The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman / *****

Screenshot 2017-12-06 09.41.45I first read The Golden Compass (known originally in Great Britain as Northern Lights, but retitled for its American release) in college, for a course in children’s and adolescent literature, and I was immediately swept up into Philip Pullman’s incredible, imaginative, astonishing world. I didn’t know anything about the series – not the controversy that it had attracted, not Pullman’s goal of making a children’s series that served as a response to C.S. Lewis’s allegorical Narnia novels, not even how many books the series would be. All I knew is that I loved this world, these characters, and the imagination on display, and before I had even finished the novel, I rushed out to the bookstore and bought the concluding two volumes in the series (wonderfully, I was assigned the book right after the long wait for volume three finally ended).

Now, with the release of a new book in this world (The Book of Dust, which I’m beyond excited to read), I decided to revisit Pullman’s trilogy, to see if it held up as well as I remember, and to focus as much on the craft and themes this time as I did the story on my first readthrough. And here’s the good news: The Golden Compass is even better than I remember, telling its original, unpredictable story with style and grace, creating a book that’s undoubtedly for young audiences without ever being condescending, and yet packed with enough nuance and thought to be satisfying for any adult reader. (In some ways, it’s the original Pixar film that way.) It’s exciting, funny, graceful, thoughtful, original, and just a pure blast to read.

To try to explain the plot is complicated, not least because so much depends on this intricate world that Pullman has built, where the Church reigns over most of the civilized world, where technology has a somewhat steampunk feel, and most strikingly, where all humans are constantly accompanied by their “daemons” – spirit animals, for lack of a better term, but ones that serve as an extension/embodiment of their souls. When you’re a child, your daemon shifts and flits between moods; as you grow and mature, it settles into a given shape that says much about you. And while that seems like a simple enough conceit, Pullman packs it with metaphorical richness, from the way it gives windows into characters we don’t fully know the truth of to the way it becomes a metaphor for aging and maturity – one of the key themes of the book.

Indeed, at its heart, The Golden Compass – and the entire His Dark Materials trilogy – is about growing up and maturing, and the accompanying changes that come with that. The series is primarily driven around the quest to understand Dust, an elementary atomic particle that seems to change its behavior based off of the age and maturity of a child. And while the exact nature of what Dust is – or, at least, what it may be – only becomes clear as the book continues, it becomes understandable very quickly that this ranges into theological territory, with questions of sin, evil, and the “knowledge of good and evil” coming into play. Which brings us to the deeper question: how do you keep children safe from the corrupting influence of sin? More importantly, should you?

If that sounds heavy, it should; Pullman’s trilogy is engaged in nothing less than theological debate, first as subtext, and then by text. And yet, while the content is evidently there from the early going, nothing in The Golden Compass ever makes the book feel preachy or bludgeoning; instead, what you get is an astonishing adventure, as our heroine Lyra – a scrappy, determined, outspoken young girl who grows up as the adopted child of Oxford University, more or less – goes in quest of her uncle. Along the way, Pullman brings in witches, aeronauts, a compass that taps into Dust to understand the reality of the world, and most memorably, polar bears, who live in an honor-bound society where their armor and battle is as much a part of them as Lyra’s daemon is.

That all of this happens in less than 300 pages shouldn’t work; that so much depends on us buying into Pullman’s world and understanding its taboos and the importance of daemons, even less so. And yet, miraculously, it does, thanks in no small part to Pullman’s rich prose, which plunges us so deeply into Lyra’s view that it’s hard not to get swept up into it. Nor does it hurt that Pullman’s imagination is so rich, and his pacing so fast; The Golden Compass absolutely moves, never shirking its characters, but never letting time pass without some new wonder, some thoughtful discussion, some incredible sequence. It’s one of the richest, most compelling fantasy settings around, and a forerunner for so much of the YA that’s become so popular in the wake of Harry Potter and Twilight.

The thing is, though? It’s almost definitely better than most of that YA, up to and including even chunks of Potter. (Blasphemy, I know. But read The Golden Compass and then come tell me it’s not better than, say, Chamber of Secrets). If you’ve never read it, you’re going to be blown away by it, I promise you; jump in and understand why this series captivates so many, and why it resonates so many years later.

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The Drawing of the Three, by Stephen King / ****

This is the second entry in my re-read of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, following my review of The Gunslinger. As a reminder, I’ll be reviewing the book on its own terms in the review; after the review concludes, I will be discussing the book’s connections to the rest of the series to come in the section entitled “All Things Serve the Beam.”


