The Books Of Blood Advent Calendar
KR: Door 18: The Madonna – Matthew R. Davis
“The trick of good farce, she had once been informed by her brother-in-law, a sometime actor, was that it be played with deadly seriousness. There should be no sly winks to the gallery, signaling the farceur’s comic intention; no business that was so outrageous it would undermine the reality of the piece.” – Clive Barker
Clive Barker’s Books of Blood have been more influential on me than pretty much any work of fiction I have ever read. A delicious, unsettling and wondrously diverse collection that offers up tales that horrify, repulse and engage in ways that I never knew that horror could. Raised on my dad’s second-hand copies of King classics like The Shining and IT that set my imagination alight, I was unprepared for the black parade of ghoulish horrors that Barker had crafted with such a masterful precision.
King’s style of horror had been woven into the very fabric of my understanding of what the genre was and gave me a foundation of love for the macabre; it was only when, at the tender age of nineteen, I had the boundaries of my comfortable ideas of horror ripped apart like the flesh of a willing victim of a lustful Cenobite.
Picking up a copy of the first volume of the Books of Blood, I devoured them in a weekend filled with mind-expanding ideas and stomach churningly beautiful violence. The Books are an odyssey into the genre, with influences from writers like King and Lovecraft on display and expanded upon with a dark abandon that lead to tales that span the entire length of horror literature.
As I look back on the short stories that I have written over the last five years, it is hard not to see Barker’s guiding hand in the work, shaping the darker aspects of my writing and daring me to really push my characters down avenues I didn’t even know existed.
While Stephen King will always remain the father to all of my horror leanings, Barker is their cool Uncle in a leather jacket, letting me watch Evil Dead far too young and sneaking me beers at family parties.
The Books of Blood, frankly, are the high point in short horror fiction.
Each tale is utterly unique in both tone and execution; as likely to upset, horrify and engage as to spark a black hearted giggle, Barker has a gift for exploring large and unwieldy ideas in ways that feel fresh and open to all.
Of all of the works contained in that black-hearted collection, Babel’s Children is often viewed as the proverbial red-headed stepchild. After re-appraising the tale for the site, it was a delight to discover that there is a terrific, rich vein of humour running through this quirky and dark story about the nature of order and the power of chaos.
In Babel’s Children, Barker proves that his skill in crafting engaging and well-rounded characters allow him the reader’s trust to explore unusual avenues that don’t necessarily need to horrify to make a lasting impression. The story has gilded veneer of political satire that slowly bleeds through the already blood-stained pages of the anthology, creating a tale that feels uniquely absurd.
And yet despite what bitter experience should have taught her, when the choice lay between the marked route and the unmarked, she would always, without question, take the latter.
Our chosen tale follows Veronica, a protagonist full of the kind of determination and intelligence that define many of Barker’s heroes; and in that vein, whose curiosity leads her down the road less travelled to a place where rational understanding is placed on hold. Holidaying on a scorching Greek island, Veronica finds herself wandering into a remote, heavily guarded compound that seems to defy logic or explanation. Guarded by machine-gun toting bearded nuns, the compound is home to a collection of poorly septuagenarians who have a desperate, bizarre fascination with games.
Held in the compound against her will, Veronica’s curiosity leads her further and further into a web of lunacy, until at last the seemingly impossible nature of the resident’s importance locks her onto a path that will change her understanding of the world forever.
Babel’s Children feels like Barker having fun with the kind of ideas that others would approach with a poe-faced solemnity. Not broad enough to play as an outright comedy, there is none the less a heavy-handed dose of satire that oozes over the story in much the same way as the sublime The Yattering and Jack. It is a farce in the truest sense, played completely straight to highlight the absurdities with an ever-growing smirk.
The story moves along with a surprisingly quick pace in spite of the slow burning nature of the tale, and Barker’s characterisations are again key to holding the plot firmly together. Veronica is determined to find answers to the nature of the conundrum that she finds herself contained in, even when knowing that leaving well enough alone would likely see her freed. That almost perverse drive to find the truth and seek enlightenment has seen the end of several Barker creations over the years and I can’t help but think that if Veronica got her hands on the lament-configuration she would be a skinless, horny mess by the end of act one.
‘I like games.’
‘Do you?’ he said. ’We’ll play then, eh?’
The setting of the compound, described as a lunatic asylum, is all the more delightful when the revelation is made at last that the inhabitants and their games are what keep the world around us turning. That political systems and philosophical beliefs are ultimately as futile and as insightful as the random nature of chaos and chance. Barker has scant regard for the systems of power that keep capitalism, communism and any other ‘isms’ you might like to imagine turning, and his reveal that racing frogs might be just as effective a way of ruling hits the mark well.
‘Better the frogs’ she murmured, bitter thought that it was.
The final act of the story barrels along with an exciting car-chase and gun fight that seems to creep in from another story, before crash landing into the unusual fate that Veronica has doomed herself to. As she is lead into the control room to see rows of monitors filled with the faces of the great and powerful, reduced to the panic-riddled animals humans are at their base level, Veronica’s above epiphany feels inevitable.
That final, arresting image of Veronica slowly accepting her new life as ‘Israel’ hops into view elicits a darkly earned laugh, and as with many stories in this collection, leaves the reader with an uneasy sense of futility.
Babel’s Children is not often cited as being one of the stronger stories in the Books of Blood anthology. And while I can appreciate its slight nature and more outlandishly silly content might make it easy to dismiss, there is at its heart a genuinely funny and thought-provoking tale. And like the truly best satire, it commits to the reality it presents without the need to undercut its story by making concessions to genre.
I would encourage all to revisit that peculiar Greek island for the day, to spend some time with the frogs and to say a prayer for the fate of humanity.
Hugh McStay is a native of Glasgow, Scotland, where his love for all things horror blossomed in the city’s plethora of urban myths and stories. Influenced by the works of Stephen King and Clive Barker, Hugh has been writing horror fiction for the last five years.
Hugh’s stories have featured in various anthologies including Madness Heart Press’ Body Horror collection, Gypsum Tales various anthologies, Blood Moon Rising Magazine, Hinnom Magazine and All Worlds Wayfarer. His most recent work, Strange Fruits, is due to be published in the upcoming anthology Bloody Good Horror from Hellbound Books Publishing.
Working as a writer and interviewer for The London Horror Society, Hugh loves nothing more than digging into a good horror film and shining a light on talented new filmmakers. Having spoken with incredibly gifted directors like Josh Ruben (Scare Me, Werewolves Within) and Rob Savage (Host, Dashcam), Hugh is passionate about helping emerging filmmakers amplify their voice in the horror community.
A doting Dad of two beautiful girls, Hugh is a firm believer that his two children are far more formidable than any monster his imagination could ever conjure.
You can find Hugh on Twitter @angryscotsman81 (where he promises he isn’t all that angry).
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