Posted by: Kristen Hicks | November 9, 2012

On The Books of Blood

Fall puts me in the mood for horror stories. My primary horror investment in book form this year was Clive Barker’s Books of Blood, vol. 1-3. I knew Clive Barker had a impressive reputation as a writer, but previously only knew his work through films he worked on or inspired, including several memorable movies I’d be quick to recommend to any horror fan, such as Candyman and the Midnight Meat Train.

Though far from the only film genre with a reputation for unoriginality, many would agree it’s an especially common trait of horror films. Yet the movies that take concepts and visuals from the ideas of Clive Barker bring glimpses of horror to the audience that feel fresh and unhampered by the many familiar genre conventions. It comes as little surprise then that his short stories succeed in the same vein of creativity and visceral imagery that impresses, disgusts and chills the reader.

As in any short story collection, there are standout tales and occasional weak ones. My favorite of the whole collection was the introductory story “The Book of Blood” that provides a general framework for the tales to come, but offers effective characters, symbols and ideas all its own. A man who fakes the ability to communicate with the dead, not believing that the place he’s chosen lives up to its reputation as a crossroads for dead souls and the living world, has his lie forcibly made true upon his body. Part punishment for his ignorance and arrogance, but more out of the opportunity to communicate their stories, the dead besiege him and mark their tales onto his flesh, making him the literal, living book of blood.

Conveniently for the purposes of a book of horror, the crossroads the boy/book meets his fate at is one particular to souls who suffered violent deaths, and the stories we read are those taken from his flesh…

Barker’s stories often return to certain themes. Bodies that can change form in various ways or characters who can change the forms of others. The boy who becomes the book of blood is just the first example in many characters whose physicality can and does become something different in the course of a story. One boy becomes a large pig, hungry for human meat. A woman has the power to change her own body and those of others in any way she sees fit. Two towns combine all the bodies of their citizens into two massive, moving, united bodies – to catastrophic results.

There are also several tales that embrace a Lovecraftian type mythology, suggesting ancient monsters and life forms that predate humanity and, in some cases, were even its original cause. The fathers of “Midnight Meat Train” who live under New York City and must be appeased (again, with human meat) bear a similarity in concept to the fathers of “The Skins of the Fathers,” though the latter are portrayed as only defensively violent, preferring acts of creation (specifically, the creation of man) over those of destruction.

He also incorporates different forms of art into his stories in inventive ways, often as metaphors or launching pads for stories about expression. There are the actors who come back from the grave in order to perform the perfect play; movie images that come to life and interact with the world fueled by a rogue cancer–making the iconic images of Marilyn and John Wayne into tools of terror; and, the woman who can change her own and others’ physical forms –an extreme extension of the skills of a sculptor, or a more general metaphor for the artist’s ability to create a new reality out of the one she sees around her. And of course, there’s the boy whose flesh becomes a book.

It’s no coincidence that the introductory story embraces so many of these themes. It’s really a perfect encapsulation of much of what’s to come. The introduction of creative violence, the supernatural, a thin line between life and death and the transformative nature of the physical form – with a tendency for the resulting form to become a symbol of something larger. I liked many of the stories throughout the collection, but it was really this first that stuck with me and left me most in awe of Barker’s talent. He has a special skill for weaving unique tales of the gruesome and macabre that feel profound instead of sensationalist, as much modern horror is wont to be.

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