The Books Of Blood Advent Calendar
“It could play any game it liked, any game at all. But then, maybe the dead didn’t like games. Games are about gambles, and the dead had already lost. Maybe the dead act only with the arid certainty of mathematicians.” – Clive Barker
The Deep Symbolism of Clive Barker’s Scape-goats
Of Clive Barker’s many, many classic short tales, “Scape-goats” likely does not feature in any ranking list. When we think of the Books of Blood, or Clive Barker’s shorter fiction, we tend to gravitate towards such masterpieces as “The Forbidden” (adapted into the simply incredible 1992 film, Candyman), “The Hellbound Heart” (which hopefully needs no introduction by this point), “Midnight Meat-Train”, “Dread”, “The Book of Blood”, “In The Hills, The Cities”, “The New Murders in the Rue Morgue”, and other tales grown legendary in status. Precious little has been written about “Scape-goats”. There is one brief allusion to it in the collection’s original Introduction by Ramsey Campbell, which describes, “[Barker’s] island tale of terror, actually uses that staple of the dubbed horror film and videocassette, the underwater zombie…” This in itself is intriguing, as whilst the tale does feature underwater zombies at the end, the majority of the narrative horror is derived from a far more inchoate sense of dread and anticipation; the supernatural occurrences which make up the first seventy percent of the story seem to suggest far more is going on than simply old school straight-to-VHS style zombie action.
Other than this brief allusion, and one YouTube video which for some reason was broken and therefore unwatchable, I could find virtually nothing taking a closer look at “Scape-goats”. But, as is always the case with Barker even at his worst, once we dig beneath the surface layer of rubble, once we overturn a few stones, we begin to see there is a lot going on underneath.
For one thing, there are four key stages of symbolism throughout this story. The first of these is stone, funnily enough. The island that our four adventurers—Jonathan, Ray, Angela, and our narrator Frankie—find themselves marooned on is seemingly entirely made up of rocks, pebbles, and boulders. We are treated to many lavish descriptions of them, “It was difficult making our way up the beach. The stones were not wet with sea-water, but covered in a slick film of grey-green algae, like sweat on a skull.”
In the Bible, and in particular the Jewish Old Testament and the Mystical Qabalah, stone has an important symbolism. I have alluded in my review of Everville that Barker clearly has a deep understanding of the Qabalah and its systems, and it’s clear he draws on one of its key principles here. To give an all-too-brief summary, in Qabalah, there are four levels of reality, or “Four Worlds”. These correlate to the four elements, but also to our makeup as human beings. There is Earth, which correlates to material matter – our bodies. There is Water, which correlates to our feelings. There is Air, which correlates to thinking (our intellectual mode of discernment). And lastly Fire, which correlates to imagination, creativity, and the divine.
Now, if you are thinking, There’s no way Barker intended all of this. Consider this: there are four people shipwrecked on the island. No coincidence. And, if we look deeper, we will see each character represents one of the Four Worlds. Angela is Earth, the body, represented by her physical voluptuousness and sexuality. Jonathan is water, emotional and temperamental. Ray is the logician, poring over maps, reading books, trying to solve the problem intellectually. Frankie is the divine fire, as we shall see. Note that Frankie is our narrator, because it is the divine part of ourselves that is watching everything (including our thoughts and feelings, which we often mistake as being “us” but which, in fact, are external to us in some weird way). In words of St. Francis of Assisi, “What you are looking for is what is looking.”
So, returning to the symbolism more broadly, stone represents Earth and the level of material and bodily reality. Note here how Barker weaves in bodily needs in the early parts of the story: we are given detailed descriptions of the crew eating breakfast, of multiple sexual encounters (first between Ray and Angela, and then between Jonathan and Frankie). We are pointedly told that, though going through the physical motions, Frankie, our narrator, “felt nothing” while Jonathan was fucking her. At one point, Frankie remarks “Breathe, sex, eat, shit.” These are the basic bodily functions, monotonously listed as mere process.
