Stephen King articles
First Appeared in Burnt Toast#12, 1992
Sphere. Reviewed by Jason Towers
When there is quality people are happy to be terrified, sometimes even revolted.
For those who came in late, Clive Barker is a huge name in modern horror. He's so big, he can't be described as a writer any more: he's an author creator screenwriter producer director actor illustrator comic-scriptor. His books and movies are acclaimed (his novels include page after page of appreciation quotes ), mostly for their originality; apparently he has ideas no-one else has. Certainly he has the magic touch.
Barker is big, and the Books of Blood are his best known body of work. They're six volumes of short stories; the very first things Barker had published in the horror field, back in 1984. Noted horror writer Ramsey Campbell, in his introduction to the Books, describes them as '...an astonishing performance, and the most exciting debut in horror fiction for many years.'
Campbell distinguishes the Books of Blood from horror fiction that's 'reassuring, both unreal enough not to be taken too seriously', and familiar -- i.e. unoriginal. Indeed Barker's stories are disturbing and sordid, they're gritty and immediate, and they're original.
The story I found most disturbing was Pig Blood Blues, set in a boys' remand centre that's sunk to the depths of horror under the influence of -- wait for it -- a demonic pig. It sounds ridiculous (the blurb says 'They told Redman the pig was possessed, but he didn't believe... until the nightmare came trotting after him'), but Barker makes it all too believable.
Barker spares the reader nothing, from graphic gore and shocking crimes, to cancer and sexual perversions. But unlike, say, Shaun Hutson, Barker uses the shocks as a means to an end. The themes running through the Books are less than comforting, including the consummation of love in strange ways, and fundamental differences between men and women that go beyond biology and behaviour. There are several examples of entities that are the mass personification of islands, cities or populations. The Books also include what is perhaps Barker's best known theme, that of secret tribes of monsters existing in our midst: a theme that was emphasised in his novel Cabal (aka Nightbreed), which is considerably more optimistic than the Books. The major theme of the Books of Blood is the presence of death in life; best illustrated by pointing out that many of the protagonists are aging or dying in some other way even before they meet their appalling ends. In The Skins of our Fathers, Davidson (whose hair is thinning) '...realised how close death was, how close it had always been...' Morbid observations, you'll find them here. Unfortunately, in certain cases Barker uses the theme to lead to an irritating cliché of horror fiction: the notion that deep down inside, we all really want to give up and die. It's a handy belief to hold if you can't think of an ending for your story, which is one of the things that make In the Hills, the Cities such a poor effort.
Barker has some striking ideas: possessed pigs, the plague in The Age of Desire, the monster from Son of Celluloid... Confessions of a (Pornographer's) Shroud and In the Flesh scream out to be filmed as movies, as do several other stories. The Books' linking theme itself (see the first story of vol 1 and the last of vol 6) is a great premise (if not exactly feasible), and when you consider that collections of shorts don't require a linking theme, you have to give Barker points for that alone.
On the down side, occasionally the stories are little more than vehicles for the ideas that are so lauded. The Body Politic, In the Hills..., and Scape-Goats spring to mind. How Spoilers Bleed uses a startling new means of death, but otherwise it's bare. I think this has to be my main complaint with the Books: some of the stories are just tedious. Despite the critical fawning, expect to take the rough with the smooth.
The Books aren't based purely on original ideas. All the old favourites of the genre are there, including werewolves, ghosts and doppelgängers [not to mention more than one image from The Exorcist -- Ed]. It's a matter of interpretation whether Barker has taken established bits of the horror genre and giving them a new slant, or if he's simply used old staples to pin together new stories. The Midnight Meat Train is a vehicle for an axe-wielding Homicidal Maniac, and Hell's Event is the mandatory deal-with-the devil tale. The latter is a good story, though, as are most of Barker's retellings: Rawhead Rex, a rampaging monster story, has nothing new to offer, but it's grippingly told.
Barker intended the six volumes to be read as two sets of three, rather than individually (they've been published in both formats), and I can second that: the stories are much easier to appreciate when read as a whole. I can only suggest that Barker's style takes some getting used to -- it's very idiosyncratic, but once you're familiar with it, that same individual approach becomes part of Barker's appeal. He writes extremely well.
The best stories from the Book of Blood come mainly from the later volumes, wherein Barker seems to have honed his skills, and has combined fresh ideas with high entertainment to provide compelling fiction. These are volumes 3-6, the ones you simply must read; you may as well start off with volumes 1 and 2, if for no other reason than to get used to Barker's style. Be prepared for the obscene, the confronting, and the disturbing; which is what horror fiction is all about.
by Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Kevin J. Anderson, ROC Penguin, 1992. Reviewed by Sarah J. Groenewegen
Since beginning to collect Fantasy and Science Fiction I've become a bit of a fan of Ms Rusch. In her monthly editorials she manages to write lively essays on the state of fantasy and SF in the Americas. I was curious to read some of her longer fiction. A novel. But the only other novel of hers that I have come across was a fantasy tale that did not appeal. Afterimage, though, did. The blurb made me curious (more so than the cover. Has anyone else noticed just how awful a lot of US covers are?) It proclaims to be about a victim of a serial rapist and killer who is saved at the last minute by some shape-shifting Darklings. The price paid is that the body she now inhabits is that of the killer. A nice twist that promised an entertaining read.
Simply put, it delivers. And more than the blurb indicates. Rebecca Tamerlane is a rather likeable young woman who is caught in a situation that everyone always thinks can't happen to oneself -- being the victim of a notorious serial killer. In this case he's dubbed the 'Joan of Arc' killer because of his penchant for torching his victims once finished with raping and bashing. The passages describing Rebecca's entrapment and attack are vivid and realistic. It's a daylight attack, one she walks straight into because the assailant looks like a harmless young business man. It's told from her perspective, which makes horrifying reading. Throughout the book parts of the rape are replayed, adding to the horror of what happened to her (and it's also important for the book's climax, but I won't go into that). Later the problems Rebecca has in suddenly finding herself in another person's body are very nicely done, particularly when s/he is arrested as the serial killer.
The tale, though, isn't only about humans. The mysterious Darkling saviours feature strongly, as they should. On the whole they are quite well imagined. Unfortunately the divisions in their society are hazily defined, and Hectrix remains little more than a shadow which is a pity given her pivotal role.
Most of the other characters have depth, and are believable, unlike other books I've read recently when you get a whole lot of detail just to have them bumped off two pages later. The peripheral characters remain peripheral, and the small number of main characters remain important. This is aided by the style of the book -- each chapter is told from separate character points of view, in the third person.
On the whole, I'm glad I've now read some of Rusch's fiction. I enjoyed it, in spite of the fact that all the serial killers that have terrorised Santa Cruz's past were finally put down to one decidedly batty female Darkling.
©2011 Go to top