The Books Of Blood Advent Calendar
“They will say your doubts shed innocent blood. But I say – what’s blood for, if not for shedding?” – Clive Barker
When it comes to the horror genre, there is no shortage of work dealing with urban legends and the potential reality behind the campfire stories we use to terrify children. We’ve all heard unspeakable rumors whispered in the back of the schoolyard, creepy legends spoken in hushed voices at sleepovers, or he-said-she-said ghoulishness handed down by older siblings. This ubiquitous habit of us humans, to pass on the horrific and bizarre, is therefore understandably ample fodder for horror fiction. The genre is littered with innumerable examples of a formula that is now as familiar to fans as the cycle of the seasons: some skeptical Goofus hears about something spooky, starts investigating said spooky legend/place/monster, and finds out that the legend is based on some terrifying reality. Lovecraft, MR James, Machen, even Ramsey Campbell, have all regaled their readers with tales of terror in which an everyman encounters the paranormal via poking about in secrets best left unknown. Yet Barker’s story “The Forbidden” ups the ante by taking a more philosophical approach to the subject of urban legends in addition to simultaneously introducing one of horror’s most iconic killers: the Candyman. While most readers are probably more familiar with the story’s movie adaptation, 1992’s Candyman starring Tony Todd, the original story is one of my favorites by Barker. It is a tale of dark myths made real that forces us to face not only the subjective nature of our perceptions but also the darker side of human nature.
Enter Helen Buchanan, a graduate student researching for a dissertation on the sociological implications of urban graffiti. She wanders around a slum on Specter Street cataloging and photographing some particularly nasty examples of urban art. While on one of her expeditions, she encounters a single mother named Ann Marie who invites her over for tea. During a gab session, Ann Marie relates how an old man was attacked in an adjacent apartment complex and slashed to pieces by an assailant with a hook hand. Helen is instantly intrigued and soon finds herself investigating a trail of rumors about a maniac who performs gruesome attacks on people living in the area. Her snobbish professor husband, Trevor, is skeptical, as are his academic friends, who think Helen is just spinning her wheels investigating hearsay. Undaunted, Helen continues her inquiries and is led into the lair of a supernatural killer who is all too real.
I think the story’s bread and butter are the things implied, but unseen. Fans of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre are no doubt familiar with the power of the gore we imagine over the gore that’s explicitly shown and how cleverly used hints of violence are more effective than outright mayhem. “The Forbidden” features very few scenes of actual bloodshed (except a bit with a dead baby, though I’ll not spoil it for new readers), and yet the entire story is littered with chillingly visceral nuggets that hint at gruesome doings. There’s the vile graffiti covering the dilapidated buildings, which we the reader are only shown snippets of and yet which is said to be particularly offensive. Then there are the stories Helen is told by Ann Marie and the other people living on the estate: tales of dismemberment so vicious that they beggar belief. All of this is merely a peek into a world of grotesquery that we, the reader, only catch a glimpse of….but a glimpse is all we need, no?
The estate is a fascinating setting and is similarly held up as a perpetual mystery. We meet a few people living there through Helen’s conversation with neighbors, but there is something furtive about all the folks on Specter Street, Ruskin Court, and the surrounding neighborhoods. What minds are responsible for the horrific graffiti and these gruesome rumors about death? We never get a good idea: but once again, we see a glimpse into a world where violence and horror bubble just below the surface of the mundane. The people of Specter Street seem to be united in some type of conspiracy, hammered together not only by their mutual poverty but also their knowledge of some evil that haunts them. Lovecraft’s Innsmouth comes to mind, and yet the horrors of filth-ridden Specter Street could be any junky neighborhood on the bad part of town. There is something mysterious yet ubiquitous about the estate, which brings its horrors home.
Then there’s the Candyman himself, the psychopath who lays in wait amongst the dilapidated buildings of the estate. In the movie adaptation, the Candyman is a ghostly figure with a fully fleshed-out background who kills those that utter his name five times. This is a little different than the story, where he is an ambiguous supernatural entity that victimizes at random for the sake of maintaining his reign of terror. Here, the Candyman is the living embodiment of the urban legend, a creature created from the whispers of others. Indeed, he is himself made of honey and bees, constructed from the sweet allure of forbidden knowledge and the hive mind of the humans he preys on. His hook hand is a living homage to one of the oldest urban legends in existence, the hook-handed maniac, a trope handed down a million times from person to person. He doesn’t appear until towards the end of the story, finally summoned by Helen’s unbelief and forced to prove his existence. When he finally does approach Helen, he makes her a very surprising but seductive offer: be my victim.
