The Book of Blood
“The dead have highways. They run, unerring lines of ghost-trains, of dream-carriages, across the wasteland behind our lives, bearing an endless traffic of departed souls. Their thrum and throb can be heard in the broken places of the world, through cracks made by acts of cruelty, violence and depravity. Their freight, the wandering dead, can be glimpsed when the heart is close to bursting, and sights that should be hidden come plainly into view.”
This is something of a statement of purpose for Barker, and establishes the tone and style that will anchor the rest of the work. We have a secret mystical world, unknown but intertwined with our ordinary rational existence, and a window into the world opened up through lust. We also have a young man who brushes up against that world and is disfigured by it in a way both intimate and imbued with meaning. And a relationship twisted around this disfigurement in a way that is perverse, but also played as genuine. A sense of longing and loss, and of intimacy won through violation.
Plotwise this is about as straight forward as Barker gets, and the characters here are thinly drawn, little more than conduits for lust. But I think that’s fitting for a framing device, and the sense of atmosphere is very strong.
I also like the way Barker introduces the concept of a book of blood, as though it were a thing everybody’s heard of. He has a way of pulling you into the mythology, of making it all feel authentic and familiar and natural.
Midnight Meat Train
Here’s something with a bit more plotting, a bit more character work. A bit more meat on the bones, as it were.
I’m really impressed with Barker’s control of tone in this story. He moves between a playfulness and the visceral gorey reality very deftly, and he keeps the characters human enough to be engaging, but not so close to let the story slip into tragedy. This story also contains what I think is Barker’s funniest line in this volume;
“Then the hand was out of his mouth and the scarlet, spittle-covered fingers were in front of his face, with his tongue, held between thumb and forefinger.
Kaufman was speechless.”
I’m also fond of Barker’s description of New York early on,
“He had seen her wake in the morning like a slut, and pick murdered men from between her teeth, and suicides from the tangles of her hair. He had seen her late at night, her dirty back streets shamelessly courting depravity. He had watched her in the hot afternoon, sluggish and ugly, indifferent to the atrocities that were being committed every hour in her throttled passages.”
Mostly this is a story where Barker is showing he can do the basics. Crazed killer, gruesome murders, ghouls, a lovecraftion monster, a well delivered twist. Barker gets a lot of mileage out of bodies as meat, and there’s a nice little thriller plot before the twist kicks in. I think it’s interesting that Kaufman has only been in New York for 3 months, though he thinks of himself as a jaded local. Ultimately really belonging to the city means accepting the violence and suffering around him, and learning to shut up about it.
We also see something else that pops up here and there in Barker’s work, which is that he doesn’t like cops. This probably has something to with why Barker’s horrors are so rarely an invading force, and so much more often about stumbling across the sadistic order underlying our existence. Even a Subway Butcher is a cog in the machine.
The Yattering And Jack
A demon attempts to torment the most boring man alive. Not a ton to say about this one, but it’s a fun story. Stretching the tone here is good, and it helps reassure us that the playfulness and humor in the other stories is intentional.
This was adapted for a Tales of the Darkside
Pig Blood Blues
“You could smell the kids before you saw them”
This is my favorite story of the collection. I love its nastiness. There’s no room for gentle human compassion with any of the characters here. The arguably titular ex-cop and would-be audience surrogate is dim and cruel and what little heroism he attempts is motivated by his peodiphilic attraction to one of the boys. Dr Leverthal, the liberal reform minded warden and would-be voice of reason is hardly better. She’s willing to turn a blind eye to the abusive gangs because she too is sleeping with one of the boys. Even our would-be victim is a part of a cannibalistic cult. I love when horror is able to pull off that shift from hero to chump.
Barker does a great job setting up the detective story and letting it slowly sink into the uncanny. And yet again all the details of the weird little cult are just right. Just enough specificity to feel authentic, just vague enough to feel like a real thing you might stumble across without ever really understanding.
Thematically, this feels richer than our first few stories. We have the institutionalized cruelty of the juvenile system with the direct cruelty of Redman (fired from the police because “they wouldn’t let me do what I do best”) juxtaposed against the negligence of Dr Leverthal. There’s also a bit of a play on Lord of the Flies, with the boys turning to a strange pig cult and ritualistic murder even under a rigid authoritarian system. The whole setting is such a suffocatingly cruel place with only Lacey’s brief letter to his mother as a suggestion that there might be some kind of human compassion out there.
Sex, Death, And Starshine
I feel like this would have made a great Vincent Price movie. It’s an enjoyable enough story but I think it’s a bit slight for how long it runs.
In The Hills, The Cities
“They locked together, limb around limb, tongue around tongue, in a knot only orgasm could untie”
This is the real gem of the collection. This is such a unique, even silly, concept and Barker ends up pulling something really haunting out of that final choice of being swept up in the madness or dying alone. This dilemma, of touching something beyond your understanding, being transformed by it, and having to choose between giving up your humanity or or giving up your life, is at the heart of all of Barker’s best work.
The story plays off two metaphors, but doesn’t let itself get tied down to either, and ends up being a much more interesting piece of writing because of it.
The first metaphor is the political, the giants as communist projects now crumbling as the town leadership ages past their best years. The setting is Yugoslavia, the two protagonists open the story bickering about politics, and the conservative flees the collective to die alone while the more left leaning man loses himself in the movement. A lot of horror stories have been rooted in a fear of communism, but Barker avoids the thin cliches (communism as conformity, communism as brainwashing) and gets to something a bit meatier. The willingness for individuals to sacrifice themselves for greater collective glory, rather than greater collective good, is an interesting angle. And Barker’s wistfulness around his monsters creates a haunting ending, a real sense of loss for everyone and everything involved.
The second metaphor, and probably the stronger one, is that of a relationship. Disparate people becoming one doomed masochistic whole. And characters drawn to this, because the alternative is to die alone and be forgotten.
But there’s also the surface of the story. The gore, the mass death, the loss of sanity. Barker doesn’t lose sight of making sure the story works of this basic functional level, and this allows those metaphors to open up in a way a simple parable would not. This is something a lot of horror writers and filmmakers could learn from. I also love the ending of this one. Staying with Judd’s corpse instead of following the giant. The mechanical aspect of nature and of the human body is such a rich vein for horror.
Boom —Boom —Popolac walked, the noise of its steps receding to the east. Popolac walked, the hum of its voice lost in the night. After a day, birds came, foxes came, flies, butterflies, wasps came. Judd moved, Judd shifted, Judd gave birth. In his belly maggots warmed themselves, in a vixen’s den the good flesh of his thigh was fought over. After that, it was quick. The bones yellowing, the bones crumbling: soon, an empty space which he had once filled with breath and opinions. Darkness, light, darkness, light. He interrupted neither with his name.