Thursday, September 29, 2016

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Clive Barker's Shadows in Eden, ed. by Stephen Jones (1991): Of Minds to Madness, Flesh to Wounding

"I don't scare easily," said Clive Barker to a journalist in 1990, while promoting his then brand-new novel The Great and Secret Show. Barker continued: "But I'm terrified of two things. One is the general condition of being flesh and blood. Of minds to madness and flesh to wounding. The other is banality. My characters are constantly escaping from banality." That quote struck me back then and it still strikes me today. The great thing about Barker is that he's so in tune to his own wavelength; he knows just what and why he's writing and what he wants his readers to experience, and he's eager to talk about it too.

And that's just what Clive Barker's Shadows in Eden (Underwood-Miller, Oct 1991) gives us. An anthology of interviews, discussions, reviews, quotes, and endless illustrations, it's a beautifully produced hardcover. At 450+ pages, this is Barker unadulterated, talking at length about his art, his influences, and anything else he might want to expound upon. Shadows covers the gamut of his early career: his plays (and minor forays into stage acting), stories, novels, movies, and comics. I can hardly overstate its importance for the Barker fan. I bought this lovely title from the specialty-press Underwood-Miller as soon as it was published, and have happily revisited it for 25 years.

"I was very aware that if I was going to rise I was going to have to be a proselytizer for my work. I'm aware that many writers are actively reluctant to do that. They don't like to do public readings, they don't like to do television and so on... I have, no pun intended, something of the carnival barker in me."

Disturbingly erotic yet humorous front/endpiece art by Stephen Player.

Shadows in Eden is littered with Barker's sketches in the margins and rough drafts of paintings, some representative of characters and scenes from his fiction, others simply unlimbered escapees from his fevered brain. Some years ago I was waited on by a bartender who had a tattoo of one of these sketches and I said as she served me my beer, "Hey, that's a Clive Barker!" She told me I was literally the only person who'd ever recognized it.

Who doesn't love seeing their favorite writer's handwritten manuscripts?! Critical essays are also included, exposing the metaphors and subtleties—and yes, when necessary, the weaknesses—of Barker's literary output. Alas, Shadows doesn't include anything about Barker's magnum opus Imajica, since that novel was published pretty much concurrently.

Creepy art—Brother Frank?—and Ramsey Campbell's original introduction to the first editions of the Books of Blood. I'm still not sure what a Balaclava is and now I don't even want to find out, I enjoy the tantalizing mystery of it.

Of course: the first time I ever heard the word "meme" and learned what it was was reading this conversation between Barker and Neil Gaiman. They talk comics and how, in the late '80s and early '90s, they were rather like twins, figuratively and literally. And literarily. (Gaiman doesn't get the definition of meme exactly right, but ah well, the point is made.)

Movies: Hellraiser and more are featured. Nightbreed was going into production as Shadows of Eden was being put together, so it was cool to see some behind-the-scenes goodies. Here Barker's with illustrator icon Ralph McQuarrie. And then there's some stuff on, uh, Rawhead Rex.

The great Lisa Tuttle, who'd been featured with Barker in Night Visions III, contributes this wonderful piece in which she and Clive discuss Cabal and all manner of horror and art. "Whenever Clive and I have met to discuss horror, writing, fantasy and similar topics—whether on a public platform, or in private—I've always enjoyed it. More than enjoyed it: found it exhilarating. There's an intellectual rapport, so that even though we don't agree about everything, we're on the same wavelengths, shortcuts can be taken, intuitive leaps made; we spark responses in each other. I find what he has to say invariably interesting, and often illuminating, not only about his work, but about my own, as well as about art and life in general."

A treat from the Barker scrapbook! My God I can't imagine a bigger treat than sharing a bottle with Barker and discussing Books of Blood. Except maybe sharing a bottle with Barker and King and discussing Books of Blood (see below).

You'll recognize lots of the journalists and writers included: J.G. Ballard, Douglas E. Winter, Dennis Etchison, Kim Newman, Philip Nutman, Stanley Wiater, and oh yeah good ol' Steve King, whose piece "You Are Here Because You Want the Real Thing" opens Shadows. He recalls the first time he heard the name "Clive Barker" (New Haven World Fantasy Convention 1983, "drunk, drunk" as he puts it) and mused, since there was so much talk about him being a real game-changer, on the famous quote about Bruce Springsteen back in the mid-1970s, "I have seen the future of rock'n'roll, and his name is Bruce Springsteen." (King—drunk, drunk—misremembers and misattributes the quote, according it to Rolling Stone mag founder Jan Wenner. Not so but ah well, the point is made.) Of Barker King says: "And, oh my God, can the man write. No matter how gruesome the material, you are witched into the story, hooked, and then propelled onward."

My goodness what a perfect image for Barker's work. Jesus wept.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Reaping by Bernard Taylor (1980): Make It Real Not Fantasy

Who doesn't love a creepy fetus with devil horns smirking at you from the womb on a horror paperback  cover? That thing's practically about to wink at you, isn't it? There's no actual evil fetus in The Reaping (Leisure Books, Feb 1982) so that might bum some of you out; no, Bernard Taylor (British author of quiet, effective horror novels like Sweetheart, Sweetheart and The Godsend) doesn't stoop to such crass imaginings. Taylor is more interested in taking his sweet, character-developing time, guiding the patient reader through a subtle psychological tale of grown-up concerns and fears before deploying the malevolent goods in what I found to be a satisfying, unsettling, and successful climax. Sure, I mean it's kinda ridiculous after all the care that's gone before, but I can overlook that. The book is out and done before 250 pages are up.

