The Books Of Blood Advent Calendar
The Skins Of The Fathers
The Skins Of The Fathers
Or, How I Learned I Was a Die-Hard Clive Barker Fan All Along
“Natural then to treat the fathers as the enemy, to root them out and try to destroy them. A tragedy really: when the only thought the fathers had was of unity through marriage, that their children should blunder in and spoil the celebration. “ – Clive Barker
I’m going to be the asshole who uses a Clive Barker post to talk about Stephen King, but bear with me, I’m going somewhere with this.
When I was a kid, I was obsessed. Not just with King but with the entirety of the contemporary (or just recently contemporary) horror literature market. I was born in 1981, so when I was becoming an adult fiction reader, let’s say around ’90 or ’91, I was a zealous completist, eager to consume every goddamn new classic I could. Since we were just fresh off the ’80s horror paperback boom, I had a helluva lot to catch up on.
But I’ve gotta give honor where it’s due. For me, King came first and he was absolutely my lodestar. To start with, I vacuumed up everything he’d published by that point. But I wasn’t satisfied to stop there (even though the dude was still publishing new material at quite a clip in those days). I tracked down all the books King recommended, from his antecedents—your Mathesons, your Lovecrafts, your Bradburys—to his contemporaries—your Straubs, your Campbells, your Charleses L. Grant … and, of course, your Clive Barkers.
King didn’t talk about anyone the way he talked about Clive Barker. So, of course, I had to read everything by this newish lad from Liverpool.
It was strange timing, now that I look back on it. I mean, I was going through puberty while reading The Books of Blood, The Damnation Game, Cabal, The Great and Secret Show, Everville, and so on. Something to mention to my therapist, I guess.
And see if this makes sense: I loved Clive Barker’s work … but I didn’t always like it. I enthusiastically read and watched whatever he’d put out, and I saw what made him special, but I wasn’t always enthusiastic about it. I felt a distance there. A coldness. I didn’t spend all my time analyzing what made his stories succeed, or dreaming of playing this or that character in some future adaptation, the way I did with King. I was in awe of his imagination, but something wasn’t quite clicking.
By this point, I was also beginning to dabble with becoming a horror writer myself. Unsurprisingly, I started out by aping King at every chance. Everything I wrote smacked of his folksy voice and was invariably set in small-town New England … despite the fact that I lived in the deserts of Phoenix, Arizona, and had set foot in New England maybe once in my entire life.
Let’s flash forward a decade or two to the late 2000s/early 2010s. Now I’m a playwright living in New York City. A horror playwright, of course. And because I’m a horror playwright, I decide to start revisiting the works of Clive Barker, half on a whim and half because I’m starting to consider going back to writing novels and was curious to approach Barker’s prose work with his similar journey in mind.
I was an adult by this point, with more refined tastes, so maybe that’s why suddenly Barker was hitting me on a whole host of new levels. The stories were familiar, since I’d read them all before, but they leapt of the page with a vivid freshness I never could have anticipated. This time, things were clicking, and in a major way.
And look, I’m still very much a King guy, I’ll defend his worth till the cows come home … but it started to feel like I had somehow subconsciously saved Clive Barker for a time when I truly needed him. Rereading Barker, at that period in my professional life, gave me a propulsive excitement to try new things that, frankly, I couldn’t get elsewhere.
I also couldn’t help but notice how formative an influence he’d been on my early years. Despite the fact that I’d always felt that distance, that lack of enthusiasm, there were all sorts of inclinations I saw in Barker’s work that I recognized in my own. A gleeful, but somehow still reverent, destruction of physical definitions, of normality, of sanity. The worship of horror. The realization that monsters are usually not defeated but rather require a level of humility and submission to live alongside. All the edgy things I was trying to do with my plays and stories, they were already there in Barker’s. I’d always thought of King as my primary influence, but in a weird way, this rediscovery of Barker’s work kinda felt like I was learning I had two fathers all along.
Those who’ve read the story I’m here to discuss might now understand why I’ve begun this post with this rather long digression.
