacks the later stories’ substance, but is a stylish introduction to the series.
“The Midnight Meat Train” follows down-and-out Leon Kaufman as he rides the New York subway. Said subway has been terrorized by a serial killer who butchers his victims, and as luck has it, Leon finds himself on the same train as the killer. The story starts out with a sinister atmosphere that increases as the plot develops, though the developments near the end of the story take it in new and weird directions. Quite gruesome as well. It’s a very good story that builds on the strength of its suspenseful atmosphere and claustrophobic environment.
Every horror anthology seems to have a “comic” story, or at least a damn weird one, and the one Barker included here is “The Yattering and Jack.” The Yattering is a lesser demon, sent out by the powers of Hell to torture a widower named Jack, whose soul Hell desires. The only problem is that Jack seems unflappable, which infuriates The Yattering; nothing seems to get through to the emotionless Jack and break his que sera sera attitude. The story, like all the others, is well-written and imaginative, though comic horror isn’t really my cuppa, and it mostly consists of the demon growing more and more frustrated as his attempts to torment Jack fail. That said, if you like twists at the finale, boy does this story have some for you.
“Pig Blood Blues” goes back to more traditional horror territory, though one underlined by Barker’s characteristic blend of horror and sexual undertones. It follows a former police officer as he starts his new job at a juvenile detention center, which has had some mysterious disappearances. He befriends one of the boys, a constant victim of bullying, who tells a strange story about a suicide and a hungry sow—and when a place has a creepy farm area, you just know something wrong is going on there. I’d rate it around average but overall it’s a satisfying read, a well-done chiller that spends a bit too much time scene-setting and then hammers you with a disturbing, if predictable, climax.
The collection changes gears once again for “Sex, Death, and Starshine” and moves into the world of theater. (As you may have guessed, Barker was a playwright before he started writing horror.) Terry’s production of Twelfth Night isn’t going well—the theater’s a dump, the cast question his authority, and his Viola—a former soap opera star—is a terrible actress (though, as Terry’s found out, she’s not bad in bed). Enter the mysterious, masked Mr. Lichfield, who claims his wife would make a better Viola. Of course, Lichfield and his crew are all dead, having transcended death for their love of art, and even with a better starlet this rendition won’t have a traditional happy ending. Not the best in the collection, but it displays a pervasive eeriness, especially through the dark grace of its undead and strong characterization. Like most of Barker’s stories, there’s a pivotal twist/development halfway through that leaves the tale both fascinating and campy.
“In The Hills, The Cities” is about a gay couple on holiday in rural Yugoslavia, who bump into an ancient folk ritual from aeons past: the populace of two neighboring cities bind themselves into massive entities, giants created from thousands of living beings. When one of the giants collapses, crashing to earth in a pile of human carnage, the other goes berserk; caught in the middle are the two protagonists, the first and only westerners to take in the nightmarish spectacle. Depending on your preferences, Barker either saved the best for last, or served up an implausible, forced allegory for the fall of communism. I’m willing to suspend some disbelief because of how visceral and unnerving this idea is—it’s still an unmined concept, and it sent shivers down my spine.
Barker is a more than capable writer who excels at changing style from story to story, honing each story’s style to unique precision. Most of his stories have an underlying sexual undertones, a pervading blend of sex and gore that. At times he can be a bit wordy or overwrought, but he creates excellent atmosphere, has a rich vocabulary, and comes up with wildly imaginative ideas. Most of all, he has a fantastic ability to subvert or transcend the genre, even while acknowledging its tropes and contrivances; most of the stories here come across as fresh and original even today. Yes, thirty years after the fact, the Books of Blood are still required reading on the modern horror syllabus a testament to vivid imagination and a bold attempt to redefine the genre.
Title: Books of Blood – Volume 1
Author: Clive Barker
Publisher: Crossroad Press
Release Date: 2013
What I Read: ebook
Price I Paid: $3.99 (MSRP, cheap!)
ISBN/ASIN: 0425165582 / B00BT52DA0
First Published: 1984