The Books Of Blood Advent Calendar
Sex, Death And Starshine
KR: Door 4: Pig Blood Blues – Michael Sellars
Sex, Death And Starshine
“A director is the loneliest creature on God’s earth. He knows what’s good and bad in a show, or he should if he’s worth his salt, and he has to carry that information around with him and keep smiling.” – Clive Barker
Ghosts! Zombies! Body horror! Plus, some unintentional necrophilia. “Sex, Death and Starshine” reminds us the show must go on, even if the audience is undead.
The fifth story in Clive Barker’s BOOKS OF BLOOD, VOLUME 1, “Sex, Death and Starshine” is often much maligned as a weak link in his impressive horror repertoire. Certainly, its tone differs greatly from the blood-spattered “Midnight Meat Train” or the strange, mental health-themed black comedy “The Yattering and Jack.” It moves at an arguably slower pace and includes less gore than others in the collection, but none of that weakens its impact.
While its supernatural elements allow it space in the horror genre, its focus is more on emotions, specifically: passion and desire. It asks us to consider what aspects of life are truly important to us? So important that their discovery and ultimate realisation might even transcend the falling curtain of mortality. “Sex, Death and Starshine” is an exploration of love, art, and the roles that we adopt and play throughout our lives. With a sprinkling of Shakespeare, messy sex and reanimated corpses.
While I am assuming at this point that you have read the story, here’s the plot synopsis as a reminder, or if you have not.
Terry Calloway is directing Shakespeare’s romantic comedy, Twelfth Night, in a dilapidated theatre called the Elysium. Calloway is embroiled in a torrid affair with his leading lady, Diane Duvall, an ex-soap opera actress who he hopes will bring more fame (and punters) to the production. However, while he appreciates her sexual prowess, her skills on stage are sadly lacking.
Enter, the mysterious, theatrical and oddly masked Mr. Lichfield. In a nice bit of foreshadowing, Lichfield informs Calloway that, “the theatre is about to die,” and this is to be its last production before it closes for good. Calloway assumes this means the theatre’s owner, Hammersmith, has sold off the land. Lichfield is also vocal in his dissatisfaction at Diane’s casting as Viola, believing his wife, Constantia, could do far better. It is an interesting assertion, as we later learn from the geriatric trustee, Tallulah, that Constantia is, in fact, long dead.
On the day of the show, Lichfield walks in on Calloway and Diane in the middle of having sex—in her dressing room, no less! How clichéd. He seems far from being embarrassed, however. Instead, he is adamant that he needs to speak with Diane. Calloway leaves (awkwardly) and Lichfield informs Diane that Constantia will play the role of Viola on the opening night. Angry, Diane retaliates by literally unmasking Lichfield. She peels away his latex prosthetics, revealing him to be the walking dead. His face is almost gone and only a skull remains.
Diane is deeply shocked, but Lichfield leaves her little time to process. He tells her that certain choices must be made before he non-consensually kisses her and puts her into a coma. While Diane is taken to intensive care, Constantia is introduced as the replacement Viola, with some minor stage-light adjustments requested. Next, it is the arthritic Tallulah’s turn to receive the kiss of death, although this time Lichfield does at least ask Tallulah if she wants to die, to which she replies she does.
That evening, Diane returns to the Elysium, stating that she has some “unfinished business”. Calloway assumes she has recovered and takes her words to mean she wants more sex. However, in the middle of her fellating him, Calloway realises, his belly… full of terrors, that Diane is not breathing. She is not breathing because she is dead. Her reaction to his terrified realisation is to despatch him by plunging her nail-file in his ear.
The play is performed to an enthusiastic packed house. Unfortunately, when the performance is over, the actors see the audience is a collection of ghosts and corpses in various stages of decay. The deceased-but-now-reanimated Tallulah burns down the theatre and kills everyone in the production who is not already dead, and a zombified, pants-less Calloway confronts Hammersmith and snaps his neck.
The end sees Calloway and a selection of the Elysium actors joining Lichfield and Constantia on the road, devoting their death, as they had their life, to the art of theatre. We are told, The dead. They needed entertainment no less than the living; and they were a sorely neglected market. When asked by a member of his troupe what they should do, Lichfield delivers the closing lines:
[he] turned towards the company, his voice booming in the night: “What do you do?” he said, “Play life, of course! And smile!”
Far from being a weak link in Barker’s writing, I see “Sex, Death and Starshine” as being one of his most personal and ingenious. Born on 5 October 1952, Barker is an incontestable master in multiple creative areas. Whether as a playwright, author, movie director, visual artist or comic book creator, Barker is highly skilled in all formats. While he began writing horror early in his career, his interest and involvement in the theatre began well before then.
