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