“The Yattering and Jack,” by Clive Barker

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This story is in the first Book of Blood, right after another one of my favorites, “The Midnight Meat Train.” I feel like its placement there was a nice choice – a little something to give readers a break after the traveling abattoir story.

The Yattering is a very “lesser demon” assigned the thankless job of “catching” the soul of one Jack J. Polo, originally promised to Hell by his Satan-worshipping mother. However, when his mother cheated Satan by dying in the arms of a priest, the contract between mother and Hell-spawn was cancelled. Unwilling to let bygones be bygones, Beelzebub sent his minion to collect anyway.

On the one hand, I always felt like Barker was having a little fun with this story. He created the terminally dull Jack Polo, and then had him play his role to the hilt, eventually driving the Yattering mad with frustration. (And anyone who’s ever dealt with the terminally dull can empathize with the Yattering’s misery.) It’s fun to cheer at the end when the Yattering screws itself and chases Jack out of the house and actually lays hands on him – effectively making its former victim now its master.

But then, when you look closer it’s not really that funny. While Polo played deaf, dumb and blind, the demon killed every animal brought into the house and drove Polo’s youngest daughter, Amanda, mad. The oldest daughter, Gina, survived, and actually figured out what was going on near the end. If Barker had given Polo just the one daughter, Gina, who joined in the fight at the end, I would have called it a happy ending. Yay, humanity wins again. However, the younger daughter’s madness is problematic, and not something I could just ignore.

You could argue that Polo, perhaps, had no choice but to let things play out the way they did. He might not have realized how horrifying the Yattering could be – especially to the average person with no particular knowledge of demons, unlike himself.

I personally never thought that Polo willfully sacrificed his daughter’s sanity just to save his own ass. Yes, it was important for him to win, but not just in an ego-centric way. He was fighting for his very soul, and he may have believed it was important for him to win in a much larger sense. It’s not outrageous to think that there might have been a sort of “granddaughter clause” in Mom’s original contract – you can have my soul, my son’s soul and his daughters’ souls – all for one low, low price.

In my fantasy continuation of the story, Polo keeps Amanda at home with him; taking care of her while – in between selling gherkins – he turns the Yattering into his own private butler, cook, guard dog, and nursemaid for Amanda. I can even see the Yattering gradually becoming visible, because he has fallen so low on the demon hierarchy — forced to wear unfashionable clothing to hide its hideous nakedness, even down to wearing an apron with happy lobsters crawling all over it. Amanda eventually grows used to the hapless demon, growing stronger in mind and spirit. She comes to pity its trapped existence, and even ends up feeling sorry for it. Maybe Amanda’s pity is the solvent that ends up destroying its ties with Hell and setting the Yattering free.

I don’t know if Clive Barker set out to make this a story of one demon’s possible redemption, but I’d like to think that there’s hope for everyone, and everything. Even a demon as hopeless as the Yattering.

 

Cycle of the Werewolf, by Stephen King

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I was amazed to discover that I had never read this particular King novel when I saw it on the syllabus. However, when it arrived in the mail (thanks, Amazon) I could see why. It was an early form of the graphic novel, only unlike most graphic novels this one is more story than comic book. Nevertheless, I might have passed it by in the old days, thinking it wasn’t anything special and even if it was I couldn’t afford to spend X amount of dollars on a Stephen King book that wasn’t at least eight hundred pages long. So, I never read it. Until now.

Cycle of the Werewolf is actually twelve short stories held together by a common theme in a single location, a little town called Tarker’s Mills.  There’s one story for each month, each full moon, of the year. Berni Wrightson’s illustrations are part of the engine that runs this beast. You could have the story without the pictures, or the pictures without the story, but why would you? They go great together. Kind of like chocolate and peanut butter. (Or maybe vodka and grapefruit juice?) The one informs and supports the other.

The stories start off, like so many of King’s stories it seems, with some old coot cheating at Solitaire. Then a dog scratches at his door during a January blizzard, and while the old coot is still thinking about the chances of that happening, the door smashes in and the monster gets him. The same story basically repeats itself for the next several months. The monster eats a lovelorn fat woman, a hapless drifter, a kid with a kite, a janitor, a café owner … until the Fourth of July when the monster finally meets his match – a ten-year-old boy in a wheelchair.

