The Books Of Blood Advent Calendar
Confession Of A (Pornographer’s) Shroud
Confession Of A (Pornographer’s) Shroud
“He stood in the kitchen, where the table was laid for a breakfast the family hadn’t yet eaten, and would never now eat, and he cried. Not a great deal: his supply of tears was strictly limited, but enough to feel the duty done. Then, having finished with his gesture of remorse, he sat down, like any decent man who has been deeply wronged, and planned murder.” – Clive Barker
I first became aware of Clive Barker in 1985 through Stephen King’s famous quote (paraphrasing Jon Landau) “I’ve seen the future of horror…”, most likely in Fangoria and, luckily, my local library had the hardback of volume 1. At the time, I was 16 years old and, already a horror fan, was absolutely ready to be thrown into the late 80s glory days of the genre. A couple of years later, also led there by King, I would discover Dennis Etchison’s era defining “Cutting Edge” anthology and never turn back.
Having devoured – and loved – volume 1 (I now realise the library edition must have been the hardback, though I’d forgotten that until I researched this review and saw the cover images, which I absolutely don’t remember), I picked up all six volumes in the beautiful, slim Sphere paperbacks with the glorious Barker cover art. Some of the stories worked for me, some of them didn’t, but volume 3 had four I instantly fell in love with – “Son Of Celluloid” (which inspired the cover art), the glorious “Rawhead Rex”, “Human Remains” and “Confession Of A (Pornographer’s) Shroud”. The latter really caught me – probably the furthest from my experience (we lived too far from London for me to visit regularly and back in those days, pornography was only seen when one of us could pluck up the courage to reach for the top shelf in the newsagents), it was chilling and human and gruesome.
So when Gavin set up this Books Of Blood thread, I knew that was the story I wanted to review. And since the story first appeared in print 37 years ago (wow, that makes me feel old), I’m assuming I’ve passed the statue of limitations for spoilers.
Ronnie Glass is a rule-abiding, pleasant and unexciting man who loves his wife, his children and his work as an accountant. Succumbing to greed, he accepts a job from Micky Maguire – an underworld boss based in Soho – and, too late, discovers what kind of magazines Maguire is involved with. Set up by Maguire and his underlings, a story breaks in a Sunday tabloid exposing Ronnie as the head of a pornography cartel, which destroys both his reputation and his life. Full of rage, he manages to get some revenge but is captured and murdered before he can finish the job to his satisfaction and wakes up as a ghost in the morgue. Using force of will, he manages to possess the shroud covering his body before finally exacting his full revenge on Maguire.
Told as a black comedy (however violent and gory it may be) with an element of cool detachment, this appealed to teenaged me on a number of levels and still did now, as an avid reader in his early 50’s. Family life is skilfully portrayed with the barest minimum of words on both sides of the fence – career criminal and innocent (Ronnie’s a good Catholic boy, after all) but his drive for revenge (first on the doctor who lusted after Bernadette, Ronnie’s newly estranged wife and then beyond) makes sense and once you buy into the concept of it (I’ll leave it to the reader to discover how Ronnie transfers his spirit to the shroud but, rest assured, it’s a touch of literary genius), it all works perfectly. The violence is absolutely in your face – Ronnie’s torture in the meat locker still makes me cringe – and while you get a sense that Barker is enjoying making you squirm, there are no cheap shots, the pain is real and so is the revulsion.
The locations are well realised and presented me with a snapshot of an era that made me feel a little nostalgic (my first trip to London with school mates was in 1985 and the Soho we walked through that day is just like the one described here and remarkably diffferent to what you’d find there today), an area of adult entertainment that is sleazy and grim and just that little bit enticing. Barker’s writing shines, with some elegant turns of phrase, rich characters, a knowing style (some elements, like Inspector Wall of the Yard, could have stepped living and breathing from a Norman J. Warren or Pete Walker film) and a sense of pace that pulls you along, from one great set piece (the cold store, the mortuary, the sex shop, Maguire’s magnificent home) to another. And that ending too, which is as full-on, grotesque and (yes) darkly comic as you could possibly want it to be.
Maybe, like me, it’s been a long time since you’ve read Clive Barker and if that’s the case, I’d urge you to throw yourself back into his world. On the other hand, if you haven’t yet experienced the wonder of the Books Of Blood, I envy you that first discovery. And strongly suggest you try “Confession Of A (Pornographer’s) Shroud, a short story I would very highly recommend.
Mark West lives in Northamptonshire with his wife Alison and their son Matthew. Since discovering the horror small press in 1998 he has published over eighty short stories, two novels, a novelette, a chapbook, two collections and six novellas (one of which, Drive, was nominated for a British Fantasy Award). He has a horror novella coming soon from NewCon Press and The Book Folks will publish three thriller novels over the next two years. He’s currently working on another thriller novel.
Away from writing, he enjoys reading, walking, watching films and playing Dudeball with his son.
When a bunch of squaddies, on exercise in the Fens in 1943, discover a remote and heavily guarded military hospital, they quickly realise the patients aren’t what they seem…
The Exercise, by Mark West – Buy It Now