The Reaping isn't the type of novel I'm gonna rave about, you can get the gist of it from back-cover copy. You wouldn't get it from that freaky fetus cover, but Taylor writes well of intelligent, thoughtful yet flawed adult humans and their often painful relationships, their disappointments, their compromises and their regrets (as I've said before, many many horror writers have no idea how to describe adulting). I mean, the main character is an artist who, when not painting the commissioned portrait, relaxes with the novels of Muriel Spark and Thomas Hardy. With the subject of his painting, the mysterious and shy and lovely Catherine, he discusses the novelistic merits of the Brontë sisters. Don't know about you but I like when characters in horror exist in the real world and not just as fodder for supernatural or psychopathic evil.

 1992 Leisure reprint

Rigby's desire to actually be an artist, working and paid and successful, rather than just a widowed shop owner who lost children in a car accident several years prior, motivates him to accept that commission. But what strangeness ensues in that countryside estate! And hot sex. And the most cringe-worthy massage this side of George Costanza. Guess he should've known... Suspense builds in workmanlike style, heading toward a finale the clues to which I actually was unable to spot and which I think Taylor kept well-hidden. But it all makes sense in the end, which is more than I can say for other novels, right?
1980 UK hardcover, Souvenir Press: quite accurate

Want a none-too-taxing read written by a grown man who knows his way around the English language, who presents his characters in a relaxed, believable manner, and who can raise a goosebump or two about the invisible machinations some people will undertake to gain ultimate power? Maybe check out The Reaping: it's not gonna blow you away or anything, but don't you want people to see you reading a book with such delightful cover art? Of course you do! *wink wink*

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Smell of Evil by Charles Birkin (1965): Who Could Write This Book of Cruel

I rather wish that the stories in The Smell of Evil were more in line with the moody, melancholy vibe of the paperback cover for the 1969 Award Books edition. Instead, British-born author Charles Birkin (1907 - 1985) offers up blistering contes cruels with a kind of demented genius; there's not a moment of moodiness or atmosphere anywhere at all. Editor Dennis Wheatley perceptively notes in his intro, however: "Young writers are always sadly handicapped by lack of experience; whereas anyone who has been through a war, met a great many people in all walks of life and had to face a number of crises on their own, must have automatically acquired a wide knowledge of places, events, unusual happenings and varied emotions. Charles Birkin has this advantage...."

This is all true, no doubt. The wide-ranging settings and types of characters are a pleasure appreciated (in fact I was put in mind of Barker's approach to Books of Blood 20 years later) and well-deployed. The baker's dozen of tales contained are ingenious clockwork toys, ready to snap and trap hapless folks within their merciless jaws. Which story element, I wondered while I read, will be the tripwire? I wanted to like the stories more than I did; I didn't mind that for many I could guess the twist; or the dated sociopolitical stances; or the lack of the supernatural (featured in a couple tales, and not very original at that). What I minded was the unremitting cruelty, the vagaries of fate that scoop characters up to dash them upon the rocks, the utter misanthropic (and often sexist and racist and homophobic) nature of each and every tale.

It's not that I dislike that merciless ironic last sentence-style reveal of an unimaginable horror; Birkin does it very well. But a whole book full of them makes for some dispiriting reading. Perhaps if I'd read a story here and there—indeed, I first read the title story over two years ago and enjoyed it on its own—I'd have been more satisfied. I don't know. Anyway, there were some positives. In "The Smell of Evil" a novelist on an island holiday learns of a horrific scheme to bilk a young mute heiress out of her inheritance. It's the only first-persona narrated work in the collection; its denouement benefits greatly from the technique, a reaction of rage against an unconscionable breach of trust.

"Text for Today" is a silly trifle of literal cannibalism set in Papua New Guinea; "The Godmothers" is kitchen-sink realism without mercy as it puts a child in grave danger. "Green Fingers" was my favorite of all: a well-observed story of a WWII Nazi officer and the unsuspecting woman he coolly romances. The twist crept up on me slowly as Birkin takes his time setting it up with an unforgiving depiction of self-deception and willful delusions. The original nature of zombies features in "Ballet Nègre" but feels icky for other reasons. "The Lesson" is kind of like a "Mad Men" party gone horrifically wrong (don't get drunk around children), while "'Is Anybody There?'" flirts with ghosts and psychic drama in an agreeable way. The brutal climax of "The Serum of Dr. White" is bitter and hopeless as a mysterious doctor attempts to treat a disfigured young girl.

Tandem UK edition, 1965

The teenage ruffians of "'Dance Little Lady'" could be right out of Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, but they go down one of the darkest paths known to humanity. The whisper of otherworldliness works well in "Little Boy Blue," another family on a holiday that ends in tragedy. "The Cornered Beast," meh, freak-show escapee. "The Interloper" is quite good in and of itself but its sexual politics are, um, troublesome: a tropical island of lesbians who've left civilization and men behind deal with a wounded man who stumbles ashore. At first it seems Birkin is showing some sympathy to women who've endured such humiliation and violence at the hands of men; the climax reveals otherwise, I think.

The final story, "The Cross," is a predictable bit of science-fiction that uses nonsense words to hide its turnabout. It's been done before. Throughout, Birkin's prose is unfailingly British: crisp, precise, mature, stuffy sometimes and irreverent at others. Fine with me. It's just that, as I said, the unforgiving quality, the bleak ends and meaningless deaths, the utter lack of humor, scares, wit, and/or creepiness (that Tandem UK paperback cover is irrelevant as well) add up to a work I'm not sure I'd recommend to readers of traditional horror fiction. Proceed, if at all, with caution.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

H.P. Lovecraft Born This Day in 1890