If you were to look at any bird’s eye overview of The Books of Blood, or even a superficial ranking of the stories therein, I think you’d almost always find “The Skins of the Fathers” somewhere in the bottom half. It’s not the most beloved tale, by readers or critics. It’s still great—it’s still part of the fucking Books of Blood after all—but it doesn’t quite work the way you can tell it wants to. I think, in part, because of the setting. Barker nails the deserts of the American Southwest as a cosmic thing, a character in its own right, pulsing with menace and mirage and a dizzying sense of vastness and heat, but his depiction of the townsfolk is a little too simple and inauthentic. It reads, I’d imagine, the way a kid from Phoenix, Arizona, might write about small-town New England despite never having been there.
But I also have a real soft spot for this story. For starters, it was one of the first times I read something that was actually set near where I grew up. It was the beginning of a huge realization for me that horror didn’t have to be set in places like Derry or Castle Rock. (Fun fact: my upcoming novel MARY, which will be published by Nightfire on July 19, 2022, is a mature reimagining of one of the first books I ever wrote as a wee preteen, and yes, the setting had originally been some small New England town, but is now the fictional desert town of Arroyo, Arizona … and Barker’s town of Welcome might just get a shout-out somewhere in the text, as well.)
Also, despite it never being mentioned among the strongest tales among the Books of Blood, I would argue that “The Skins of the Fathers” actually offers a fantastic glimpse into just what makes Barker’s fiction work so uniquely well. What makes Barker … well, Barker.
For starters, there’s the magnificently weird, concise creature design. No one describes monsters like Barker can. I mean, hell:
One was perhaps eighteen or twenty feet tall. Its skin, which hung in folds on its muscle, was a sheath of spikes, its head a cone of exposed teeth set in scarlet gums. Another was three-winged, its triple-ended tail thrashing the dust with reptilian enthusiasm. A third and fourth were married together in a union of monstrosities the result of which was more disgusting than the sum of its parts. Through its length and breadth this symbiotic horror was locked in seeping marriage, its limbs thrust in and through wounds in its partner’s flesh. Though the tongues of its heads were wound together it managed a cacophonous howl.
To quote Carly Simon, “Nobody does it better,” right?
There’s also the sex, which hangs over this story in a casual but unignorable way, like low cloud cover. The monster that attacks Davidson sports a massive erection; when Sheriff Packard has his hand bitten off it’s described as his “sexing” hand; Eugene keeps pulling his son Aaron’s head into his crotch during an argument; not to mention the rapturous scene of Aaron’s conception, an interspecies gang-rape that starts non-consensual (Eugene is tossed to the side like an unwanted prophylactic), but quickly becomes transcendent for Lucy: “She remembered so well the hour that followed, the embraces of the monsters. Not foul in anyway, not gross or harmful, never less than loving. Even the machineries of reproduction that they pierced her with, one after the other, though some were as large as Eugene’s fisted arm, and hard as bone.”
This story also does something Barker’s stories do better than most—something I really appreciated during my most recent reread of all six Books of Blood. There’s a scope to these tales. Each time you finish one, you have to almost sit back and be amazed at how much story he packs into 5-10,000 words. I mean, there are like five stories in “Skins” alone: The first one, of the guy in the desert stumbling onto the monstrous parade; the second one of the sheriff confronting a mysterious dead body; the third of the woman in the abusive marriage and the son of dubious, supernormal paternity; the fourth of small-town vigilantism run amok; the fifth of the monsters’ history and ultimate plans. I think any other writer would have been content to stick with one or two of these as a bang-up short story. Not Barker. For Barker, there’s always a little bit more plot and implication to—pun very much intended—flesh out.
And there’s one last element to “Skins” that makes it so quintessentially Barker. It’s the thing I really didn’t get when I was younger, and the thing that clicked the hardest when I finally came back to Barker’s work as an adult.
You see, the reason I found King so comfortable and engaging as a kid (and still do, of course), is that King is one of our finest creators of likable characters. He’s a whiz at unlikable characters, too, sure—but, with a few exceptions, he often leans hard on archetypal things to make them unlikable. They’re mean, they’re bullies, they’re racists … or, his incredibly problematic go-to, they’re fat or acne-riddled or some other physical shorthand that’s meant to signify a grossness of spirit.