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One of my least favorite tropes in sci-fi and fantasy novels is the idea of characters showing up in the “real” world. I’ve always hated that sort of “fish out of water” story, with its wacky misunderstandings, vocabulary clashes, heavy-handed moral lessons that often result, and so forth. And maybe that’s part of why I had never really liked The Drawing of the Three as much most of the other Dark Tower fans – that instinctive dislike of that genre and its shortcomings.

And so it was sort of a relief to re-read Drawing of the Three and remember how little of that element there is to the novel. Yes, Roland has a few moments where he comments on the weirdness of this “modern” world; yes, there are a few silly misunderstandings (the neon tower sign is the one that bugs me more than the others); but for the most part, The Drawing of the Three is anchored in its characters – not just Roland, but those who he is drawing – the three deeply flawed characters drawn into the orbit of our deeply flawed hero.

As he did in The Gunslinger, King populates his fantasy series with characters who inhabit a wonderfully murky, grey moral area. Even with the first figure drawn from our world, King gives us a co-dependent heroin addict who’s smuggling drugs – not exactly a standard fantasy figure. And that pattern repeats with each of the next drawings, where King gives us broken, even horrific people, and tries to give us empathy and feeling for each of them. They – along with the coldly ruthless Roland, still willing to do whatever it takes to stay alive and to succeed in his quest – are our protagonists, and it’s another sign that King’s mythic fantasy quest isn’t going to be like many others.

But what makes The Drawing of the Three a strong second entry in the series is the reminder of how great King has become at storytelling since that young, inexperienced man wrote The GunslingerThe Drawing of the Three feels like multiple books shoved into one, mixed wildly together – there are thrillers and dramas, crime novels and fantasy worlds, all shoehorned together into a strange, alien world that doesn’t always give us answers. (Indeed, one of the best things about the book is how little explanation is there for the drawing and the mechanics that surround it.) But no matter where the story is taking us, King makes it move, constantly ratcheting up tension, shifting the stakes of the conflicts, leaving us to question what it will mean to survive and succeed. Even better, he makes the characters’ evolutions intrinsic to the plot, making the drawing part of the shaping of their lives and their destinies.

None of which is to say that The Drawing of the Three is perfect. There is absolutely no denying the weirdness and discomfort of King’s racial choices when it comes to Detta Walker; while King makes the exaggerated caricature a conscious choice and has the characters themselves comment on the awfulness of it, it doesn’t make it less distasteful. (There’s a sense that, if King were to revise this one as he did The Gunslinger, he might make more of an effort to explain exactly what has turned Detta into such a hateful stereotype – there’s an explanation there, but it’s never made concrete in this novel.) And while it’s generally a good choice to lean into the inexplicable, alien nature of the doors, the way King uses them to resolve one character’s arc/dilemma ultimately feels a bit odd and shoehorned in – again, a rare case when a tiny bit more exposition might help things out a little bit.

For all of that, though, I think I better understand The Drawing of the Three‘s appeal for so many fans. I still don’t love it the way I love the rest of the series – it feels like a transitional book, and a stage-setting one at times – but there’s little denying that after the bleak, strange atmosphere of The Gunslinger, this second book feels like momentum is building in the series, and gives us characters we can more easily identify with than our strange, stark protagonist.

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“All Things Serve the Beam” (series spoilers follow) Continue reading “The Drawing of the Three, by Stephen King / ****”

The Gunslinger, by Stephen King / *****


Introductory note: It’s been a little over a decade since the release of the last novels in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, and every bit as long since I’ve read them. In fact, setting aside my reading of the revised edition of The Gunslinger, it’s been probably 15-20 years since I’ve read some of the Dark Tower books, despite my deep love for the series. So, with the release of the film later this year, I’ve decided to do a re-read of the entire series, as well as The Wind through the Keyhole after I read the original seven. It’s an undertaking I’m looking forward to, even though I’m worried that the series won’t live up to my love and affection for it.

One more key note: after each main review, I’ll do a section headed “All Things Serve the Beam,” in which I’ll discuss some spoilers for the series as a whole for those like me who’ve read it all or know how things turn out. I’ll mark it pretty clearly, but don’t read that section if you’re not wanting the series beyond this book spoiled for you.


the_gunslinger2The Gunslinger is a strange book, by any standards. That goes doubly if you’re reading the original version (which I recommend), but even if you’re reading King’s revised version that came out, The Gunslinger doesn’t quite feel…well, like a Stephen King book, yes, but really, it doesn’t feel like much else.

