The Books Of Blood Advent Calendar
KR: Door 15: The Body Politic – Ben Walker
“Virginia tried to shut the words out. Usually, to hear her husband speak to the poems of Revelations was a joy to her, but not tonight. Tonight the words seemed ripe to the point of corruption, and she sensed – perhaps for the first time – that he didn’t really understand what he was saying; that the spirit of the words passed him by while he recited them.” – Clive Barker
It’s been some time since I read Clive Barker. However, as I was growing up his work was always nestled with the likes of King, Herbert, and Campbell. One of the things I remember most is that through The Books of Blood, his short stories were the very first to make me want to learn about the medium; the way so much can be told in so few pages. So, I guess deconstructing Clive Barker began many, many years ago. As such this feels, in so many ways, like a nostalgia trip – a good and comforting place to be.
Oh, I’d better say it before we go any further, this revisit of Revelations contains spoilers.
Revelations is a lengthy story set in a motel on the Armadillo-Pampa highway, where John Gyer, an evangelist preacher, and his wife Virginia are holed up, waiting out a fierce storm. Their aide – Earl – tends to their needs, including (and unbeknownst to John) the supply of sedatives for Virginia to help her with a perceived fragile mental state, a mental state that is ascribed to the stress of a life on the road with her piously theological and egotistical husband. When Virginia begins to sense the presence of two entities, she echoes her husband’s rhetoric about her own mental health, demanding that Earl find her more medication to temper the visions. Earl, working off a moral debt to John as penance for his own marital infidelity, provides a vehicle for religious ambiguity, where he is, in essence, being emotionally extorted by Gyer. The entities – wife and husband Sadie and Buck Durning – are also on an ill-fated journey of redemption, returning to the very motel room where Sadie shot dead philandering Buck 30 years earlier, a crime for which she was executed. Against the backdrop of a seemingly apocalyptic tempest, we establish an overview of the fractured lives of the main characters through the observations of these troubled spirits. Their irrepressible presence in the story becomes a catalyst for events that ultimately ends with Virginia accidentally shooting John dead with the very gun used in the original murder. On the ethereal advice of Sadie, the tale ends with Virginia telling the Sheriff that “The Devil made me do it’, thus underlining the End of Days portent inherent in the story title.
As with most Barker stories, the themes of Revelations are multifarious, laced with off-kilter sensuality, and not always ostensible. Yes, Barker covers familiar bases, the hypocrisy of religion – evangelism in particular – and the damage that devout piety can do to relationships both within and without of the family. But one issue that did become apparent when revisiting the tale was the concept of mental illness and societal views of it. Intentional or not, Barker has created a story that identifies aspects of mental illness and how, as a society, it is conceived and perceived, giving this tale, to me at least, an import that is both fresh and insightful for its time. And in doing so, makes it all the more relevant today.
Despite seemingly endless celebrity awareness campaigns, societal views of mental illness remain in flux. And this is replicated in Revelations through the worldview of the characters. For John, his wife’s perceived fragility is ascribed to her inability to exist under the constant scrutiny of God and the sacrifices the family have made to do God’s work. Virginia will not admit, to herself or John, that she can sense the presence of Sadie and Buck, buying into her husband’s rhetoric that she is merely weary and in doubt of her own faith. As things become more apparent, given that Buck’s intentions towards Virginia take on a more sinister, sadistic tone, the realities of events become impossible to ignore, and we enter a fragile societal paradox of divine insight and madness. By this I mean the mass acceptance of religion as a construct, but a rejection of its corporeal presence in day-to-day life; pray to any god, but never say that you can hear them answer, or that they operate through you, unless you’re Ordained and with a paying audience, of course.
There is also the question of using madness as a criminal defence at trial. Sadie’s execution for the murder of Buck is a statement in that she chooses not to use his abuse to mitigate her actions. Instead, and despite the consequences for her, Sadie uses her new-found liberty to formulate the argument that it is the actions of her husband that is the crime, not her ending of it. But she sees the value of an insanity plea when Virginia accidently shoots John dead, a plea that would potentially spare the woman from a perceivably unjust fate. Here we have another current schism of society and madness, and that is when a culture determines the mentally ill, strength and weakness occupy the same space, and can be interchangeable at any point, given the circumstances, and those circumstances are often defined by the moralities of the time.
With Revelations, Barker touches a nerve with these complex incongruities and in doing so makes this story more than an allegory for theological pretence and a down-the-line tale of fire, brimstone, and redemption. But, then again, this shouldn’t be a surprise. We are talking about Clive Barker here!
Dave Jeffery is the author of 16 novels, two collections, and numerous short stories. His Necropolis Rising series and yeti adventure Frostbite have both featured on the Amazon #1 bestseller list. His YA work features critically acclaimed Beatrice Beecham supernatural mystery series. Screenwriting credits include award winning short films Ascension and Derelict. Finding Jericho (Demain Publishing) has featured on both the BBC Health and Independent Schools Entrance Examination Board’s ‘Recommended Reading’ lists and is an amalgamation of his 35 years of NHS mental health nursing experience of working with service users who have suffered stigma and social exclusion due to mental illness. Finding Jericho is currently being optioned as a TV miniseries.
Jeffery is a member of the Society of Authors, British Fantasy Society (also as a regular book reviewer), and actively involved in the Horror Writers Association where he is a mentor on the HWA Mentorship Scheme.
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