Stephen King once said, “I have seen the future of horror and his name is Clive Barker.” Throughout the years, Mr. King’s statement has proven to be true. Barker’s work has survived the decades, spanning generations with original dreams and nightmares. Today, many modern horror authors, myself included, cite Barker as an inspiration.
With over twenty books, his works vary from fantasy to splatterpunk to young adult. Secure with the title, Professional Imaginer, Barker maintains a poetic vocabulary unlike any other. Even when describing the darkest subjects, he can transform their evil into forbidden beauty.
In this blog, I will focus on some of Barker’s most brutal visions. Ones that excel beyond horror and enter the realm of splatterpunk. Yet, they maintain a charming splendor. If one has never read Barker, and they are strong stomached, these books are ideal for beginners.
“The Damnation Game” is Barker’s first novel. Since it followed his infamous “Books of Blood,” it parallels an equal ferocious style. For those questioning how gruesome this novel could be, ponder no further. Bound in its pages are subjects of incest, animal abuse, and mutilation. However, those taboos are just the tip of the iceberg.
In the prologue, a sinister alchemist named Mamoulian emerges in the shadow of death. By some, he is known as, the Card Player, due to his unbeatable gambling skills. Similar to the cenobite’s puzzle box, or Katya’s wall, Mamoulian’s preferred weapon is a deck of cards. Throughout the illustrated deck are scenes of child abuse, bestiality, and torture. The objective is simple if one dares to gamble Mamoulian. If the gambler loses, they lose their soul. If the gambler wins… Well, no one truly wins. Except during World War II, a young man, Joseph Whitehead, bargains with Mamoulian. Thinking he has the upper hand, Joseph strikes a deal that allows him to live a prosperous life.
After the prologue, chapter one progresses in current time and introduces a parolee, Marty. Having completed his prison sentence, Marty has accepted the job as Joseph Whitehead’s bodyguard. By this time, Mr. Whitehead has grown into his senior and has become one of the wealthiest men alive. While living at Mr. Whitehead’s mansion, Marty begins to encounter bizarre supernatural attacks. During these horrors, Marty learns of Mr. Whitehead’s bargain and how it’s time for him to pay his dues. Still, Mr. Whitehead won’t bow to the debt he owes, which causes Mamoulian to kill those closest to him. Considering Mr. Whitehead’s sociopathic lifestyle, these deaths are irrelevant.
Deciding he’s in over his head, Marty tries to avoid further involvement. Yet, plans change upon learning that Mr. Whitehead’s daughter, Carys, is next on Mamoulian’s kill list. Determined not to let another innocent suffer, Marty takes control. At last, it’s time for Mr. Whitehead to pay his debt in full.
Throughout the chapters, the serial killer, Anthony Breer, AKA the Razor Eater, snakes into plot. Such as Mr. Whitehead, he too has dabbled with Mamoulian, yet he remains in good graces. Although we don’t see as much of Breer as the other characters, his role is important nonetheless.
I was spellbound by the approach Barker took with this modern day Faustian tale. It provided originality with concept, weapon, and layered characters. Yet, aside from entertainment, “The Damnation Game” addresses something of a greater value. In a strong voice, its message presents various levels of greed and addiction codependency.
With a catalytic punch, Mamoulian, Mr. Whitehead, and Breer personifies the strongest addict. I say this because they gamble on the most important gift of all – life (theirs and others). Also, like extreme addicts, they don’t care who suffers, as long as their needs are met.
Carys represents the moderate addict with her heroin use. Unlike her father, or Mamoulian, she harms no one but herself. In comparison to her father, whose addiction has become unreasonable, she maintains sensibility. All she requires is the correct guidance.
Marty has also suffered from addiction; gambling to be precise. Representing the rehabilitated addict, he has grown to appreciate the value of life and living life to its fullest. Compared to the other characters, he has a stronger willpower. One that implies he will continue to straighten out his wayward life and help those who are worthy of his assistance.
Another message “The Damnation Game” provides is how everybody is responsible for their own actions; specifically, temptations and downfalls. In this concept, there is no devil with a pitchfork jabbing humanity to act in chaos or destruction. Rather one’s freewill is the true instigator. My favorite quote in “The Damnation Game” that sums this concept up is as follows. “Every man is his own Mephistopheles, don’t you think?”
“Coldheart Canton” is like a garden of evil that is in full, brutal bloom. Complete with ghosts, demons, deformed spawns, and more, this is Barker like we have never seen him. Among the madness, this work reflects the internal struggle of good and evil, and satirizes corrupt, hedonistic celebrities.
The prologue opens in the 1920s and presents an ancient wall painted by the Queen of Hell, Lilith. Covering its every inch are graphic depictions of no limits sex and torture. Upon learning of its existence, actress Katya Lupi, decides she must own the relic. Due to her wealth, she and her agent, William Zeffer, gain possession of the artifact. Next, they transfer the wall from the Romanian monastery, where it has resided, to her Hollywood mansion on Coldheart Canyon. After completing instillation, she names the room in which it stands, the Devil’s Country. Thereafter, the room lives up to its name and provides a vast wilderness of erotic terror.