But we do not stay in the realm of stone. We move, next, to Water, which in Barker’s tale is represented by the vast and “limitless” sea surrounding their tiny island. It’s at this point that emotions in the crew rise. While exploring out of boredom, waiting for the tide to rise (as their anxieties and emotions rise too) they discover “three grey sheep, waiting to die.”
The title of this tale has two meanings (at very least!!). Simplistically, a scapegoat is someone we attribute blame to, and there is plenty of that here; firstly, with everyone blaming Jonathan for beaching them on the island; secondly, with Jonathan then blaming the sheep for his erectile dysfunction (which we will explore more later). However, there is another reading. Reverting again to the Bible, the word “scapegoat” was used to describe “a goat sent into the wilderness after the Jewish chief priest had symbolically laid the sins of the people upon it.” Goats and lambs are often synonymous in ancient symbology (similarly scorpions and eagles are synonymous—to explain why would take too long, but many of these curious cross-overs exist). This scapegoat ritual, along with the sacrifice of the lamb, was theologically “overturned” and replaced in Christian practice by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The reason that Christians do not abide by the regular sacrifice of animals like their Jewish counterparts is because Christ’s sacrifice pays the debt, as it were. Now we have moved from the Old Testament to the New. We know that the Lord, God, is represented as the Lamb. He is the sacrifice. Note there are three sheep here, or three lambs. Barker could have picked any number, but he chose three, and traditionally God is divided into three, a Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Ghost.
After this strange and unsettling discovery, Jonathan tries to have sex with Frankie again, but he is gin-sodden, and therefore cannot get erect. His failure to perform leads him into a blind, drunken rage (the emotions reach their apex). He dashes the brains of one of the sheep with a stone. One of the Trinity is slain. We know this action will have dire consequences, especially once we learn from Ray what the true nature of the island is, a massive graveyard for soldiers that died in World War I and II: “What deaths; and worse, what journeys after death, in squads of fellow corpses, along the Gulf Stream to this bleak landfall.” This harrowing yet poetic description clues us in to deeper potential readings of this story as perhaps a criticism of the everyday people (in this case holidaying in a yacht), who fail to respect the many sacrifices of the dead. But I’m getting ahead.
From Water, we move to Air. The stones that were previously static begin to float, some dancing into the water, others levitating. In a gruesome scene, Johnathan is decapitated by a levitating boulder. The top of Jonathan’s brain is removed, aka, the part that deals with intellectual thought. At this moment, the whole island begins to awaken in a scene of pure, pulse-pounding dread. Angela is killed and Ray goes missing. Their ship, which is not-so-subtly called Emmanuelle, is destroyed. Frankie manages to escape by the lucky arrival of the “sheep-feeder”, tasked with bringing food for the sheep.
In the final part of the tale, we move to Fire but it is not as overtly described as with the other symbols. It is firstly represented by the wooden boat, for wood is often burned to create fire. It is secondly represented by the passion that finds Frankie at the end, though sadly it is, “Too late for love; the sunlight was already a memory.” This tragic realisation of passion found too late not only gives this tale a haunting bitter-sweetness, but it also connects to the symbolic journey we have been on. The sun, of course, is a symbol of fire, but here it is lost in darkness beneath the waves. The divine can only be briefly glimpsed. We are not meant to experience it for long. And, in Frankie’s case, we only glimpse it after we’re dead. This is both horrifying and wonderful in equal measure, which is probably an accurate reflection of Barker’s complex views on the afterlife, God, and spirituality—or at least his views at the time.
Returning to the story, Frankie and the sheep-feeder believe they have escaped destruction, until they begin to hear the sound of “rotten cuticles” scratching the underside of their flimsy craft. The boat is capsized, and both plunge into the water. The sheep-feeder is unable to swim, so plummets into the abyss. Frankie briefly tries to save herself, but is seized from below. She sees Ray, mutilated beyond belief, and realises she is going to join him in drowning. The dead come up from the deep, those drowned soldiers washed up upon the island, and claim her for one of their own. It is disturbing and somehow beautiful. Eventually, Frankie and Ray join the dead lying beneath the stones on the island.
