For a long time, every Clive Barker book came stamped with Stephen King’s approval, in the form of a pretty stellar endorsement: “I have seen the future of horror and his name is Clive Barker.” But over the years, that stamp came to mean less and less; Barker mellowed with age, and seemed less interested in the horrors of his early books and instead focused on visually astonishing fantasy worlds (Imajica and Abarat being the obvious go-tos here). Beyond that, Barker’s health has kept him from being as prolific as he once was; as a result, his once iconic presence in the genre has faded over the years, to the point where many these days haven’t even read a Barker work at all.
And yet, when you go back to Books of Blood, the short story collection that put Barker on the map, what you’ll find is that they’re every bit as horrifying, as groundbreaking, as unclassifiable, as astonishing – in other words, every bit as great – today as they were when they first burst onto the scene. And even now, nearly thirty years after they were first published, the tales in Books of Blood have lost none of their punch – they’re still terrifying; they’re still surreal and nightmarish; they still feel like nothing written before them, and almost nothing written after them.
Books of Blood is often hailed as the starting point for the “splatterpunk” movement, and that holds true; it’s hard to think of another short story collection, much less a debut, that’s this bloody, violent, and relentlessly disturbing. But more than simply collecting violence, Barker’s astonishing imagination pushes you into places you can’t imagine, and creates worlds that succeed from the way they push reality to its breaking point. The murderer stalking the subways in “The Midnight Meat Train,” for instance, is undeniably terrifying and brutal, but he pales in comparison to the horrors waiting at the end of the train line. The deceptively simple ghost story “Sex, Death, and Starshine” gives way to a ghoulish, horrific tableau by the end; similarly, the uneasy prison horrors of “Pig Blood Blues” are just an appetizer to the bizarre visions waiting at the end.
Indeed, the biggest takeaway from Books of Blood is the awe that Barker’s imagination inspires. In some ways, it’s clear that Barker works in the tradition of Lovecraft – there’s a healthy dose of fantasy and surrealism in his horror – but even that comparison falls short from the fantastical, surreal visions he brings to bear in his stories. The disturbing parade of “The Skins of the Fathers,” the title monster of “Rawhead Rex,” and maybe best of all, the truly nightmarish battle of “In the Hills, the Cities” – all of these defy any sort of description or classification. They’re undeniably horrific visions, but these aren’t easily categorized into zombies or vampires or even Lovecraftian nightmares. No, in Barker’s mind, we mix religious imagery, deeply sexual notions, astonishing theatricality of the Guignol tradition, and so much more, all into something wholly new. And Barker’s incredible, breathtaking prose brings it all to life, putting to lie Lovecraft’s idea that certain things simply aren’t describable. No, Barker describes it all, and even seeing some of these things through prose is enough to bring the reader to the edge of madness.
But even beyond the (horrific) violence and nightmarish, boundary-pushing visions, much of what makes Books of Blood so incredible is the thematic richness of each of the stories. It’s not enough for Barker to settle for simply scaring you. No, his stories illuminate real-world ideas, using his gory theater as a way of exploring bigger ideas. From allegories for societal conflict (“In the Hills, the Cities”) or the sacrifices of civilization (“The Midnight Meat Train”), from feminists seizing power (“Jacqueline Ess: Her Will and Testament”) or communities of outcasts bonding together (“The Skins of the Fathers”), from the appeal of film and escapism (“Son of Celluloid”) or the fear of primal religions (“Rawhead Rex”), Barker’s stories work on levels beyond the visceral terror and horror they bring to bear. Indeed, with Barker’s outspoken sexual politics (I can’t imagine what reading something this outspokenly gay was like in the early 80’s), fascinating views of society, and rich political ideas, Books of Blood works as much as social commentary as horror.
That being said, make no mistake: this is a horror collection, period. And to put it very simply, I think it’s one of the best – if not the best – short story horror collections ever written. These stories defy your expectations, your rules, your boundaries; they are written with a visual richness that cannot be overstated; they have imagination and sights unlike anything I’ve ever read; they are genuinely terrifying, wholly disturbing, darkly comic, surprisingly heartfelt, and nightmarishly gory. They will terrify you, they will break your brain, and they will expand what you thought horror could contain. They are every bit as good now as they ever were, and an absolute essential for any serious fan of horror fiction, period.