I loved a couple of things about this book. One was the format. Breaking a big story down into a bunch of smaller ones, but with a unifying theme has probably been done before. However, this idea, along with this particular execution of it, felt brilliant.  The other thing I loved about it was King’s use of the important “kid” events of the year to empower his hero.

Every American kid loves the Fourth of July, and Hallowe’en, and getting to stay up late on New Year’s Eve. (Christmas is strangely absent from this list, perhaps because any mention of Christmas in a story automatically makes it a “Christmas story.”) So, in this non-Christmas story, King’s hero first wounds the werewolf on the Fourth of July with a pack of fireworks. He discovers who the werewolf is on Hallowe’en while he’s out trick-or-treating, and he slays the beast on New Year’s Eve with his uncle’s gun and two silver bullets. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Except when it does.

Two of my favorite bits are a couple of little “extras” thrown into the story. One is that the kid in the wheelchair has an ally; his Uncle Al. Uncle Al is the uncle that every kid wants, and all too often, needs. He listens, he empathizes, and he doesn’t tell you to “Grow up” when you tell him something a little bit crazy. The Uncle Als of the world remember what it was like to be a kid in a grownup world.

The other bit I liked was how King took his secretly abusive husband character all the way through the story, unnoticed and unharmed, until the very end when he made old Milt Sturmfuller the werewolf’s last victim. Booyah.

“Rawhead Rex,” by Clive Barker

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“Rawhead Rex” was one of the standout stories in Barker’s Books of Blood series. This piece appeared in the third volume, right after “Son of Celluloid” – one of my favorites. Some have complained that it is sexist, but I don’t feel that way. To me there is a BIG difference between talking coarsely about the female body: “her belly swelling with children, tits like mountains, cunt a valley that began at her navel and gaped to the world,” and having a bunch of horrible things happen to female characters just because they are women (I’m looking at you, Breeding Ground) (405).  So, yeah, Barker’s language and sensibilities are not for everyone, but his female characters are always people, and never singled out for special attention by the monsters simply because of their gender.

Rex is an ancient monster, buried under a huge rock in a field abandoned for generations by the town’s ancestors.  It is the unlikely and unfortunate combination of evils – Rex on the one hand, and greed for wealth on the other that sets the stage for all the horrors to come. Thomas Garrow, the man who unearths Rex while trying to ready his fields for some kind of cash crop to “bolster his shaky finances,” stubbornly attacks Rex’s headstone despite several signs – tractor problems, a thunderstorm, a horrible smell of death — thrown in his path (365). Even though the universe, it seemed, threw everything it could think of to get Garrow to do one, simple thing – STOP – nothing mattered.  Rex’s “birth” from the earth was inevitable, and like some horrible baby, he emerged. And then there was the usual blood and screaming that accompanies all births.

I love how Barker always has so much else going on in his stories besides the monster. In this one there is sex, violence, religion – both old and older, good and evil, faith and its lack, city versus country, the past versus the future, and probably a few more.  As others have mentioned, he also took a lot of care with the names in this story –

  • The town was named Zeal (so the inhabitants were, naturally, zealots)
  • The old priest was named Coot (as in, ‘you old coot!’)
  • The village pub, “The Tall Man,” was probably named for Rex who was very tall
  • The priest’s traitorous assistant, Declan, was named ironically as the name means “man of prayer”, or “man of goodness”. Also, St. Declan’s Stone was supposed to be the site of miracles in Ireland.
  • The hero, named Milton, who in the end defeats the devil, Rex
  • Even a minor character like Gissing, the cop, who assures Milton that the police will catch their mysterious killer – “Like that” – is not really a name, but a Dutch word, meaning conjecture, guess, guesswork (381).

Barker’s monsters have always been true monsters in that they wade through humanity, plucking the sweetest plums – children – for their favorite treats.  Which is, I suppose, how real monsters would act.  So, although everyone is fair game in a Clive Barker story, the tastiest morsels are always the young ones. At least that’s what the people who eat veal and lamb say. Stephen King, on the other hand, rarely lets his monsters kill children, and when he does, it’s to show us how stupefyingly horrible the monster is.

It’s for this one reason alone that I’d like to believe all the monsters who are out there love Stephen King more than they love Clive Barker.

