The Books Of Blood Advent Calendar
George Daniel Lea
“Why is it all so painful?” it asked, after a pause. “Why is it loss that makes me human?” – Clive Barker
To be so consistently surprised by a work one is so familiar with is peculiar, but this is my most abiding experience of Clive Barker’s Books of Blood. To think that these collections were published and gained some degree of notoriety in the 1980s baffles the mind, given the pervasive state of conservatism not only within publishing but general culture of the era. Yet, somehow, Clive Barker managed to publish collections of short stories that lampooned, subverted and gloriously parody pervasive horror tropes and traditions, that incorporate subjects and implications that would still have conservative culture frothing at the mouth in apoplectic revulsion (if only they were brave enough to even approach them).
As manifestos of future work, The Books of Blood establish Barker as a writer intent on following in no-one’s footsteps, riding no-one’s coattails; who has an enormous amount to say regarding poltics, culture, metaphysics and the human condition. Unlike so many contemporary works of the era, The Books of Blood have no intention of reinforcing convention or comforting their readers with familiar tropes or templates. Rather, Barker sets out to deliberately comment upon and subvert everything from genre to culture, from 1980s politics to horror itself. And, in that, there are few that have ever equalled him.
New readers of Barker and The Books of Blood often find themselves astounded by what they experience, to the point of being alienated: those who come to these works expecting just another collection of short stories to leaf through casually then put down will find the experence traumatic: Barker as a writer has absolutely no intention of allowing such casuistry; the experience is simultaneously sensual and surgical (ironically echoing themes that Barker would later explore in the likes of The Hellbound Heart and its film adaptation, Hellraiser); an often violent flight into lurid, erotic, grotesque fantasy that leaves the reader trembling and traumatised in ways that require sincere contemplation to understand.
From the first instance, Barker establishes that he isn’t particularly interested in horror that derives from threats to the physical self (though there’s certainly plenty of that here). Rather, his concerns are more abstract; for the soul and psyche of humanity, both in individual terms and the species’ collective state. As a young, gay man writing in the 1980s, as someone who operated well beneath the breadline of pervasive poverty, Barker is acutely, viscerally aware of the concerns that bedevil his culture (1980s, Thatcherite UK, in all of its neoliberal corruption and authoritarianism), producing a species of horror that only an underclass gay man of the era could:
These are not merely stories that were produced to meet a deadline or to maintain one’s status in some literary culture; they are sincere expressions of existential and metaphysical terrors, parable-like commentaries on a society imploding under its own foetidness (that Barker utilises biological and anatomical imagery often in descriptions of cities, societies etc is no mistake; to him, societies are living, dynamic things that shift and change and suffer under their own strains of neurosis and incipient insanity in the same manner as the entities that infest and inform them). He writes from the perspective of a maggot in the belly of a sick and rotting beast, that finds strange and sincere joy in certain aspects of the human animal, but cannot abide the filth and corruption of the great, existential engines it has made from itself.
Even here, where Barker is notably more political and directly confrontational regarding aspects of culture, the metaphysics that would become part and parcel of his later work is plain: despite his fascination with its rankness, Barker regards politics as a moribund arena; a circus of the dead and diseased that don’t have the common decency or comprehension of their conditions to lay down and be silent.
Thus, whilst most of the stories collected herein have profound and powerful political connotations (Babel’s Children is Barker’s nihilistic condemnation of post-modern politics, in which he concludes that the litany of atrocities humanity writes on itself on a day to day basis may as well be arbitrary; the results of random dice rolls or children’s games), the vast majority swell beyond those parameters into less defined arenas, places where the subconscious swells and tends to eclipse any assumption or delusion of self.
Take, for example, Human Remains; one of Barker’s few works that -remarkably, given the era of publication- is told exclusively from the perspective of a gay man and, as later revelations about Barker’s life at the time have revealed, is amongst his most trenchantly autobiographical.
Given that context, the story has the quality of a self-autopsy; Barker attempting to express and perhaps work through certain aspects of his own condition at the time of writing. Hired by a closeted archaeologist, a young, gay prostitute by the name of Gavin finds something peculiar lying in the man’s bathtub: what he first takes to be a human body is, in fact, an ancient statue, deriving from a recent excavation. Making some measure of obscure but intimate contact with the artefact, he finds himself haunted in the days that follow by a strange doppleganger; an entity that seems to live his life for him, but increasingly in a manner more completely and intensely than he ever could.