And as iconic and scene-stealing as King’s better-crafted villains can be, he really, really wants you to like his heroes. That’s why they’re so charming and nice, why they’re always singing or laughing together, why they so frequently have at least one moment where they dance unrestrainedly. (Seriously, once you notice how laughing together and singing and dancing are his favorite techniques for getting you to be on the side of his protagonists, you can’t unsee it.)
Clive Barker doesn’t care if you like his heroes. Quite the opposite, in fact. Hell, they’re usually not even heroes at all; they’re just people who find themselves caught up in outrageously horrifying situations. Barker often writes assholes, snobs, cold and selfish jerks. His protagonists are frequently oversexed, cynical, distracted; there’s no hand-holding or explicit signifiers that tell you you’re meant to root for them. Similarly, his villains are often gorgeous and tantalizing—even if they begin by seeming physically repellant. Barker’s definitions warp and twist, like a parade of celebrants just over the desert’s horizon line who turn out to be monsters once you get up close.
In a way, King writes like Shakespeare—stock characters, often more nuanced than they have to be, but meant to resonate with a rowdy crowd of outdoor patrons. Barker writes more like Pinter—we’re indoors with these characters, they take a little more work to invest in, and that’s where the true dread arises. Because you start to see yourself in them, not in the heightened and iconic ways of Shakespeare, but in the messy mundanity of your real life after you leave the theatre.
To a kid who’s looking for people to root for, to even play one day (in that same way I wanted to play those selfsame Shakespearean archetypes), the appeal of King’s cast of characters is obvious.
To an adult looking for nuance and tension and uneasy reflection, however …
Once I realized Barker’s unlikable characters aren’t a detriment to his work, they are in fact one of his greatest assets? Click.
That, I think, is really why Barker’s work has resonated with me so much more as an adult than a child. Because the world is full of unlikable people. I myself have been unlikable from time to time. Just as I have found myself in outrageously horrifying situations with little rhyme or reason as to the role I was meant to play in them.
You don’t like anyone in “The Skins of the Fathers.” The story might be a little more engaging, a little more King-like, if you did, but that’s ultimately not the point of it.
The point is that when we first meet the monsters in this story, they’re hideous. Obscene. Disgusting.
When we meet them again, through Lucy’s memories, they’re beautiful. Angelic, even.
When we meet them a third time, they’re dangerous. They’re capable of killing everyone we’ve met up until this point. And yet all they want is to be left alone with their child—their child whom they hope will grow up to be a better person than the humans who came before him.
That child doesn’t survive, but the monsters do, and they escape, presumably to continue their attempts to breed a new kind of human once again. And the townspeople who are responsible for this cruel interruption of the monsters’ plans are sucked down into the desert, with only some of their heads barely sticking out above the surface, begging for help.
The cruellest punishment in this story is being swallowed by grim monotony of the place that made you. Of the familiar.
The fate worse than death, worse than monstrosity, is the inability to change.
Nat Cassidy is a horror novelist, playwright, actor, director, and musician based in New York City. His plays have been produced throughout the country and have been nominated for numerous awards, as well as 17 NY Independent Theatre Awards. As an actor, he can be found appearing on numerous shows such as FBI, QUANTICO, BLUE BLOODS, BULL, LAW & ORDER: SVU, HIGH MAINTENANCE, and many others, usually playing some sort of Bad Guy of the Week. He is a frequent collaborator with the audiodrama company Gideon Media and most recently appears as Travis in GIVE ME AWAY. Nat also wrote the novelization for Gideon Media’s hit podcast STEAL THE STARS (named one of the best reads of 2017 by NPR). He signed a two-book deal with Tor’s new horror imprint Nightfire and his first book with them, a serial killer/reincarnation thriller entitled MARY: AN AWAKENING OF TERROR, will hit shelves on July 19, 2022. His next book is due out in October 2023. For more info: www.natcassidy.com
To preorder MARY: www.us.macmillan.com
MARY’s announcement page: www.tornightfire.com
Personal website: www.natcassidy.com