Once the prologue concludes, the novel progresses into the millennium. Here, Barker introduces aging movie star, Todd Pickett, who recently laid his fateful dog to rest. To worsen matters, while grieving for his pet, he has suffered a botched plastic surgery. With no other choice but to enter hiding, his agent, Maxine, books him a location for recovery. What could either be by chance, or Maxine’s apathy, she sends Todd to Katya’s abandoned mansion. Although Todd is unaware of the mansion’s formidable history, he soon learns of its dreaded past.
As Todd enters into a state of debauchery, ghastly spiritual manifestations occur. Most of his encounters regard himself and Katya Lupi’s ghost, who temps his hedonism. Other, more hellish confrontations flourish throughout the gardens surrounding Coldheart Canyon. Amongst this anti-Eden, he meets an orgy of ghosts. Also roaming about are deformities that have been spawned from the spirits practicing bestiality. These abominations emerge, smeared between spirit and dog, spirit and deer, and more. Yet, the worst entity in the canyon is the actual son of Satan.
Rather than fleeing, Todd becomes seduced by Katya’s ghost. In short time, he submits to her instigations and acquires a debased sexual appetite. As it seems like Todd is a goner, his number one fan, Tammy, comes to the rescue.
Not since “The Damnation Game” has Barker created a piece so appalling. Yet, despite its brutality, elegant words dominate the scenarios with intellectual poise. Aside from style and genre originality, the book’s most enjoyable element is its character development.
The sympathy that Todd influences, and the strength that Tammy demonstrates, mirrors raw humanity. Yet, between the two, Todd is more relatable. He wishes to be a part of a society that he doesn’t fully grasp, and, at times, rejects him. Due to his disconnection, his dog receives his full emotional investment. Of course, upon his pet’s death, he is heartbroken. More-so because he believes his pet was the only one who loved him unconditionally. In his vulnerable state, it is easy to see how he falls victim to Katya’s ways.
Opposing him is Tammy, the number one fan who has reached stalker level status. However, she isn’t like Stephen King’s Anne Wilkes. Instead, she’s hoping for a glimpse into Todd’s life, which she receives while in the canyon. Realizing Todd is in trouble, she risks her own sanity and life to save him.
The combining elements between word, story, and character grant an overall powerful message. It is one that reflects depression and not realizing one’s own complete value. A more important reoccurring theme is mortality acceptance. Even in the acknowledgements of “Coldheart Canyon,” Barker notes Todd was an outlet for himself. In reality, during this time, Barker mourned the recent loss of his own dog.
“Tortured Souls: The Legend of Primordium” is Barker’s most bizarre work since “The Hellbound Heart.” Without a doubt, the characters and scenarios in this book pay homage to the cenobites from long ago. However, in comparison to “The Hellbound Heart,” this work differs. Whereas “The Hellbound Heart” only portrayed sadistic evils, this work depicts two evils. One of which is heroic and vengeful and the other is power hungry.
Beginning with a Genesis theme, Barker introduces an unforgettable deity named Agonistes. Unlike the Bible, which states God rested on the seventh day, Agonistes argues otherwise. As a matter of fact, on God’s supposed day of rest, he was busy making darker forces, such as Agonistes. To support this argument, Agonistes bears “the fingerprints of God.”
As one learns of Agonistes, it is hard to distinguish if he is truly good or evil. Since he does nothing against anyone’s will, he isn’t a true villain. Instead, he is a grand surgeon with the ability to transform those who seek his assistance. While focused on helping scorned persons achieve vengeance, many visit him, requesting nightmarish modifications. Even still, Agonistes provides fair warning that once operation begins, he can’t stop. If one still desires modification, they will undergo his knife. Since Agonistes operates without sedation, or anesthetic, any goodness he harbors begins to vanish.
After introducing Agonistes, the city of Primordium receives its backstory. Overall, it is a poverty-stricken land ran by a corrupt government. Early on, an assassin is hired to kill Primordium’s senator and overthrow the monarch. Being the star of this novella, the assassin succeeds. To ensure this empire topples, the assassin’s new lover, Lucidique, brings him to Agonistes. Once modified, the assassin becomes known as a creature named the Scythe-Meister.
Hence forward, the novella receives a horror-based superhero theme. Accompanying the story’s heroes, Barker invents Dr. Talisac as a supervillain. Assisting him is a goliath assassin, Venal Anatomica, who is a creature so hideous that he gives the nightmares themselves nightmares.
I fell in love with this book from beginning to end. It is a fast paced, splatterpunk, thrill ride that isn’t for the faint of heart. The depth of its social message proves one can achieve gore and intellect within the same page. It also proves one can maintain the flowery verbiage of a true wordsmith while writing of depravity. Although governmental corruption isn’t new to literature, it has never received this harsh perspective.
If these characters seem familiar, it’s because they originated from McFarlane’s figurine collection, “Tortured Souls.” Popularized in the early millennium, these grotesque works of art were available wherever toys were sold. Accompanying them was the serialization of “Tortured Souls: The Legend of Primordium.” Unlike Barker’s other works that are available in multiple formats, this compilation is only available in ebook and audio. Despite a few print copies floating around through individual sellers, the price is astronomical.
In prior interviews, Barker has considered himself to be a professional imaginer. If one were to question his worthiness of this title, I would have to question if they have ever experienced his work. In this blog, I have only focused on his most brutal visions, yet he has created books suitable for young adults. For those who wish for something whimsical, without gore and extreme violence, read “Abarat,” or “The Thief of Always.”