Meanwhile, he finds his own condition changing: he needs less and less in the way of food or sleep, feels less and less connected to the world he has never had any particular love for. In a violent encounter involving homophobic street thugs, he is “saved” by the doppleganger, which does not reveal its nature to him, but communicates its condition in poetic and even seductive tones, refering to itself almost as an angel come to save him from the filth of his humanity.
It’s here that we see the entity’s truly horrifying capacity for violence, though, rarely in Barker’s fiction, this is a dispassionate display: a matter of function rather than art or sadistic desire. The entity merely dispatches the attacking thugs with terminal, traumatic violence, ensuring that they will not be alive to pose future threat.
The relationship between Gavin and the doppleganger thus begin to blur; they spend time together in strange, incestuous conditions, meanwhile Gavin loses more and more of his humanity, caring less and less for himself, until one day, the doppleganger disapppears from his side, and he goes in search of it, seeking some strange salvation that a part of him knows will never come.
He finds it at his Father’s graveside, shedding tears and mourning in a way he never could nor will again. The entity comments that it is a better example of humanity in its masks and theatre than Gavin ever was or could be, a fact to which he readily concedes (against which he has no sincere argument; amoral, almost emotionless from the very beginning; a creature dispassionately apart from the world he was born to, that happily condemns him for who he is and what he might love, and for which his most abiding emotion is a weary disgust). Despite being physically beautiful, he is emotionally vacuous; as hollow and unfeeling as the statue once was, and happier in his increasingly inhuman condition than he ever was before.
He thus allows the statue to wander away wearing his face, affecting his life, and sets off on his own strange pilgrimage to find some other, less proscribed sense of his own condition.
Even from that potted summary, it’s clear that Barker is dealing with themes and concepts that few of his contemporaries even approached. Here, the “monster” and the protagonist are painted as not only synonymous, but interchangeable: even at its most violent, the doppleganger maintains a strange and etheral innocence, whereas Gavin is a narcissistic and disconnected creature whose isolated condition derives as much from his own inclinations and rejection of wider humanity as it does any exile deriving from his homosexuality. The temptation, of course, would have been to paint Gavin as a victim, especially given his impecunious status, his role as a male prostitue. However, Gavin is very often the one in control of his dalliances, and explicitly seeks them out not exclusively for money, but because the encounters feed his narcissism. As the doppleganger itself points out, he has an abiding need, a vampiric hunger, even, to be called “beauty,” to be “. . .lifted naked through Heaven’s window.”
The statue, being a reflection of him in all ways -emotionally as well as physically- understands him in his humanity, his weakness and frailty, in a way he can’t even understand himself: it takes something inhuman, whose very nature relies on a species of parasitic hyper-empathy, to show Gavin who he is, what he is, and that he never truly wanted it in the first place.
What starts with sex and mystery becomes a trenchant and despairing autopsy of the desperate, futile human need for some semblance of identity, our cleaving to our wounds and damage as though they define us and should be revered as sacraments rather than assessed and healed. Gavin is neither a monster nor a hero; nether a villain nor a victim. At junctures, he betrays himself as all and abandons all rights to any. He is a rarely complex, ambiguous and despairing creature, sick with its own humanity and sick of it. In extremis, Gavin reveals himself as one of the many lost children of his generation; a creature that has been taught to commodify their beauty, to make objects of themselves and define by that status. The fact that the angelic doppleganger that reveals this diseased condition itself starts out as a literal artefact and object is no mistake: it is a reflection of Gavin’s truest essence, the unspoken identity he refuses to admit even to himself. He is an object of aesthetic gratification, nothing more. In that, he is a more-than-biting commentary on the commodifcation of beauty and, indeed, humanity that occurs within Capitalistic structures, as well as the materialist, Thatcherite culture of the 1980s: under those terms, humanity itself is something to be commodified, commercialised, packaged and sold. It’s no mistake that Barker makes Gavin a male prosititute; one whose role is to sell themselves, or some idea of themselves, to potential clients. Gavin’s persona is more constructed and contrived than that of any part played by an actor; an ideal of self that he sells, but has come to identify with beyond anything else, making the realities of his lived and emotional conditions frictional, even corrosive.
The eponymous Human Remains are not bones or corpses, but dregs of the human condition; the attachments, associations and emotions that make us what we are, that Gavin has spent a small lifetime selling, eroding and suppressing.