But for me, that’s much of what drew me into the world of The Dark Tower, and that goes doubly for King’s original version of the book, which is starker, less polished, and less familiar. It’s undeniably the work of a younger author, one who hadn’t honed his craft yet, and yet whose imagination and mind are truly like little else out there. Mixing together Sergio Leone, King Arthur tales, horror novels, and post-apocalyptic fiction, The Gunslinger puts us into a world that, as so many characters repeat, “has moved on.” This is not a vivid or rich world; it is a world that is dying, and dying rapidly.

And yet, the gunslinger – Roland Deschain – exists, and stays true to his quest. Despite the death of the world, despite the fact that he’s a forgotten relic of a bygone time, he clings to his quest – and there’s something primal and archetypal in that for me, a story of a knight on a pointless quest that has echoed into modern books I love like The Last Policeman or The Devil’s Detective, and no doubt, some of it started here.

Except, of course, that Roland isn’t a typical hero. It’s something I hadn’t considered entirely until this read, but King didn’t just borrow the style and grandeur of Leone’s spaghetti Westerns; he borrowed the amorality of its hero, giving us a hero who cares about his quest first and foremost, and finds all other attachments ultimately expendable. Roland is not the brightest character, not the warmest, not the most noble – but he is dedicated, and there is something fascinating about that, to no small degree. (King’s revised version seems to make Roland a little softer around the edges, and it’s my least favorite aspect of the revisions; Roland is a cold-blooded son of a bitch, and I think the original version of the novel stays true to that more clearly.)

The Gunslinger is a short book; it’s a foray into a strange world, an introduction more than a true entry in the series. And yet, there’s something so strange, so alien, so haunting about it that I still love it, all these years later. And while I understand King’s desire to revise the book (more on that in a moment), I love the stilted, uncomfortable nature of the original, and its rawness. It’s a magnificent first entry in a unique series, and a microcosm of what’s to come: not always perfect, but always unique and off-kilter, and the product of a mind incapable of doing the expected.


rehost2f20162f92f142f9bdfb44b-07d8-4df9-88d7-f78648933abeThe Revised Edition: After reading the original draft, my plan had been just to check out some of the edits, but I ended up reading the revised version the day after I finished the original. King’s choice to revise the novel is entirely a sensible one; his argument, that he always goes back and revises the openings of his novels to fit the work entire, is a logical one, and there’s little denying that the revised version of the book better fits the tone of the series as a whole. More than that, setting aside the numerous continuity fixes, the revised version feels more like the author we know, and the author who concluded the series – for better and for worse. There’s a better sense of where the story is going, and how it fits together, and who Roland is. More to the point, there’s a far better sense of who Jake Chambers is; his portrayal in the revised version is far richer and more interesting, turning the character into someone who feels out of place in Roland’s world and not just of a piece with the strangeness.

For all of that, though, and even though I’ll concede that the revised Gunslinger is no doubt a better sell for the series for new readers, I can’t deny my preference for the unpolished, rough edges of the original novel. The Dark Tower is as much a snapshot of where King was as an author and a person over the course of the many years that went into the pieces, and there’s something magical about seeing King’s talent in its original form. More than that, the strange, alien feeling of the original text is more haunting in many ways than the more fully-realized version that we get in the revised. Is the revised more true to the series…but it’s the original that made me a fan.

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All Things Serve the Beam (series spoilers follow) Continue reading “The Gunslinger, by Stephen King / *****”

Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley / *****

bravenewworld_firsteditionIt’s been maybe 15-20 years since I first read Brave New World, Aldous Huxley’s iconic dystopian novel about a society engineered from birth for stability and calm. At the time I read it, I was a bit disappointed; while the world Huxley created was interesting, I couldn’t help but hold the novel up against Orwell’s 1984 and find it lacking. Mind you, some of that had to be Orwell’s themes of language and words – catnip for an English major – but even so, I largely dismissed Brave New World as a lesser, less interesting book, and moved on.

Coming back to it all this time later (and putting it more in its proper chronology, as a work that could not have helped but to influence Orwell), there’s no denying that I underrated Brave New World in many ways, even if I still don’t love it the way many do. Like many dystopian novels, the central premise of the novel – the astonishing society that Huxley has created – can’t help but overshadow the middling plot, which feels a bit haphazard at times, and undeniably becomes didactic and preachy at others. (Before you say it: re-reading 1984 last year reminded me that Orwell has his own issues with plot and preachiness, to be sure. So I’m well aware of the issues.)