The final image is one of Barker’s most haunting: Frankie and Ray lying together beneath the island’s surface, “soothed by the rhythm of tiny waves and the absurd incomprehension of sheep.” If you want further evidence that Frankie represents the divine and indestructible part of our Selfhood, then look only to how unlike the other characters, she still has the power to observe and narrate at the end of the story, even beyond death. The final line also reinforces my earlier point about there perhaps being an implicit criticism of us, the uncomprehending sheep who go about our lives, not knowing that we stand upon thousands of embittered dead who have suffered more than we can ever know. But there is also a strange hope in that the dead are “soothed” by our lack of knowledge. The fact we do not have to endure the horrors they have endured is a comfort to them.
Throughout this story, Barker uses very religious and Biblical diction and phraseology: the name of the boat; the fact we are told that Frankie is frightened they will be “stoned to death, like heretics”. In addition, he references very few modern appliances, foodstuffs, or clothes. Even the boat is only vaguely described as if in the hope the reader will not see it for a modern yacht. Yet, Barker gives us the very specific historical reference of World War I and II. To me, this suggests it is the heart of the tale. The dead of those cataclysmic wars are comforted by our ignorance, not enraged by it. They died so that we might live. And they will take vengeance on any who destroy their sheep needlessly. Barker draws parallels, therefore, between the dead soldiers of WWI and WWII with Christ, marrying the religious framework with the historical. Rather than the Lamb dying to wash away our sins, it is the Lamb that must live to bring peace to the soldiers who have died. And should the Lamb be slaughtered, the dead will rise to punish the living.
This image resembles the prophecy of the Book of Revelation that the dead shall rise at Judgement Day. Interestingly, Revelations was written by the prophet, John The Evangelist, on the isle of Patmos (and likewise it is Jonathan in this tale who kills the lamb upon the island and thereby rouses the anger of the dead). There is a further weird parallel here, as Jonathan is decapitated, just like the other John in the Bible: John The Baptist, who preceded and paved the way for Christ.
In Barker’s work, myth, theology, history, and sexuality are all continually intertwined, and what arises from this strange alchemical formula is often wondrous and dread-inducing in equal measure. “Scape-goats” may not be one of Barker’s most famous stories, but as you can tell, it certainly left its mark on me. Its atmosphere alone is a unique experience and worthy of study. Perhaps, like the dead who lie beneath the nameless island, “Scape-goats” is merely biding its time, awaiting the day it will be dug up and shown to the sun.
Joseph Sale is a prolific novelist and occult author of strange and fantastical horrors. His first novel, The Darkest Touch, was published by Dark Hall Press in 2014. He currently writes and is published with The Writing Collective. He has authored more than ten novels, including his Black Gate trilogy and Dark Hilarity. He grew up in the Lovecraftian seaside town of Bournemouth.
He edits non-fiction and fiction, helping fledgling authors to realise their potential. He has edited some of the best new voices in speculative fiction including Ross Jeffery, Emily Harrison, Christa Wojciechowski, and more. His short fiction has appeared in Tales from the Shadow Booth, edited by Dan Coxon, as well as in Idle Ink, Silver Blade, Fiction Vortex, Nonbinary Review, Edgar Allan Poet and Storgy Magazine. His stories have also appeared in anthologies such as Lost Voices (The Writing Collective), Technological Horror (Dark Hall Press), Burnt Fur (Blood Bound Books) and Exit Earth (Storgy). In 2017 he was nominated for The Guardian’s ‘Not The Booker’ prize.
You can chat with him on Twitter @josephwordsmith, or, if you want to go deeper down the rabbit hole, you can sign up to his Patreon for occult insight into the magic behind writing www.patreon.com/themindflayer