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.

The Yattering and Jack

Clive Barker’s “The Yattering and Jack,” from The Books of Blood–the tale of a man, a demon, and a turkey.

OK, it’s not really about the turkey. But that is one of the most memorable scenes in a story that is equal parts a horror parody and a comedy of manners. Jack’s wife has an affair, and his lack of emotion drives her to suicide. He finds himself afflicted by a demon and his daughters, witnessing the Christmas chaos for themselves, cannot understand his calm demeanor, nor can the demon whose job it is to break him. At times I was reminded of Restoration comedies I had read (and very much enjoyed) in undergrad. What does it take before that famous British stoicism begins to crack?

When Clive Barker burst onto the scene in the 80s, he rose to fame for a number of reasons, humor not generally being one of them. Barker pushed the boundaries of sex and violence in horror, and intertwined the two in new and disturbing ways. It’s what I love about him and what influenced me in my early days. He also wrote “The Yattering and Jack,” whose set-up certainly sounds like a horror story: Beelzebub, thanks to Jack’s family, has a claim on Jack’s soul. He sends a minor demon called the Yattering to torment Jack into insanity and thus take what is rightfully his. But even in Hell there are laws; should the Yattering ever leave the house or lay a hand on Jack, Beelzebub’s claim is forfeit, and the Yattering will become Jack’s slave. The Yattering takes great delight in inflicting all sorts of terrible things upon Jack, including the murder of his cat(s), yet Jack refuses to surrender his sanity.

It is not, we learn, because Jack has the stiffest upper lip of any Brit to ever live, but because he is fully aware of the Yattering’s existence and intent. By the time Christmas descends into a maelstrom of turkey attacks and spinning Christmas trees, the Yattering is so frustrated by Jack’s unflappability that it commits its greatest error, just as Jack knows it will. It not only follows Jack outside but touches him, and Jack’s soul will thus never be in Beelzebub’s possession. Neither, as it turns out, will Jack ever enter Heaven. Enslaving a demon is frowned upon. Go figure.

If there are still people out there who haven’t read Clive Barker’s earlier work because of his reputation (you’re missing out, but to each their own), at least give this one a shot. You’ll think twice about having turkey for Christmas dinner.

Rawhead Rex

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.