But for all of that, none of it really keeps Brave New World from feeling astonishingly ahead of its time – vivid, modern, and frighteningly relevant in so many ways. From the mass-produced entertainments to a tiered society engineered from birth to keep people in their proper place, from a medicated calm to a need to consume every new product, Brave New World doesn’t just feel relevant; it feels prophetic, hitting hard in ways that I didn’t remember or appreciate on that first read. Much of that, of course, comes to the ways that Huxley spends so many early chapters immersing us in his strange world: touring the birth centers, hearing the methods used to build castes, eavesdropping in on the sleep teachings – all of it helps to build Huxley’s vision of a world dedicated to stability, order, and structure. And that’s before we start dipping our toes into the bizarre sexuality on display at any given point…

So where does Brave New World fall short? For much of the early going, it’s great, giving us a Winston Smith-style hero who doesn’t fit in to this society, and wants to push against it all in ways both quiet and outspoken. It’s when Huxley abruptly shifts us to a new protagonist, I think, that the book stumbles; it ends up feeling like a jarring swap, a bump that throws out our investment in Bernard and this world, and forces us into a new perspective more closely aligned with our own feelings about this place. If anything, this secondary protagonist is a stronger one, and a more gripping one…so why take so long to introduce him, and why leave Bernard behind to the degree that we do? It’s a frustrating choice, and one that I still think holds the book back from being as great as it could be.

But, still, for all that, Brave New World earns its place in the canon and then some, simply by virtue of its rich imagination, and the thoroughness of its world. Even beyond that, there’s the intriguing character beats – I had forgotten, for instance, the way that one character’s dialogue so heavily draws on Shakespearean allusions, but done in such a way that it constantly reflects on the character in ways both direct and indirect. There are the religious themes, the economic comments, the blending of sex and violence – Huxley’s book is nothing if not ambitious, and if it can’t always tie it all together, you can’t help but forgive it for making the attempt in the first place. No, Brave New World doesn’t work flawlessly; no, it doesn’t quite hold up to Orwell’s towering achievement. But taken on its own terms, it’s a fascinating, ambitious, incredibly rich book, and one that’s hard to imagine the current wave of dystopian fiction existing without.

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Hogfather, by Terry Pratchett / *****


“All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.”

REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.

“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—”

YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.

“So we can believe the big ones?”

YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.

“They’re not the same at all!”

YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET—

Death waved a hand.

AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME…SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.

“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point—”

MY POINT EXACTLY.”

– Terry Pratchett, Hogfather


34532There may never again be another author like Terry Pratchett, and that’s a true, crushing loss for us, not only as readers, but just as human beings. Because, you see, if you’ve never read Terry Pratchett – well, first of all, you’re missing out. But if you’ve never read Pratchett, you may think you know what you’re missing out on. You may hear how funny he is – and he is undeniably that – or how wonderful Discworld is as a blending of the issues of our world and Pratchett’s wondrous fantasy creation, and you think, okay, I get it.

But what you don’t understand until you read Pratchett was how profound and humane he could be, and how astonishingly complex his seemingly “silly” stories could be. After all, who else could take the concept of Hogfather – in which Death takes over for Discworld’s version of Santa Claus – and turn it into a profound, complex exploration of the importance of faith, belief, and fairy tales as a fundamental aspect of humanity? No one, I’d argue…and even if someone tried, it’s hard to imagine them doing it as effortlessly, comically, and brilliantly as Pratchett manages.

Because, rest assured, this is a laugh-out-loud, embarrass yourself by giggling as you read kind of book. It’s not just Pratchett’s prose, which is always hilarious, and packed with incredible lines that most authors would give their whole careers to write (take this gem: “Getting an education was a bit like a communicable sexual disease. It made you unsuitable for a lot of jobs and then you had the urge to pass it on”). It’s his incredible storytelling, which follows any number of plotlines, juggles them effortlessly, and keeps them all moving at the same time, whether it be the story of demented Assassin Mr. Teatime (pronounced Tee-ah-tim-eh, thank you very much) and his quest to kill the Hogfather (Discworld’s Santa Claus), Susan Sto-Helit’s efforts to figure out what’s going on with her grandfather Death, or – and best of all – Death’s increasingly absurd efforts to take the place of the Hogfather, which culminates in a long set of scenes at a local mall that rank among the funniest scenes ever written, full stop.

