This has been my first Clive Barker read, and I was very pleasantly surprised by it.
From what I had heard of Barker before, I had assumed his work was in the gory blood porn genre. As such I was never very interested in trying out any of his work, since the more trashy kind of cheap thrills Stephen King used to grind out in his earlier years, really never did sit well with me. Neither does the kind of horror that features sexy teenagers being systematically mangled by homicidal maniacs (usually with very long butcher's knives) .
On the contrary, the volume I’ve just finished is a small collection of short stories that is intelligent, imaginative and satirical dark fantasy, the likes you see of in authors like Ray Bradbury and Gene Wolfe, with just a touch of a Lovecraftian sense of the macabre with a dollop of Kafka’s sense of the absurd.
A trademark feature seems to be that the stories start off with a very commonplace scenario, where everything is normal, sane and as everyday as you or I experience every day as we set off to work or school.
Gradually a sense of weirdness starts to encroach in the story;- in come cases it works well, though in The Forbidden
it did not work for me at first, as at first glance it seemed like a childish attempt at painting a horror figure, and I think this is a clue as to how the picture of Barker as a cheap thrill goremonger might have evolved.
However, after reading the rest of the stories, I realised that Barker’s works work on two levels. For the cheap thrill junkies, he does throw a few bones in some of his stories (though some of them are decidedly gore-less) but there is a lot of social commentary and satire going on in the background. I had a squiz at the plot of the movie “Candyman”
that was based on The Forbidden
, and there it was obvious to me that the hidden theme was distorted and ignored in the movie – it’s maker opting to put it into the slasher genre. (I’ll bet they made more money that way)
The actual theme originally intended by Barker, (besides a bit of a poke at the snobbish one-upmanship always to be found in intellectual/academic circles) seemed pretty obviously to me, to be a working of the theme that there is nothing worse for the human psyche than to be ignored, impotent, ridiculed, and/or nondescript, since everybody needs their existence validated somehow. For some the issue is important enough as to even draw attention to themselves in negative ways, as long as it means they get attention, of whatever kind.
The Candyman is a symbol of the allure of fame or notoriety, and Helen withstands this allure for a while, though she succumbs at the very end. Earlier in the story, other characters also succumbed to the Candyman, by telling sensationalist lies and …*censored for spoilers*.
The story also offers an effortless juxtaposition of the very different worlds of people living on the edges of society with that of snobbish university circles.
Barker delivers his double message cleverly enough camouflaged that sadly, a lot of people probably do dismiss works like The Forbidden as simply being of the horror “slasher” genre.The Madonna
is a wonderfully imaginative tale of ambiguity, which touches on relationship and gender issues, but overall delivers a delightful sense of the weird and macabre that only a Kafka or Lovecraft can match, yet delivered in pleasantly muted tones which makes it an enjoyable read.Babel’s Children
is a delightful little comic satire displaying Barker’s disdain for world politics.In the Flesh
was probably the story that touched me the most deeply and remained with me the longest, even managing to find it’s way into my dreams. I found myself identifying and empathizing with the characters in this one. Some of the story actually seems to have come from a dreamworld itself, and is guaranteed to please lovers of dark fantasy who enjoy exploring the landscapes of dream and psyche.
My interest has definitely been piqued, so I will be reading more Barker soon.
EDIT: (later) After reading some earlier Barker, I wasn't quite as impressed. It seems that his later, more mature works are definitely an improvement on his earlier fare.