Rawhead Rex

Published February 8, 2012 by Jennifer Loring

Clive Barker is one of the holy trinity of authors that influenced me the most in my formative years. (If you’ve been reading this blog long enough, you know that Stephen King is another. For the record, Tanith Lee is the third.) I read the Books of Blood, and thus “Rawhead Rex,” for the first time as a teen. I finally saw the film version just recently, which is as cheeseball-80s as you’d expect and pretty much misses the point of the story. But I digress. Yes, there are a lot of POV shifts (which would bother me if handled by a lesser writer), the characters aren’t as developed as they could be, and those who haven’t read a lot of Barker’s work may be put off by the level of violence and vulgarity. However, it’s always what’s beneath the surface of Barker’s work that truly endeared him to me.

Clive Barker, as an openly gay man, is certainly aware of our patriarchal and hetero-normative society’s impulse to debase anything perceived as “feminine.” One need only watch TV commercials to see how pervasive it has become–companies like GoDaddy sell their product by routinely objectifying and dehumanizing women; it is the only sort of ad campaign they have ever run. Others, like Dr. Pepper, express a blatant hostility, if not outright hatred, of femininity. What Barker understood so well when he wrote “Rawhead Rex” was that masculinity cannot exist without its counterpart, and neither can we exist without a restoration of the balance between masculine and feminine. The masculine principle cannot in itself create life; indeed, Barker highlights its tendency to conquer and destroy, in direct opposition to the feminine, which creates and nurtures.

Today, of the major world religions only Hinduism continues to acknowledges the sacred feminine, and our current society, in contrast to ancient humans, seems to have devolved from those peaceful times. One can certainly point a finger at the rise of Judeo-Christian religions as a culprit. Those same religions, which stripped the goddesses of their divinity and reduced them to mere vessels through which the (male) divine passed, and enforced strict gender roles that placed authoritarian male figures in the center of women’s lives, also frequently called away the youth of their societies to fight and die in countless wars. Rawhead Rex is much like the modern war machine that sends young men and women off to die in foreign lands; powerless to destroy the source of life (that is, women old enough to have periods and therefore procreate–he gladly eats female children), he devours its offspring instead, the most terrible atrocity he can commit against women. At least the beastly Rawhead can acknowledge, on some base level, women’s inherent creative principle, something the major religions–with an inexplicably male creator at their helm–refuse to do. In fear of what they can never possess, and therefore never understand, they attempt to influence legislation aimed at controlling the womb itself.

In the end it is the feminine that tames the out-of-control masculine impulse which Rawhead Rex represents. Weakened by his fear of women, he is vulnerable to attack by the villagers of Zeal, who overpower and kill him. I will make no claim that we need to destroy the masculine half of the binary entirely; rather, we need a return to understanding the importance of the feminist principle and how its absence has created a society obsessed with the most destructive aspects of human nature. Because Rawhead could not understand women, he feared them, and it is this fear that causes many men to repress anything that might be construed as “feminine,” which so often leads to the type of deleterious hyper-masculinization we see today.

All that from a story about a giant penis-man. Stories like “Rawhead Rex” get to the heart of what Gary Braunbeck talks about in To Each Their Darkness, the ability of horror to be a transformative genre. At first glance one my be tempted to write it off as just another silly monster story, but in peeling back the layers we get a glimpse of horror’s true potential. And on that note, I wish Clive well in his continued recovery and hope that he will be telling stories for many years to come.

10 comments on “Rawhead Rex

  • This is an excellent, insightful review of Rex. One small caveat might be that the Hindu religion is the only widely accepted religion that still celebrates the divine feminine. There are goddess-based faiths that do indeed still acknowledge the importance of both genders. One of our past presidents, however, *cough*Bush*cough* rather famously said they don't exist. Regardless, thanks for a great post!

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  • As a man raised by primarily women, and a first-wave feminist (yeah, I'm like 80 years behind the times), I loved your post. Barker most certainly does have feminist themes, but more than that, I think he just has humanist themes. I've never read anything of his where I thought one gender or race or age group or culture or whatever was better than another. And your big three: I was not expecting Tanith Lee, but excellent choice.

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  • Goddamnit. I finish my post, feel pleased as shit, then I look at yours and it always seems to blow mine out of the water. I know exactly which commercials you were talking about in your post and, frankly, I think it's a sign that our cultural dialogue has taken several steps back on gender issues. It's weird. We're desperately trying to scale back the headway we made in the 60s and 70s. I'm not a super religious guy, but I have a buddy who's a Wiccan priest and I understand it to be tied in with a reverence for the female form, specifically the ones they can get nekkid at beltain festivals. A couple of quibbles. I think that Barker's sexual orientation doesn't necessarily connect to his characterization of women. Ignoring the fact that I know plenty of deeply sexist gay men, I think that it's a dangerous thing to equate a person's sexuality with their outlook. I am also offended that "[male] tendency to conquer and destroy, in direct opposition to the feminine, which creates and nurtures." I am not for a second going to say that there isn't a patriarchy in place in society, but I also believe that men are often demonized as rapists and as destroyers. Clearly, that image strongly informs Rawhead Rex but to make a blanket statement like that strikes me as a bit sexist. Men can create, and our drives don't necessarily lead to destruction. I think the reason Barker cast aspersions on Christianity in the story was less to do with its sexism and more to do with it sexlessness. Rawhead himself refers to Jesus as the "virgin shepherd" and does a bunch of desecrations to the church. Yeah, the images are very male sexualized (the peeing scene reminded me of every money shot in every porno) but the Rawhead/Female Idol relationship was about sex just as much as gender. She took in his seed and created new life, reducing him. That's why he feared her. Basically, Rawhead was a commitmentphobe who hated kids. Otherwise, fan-fucking-tastic post. I have a lot of respect for that mind of yours. I'm basically your number one fan. Oh, also, you're an industrial DJ? Get the fuck out! I was too! Dj Creature. Surprise.

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  • My rebuttal:In referencing his sexuality, I meant it in the sense that gay men have often faced bigotry based on the perception that they are "feminine"–hence his understanding of gender issues. I'm not sure what point the reality of sexist gay men makes, as there are also misogynist women–Ann Coulter, etc. Sometimes the "devil you know," in this case the patriarchy, is less frightening than accepting the responsibilities of full equality.The comment on male destructive urges was not meant to offend, but let's be honest–it's men who start wars, and men who commit the vast majority of violent crimes. I certainly don't view all or even most men as destructive beasts or I wouldn't be with one, but I'm not going to deny reality and statistics, either. Of course men can create. Unfortunately many don't seem very interested in that.Sex vs. gender: "She took in his seed and created new life, reducing him. That's why he feared her." That *is* about gender, because only women can create new life from a man's seed. It's the one very important thing men can't do.Yay, I have a number-one fan! And yes, I am an industrial DJ. Now we're going to have to talk about music.

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  • I spent my early years writing horror with strong sexual elements, and Clive Barker was without a doubt a major influence in that decision. Tanith Lee is largely responsible for where I am now, writing primarily dark fantasy. Stephen King just goes without saying. 😀

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  • I loved your post. I think all writing explores questions and themes like gender equality, prejudice and sexuality. "Rawhead Rex" is not simply a monster story. Once you start peeling back the layers, you discover it makes a statement about life and the human condition. This is the first time I've read something written by Clive Barker. I am impressed and have started to read the other stories in "Books of Blood" He is amazing

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  • I'm with Joe – I'm usually feeling pretty good about my posts (not mine on Rawhead necessarily – right now I'm in frantic-catch-up mode) and then I read yours and think damn, I want to life inside 'her' head!.Loved the post and the insight. I'm with you. No, I don't think all men are bloodthirsty ogres, but I know wars would cease if women were in charge. All the bullshit about a female president having her hand on the launch button during her time of the month makes me crazy. Even my husband admits that for men – bringing a child into the world typically involves a sigh and a cigarette. Women, who are on intimate terns with the more savagely painful aspect of creation, would not be eager to see hard-earned children become cannon fodder.

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