Human Remains

“Human Remains,” now that I think about it, was probably one of the biggest influences on my early writing. My short fiction often featured characters like Gavin, lovely to look at but broken on the inside. Though he is a prostitute, Gavin is not victimized by his profession (prostitute-as-victim has in itself become a cliche); rather, he is a victim of his own narcissism, his fear of losing his youth and beauty. He is a Dorian Gray for the modern era.

Gavin is a beautifully realized character, and the story succeeds because Barker taps into a universal fear, especially among Westerners–the fear of growing old. My birthday is on Wednesday, and I hear the inexorable march of middle age drawing ever closer. Unlike Gavin, however, I have plenty of regrets for the things I have not accomplished, and the things that likely will not happen before the end of my life. Though Gavin’s lack of ambition appears almost liberating at first glance, he is a prisoner of his own low expectations. 

Gavin knows, and quite comfortably accepts, that he will never be more than what he is. His highest aspiration in life is to marry a rich widow. He is a man who would rather die than see his beauty damaged in any way, for it is the only aspect of himself that he has cultivated, and his only currency. “Something good was coming with the autumn, he knew it for sure” (142), Gavin notes early in the story, but what he expects will be a marriage proposal from one of his rich widows is instead an escape from a life whose potential he could never realize. The doppelganger that Gavin first encounters in Reynold’s apartment, and which decides Gavin’s is the face it will have, ironically becomes more human than Gavin could ever be. It wants every aspect of the human experience, the ones with which Gavin could not be bothered to trouble himself–the attachments to others, the pain of loss.

The creature, though it feeds on blood and steals souls, is in its own way very sympathetic, in large part because of its loneliness. “‘You know what you are because you see others like you. If you were alone on earth, what would you know?'” (177) it asks Gavin. That Gavin is quite all right with this ancient monster assuming his face and his life, for now he is freed of all human concerns, illustrates one of the many reasons why Barker’s work resonates with so many people. Gavin is the monster, and always was–he is the “human remains” of the story’s title; soulless, obsessed with superficiality, he was a person in appearance only. It is the doppelganger who wants to live, truly live, to be a fully-functioning human and experience the emotions that Gavin so casually discarded; not rightly knowing what it is, it imitates what it envies the most, and does a better job of being human than most people do. By the end of the story, Gavin’s exterior matches his interior–featureless and empty. It is the creature, molded not only by blood but by emotions and experiences, just like any real person, who will live the life Gavin took for granted.    

“Human Remains” is one of the strongest stories in the Books of Blood, and showcases Barker’s ability to write emotional, beautiful horror. This is why he’s one of the best. If you haven’t yet read it, do yourself a favor and get to it.

Works Cited:
Barker, Clive. Books of Blood Volumes One Two and Three. Book-of-the-Month Club, Inc., 1992. Print.

Published by Jennifer Loring

Jennifer Loring’s short fiction has appeared in the anthologies Tales from the Lake vols. 1 and 4, Nightscript IV, Dim Shores Presents Volume 2, and the Bram Stoker Award-nominated Not All Monsters and Arterial Bloom, among many others. She holds an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction with a concentration in horror fiction and is currently working toward a PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies - Humanities & Culture, focusing on queer possibility in fairy tales. Jenn lives in Philadelphia, PA, where she and her husband are owned by a turtle and two basset hounds.

5 thoughts on “Human Remains

  1. I like how you point out that the doppelganger wants to truly live and experience all the emotions it can. I think it does this to finally be a part of something and feel accepted. It lamented its woes on not knowing if any others of its kind existed, and was more than excited to take Gavin’s life.


  2. Joe likes to say that Barker's weakness is his characters (and he may blast me for saying that and claim that I've misinterpreted him, and maybe I have), and I can see that, especially in his novels. Here, however, it's a strength. Both Gavin and the creature are wonderful characters.


  3. I agree that the characters are done wonderfully. I kept thinking through the story, "Why doesn't Gavin fight this creature–this doesn't make sense!" But, it kind of does. It really does. Gavin was so egotistical and inhuman that having a creature steal his identity seemed to be almost honorable. He even liked the idea of being on display for the world to admire. Everything in this story clicked into place very well. I also like how you mention that the creature becomes more human than Gavin. In the end the creature wins, but really, the monster is defeated.


  4. I saw the story much the same way you did – but you have a much more eloquent way of phrasing. This storyline – stealing someone's identity and doing their life better – exists in Harlan Ellison's Shatterday also – a guy calls his house accidentally and is surprised to find himself answering the phone. Love your line – "By the end of the story, Gavin's exterior matches his interior–featureless and empty." And Gavin "is the 'human remains' of the story.'" Very insightful, as always.


  5. I have a really difficult time, because I feel so much like the doppelganger in this story. I have no idea if there is anyone else like me out there. I feel the disconnect I have with most people and this is frustrating when trying to communicate things. I had great difficulty understanding the two universal themes of loneliness and growing old. I can honestly say I have no fear of growing old. I am looking forward to it. I have also never felt lonely. In order to feel lonely, a person must realize he or she needs people in their lives to cope. I don't have that need. I read the story several times, because I wanted to understand and appreciate it in the same way that you did. I have read almost the entire collection of short stories and loved almost every single one, but I did not care for this one. Although, I agree that in the end the monster is more human and I was okay with the fact that Gavin didn't fight back. If he had, it would have been out of character.I agree that the creature becomes more human than Gavin, but overall I didn't care for the story. I found the entire narrative "featureless and empty." I just didn't get it.


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