Wikipedia states that he “co-founded the avant-garde theatrical troupe The Dog Company in 1978 with former school friends and up-and-coming actors” and he has said himself that, “An incredible amount of what makes me feel I can do whatever the fuck I want has to do with the Dog Company…” No surprise then, that he would honour his theatrical roots and showcase his literary intelligence through a story that explores chaos and emotion, tragedy and elation, and asks “What would you sacrifice for your art?”
In my youth I was a theatre kid (although always lurking in the wings, never performing on stage) and in my twenties I taught English and Drama to high school students in the industrial North East. Being a fan of Shakespeare was both inevitable and a necessary part of my career. I recall my 6th form English Literature teacher declaring old Willy’s stories to be nothing more than 17th century soap operas, albeit perhaps better written than some modern offerings. Despite the over-the-top palaver and farce that he frequently turned to, I always felt many of Shakespeare’s works were much darker than often acknowledged. His plays involve: murder, adultery, magic and the occult, suicide, disfigurement and dismemberment, demonic possession, witchcraft and the supernatural. Hardly fitting subjects for a pious, Christian audience. In fact, one might even go so far to say that Shakespeare was one of the first writers of horror theatre. A notion I suspect Barker was well aware of.
Shakespeare isn’t the only literary influence in “Sex, Death and Starshine”. The story is littered with themes and sub-texts with some friendly nods to Greek mythology, beginning with the theatre’s name. In Classic mythology, Elysium was a place for the blessed dead, separated from Hades or the Underworld, which only heroes and mortals related to the Gods could enter. Later, it became more synonymous with the Christian notion of Heaven, a paradise for the worthy. This concept of paradise itself is referred to in Twelfth Night when Viola, believing her brother to be drowned, declares, “My brother he is in Elysium.”
Continuing the theme of Greek mythology are the multiple references to Apollo and Dionysus, both sons of Zeus. Apollo is the god of the sun; of rational thinking and order. He signifies logic, prudence and purity. Dionysus is the god of wine, theatre and dance; of irrationality and chaos. He oversees emotions and instincts. Interestingly, the two gods are not necessarily opposites or rivals, in fact, they are frequently entwined, but they offer two differing viewpoints.
At the start of the story, Lichfield tells Calloway, “We should never have given up Dionysus for Apollo… We should have had the courage of our depictions, I think. Served poetry and lived under the stars,” by which he asserts his belief that matters of passion and the heart are more powerful motivators of the arts than money.
During the play, Lichfield feels comforted by the idea that Dionysus is with them that night, and afterwards, From the Gods rapturous applause erupted…. The gods usually refers to the highest areas of a theatre such as the upper balconies, but in this context, and the use of a capital G, could easily refer to Dionysus and Apollo themselves.
Lichfield himself hides in plain sight, his true nature evident in his name. A concept more popular in fantasy fiction, the word lich is taken from the Old English līċ, which means corpse. A lich itself is a type of undead creature. Unlike the traditional stereotype of the mindless zombie, liches are supposedly intelligent creatures, often depicted as having the power to control other, less powerful, undead servants. Appropriate for a character who acts as a kind of ringmaster or director for the rest of the undead.
Lichfield was not embalmed like Constantia, and thus his physical form is greatly damaged. His latex mask serves to shield his decomposing face and allows him to walk relatively unremarked upon amongst the living. Such a disguise has echoes of Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera, where the deformed Erik wears a mask to hide his hideous features as he falls in love with soprano Christine. Like Erik, Lichfield’s mask also hides the grief he carries. It allows him to control the face he presents to the world as he embraces the role he plays.
The theatre manager, Hammersmith, is surely a nod to the iconic Lyric Hammersmith theatre in London. Established in 1888, it was due to be demolished in 1966, but was saved, dismantled and rebuilt brick by brick on another site. Calloway, Tallulah and Duvall are all well-known names of persons prominent in the arts. Coincidence or a deliberate choice? We may never know. Constantia is another Classical Greek name, meaning perseverance and harmony. Interestingly, it is also the name of a Greek town that was destroyed by an earthquake soon after its completion but was rebuilt and strengthened anew.
Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is a play of love, loss and desire, of exploring duality (twins and opposites) and temporary subversion of status. On the actual Twelfth Night (as in the twelve days of Christmas) the last celebration of the festive season was celebrated with parties and performances. The Lord of Misrule—generally a peasant appointed to be in charge of the Christmas revelries—could act as if they were a king for the night and tell everyone what to do. Thus follows a night of potential chaos, but it is fun chaos, rather like what Dionysus signifies.
