The Books Of Blood Advent Calendar
Pig Blood Blues
Pig Blood Blues
“She watched them through the slats of the gate, her eyes glinting like jewels in the murky night, brighter than the night because living, purer than the night because wanting.” – Clive Barker
It’s fair to say ‘Pig Blood Blues’ is generally considered one of Clive Barker’s minor works. Even within the 149 pages of Books of Blood Volume One, it’s competing with the visceral ‘The Midnight Meat Train’ and the visionary ‘In the Hills, the Cities’. But it more than holds its own in my view. It’s certainly a story which has stayed with me since I first read it around 34 years ago.
It contains many of Barker’s preoccupations: sexual taboos, the allure of the monstrous, a distrust of authority and the desire for escape. Indeed, the story’s pervading sense of dread comes largely from the latter, from the fact that the tale is set within the confines of a prison. Prison comes up quite frequently in Barker’s works. The short story ‘In the Flesh’ is set in a prison. In The Damnation Game, the protagonist, Marty Strauss, is a recently released ex-con. An escaped convict sets in motion the events that create ‘The Son of Celluloid’. In The Thief of Always, Holiday House is essentially a prison. And it’s arguable that hedonist Frank Cotton is a prisoner of the Cenobites until a gruesome accident frees him. ‘Pig Blood Blues’ is set in what is perhaps the most perverse of prisons. A prison for children. A borstal or ‘young offenders institute’.
Although Barker has sympathy for the inmates of Tetherdowne (at least for some of them), there is no danger of him producing a heart-warming tale of hard-bitten kids triumphing against the odds. On the contrary, this is a grim tale, drenched in hopelessness. Trust is hard to come by, and ultimately it’s misplaced.
But despite the grimness—the Grimm-ness, even—there’s a good sprinkling of Barker’s trademark wit, humour and wordplay. The protagonist, Redman, is an ex-police officer, and there is liberal and ambiguous use of the word ‘pig’ throughout. In reference to the sow, we are told ‘the tales of her tricks are legion’, a playful nod to the Miracle of the Gadarene Swine, with which Pig Blood Blues shares more than a few details. The way in which Barker describes the sow is both humorous and admiring (she’s the monster of the piece, and Barker loves his monsters):
The sow was beautiful, from her snuffling snout to the delicate corkscrew of her tale, a seductress on trotters.
And there’s plenty of the other stuff for which Barker is renowned. The red stuff. It is called ‘Pig Blood Blues’, after all. Fingers are bitten off, guts are knifed, hearts are cut out, and the story’s protagonist, Redman, will indeed be a ‘red man’ very soon after the tale’s final sentence. Furthermore, flesh is burned, maggots rain down, and pants are shat. All delivered in elegant and unflinching prose.
Speaking of unflinching, Barker deals plainly with sexual taboos here. He doesn’t judge or even provide commentary. In fact, there is a single sentence, without which said taboo (in relation to Redman, at least) would not exist at all:
Was there something in him that wanted Thomas Lacey naked beside him?
Although we don’t know Lacey’s age, he is generally referred to as ‘the boy’. Without that sentence, Redman could be seen as a good, if flawed, man who has taken a shine to one of his more vulnerable charges. With the addition of that sentence, Barker introduces a philosophical and moral complication that is well beyond the capacity of a brief, fanboy book review to even begin to tackle. When Redman meets his demise, it could be seen as part of the EC Comics tradition of the transgressor getting his comeuppance, and some readers may take comfort in that. It seems to me, Redman is a victim of his urges, both good (he wants to protect Lacey) and extremely questionable (he wants Lacey). But the adults are only ‘in charge’ at Tetherdowne on paper; it is the youngsters (and the sow) who are really in control. This is their domain, and it has its own rules and morality. Not unlike the majority of Barker’s fiction.
Michael Sellars was forced to begin writing stories as a child when Liverpool’s libraries struggled to satisfy his appetite for horror, fantasy and science fiction.
He has contributed stories to All Hallows, Murky Depths, Nocturne, Fusing Horizons, Morpheus Tales, the Best Tales of the Apocalypse anthology from Permuted Press and the From the Trenches anthology from Carnifex Press.
He is currently working on a new horror novel, Choking Hazards.
He is represented by the Liverpool Literary Agency (www.liverpool-literary.agency).
You can find out more about Michael by visiting www.michaelsellars.info
You can follow Michael on Twitter @HorrorPaperback