By the end of the story, it is little wonder that he is empty of them; that everything that once made him human now belongs to the statue. Even this is ambiguous; the doppleganger doesn’t celebrate its human condition, but rather mourns it, commenting on how painful, contradictory and confusing it is, whilst Gavin, now purged of it, wanders away in a somewhat more sanguine, contented state.
As with all the stories in The Books of Blood, there is so much at work here, there is potential material for entire theses: the autobiographical qualities notwithstanding (Gavin’s condition is barely a hair-shy of Barker’s own at the time of writing, prostitiution and all), there are commentaries here on society, culture, politics and humanity; on identity and existentialism. What is self, when we get right down to it? What qualities and factors inform our assumptions of self, and, Barker dares ask, what if a simulation of them becomes more real, legitimate and absolute than the phenomena itself? There are echoes here of post-modern philosophy; of Baudrillard and Foucalt, whom Barker would have no doubt encountered whilst at university. Simulacra and Simulacrum is a clear influence, as is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, as are myriad science fiction writers, Phillip K. Dick not least amongst them.
Like Shelley, like Dick, Barker is preoccupied with identity; with assumptions of who and what we are, how that phenomena relies on an interplay of innate factors and external influence (be it cultural, environmental etc). Furthermore, Barker takes the transgressive step of undermining the very concept; of proclaiming, in an almost nihilistic fashion, that our obsession with cultivating and maintaining identity -especially given its proscriptive nature in present-day cultures- is actively damaging; a painful and neurotic distraction from a truth that the story refuses to even attempt to define, but which echoes in an abyssal fashion at its periphery; the chaotic, fluctuating void where templates or proscriptions of identity once sat.
No entity or character ends the story on a complete or final note. Rather, Barker uses the expanse left by its surgical self-dissections to suggest wider mythology; stories progressing from stories, inspired by existential despair and the mystery left in the absence of proscribed or contrived notions of “self.”
Beyond that, the story stands alongside the others within The Books of Blood as Barker’s less-than-flattering commentary on horror and genre fiction themselves: by its nature, Human Remains attacks the templates and traditions that contemporaries cleave to like holy tenets, establishing that the proscribed gospels are empty, hollow things, devoid of sincere humanity and generally proscriptive to the point of imposition. Here, Barker dares to establish that there are other patterns, other arenas the writer and imaginer might play in, no matter how frightening or corrosive they might find the alien territory.
Even now, in an era when, thanks to the liberation of production and promulgation provided by the internet, more voices than ever are available within every genre of fiction, The Books of Blood remain shocking and inspiring in their counter-culture critiques. Even now, Barker’s deliberate dissolution of certain synthetic divisions and assumptions -e.g. between the punk and the literary, the cult and academic- remains an act of revolutionary rebellion, the like of which becomes more necessary in every aspect of our societies with every passing day.
George Daniel Lea
George Lea is an unfixed oddity that has a tendency to float around the UK Midlands (his precise location and plain of operation is somewhat difficult to determine beyond that, though certain institutions are working on various ways of defining his movements).
Following the publication of his first short story collection, Strange Playgrounds, is currently working in collusion with the entity known as “Nick Hardy” on the project Born in Blood, which includes two short story collections (published by Perpetualpublishing.com) and numerous examples of visual media.
You can follow George on Twitter @EnigmaticElegy
You can find out more about George via his official website www.strangeplaygrounds.com
Born In Blood – Volume Two
The second volume of George Daniel Lea’s Born in Blood, a collection of beautiful horror stories guaranteed to burn a hole in your heart.
SOMEWHERE BETWEEN HIGH HEAVEN AND LOW HELL
Born in blood . . . the first breath and all that follow, tainted by original trauma, echoing throughout every thought, every heartbeat; blossoming into more profound pain, until breath and thought both cease . . .
What we grow accustomed to . . . what we can endure:
The days bleed into one another, as we do; hurt defining every moment.
No more. Now, all instants are one; pulsing brilliant, ecstasy and agony, rendered down; experienced in a heartbeat.
Every shame. Every sorrow. Humanity, history. This is what we are; the God we gave birth to.
Better? Yes. Yes. Now, we all suffer the same; no more division; no privilege or powerlessness. We are the same; sexless, skinless, ex sanguine.
And we celebrate, content in our disgrace.