Although the play is a romantic comedy centred around love and passion, many of the characters spend a lot of time miserable, acting irrationally or frequently confused; like the characters in Barker’s tale. While love ultimately triumphs at the end, it drives some characters almost mad.
The first lines of the play uttered by Duke Orsino—possibly some of Shakespeare’s most famous and most often quoted—and referenced in the story are:
“If music be the food of love, play on,
Give me excess of it; that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken and so die…”
Orsino, suffering from unrequited love, asks to be stuffed so full of it that he loses his appetite for it. Yet in “Sex, Death and Starshine,” it seems perhaps the opposite may be true, that an outpouring of love for theatre and music might somehow satiate those players who are already dead and have given their lives to the arts. Constantia, dead before she was twenty, becomes “alive” on the stage as if the part were made for her only. A spell is cast and the actors’ mortal status (or otherwise) is no longer relevant. All that matters is the play. As Lichfield looks on it becomes apparent, They were equals, the living and the dead, and nobody could find just cause to part them.
What of all the sex in the story? Is it added merely to shock or titillate? I would argue, yes, that’s definitely a part of it, but also Calloway and Diane’s actions say a great deal about their true character. Their affair is based on lust and carnal desires rather than love and tenderness. Older than her, and married (like she is) Calloway suspects that even during intercourse Diane is simply acting a part. Their connection is purely physical, their illicit relationship made far more interesting by being forbidden. But both of them know the other is replaceable, and they are merely using each other as a stepladder to greater, brighter things. It is in stark contrast to Lichfield’s relationship with Constantia. While copulation is apparently impossible given their bodily decay, they are connected through the strength of romance and true devotion. Genuine soulmates, even after their death.
“Sex, Death and Starshine,” despite its apparent focus on Calloway and Duvall, is, of course, Lichfield’s story. It is a story of redemption and resurrection as much as it is of love.
Lichfield … had been capable of giving his brilliant beauty everything she desired; fame, money, companionship. Everything but the gift she most required: life itself.
Such pain drives Lichfield to massacre a group of people for the benefit of his wife. His deeds are inarguably heinous and yet also we fully understand his motivation. While murdering Diane is reprehensible, no matter how bad an actress she may be, his killing of Tallulah is almost merciful, as her advanced age and arthritis bring her so much pain. He could not save his wife from cancer in the breast, but he can bring meaning to the unfairness of her death. Embalmed to preserve her physical beauty, it is equally her inner beauty and raw talent that transfixes others and cannot be taken from her, even by death. Lichfield’s role is to ensure her performance can be experienced, so she can bring joy to the stagnating dead, those usually starved of entertainment.
As love triumphs in Twelfth Night, so too does it triumph for Lichfield and his troupe, as they give up their earthly lives for the love of performing, bound together in eternity by their passion. As the Latin poet Virgil says, omnia vincit amor, or love conquers all. More importantly, the show must go on.
Shakespeare was well-known for comparing life to the art of acting. In As You Like It, the character Jacques in his Seven Ages of Man speech declares:
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts…
Lichfield knows that even in death, he must continue to act as if he is alive. As he tells the trustee: “To play life… ah, Tallulah, to play life… what a curious thing it is. Sometimes I wonder, you know, how long I can keep up the illusion.” His life, perhaps our lives too, are merely roles which we play until the show ends and we take our final bows. Art imitates life imitates art. The stage is where we live and beyond that, who knows what awaits us. While our audience is watching, we must perform.
“Sex, Death and Starshine” examines the roles we play throughout our lives, even in the face of abject horrors; the masks we put on to face the world and hide our true faces, or our pain; and the validation we can find in our passions when we embrace what we truly love. More than that, it is Barker’s love letter to the power of the theatre and an understanding that through the art you leave behind, you can experience a little piece of immortality.
“There are lives lived for love,” said Lichfield to his new company, “and lives lived for art. We happy band have chosen the latter persuasion.”
Tabatha Wood is an Australian Shadows award-winning author of weird, dark horror fiction and emotional poetry living in Wellington, New Zealand. She likes strong coffee, cats, and spending time by the sea.
Her most recent book, SEEDS, is an unsettling collection of quiet horror/dark speculative fiction, and includes stories about: revenge, justice, gender, identity, queerness, grief, motherhood, disability, and the occasional supernatural dog. Available at most good online book stores.
You can read more of Tabatha’s stories, essays and blog posts at www.tabathawood.com.
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