Become part of the legend.
And this leads me to my favorite aspect of the story: Helen’s arc. She begins as a milquetoast academic living in her husband’s shadow, but the legends bring her to life and pique her interest. Throughout the story, the legend of the Candyman come to dominate her interactions with others, including her conversations with her priggish husband and his gaggle of arrogant friends. The story certainly explores of what the title implies: why we, as humans, are drawn to the horrific and repeat stories that make our stomachs turn. As the narrative explains via one of Trevor’s academic friends Purcell , it is partly a means by which people can relate to each other. Introducing others to the legends that terrify us gives both the teller and the told a sense of being “in” on something, just as the furtive inhabitants of the estate are all drawn together by their knowledge of the Candyman and his crimes. As Purcell says during a particularly tense dinner with Helen and Trevor:
“You must be aware that there’s something traditional about these atrocity stories. One used to exchange them all the time; there is a certain frisson to them. Something competitive maybe, in attempting to find a new detail to add to the collective fiction; a fresh twist that would render the tale that little bit more appealing when you passed it on.”
The key word here, I think, is “collective”. The graffiti on the walls, the hand-me-down tales of horror, there is something almost religious about the way people refer to the Candyman. Indeed, Innsmouth has the Order of Dagon, and the people of Specter Street have their hook-handed maniac. Repeating terror tales makes us part of the legend and allows us a share in something profound outside ourselves. It makes us part of the hive.
But there is also something alluring about grotesquery itself, something that draws us to speak the unspeakable. It is this aspect that becomes more and more a draw for Helen as she investigates the legend and is finally pulled inevitably into the clutches of the killer. The repetition of the tale is not just a collective effort: there is also personal gratification in it, an almost sexual release. The Candyman’s final invitation to Helen is itself a kind of seduction, one that she finally gives in to. Why? As she relates to a concerned policeman regarding the legends of the Candyman:
“Maybe if they didn’t tell you the stories…they’d actually go out and do it.”
The psychotic killer of urban legend is not just a ghost to terrify children, he is also a clotheshorse for our own twisted desires. Hatreds, envies, petty viciousness, all can be hung on the shoulders of an imaginary monster who serves as our surrogate. Like pornography, the graphic tale of butchery serves to gratify our animal side and give us a sense of escape from gray, humdrum, repressed daily life. It is with love that the Candyman executes his crimes, and it is to an act of love-making that he invites Helen, perhaps the most significant act of all. Shirley Jackson would have us believe that journeys end in lovers meeting, and that’s certainly the case with poor Helen. At the climax, Helen realizes what it is she truly wants and what has driven her fascination with the horrors: she wishes to be part of the narrative. Deprived of validation from her husband and those around her, the Candyman offers her immortal fame and significance. In the end, she gives in. I’ll not spoil the conclusion, but suffice to say, it feels darkly appropriate.
When I first read “The Forbidden”, I must confess, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I have in rereads. Compared to something like “The Last Illusion” and “Midnight Meat Train”, I initially found the plot to be slow and the ending an anticlimax. The Candyman himself doesn’t make an appearance until the very end, and the final confrontation with Helen is hardly a confrontation at all. Most of the chills are not things that we, the reader, experience, but rather tidbits picked up by our main character. Many of the other characters are either unlikeable (in the case of Helen’s condescending husband Trevor) or simply too aloof to be fully fleshed out (in the case of Ann Marie). The whole story has a cold, distant feel to it, like a rainy winter day in an unfamiliar city.
But this is a story that benefits from being revisited and digested slowly, with a narrative that conceals a treasure trove of little hints and tidbits that have made it one of my favorite stories from The Books of Blood, and even one of my favorite pieces by Barker overall. Every scene is full of gnawing little subtleties that make the story eerie while allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions about the nature of the Candyman and how he operates. It is precisely the aloof, distant quality of the story that makes it so effective and gives it such a chilling edge. The writing is a real testament to Barker’s ability to evoke revulsion and disgust, even without blasting us in the face with his usual cavalcade of gore.
It’s impossible not to compare the story to the movie, of course, but I think “The Forbidden” stands well on its own and is worth a look for fans of both the Tony Todd film and Barker’s work as a whole.
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