The Books Of Blood Advent Calendar
Matthew R. Davis
“Garvey liked the Pools with its adjuncts, the uniformity of the design, the banality of the decorations. Unlike many, he found institutions reassuring: hospitals, schools, even prisons. They smacked of social order; they soothed that part of him fearful of chaos. Better a world too organized than one not organized enough.” – Clive Barker
In Praise Of Paradox
Turn to the nearest piece of art, wherever you are, and it’s likely to be about a woman. A huge percentage of all songs are love songs, paeans to some bepedestalled lady; books pick over the tragic disappearances and deaths of women, usually young and beautiful, with morbid regularity; so many paintings whose iconic imagery has lasted down the centuries depict the inner, as well as outer, beauty of the fairer sex. The satellites of our society – pop culture, exploitation, mythology, high art, pornography – all sing the praises of womanhood, revolving around this one pivotal point of existence.
So why are women the target of so much resentment, disrespect, and outright hatred?
It’s amazing when you stop to think that every one of us owes their very life to a woman in one way or another, but it’s true. They carry the world within them and without, and yet they bear the brunt of so many contradictory demands that the perfect woman is a complete paradox. Society insists that a woman must be both a girl and an adult, a child and a mother; smart and sexy and beautiful and competent, but not too much of these things; a partner and an unpaid servant, and yes, a Madonna and a whore. Aspects of femininity are occulted with negative associations, and to many men, being regarded as womanly in any way is a severe insult to their vanity. Calling someone a bitch or a pussy or a girl is to demean their agency and worth, and while some cultures use the word cunt as an endearment or simple object noun, it’s also considered the worst insult you can throw at someone. Recently, the brilliant and incisive comedian Hannah Gadbsy – who has touched upon the use of this derogatory term in her stand-up work – was the subject of putrid online abuse for having the audacity to decry offensive comedic content, and once again, there was much use of the old “ha ha, dyke has short hair, looks like man” trope. As if it wasn’t bad enough that women are hated for their femininity – they can be hated for any apparent masculinity, too! And what hope of peace, of safety, for someone who identifies as having both or neither? The Sword of Damocles poised over the un-male isn’t a double-edged weapon – it’s a whole world that’s all edges, all swords, all salt and spit and slander.
Fluidity of gender is a subject that’s become a lot more visible lately, and while it’s been touched upon many times in fiction, that touch has rarely been delicate or understanding – swapping sex has usually been played for fish-out-of-water laughs. So it’s interesting to turn the pages back to 1986 and find a portrayal written by a man that is more nuanced and thoughtful than many to be found today, though it’s not surprising to those in the know that Clive Barker – a gay artist who has produced a startling array of balanced, individual, arresting female characters both human and otherwise – is the man in question.
It’s clear from the off that questions of gender are playing on Barker’s mind, as “The Madonna” is awash with imagery heavily associated with both ends of the spectrum. The swimming centre on Leopold Road is a dark, moist, warm environment that frightens as much as it titillates with its promise of pleasure and fecundity, and only a woman can understand and interpret the building plans as a deeply internal spiral, much like the climactic vortex that removes and perhaps birthed the centre’s inhabitants. The one pool in use is brimming not with water, but with an amniotic broth that acts as a second womb for the freshly borne children of the Madonna. And one of the characters, returning unbidden to the centre at night to poke around invasively with a long, hard torch, understands that the centre is so soft and nurturing that “No knife could prosper in such heat: its edge would soften, its ambition go neglected.” A subtle hint of what is to come when the blade meets the chalice on uneven terms.
The effects of femininity are here seen upon two men: the diffident chancer Jerry Coloqhoun, and the hard-nosed business maven Ezra Garvey. One is looking to find a foothold in the world by selling a derelict swimming centre, one is planning to consolidate his own by buying it, and both hold somewhat conflicted views about women. Coloqhoun is so desperate for female company that it’s the thought of a cold, empty bed more than anything that motivates him to cling on to his relationship with Carole, even though he’s acting more from habit than investment – as Carole notes at one point, “You don’t give a fuck about me. Not about me, not about anybody.” Meanwhile, Garvey thinks of himself as a woman’s man who enjoys all aspects of their company, but he finds himself remembering a barely-seen naked teenager whilst dining with his wife and sleeping with his mistress, and his first resort when desperate to seduce a woman is to throw money and gifts at her – tokens of payment, the implications of which are bald and reductive in this context. Neither has any substantial understanding of women, and that ignorance will cost them everything they know.
