Two nights ago, October 3rd, I watched Clive Barker’s Book of Blood and tonight I watched The Midnight Meat Train. Both are based on short stories that Clive Barker wrote in the early 1980’s and are part of his collected Books of Blood.
Clive Barker is one of my favorite horror writers, though I’ve not read nearly all of his work. The things I have read though have been magnificent. He is not for every taste, defined early on as “splatter punk” and never really having had that label removed. Splatter punk is such a limiting term though, applied to any horror story, it seemed, that involved gore. Barker’s work is better that the basic slasher pictures (I’m looking at you, Friday the 13th series) that most splatter punk stories typify. He is a sensualist, a fantasist, and by his own definition, a professional imaginer. These are key descriptors when looking at Barker’s work, because even though his oeuvre began in the work of horror, a genre ghetto that the more high minded literary sort tend to sneer at, his writing really covers the gamut of human experience. And for raw emotion, terror really cuts to the heart of things fairly quickly.
Clive Barker’s writings, and later his films, explore the intersection between sexuality/ sensuality and terror/ pain. His first major horror movie, Hellraiser, which he directed and wrote the screenplay for, based on his novella The Hellbound Heart, made that connection literally. A jaded world explorer of pleasure comes across a puzzle box that, once solved, takes his soul as payment for experiencing all the pleasure that the world of pain has to offer. He escapes this realm of hell and regrows himself with the help of his brother’s wife, Julia, who murders men so that they may be used to restore him. And he does regrow himself from the inside out, never quite getting to the point where he has his own skin. Not before the servants of the realm come looking for him, the cenobites, summoned accidentally by his niece. He tries to outsmart them, and his niece, by borrowing his brothers flesh, but even that isn’t enough. Kristy helps the cenobites reclaim her uncle, but that isn’t enough for them–the soon come after her.
The film plays it close, arousing the audience while also repulsing them, pushing the question of how far you might travel for pleasure and what you might do to obtain it. It’s uncomfortable, and that is where the best of his horror stories live, in that uncomfortable place between moral and immoral. It’s the place of forbidden knowledge, where everything can be known for a price.
It’s in this place that these two movies also reside. Clive Barker’s Book of Blood is based on two stories, Book of Blood and On Jerusalem Street. Tied together in the film we are introduced early on to a pained young man in a coffee shop. He has a hood draped far over his head and what little bit of his face that is visible is horribly scarred. There is a man, connected to someone via bluetooth, watching him. Hunting him. As he shambles off to pay, pain overtakes him and the hunter, so graciously, helps him out the door and into his vehicle where he spirits the young man off to a shack. Strapped to the table, the young man learns that the hunter has been hired to skin him. When the hunter removes the young man’s clothes, we learn why. The young man is covered with scars, words covered with words, all carved out of his body … no, not carved, being carved. Even as he is lying there untouched by the sadistic hunter, we see blood seeping through the skin as new lines are carved into his flesh. The hunter demands the story, and it is granted.
We learn of a professor, a professional ghost hunter, who knows of a house that a spiritualist once owned and conducted seances in. The story goes that this man was brutally killed in the house, vicim of ghosts, with a phrase burned into the wall: Don’t Mock Us. A teenage girl is also killed in the same room, in the same house–young goth girl who played with death, seances and casual sex in the room. Half naked, she is assaulted by an unseen force and we see her face ripped off. The interesting thing about sex and death in Barker’s world of horror is that one is not the punishment for the other, rather they are intertwined in a way. There are no hard and fast rules of his horror stories, but there are guidelines, the most basic of which is be careful of what you wish for because you just might get it.
Of course, the professor wants to contact the ghosts and find proof of the afterlife in this house.
She soon discovers a young man that may have psychic abilities and through a sort of mutual seduction, they end up in the house. Over the course of days, things slowly begin to happen. But then, it appears that he may have been conning her all along. He had abilities as a boy and then, he says, they went away. When he met her though, they came back. There is evidence of him faking some of the supernatural phenomenon, he says that it started that way, but real stuff is now happening. It is all tangled together, because they might have some real attraction for each other and those confused sexual feelings might be clouding everything.
But something does happen. In a fit to prove himself he rushes back up to the room. The equipment goes crazy. Dragonflies begin to appear everywhere and suddenly she understands the house.
The dead have highways, running through the wasteland behind our lives, bearing an endless traffic of departed souls. They can be heard in the broken places of our world, through cracks made out of cruelty, violence, and depravity. They have sign posts, these highways, and crossroads and intersections. And it is at these intersections where the dead mingle, and sometimes spill over into our world.
