The Books Of Blood Advent Calendar
In The Hills, The Cities
In The Hills, The Cities
“I don’t want to see another church; the smell of the places makes me sick. Stale incense, old sweat, and lies…” – Clive Barker
In 1984, one of the greatest voices in horror emerged, that of Clive Barker. Master of the short story, innovator of the macabre, Barker brings us a story that is quite simply: fantastical, representational, horrific body-horror at its finest. It is a combination of Barker’s horror-rich mind and strong sense of courage that brought for this, the concluding short story in Clive Barker’s Books of Blood: Volume I. Many told Barker that it would be outrageous to publish a short story that involves two gay characters, particularly two gay men engaging in sex in all its glorious detail in the opening scene, but Barker stayed true to himself, true to his writing. I find this to be particularly impressive because it was not until 12 years later that Barker came out as gay.
As a young gay man growing up, I frequently found myself frustrated at the lack of gay men in horror novels, because I wanted to see someone like myself in the story, making moves and fighting the horror. Sure, Stephen King’s IT features two gay men, but as nothing more than the victims of a hate crime. It was Barker who made LGBT characters a reality for many of us, and it all began with a brief, lustful act of love and flesh in the hills, the cities.
In this story, we follow Mick and Judd as they make their way through the countryside of Yugoslavia on their honeymoon. Both men come across piles of bodies, mangled, broken beyond repair. The pair run into a lone man wandering nearby who soon explains to them that the city of Podujevo had fallen and that the rival city, Popolac was still roaming the local countryside.
What follows is a story of body horror only the mind of Clive Barker could conceive of. Rival cities Popolac and Podujevo use their respective residents to design, create, and form giant bodies to battle each other. Humans, such complex organisms, soon become nothing more than a single cell in a body designed for but one purpose: to destroy the other town.
The human body is a fragile thing, flesh and mind both, and the gigantic “super-bodies” created here are no different. The town of Podujevo realizes this as their architectural integrity fails and they begin to tumble and crash down to earth, to mingle in a mixture of mistake and viscera.
To preserve the exact twists and turns of the story, I’ll shortly say that Mick and Judd do run into the city of Popolac, and it pushes the boundaries of Mick and Judd’s already strained minds that are struggling with conceptualizing the truth of the story told to them by the lone man, the survivor of Podujevo. Unfortunately, we do not get to see the consequences of Judd’s observation of Popolac, as tragedy befalls him swiftly. We are able to receive a glimpse at Mick’s mental collapse though. It appears that Mick is pushed simply too far mentally by the introduction of what seems fairytale-like into real life, and Mick decides to join the city of Popolac, joining the roaming city as a cell.
What works well here is the slow burn with which one experiences this story. While it may seem concise in theory, Barker paces the story rather slowly, but not in a way that leaves readers wanting to speed up or put the story down. No. What Barker does is provide us with descriptive prose that perfectly encapsulates the beauty of the fear and destructive forces which horror stories are meant to provide. Barker takes us back and forth between the perspectives of our two main characters, Mick and Judd, and the perspectives of those in the city-bodies.
Barker manages to take us through unspeakable tragedy and demise in a manner that makes this hard to read, and even harder to stop reading. This story presents us monstrosities that make us cringe and squirm, push our minds into uncomfortable spaces, and force us to confront the type of destruction humanity is capable of.
I think what I especially like, and hope others will find interesting as well, is that we are faced with the exact same mental challenges at Mick and Judd. It is hard for us to conceptualize such things as cities joining together to form war-purposed giants. It is hard for us to conceptualize so much death and horror. What is especially interesting is that Barker shows us the amazing abilities of humankind in a fictional setting: it would be beyond amazing to see human beings form a city-body, and if were possible, I am sure we could find amazing feats to accomplish that are beneficial to mankind. But Barker shows us exactly what human beings are when we push things too far: we are destructive. We take things we could use to benefit all, and we cause death and destruction, pain and misery.
Barker sees human beings for what we all have the capability to be and illustrates this in beautiful color and fullness in this story: inventive, masterful, amazing; destructive, horrific, monstrous.
J.C. Robinson is 25 and lives in Chicago, IL with his soon to be husband, T.W. Rightman. He is an avid reader and collector of horror and fantasy novels who owns all of Clive Barker’s written works. His favorite works of Barker are The Hellbound Heart and Coldheart Canyon. He is the author of the novel The Diner and the short story collection Tales of the Unkind. Several of his short stories can be found in other anthologies and magazines. J.C. is currently writing his next novel and preparing to take the Bar Exam. He loves cosmic brownies, cats, and Frasier.
Links to J.C. Robinson’s Works: