Following on from Monday’s post, here is the third part of a feature on work written and/or inspired by Clive Barker that originally appeared in Black Static #53:-
CLIVE BARKER (continued)
Barbie Wilde played the female Cenobite in 1988 film Hellbound: Hellraiser 2 and now that she’s exploring alternative career possibilities as an author has returned to these horror roots, with eleven stories collected in VOICES OF THE DAMNED (Short, Scary Tales Publications hc/pb, 224pp, £21.95/£13.49), including three linked stories that chronicle the adventures of a female Cenobite. As well as, presumably, his blessing for her use of his characters, Clive Barker has contributed the distinctive cover art plus a couple of interior illustrations. In fact there’s a full colour illustration to accompany each story, with sumptuous work from Ben Baldwin, Vincent Sammy, Daniele Serra, and Tara Bush, among others.
After an introduction by Fangoria editor Chris Alexander we get into things proper with Wilde’s first ever horror story, 2009’s ‘Sister Cilice’, the first part of ‘The Cilicium Trilogy’. It is the story of a young nun, Sister Veronica, who when she is unable to suppress her lustful urges resorts to physical chastisement, only to learn that pain is the greatest stimulant of all. The discovery of an occult grimoire is the key to her escape, as she summons the Cenobites and because of her capacity for pain is transformed into one of their number. Superficially, this is the tale of the making of a monster, one that comes to us dripping with blood and indulging in disciplines that Mr Grey never dreamt of, rich in imagery and absolutely devoid of restraint, but underlying that is a solid subtext about how perfectly natural desires, albeit not common urges, can be twisted into unhealthy paths when they are denied.
For reasons that are too complicated to explain in a review a bunch of ‘Zulu Zombies’ are unleashed on London in the next story and it’s up to a descendant of one of the survivors of Rourke’s Drift to take care of the situation with the help of a sorceress. This could have been rather silly, but Wilde keeps a grip on the plot and what we receive is an engrossing tale, with more than a touch of the old ultra-violence at the beginning, a diversion into history and shamanic magic in the middle, then more in your face violence and a wry end note that left me smiling. This wry humour is also evident in the next story ‘American Mutant’, in which evangelist Billy Bob sees the chance to hit pay dirt when his thirteen year old illegitimate son Mikey is dumped on him by the mother, only the special abilities that Mikey has soon run amok with disastrous results. It’s kind of like Bad Taste meets Billy Graham, with copious puking and fun being poked at televangelism, the character of Billy Bob placed under a microscope and found wanting, while there is a novel twist on the super power theme in two hander Mikey.
Jim in ‘The Alpdrucke’ has horrific dreams in which he is attacked by a hideous dwarf armed with a tennis racket strung with cheese wire, and now these attacks are spilling over into the real world, and so he seeks the help of a work colleague of his girlfriend who claims to know about such things, only there is another element of plotting going on. Again, there is a certain silliness to the nature of the demonic entity attacking Jim, albeit I expect the dwarf will prove unforgettable, but Wilde makes it work by not allowing her characters to take matters seriously, at least not until the blood starts to flow more copiously. The end result is another story that holds the interest completely, and then finishes off with one of those lovely little twisty and blackly comedic endings that Wilde appears to delight in. One of the two original stories in this collection, ‘Valeska’ is the name of a Seminal, a kind of vampire who feeds on semen, while others, the traditionalist Sanguines, feast on blood. The story details the origins of the two tribes, while pointing to a forthcoming war between them, and fascinating as all this is, it has about it the feel of an episode in an ongoing series, and I do hope that Wilde returns to the characters as they have the potential for something very interesting and different from the run of the mill vampire archetype, and of course there’s also, inevitable given a Seminal’s dietary requirements, a healthy dose of eroticism thrown into the mix.
Another tale of Sister Cilice, whose ambition now is to head her own order of female Cenobites, and by way of a recruiting device she gets the Toymaker to fashion ‘The Cilicium Pandorum’, a variation on the Lament Configuration box, one that transforms into a sex toy if correctly manipulated. It’s a fun story, one reeking of depravity and sexual perversion, but undercut by a unique perspective and joy in unholy invention, portraying a milieu in which pleasure and pain are hopelessly entangled, one seguing into the other. Name is destiny for the young girl who is the eponymous protagonist of ‘Gaia’, her life following a pattern of abuse and rape familiar from the Greek myths, culminating in madness and murder. To call it a fascinating study of mental aberration would be stretching things, as this is largely EC Comics style Psychology 101; rather it feels like the familiar story of home invaders getting their deserved comeuppance, here with the violence cranked up to the max and a backdrop in Greek mythology to add novelty to the story.
Imagine the alien had burst out of John Hurt’s anus instead of his chest and you’ll have an idea where ‘Polyp’ is coming from, as Vincent’s routine colonoscopy goes horribly wrong. Wilde here takes a normal medical procedure, albeit one that to many is also slightly alarming, and turns it into a slice of gonzo horror, with Vincent talking to his hideous progeny and murderous mayhem at the hospital where it came to life. With some black humour in the bloody mix, this is both a lot of fun and impossible to take seriously, a story that preys on our fears and plunges bloody hands into the corpus of body horror. In ‘Botophobia’ Lorraine returns to the family home after the death of her parents and decides to explore the locked room in the basement that had always been forbidden to her as a child, but nothing could prepare her for what lies behind the closed door. Again, this is pretty much gonzo horror, impossible to take seriously but at the same time hugely enjoyable for the sheer audacity of it all, like Plan 9 directed by the Carpenter of They Live rather than Ed Wood.
As everyone but the women themselves knows, horror writers are irresistible to female fans at conventions, and so we shouldn’t be surprised when the protagonist of the next story gets to fuck a four hundred year old witch as a possible cure for ‘Writer’s Block’. It’s a story rich in sex and double dealing, with an appearance by the Devil as its money shot, the kind of thing Dennis Wheatley would have produced in his heyday if he had been as racy as we all thought he was (at least I know what I mean by that statement). Finally we have ‘The Cilicium Rebellion’, with Sister Cilice’s revolt against the powers that be in Hell reaching a bloody climax, and an alliance with another demon that seems to provide her with all she desires. It’s a lively and inventive story, one with some larger than life characters, such as Eve, Lilith, and Joan of Arc, and a muted feminist subtext. By way of coda we have an afterword by the Soska sisters praising the author.
Wilde is not a subtle writer. Her sensibility is more that of a pulp author, with a side order of explicit sex, some perversions that won’t be found in the pages of De Sade, and more than enough gore to take up the slack if they ever do a remake of Saving Private Ryan. Her work is most definitely not for the squeamish, but the rest of us will have a lot of fun romping in her no doubt padded playroom. As to the book itself, though I’ve only seen a PDF, judging from that it’s a thing of beauty, and if your first interest is that of a collector, then check out the publisher’s website for details of the deluxe hardcover edition.
Barker has also provided the cover illustration for HORROROLOGY (Jo Fletcher Books hb, 384pp, £25), edited by Stephen Jones, plus fine line drawings that front each of the twelve stories in the book, one of which he wrote. And though the words come from editor Jones, there’s more than a little of Barker in the concept behind this anthology, laid out in two prose passages that bookend the body of this volume, revealing the existence of the Library of the Damned and an ominous tome entitled ‘The Lexicon of Fear’. In the twelve stories that follow, we get the definitions of a particular word from this lexicon, and then a story that illustrates that definition.
‘Accursed’ by Robert Shearman is the story of Susan Pitt who believes that every time she goes to the circus a clown dies, but when her sister passes away and niece Ruth comes to live with Susan and her husband Greg matters reach a head, and Susan begins to question whether the clown deaths were ever anything to do with her at all. This is a strange, quirky story, one that takes the familiar figure of the clown and turns it into something nightmarish as filtered through the guilt stricken eyes of Susan Pitt. Underlying the narrative is a subtext about the desire to be special, even when this is by virtue of something terrible, the realisation that personal happiness can hinge on something that is quite awful. Clive Barker contributes ‘Afraid’, a four page vignette in which a woman learns to deal with the discovery that her lover is not quite human, with a subtext that implies love can be magical, no matter the nature of our partner, just as long as we are prepared to commit ourselves fully.
Michael Marshall Smith’s interpretation of the theme ‘Afterlife’ gives us the picture of a man who has walked out on his old life to undertake a motor cycle tour of the United States, and his encounter with a strange woman who calls herself Hecate. It’s a witty, polished piece, one that offers a new interpretation of the Grim Reaper theme, a vision of what comes after death that is, in its own way, almost appealing. There’s an X-Files feel to ‘Chilling’ by Pat Cadigan with editor MillieLou and reporter Lucy as Mulder and Scully investigating when two people freeze to death in the middle of a heatwave. It’s an engrossing and thoroughly entertaining story, with the two lead characters beautifully realised on the page, the speculative nature of the one playing off against the common sense of the other, while they follow a trail of clues that lead to a tentative theory about the mysterious ways in which the world really works. Underlying it all, and in stark contrast to the generally playful tone, is a concept that involves sacrifice, one person dying for the greater good, here given a novel and peculiar twist.
Riaz, the protagonist of ‘Decay’ by Mark Samuels, is sent to discover the secret of Artificial Intelligence from a rogue scientist whose off the wall theories have shocked his peers. There are some fascinating ideas woven into the story, with a double whammy of end twists that have implications for both Riaz and the human race itself, while Samuels’ depiction of his down at heel hero, who is so wrapped up in his own importance that he can’t grasp the problems he faces in both his career and personal life, adds yet another dimension to the story. ‘Faceless’ by Joanne Harris is an oblique, esoteric story in which an old woman looks back at the adventure she had in a strange house as a child just after the death of her mother. It is both a vivid piece of writing, elusive and suggestive of so much more, and at its heart a celebration of life and memory, the ways in which we can live on past the moment of death.
Muriel Gray’s ‘Forgotten’ tackles the theme of witches, giving them a new identity as agents of balance, but using their magic at a terrible personal cost. For the protagonist of her story, the assignment forced on her by fate is to teach an over the top and arrogant celebrity the error of his ways. It’s a vibrant, original story, one that touches on themes of fame and personal responsibility, of how in this media saturated world our very existence can depend on public visibility, with a frisson of magic to power it all. One of the highlights of the book, ‘Guignol’ by Kim Newman is an audacious spin on the theatrical tradition from which the story takes its name, with three female operatives investigating a series of missing people at the behest of their employer, the Phantom of the Opera. And if anyone is thinking of Charlie’s Angels about now, then I’d have to say that you are bang on the money. It is a wonderful tale of derring do, informed by wit and wisdom, and revealing the cupidity and criminality of the ruling classes, the ways in which they seek to gratify every taste, no matter how base, with villains who bring to mind the four establishment pillars of Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom. I loved it.
A couple drive off the map and into trouble in Ramsey Campbell’s aptly titled ‘Nightmare’, a tale of steadily escalating weirdness that delivers a claustrophobic sense of unease as it rides along to a final twist of arch-madness. ‘Possessions’ by Reggie Oliver has a man inheriting the property of his deceased uncle, who was a famous photographer back in the day, and inspired by the painting of a beautiful former girlfriend to learn more of his uncle’s life and what went wrong for him. It’s an engrossing and meticulously plotted story, with each step leading surely on to the next, and then delivering a final twist that comes completely out of left field and yet seems entirely appropriate given what has gone before.
Alongside the Newman, my favourite in the anthology, Angela Slatter’s ‘Ripper’ is set in Victorian London and tells the story of a young woman who pretends to be a man and gets work as a police officer, finding herself involved in the search for Jack the Ripper. With impeccable characterisation, a vivid and convincing recreation of the period in which it’s set, and a different slant on the identity and motivation of the archetypal serial killer, this is a breathtakingly good story. Slatter uses her text as a vehicle to comment on the role of women in Victorian society, and in the person of her feisty heroine gives us a fine exemplar of sisters doing it for themselves. If it doesn’t win an award, then there is no justice. Finally we have ‘Vastation’ by Lisa Tuttle, which to me reads rather like the Lizzie Borden story given a supernatural twist, as a nineteenth century man of letters has his family home invaded by a demonic presence. It’s an intriguing tale, with the suggestion that the numinous constantly presses against the walls of our reality, needing only the slightest lapse to break through and corrupt the lives and memories of even the best among us. It brings this collection of superior horror stories to a dazzling end. There is nothing here that is without merit, and the best stories are among the finest of those I’ve read recently.
And if the asking price is too rich for your blood, then according to Amazon there’ll be a paperback edition along in September just in time for Halloween. It’s almost like they plan these things.