Maybe he wasn’t the one that was sparking the supernatural energy, maybe it was her. She’d had experiences too, when she was younger. Psychic phenomenon. She rushes up the stairs after him, not deterred by the ghosts that are appearing, walking though the door, from the room. When she opens the door, she sees him, pinned to the floor by the dead. He is indeed at a crossroads, and the dead that are passing are pausing to write their names on him–telling their stories through him. He screams for her help and she remembers one of the things scrawled on the wall of the room, something that the dead left jumbled in with his graffiti: You didn’t listen. She is willing to, and she tells him, makes a bargain to tell their stories to the world. The catch is, that he is the means to that end. The dead continue to write on him and she interprets it, publishes it and makes her living in the process. The forbidden knowledge, the words of the dead, and the price is him.
He escapes from her, but the writing doesn’t stop. And now the hunter has him. The hunter skins him and places his flesh, one large piece of it into a case for his buyer. But he is trafficking in the forbidden as well and his price is being drowned in the little shack by the blood that continues to pour from the flesh. The writing hasn’t stopped, the stories continue. At the end, the buyer arrives to find his dead body. It’s the professor, come to reclaim the flesh and continue to interpret the stories it contains.
In the collections, these two stories are bookends, providing a conceit for the stories contained in the volumes (there were six total, now often combined in two collections with three volumes each). The Books of Blood.
The Midnight Meat Train is a single story contained within. It follows Leon Kauffman, a photographer, who wants to know the secret of the city, what he calls “the palace of earthly delights”. It sounds very much like a Hieronomous Bosch painting, and it should. Because, as those paintings had layers, descending into the madness of hell, so too does the city. The movie broadens the world of Leon and we find him a frustrated fine arts photographer stuck taking lurid pictures for The New York Post. His friend gets him a conversation with a gallery owner, the kind of woman who has the ability to make an artists name through a gallery show. She doesn’t dislike his stuff and encourages him to not look away the next time he is taking pictures.
He wakes up one night and goes out to take some pictures. He begins his true descent. He follows some thugs into a subway station and starts photographing them assaulting a young woman. He realizes what he’s doing and then tells them to stop. One of the toughs starts to threaten him and Leon points out that he is being filmed by CC cameras. This causes the thugs to disperse and the woman is thankful (never mind that Leon almost didn’t stop taking pictures to stop them). She gets on the train and he leaves. She is soon after killed on the train.
When he realizes that he might be the last person to see her alive, he goes to the police with the photos. They don’t seem particularly interested though. The gallery owner gushes over the photos and tells him that he’ll get a show if he can give her two more images like the first. Leon, still unsettled about the girl, returns to the subway station. He comes across a strange well dressed man, a butcher, and something about this man tells Leon that he is connected to the girls disappearance. Leon becomes obsessed with knowing what happened to the girl. He follows him and starts looking into disappearances in the city. It becomes an obsession. He descends and descends and descends. His girlfriend and his friend try to help him. They find themselves on the train with the butcher and after a horrific encounter, Leon discovers the real horror beneath the city, a horror that the butcher just scratches the surface of.
The forbidden has a price and Leon pays that price.
Clive Barker is an extremely talented artist, in addition to writing and directing, he also paints (his current epic work is a series of young adult books that are filled with hundreds of original paintings, beginning with Abarat). The interesting thing about the two movies that I just discussed are that he wrote the original stories and he produced them, but he didn’t direct them. He worked intimately with the directors, but the fresh eyes interpreting the stories have enriched them. There is tragedy and there are moments of joy and there are true moments of horror. The pallets of these movies are more watched out. Book of Blood is filmed in Glasgow, Scotland and feels very much like an episode of an excellent, gritty mystery on BBC. Midnight Meat Train is blue, with bursts of red that are saturated like a deep burgundy wine. Conversely, the other night in Sleepy Hollow, the blood that splashed all over Johnny Depp’s face was bright red, like blood from a classic Hammer horror film. These aesthetics really help make these films into the journey into nightmare. The interesting thing is, while it is very much the thing that Clive Barker created, the grittiness of the world is a little different than Barker’s own filmmaking aesthetic. His films are very lush and colorful. In Nightbreed (based on his novella Cabal) the monsters are not the true villains and the diversity of their depictions are pretty amazing. In Lord of Illusions (based on his story, The Last Illusion) lives largely in the sunset glow of the magical community of L.A. Barker’s use of color is then contrasted with the shocks of the horrific. David Cronenberg stalks through Nightbreed, a man who is a true monster, but not Breed, a crooked fetish mask serving as the skin of his “true face”. Daniel Von Bargen as the cult leader who has demonic powers and access to true magic, killed and resurrected in an isolated desert compound. All spring from the same vivid imagination, all find the repercussions for seeking/ knowing forbidden knowledge, and all seduce you into their depictions of descent.
More later …