The Splatterpunk Files

The Young Turks at Horror's Cutting Edge
PART THREE: Splatterpunk Today: The Faces of the New Flesh-Clive Barker

(Text originally published in Nova Express, Volume 4 Issue 1, Summer 1988)

by Lawrence Person

[NOTE: The opinions expressed herein are those of the author. In fact, they are the opinions of the author as of 1988. HE may not even agree with himself these days. It is presented here in the context of its time.]

Clive Barker

While Somtow has largely abandoned the horror genre, Barker's work continues to be regarded as among the most important being produced in the field, and is still essential for anyone who wonders where horror (and splatterpunk) is going. Though none of his subsequent short stories have reached the heights he achieved in The Books of Blood, the three longer works he has produced (his two novels, The Damnation Game and Weaveworld, and the novella "The Hellbound Heart") all show both the intense vision and originality that he first displayed in The Books of Blood, plus strong and continued development of his writing style.

His first novel, The Damnation Game, displays Barker's style to good effect. Although only now finding its way to the American paperback market, The Damnation Game was first published (and started receiving praise) as an English hardback in 1985.

coverThe Damnation Game relates the tale of one-time thief and gambling addict Marty Strauss who is released from jail to work for Joseph Whitehead, a reclusive industrialist and multi-millionaire, as his bodyguard. However, during the course of his work Marty finds out that Mr. Whitehead is more than he appears to be, and is even now being pursue by someone called Mamoulian, who has the rather unsettling ability to re-animate the deadŠ.

The Damnation Game features all of the elements that rocketed Barker to prominence in the first place, and its scenes of violence are both horrific and graphic. One of Mamoulian's resurrects is a man named Breer, whose habits include swallowing razor blades, sticking pins through his genitalia, and a rather disturbing affection for little children. However Breer, and the rest of Mamoulian's unliving, do not realize that they are dead. The resulting scenes are quite chilling, such as the dead woman who can't understand the sticky spots on the couch where she sits down, nor the flies that congregate on her body. One especially ghastly scene is that of a re-animated dog rooting about for food and tearing off a hunk of its own rotting flesh.

But The Damnation Gamealso displayed Barker's new found brilliance at creating fantastic and evocative imagery. Indeed, since this novel came out his skill in crafting haunting and richly crafted images has developed to the point where he is second only to Anne Rice in the horror genre. One problem, However, is his inability to sustain this tone throughout the book. Indeed, he only succeeds fully in that task for a bare dozen pages or so, all of them set as the book opens in devastated, post-war Warsaw, Ahh, but for those dozen pages Barker is untouchable, his prose so far above anyone (save Rice) that it almost frightening.

However, the book is not without out its flaws. Though Barker's prose is as sharp as a knife, it is frequently as cold. There is a black under current of nihilism in this book, summed up in Whitehead's repeated contention that "Nothing is essential." Another problem is his continued weakness in characterization. Though we might find Marty's character slightly interesting, we find neither he (nor anyone else in the novel) particularly sympathetic. We feel very little for them when one of them dies-indeed, for the most part we feel nothing for them at all. They are merely food for the infernal, soulless machine that Barker has crafted, shadow players in a theatre of blood. Both of these problems combine to distance the reader from the novel, fostering a cool detachment rather than vital involvement.

Still, despite these flaws The Damnation Game was the best first novel the field had seen in a long time, and it is no surprise that it was both a World Fantasy and a Stoker Award nominee.

coverAnother World Fantasy Award nominee of Barker's was his novella "The Hellbound Heart," which appeared in Night Visions 3. Among the most literally bloody of Barker's works, "Hellbound Heart" relates the chilling (and cautionary) story of a jaded dilettante who went looking for the ultimate in sensuality-and found instead the doorway into eternal torment. In the opening scene Frank unfolds a intricate, finely crafted musical puzzle box that opens a doorway into another dimension, through which come four of the creatures known as the Cenobites. It is this opening (and the closing scene) which once again displays Barker's utterly bizarre and innovative genius, as the cenobites and the gift they bring are beyond the wildest dreams (or nightmares) of the most perverse S&M fetishist, creatures with chains and hooks not only attached but woven into their flesh, and whose idea of pleasure is eternal torture.

Unfortunately, the middle portion of this work consists mostly of rather tedious plotting as the ethereal entity of Frank (who is spiritually connected to the place of his demise, his late mother's house) conspires with his brother's wife (a one time lover) to escape his bondage (and regain his flesh) through bloody sacrifice. Although this part of the novella never actually drags, it does pale in comparison to the portions that bookend it. Still, it does show a definite development of Barker's skill at imagery.

And Weaveworld shows still further development of those talents. Though a fantasy rather than a horror novel, the undertones of the novel are as dark as the rest of Barker's output, with scenes as black and bloody as anything seen inside the horror genre itself. Weaveworld tells the modern fable of a world of magic that was woven into the fabric of a carpet to protect it against the prying eyes of a hostile world and a dark and malevolent force called The Scourge. Now, However, two sinister characters (a salesman named Shadwell and the Incantatrix Immaculata) seek to posses the carpet and sell it and its inhabitants into bondage to the highest bidder. Into this ongoing conflict falls (literally) Cal Mooney, a young man who catches a glimpse of the hidden world, and Suzanne Parrish, a decedent of its last guardian. Together they try to save the carpet from Shadwell's bitter doom.

coverThis book starts off well, then gets better and better until, at the first unfolding of the Weave, Weaveworldbecomes, for a while, a truly great novel. For that brief and shining moment, just under a hundred pages or so, this book is everything that an epic fantasy should be, as Barker's vision enchants and delights us with a magical world that truly is magical, a sparkling Wonderland so achingly beautiful that one can only stare at it agape, the excitement and wonder of childhood briefly re-experienced.

Alas, Barker is again unable to sustain that mood, capturing it only in that first third of the book (or, possibly for thematic reasons, does not wish to), and the rest of the book, though good and filled with well written incidents both chilling and heroic, never manages to reach those heights again.

Still, there is a lot to recommend the book beyond its moments of perfection. One is the skill of Barker's use of language. In the naming of his imaginary land and its accouterments, Barker deftly uses a number of image laden terms (spells are called Raptures, the weaveworld itself is called The Fugue, etc.) that unravel enchanting imagery in the reader's mind. Another is Barker's improved use of characterization. Though he still has a ways to go before coming near (for example) King's level, we at least care whether these people live or die. This is an improvement.

(By the way, if you get a chance buy the British hardback edition of this book put out by Collins. It features an absolutely stunning red and green cover done by Tim White that puts the American edition (and just about any other book published last year) to shame. In short, its a beeaauutiful book.)

Though Barker has not entirely abandoned the splatterpunk style that rocketed him to fame, he has supplemented it with a number of new found abilities, correcting his initial weaknesses and creating a style that combines the best of the stylistic school of horror with his previous strengths. As such, Barker's prose manages to be (in most cases) both stylistically fascinating and intensely compelling, making all of his works well worth reading.

to Part Four: Splatterpunk Today: The Faces of the New Flesh - Ray Garton
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