The Madonna herself is an incidental character, and it’s notable that Barker chose to call her by the name usually given to an idealised lady, virtuous and virginal as Mary herself: all she does is squat in a shower room and produce inhuman children, a vast, limbless womb who gives birth to wonders without ever engaging in sex. Her mind is unknowable, and she does nothing to affect the plot other than simply exist; when the male characters force themselves into her orbit, she doesn’t communicate with them in any way – for once, they are not the centre of the world. The girls who serve her merely go about their allotted duties, and if they take advantage of Garvey and Coloqhoun to do so, the men go to them willingly, victims of their own desires. Ironically, these females could be seen more as objects than subjects of the tale, but that is only because their ways are so alien to the outside observer; they are serving their own greater purpose, but they don’t bother to interact or communicate with the men, and the effect they have upon the protagonists is merely a collateral function of that purpose – they are not villains, nor the succubi that the men might claim in self-defence, just inscrutable and indifferent to an enforced narrative. So, like many other artistic endeavours, whether they know it or not, this story is not actually about women, it’s about the way women make men feel. And gentle reader, be not surprised to learn that the ways women make men feel, or rather the ways men allow themselves to feel about them, can be very ugly indeed.
Examine the reactions exhibited by these two men when, after encountering the Madonna and her handmaidens, they find their bodies changing sex as they are rewritten into women. Coloqhoun, as befits his general deeper malaise, is “not afraid, nor was he jubilant. He accepted this fait accompli as a baby accepts its condition, having no sense of what good or bad it might bring.” He finds it easier to disengage from his sex and the world he knows than he did from a relationship in which he was barely present. He’s not outraged or disgusted by this sudden change, though it’s a little shocking to discover that too-kind Carole finds it “vile” and “revolting”. (But then, Carole is just as hapless and unmoored as Coloqhoun, hanging on to their hollow treaty by her fingertips despite an obvious lack of reciprocity. Since he’d already sexually assaulted her earlier by continuing after she withdrew consent, and only her own poor self-esteem had allowed her to consider taking him back, it’s hardly surprising that a further dramatic turn would be the last straw for her – let alone one of this magnitude.) Coloqhoun himself, however, is more accepting of this new truth, and when he finds the closing vortex left behind by the departure of the Madonna, he chooses to gamble on leaping through in search of a different way forward – perhaps now that he’s remade as a woman, he can remake his life into something better than he’d been perpetuating as a man. Always passive or passive-aggressive at best, now he is asserting himself positively into a new order, even willing to die trying if there is none to be had.
Garvey, on the other hand, cannot accept this turn of events at all. Despite his wealth and power and a slew of options, he chooses to end his life rather than adjust to this drastic change and embrace it. Ultimately, this so-called ladies’ man loathes women so much that he would rather die than live as one even for a day, and his last prayer is that “death be not a woman.” Reborn against his will, he spills his own blood and falls into the water to return to a cold and uncaring womb, his body caught and held beneath the water by an umbilical rope until it’s birthed back into the light to be gawped at, judged, and found wanting.
Sadly, Garvey’s attitude of the feminine as an enemy is one that we see reflected all over the world even now. Storms brew in teacups whenever a woman opens her mouth to speak above a seductive purr, dares to own an opinion, tries to simply exist. What male lounge-chair judge or bedroom offender would willingly choose to swap sex, knowing the hell they inflict upon their opposite numbers? And upon thinking this, why do they not then mend their ways? Barker doesn’t lean too heavily on the myriad sins that man casts upon woman, but he doesn’t need to when the reader is quite capable of filling in the blanks. He’s presenting us with a tale, not making a point, but the reader may well feel the pricking of a point nonetheless, because gender and sex has always been a hot-button topic.
“The Madonna” is a tale without mercy or consideration of will for its characters, but Barker does not need to broadcast his overall empathy; it can be assumed in these spaces he creates, especially if the reader is familiar with his greater work. Five years after “The Madonna”, his epic Imajica presented us with Pie’oh’pah, a truly fluid character beyond such a simple concept as gender binaries who is depicted with sympathy and understanding and given a loving relationship. One imagines that if he’d written Pie’oh’pah in this decade, his work would be dismissed as performatively woke by people whose imaginations can swallow just about anything other than the concept of gender fluidity – the kind of people who can accept the titular alien of Doctor Who having two hearts and a time-travelling phone box, but not a vagina. But that’s a whole other article…
A remarkable fleshy fantasy with a heart of cold reality, “The Madonna” is a striking foray into subjects we’ll see explored in much more depth in years to come, and like “In the Hills, the Cities”, it stands out as truly transgressive for its time – but it’s also relevant right now, when distinctions and divisions over gender and sex are growing both narrower and wider at the same time. Narrower and wider? Paradox! How can one thing be two things at once? Ezra Garvey cannot, and nor could many men, but ask any woman that question. They may tell you that in their experience, being asked to be just two things would be a luxury.
Matthew R. Davis
Matthew R. Davis is an author and musician based in Adelaide, South Australia. His novelette “Heritage Hill” was shortlisted for 2020 Shirley Jackson Award and the WSFA Small Press Award, and he was a double Australian Shadows Awards winner in 2019. His first collection of horror stories, If Only Tonight We Could Sleep, was released by Things in the Well in 2020; his first novel, Midnight in the Chapel of Love, was published by JournalStone in 2021. Find out more at matthewrdavisfiction.wordpress.com.