And if that were all there was to Hogfather, that would be great. But it’s not. Instead, Pratchett uses his gleefully madcap plot – which incorporates a slew of local criminals, the secret life of tooth fairies, the god of hangovers, and so much more – to begin discussing the nature of belief, the importance of fairy tales to human existence, the nature of folk tales, and so much more. And if that’s not enough, he still manages to get in his jabs at human existence – at the cruelties of tragedies in the holiday season, the hypocrisy of charity, and so much more. It’s a book whose satirical edge is sharp and takes no prisoners, and yet never passes the chance to make you laugh, and laugh hard…but it will hit you in the gut right after it.

Which brings me back to that quote I opened the review with, and the sheer power and beauty of the ideas it’s expressing. Because Pratchett was the kind of author who could give you a scene with Death as Santa handing out swords to children as his animal escort causes havoc in the background, and have you laughing…and then leave you pondering the bewildering nature of human belief in ideals and morality. And any author who can do either of those things is worth reading…but someone who could do both really can’t ever be replaced, and reading Hogfather again for the holiday season only underlines what a genius he was and how much we lost when he left us. More than that, though, it’s a cynical, snarky, satirical look at the world – and it also has a way of making you feel better about the world, and people, than you might ever expect it to. And that’s a wonderful way to celebrate the holiday season.

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Big Machine, by Victor LaValle / *****

512bmkk3mwkl-_sx326_bo1204203200_The more books I read, the more excited I get when I read something new and unclassifiable. Another vampire book, another zombie apocalypse? Yawn. But give me something ambitious, something wild, something that defies easy description – and you have my attention. And rarely has that description applied to a book more than it does to Victor LaValle’s incredible, ambitious, surreal Big Machine, a book that’s part horror, part weird tale, part meditation on class and race in America, part exploration of faith and doubt, and part comic book story. And it works all the better for the way it tosses all of those into a blender and just embraces the chaos that results.

To try to summarize Big Machine is a fool’s errand, but the basic hook is a good one: it’s the story of Ricky Rice, a black man who’s ended up working as a janitor in a bus station. And his life seems…okay. It’s not what he wanted, and you get the sense that Ricky could be doing more, but he’s made his peace with how he’s ended up. And then, one day, Ricky gets a letter from an unknown sender. In that letter is a bus ticket, and a reminder that he made a promise. And based off of that, Ricky takes the bus, and leaves his old life behind.

That’s an intriguing setup, and all of that is even before we find out about the nature of that promise, and why Ricky is so baffled to be reminded of it; that’s before we find out about Ricky’s new job, which involves an organization that seems to recruit African-Americans whose lives have fallen apart, and gives them a new purpose – one that they’re not really interested in explaining. And that’s before things start getting weird, and then just keep getting weirder. Big Machine is nothing if not ambitious, and I loved the way the book started in a grounded reality, only to slowly slide into something mixture of religious belief, Weird fiction, and secret history of the underclass.

But even before you get to the plotting, there’s a sense that Big Machine isn’t the book you might think it is, and it comes early on, as Ricky takes his bus ride, and ends up dealing with a street-preaching lunatic on the bus. It’s an odd scene, and a quick one, but it also gives you a sense that Big Machine is discussing something larger: the way we treat our outcasts, the way we treat those less fortunate than ourselves. And although the scene doesn’t pertain to the plot, in many ways, it’s my favorite scene in the book, setting the stage for the larger ideas that LaValle will be dealing with later on.

Because, make no mistake, although this is a wonderfully odd book, one that feels like a race-based superhero story at times, and other times feels like an X-Files episode gone truly surreal, it’s also an undeniably literary one, one that uses its supernatural trappings as a way of exploring race, class, and faith in America. It’s a book that’s fascinated by how we treat the homeless, and the rage that they must feel; it’s a book that makes outcasts its heroes, and reminds us how powerful it can be to get a helping hand when you’ve given up on the world; it’s a book that explores faith not in terms of religion, but in terms of how it can shape your life, and how religion can make us better – or worse – people. And that only becomes clearer and clearer as the book continues, and we meet revolutionary prophets for the homeless, understand Ricky’s childhood in all its horrific context, and begin to come to an understanding of the fact that the only real way to solve the book’s mysteries has nothing to do with the mystical creatures Ricky uncovers.

Indeed, if there’s a complaint I sort of understand about Big Machine, it’s the strange ending, which seems to reject everything the book has been throwing at us. And yet, on a second read of the book, I love that ending even more, because of its humanity, its humane outlook, and its surprising optimism. Big Machine is a book of conspiracies, of horrors, of violence, and of dark pasts…but it’s also a book that believes in change and the future. And that’s a rare and wonderful thing to find.

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Books of Blood (Volume 1-3), by Clive Barker / *****

51x1c2yf4zl-_sx329_bo1204203200_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.

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