 

Barker, Clive. Books of Blood: Volumes One to Three. Vol. 3. New York: Penguin Group, 1998. Print.

http://www.babycenter.com/baby-names-declan-463125.htm

http://www.wordhippo.com/what-is/the-meaning-of/dutch-word-gissing.html

Breeding Ground, by Sarah Pinborough

Breeding Ground cover

When I first started reading this book, I loved it. The descriptions were awesome, the pacing clipped right along, the first-person POV was fine, and the monsters were pretty good – for giant spiders. Giant, mutated spiders, in general, don’t scare me – although they probably should, given their power and ruthlessness. I also liked the setting – a cozy, little town in England in the modern era. It felt refreshing.

However, the first sentence of the first chapter has a woman, Chloe, complaining to her boyfriend, Matthew, that she’s gaining weight. Matthew reassures her with some early morning sex. Then Chloe discovers she is pregnant, which, mercifully, explains the mysterious weight gain. But then she gets too fat, too fast. A doctor is consulted who assures the unhappy couple that everything is proceeding normally, but when Matthew bumps into him in a pub later, doc tells a different story – something horrible and strange is happening in town, maybe all over the world. “Look at the women,” the doctor spits. (25)

And from that point on, the story starts to really go downhill.

It wasn’t just the misogynistic venom running through the story and in the survivor’s attitudes and words that bugged me. It was also all the glaring inconsistencies that resulted in so many mysteries that never get solved.

Like, where did all the dogs go? And what killed the cats?

Why were only deaf people and dogs immune to the monsters?

Why were only women the first targets of the spiders, and how did they all get pregnant? (I imagined alien spider spores wafting on the breeze until they detect estrogen on someone’s breath, and then – what? They hang around until you go to the bathroom and then creep inside and up to the uterus? Arrggh.) And did age matter at all, or would they impregnate anything with a uterus – old women, young women, girls, babies?

Why was Katie at first immune to the spiders — and in fact, she seemed to scare the nasty buggers — but then at the end, she gets spider bumps? And why “bumps” now, and not a regular “pregnancy” like the first wave of women?

Why did the smaller, black spiders – presumably male – need male hosts? And how did that work?

Why did human blood act like acid when sprayed on the spiders? And was it any kind of human blood, or only the blood of disabled people?

In addition, the protagonist, Matthew, while coming off sympathetic in the beginning – him being all loving and supportive of his grotesquely fat girlfriend – soon shows himself to be ready, willing and able to screw all the available women left on the planet. Thank God the little sister, Jane, got eaten by the spider before Matthew got to her. It was so bad that I actually wondered if he were somehow impregnating his girlfriends with the spiders.

I’m not sure if the author started out to write a book designed to reinforce primitive male fear and distrust of women, and the ever-changing female body, but that’s what she ended up with. Despite having some good spider monsters (which may have been surrogates for the mysterious and voracious human female, who knows, this shit is getting too deep for me), this book ended up disappointing the hell out of me.

Pinborough, Sarah, Breeding Ground.New York: Leisure, 2006. Print.

“The Funeral,” by Richard Matheson

Matheson must have based his funeral parlor director, Morton Silkline, on every stereotype he could find. Silkline is smooth, and he’s light on his feet; he really is like a dancer, gliding around, offering both sympathy and comfort to the recently bereaved. And all while never losing sight of the whole point of the thing for him – the money. That he does it all in a completely seamless, and genuine manner, is what makes him a perfect monster.

So it’s no surprise that word somehow gets out. To the other monsters, that is. (Because even monsters must have their own grapevine.) This is where Ludwig Asper comes in. Having been, most likely, unceremoniously dispatched by some blood-thirsty vampiric wretch hundreds of years ago, Asper missed the best part of dying – his funeral. So now he intends to make up for that by throwing himself a big bash at Clooney’s Cut-Rate Catafalque, and all his monster friends will be there. (Incidentally, I had to look up the word “catafalque” – it means “a raised structure on which the body of a deceased person lies or is carried in state; a hearse.”1)

I thought this story was a pleasant, little romp.  Silkline was perfect, and despite that little hiccup at the beginning, where he gets upset at Asper’s “joke”, by the end of the story he shows himself to be the ultimate parasite – totally adaptable to the new situation.  The best part of this story was all the other monsters who attended Asper’s “funeral.” As a few other people have already pointed out – this group acted like any other family. You had the cantankerous, but sweet, crazy cat-lady aunt; the creepy uncle (who never says anything but, “Tasty”); the dignified grand-dad, “Count”; the weird, werewolf cousin, and the assorted “others” who always seem to be there.

Predictably, this group of misfits is seldom in the same room together, and so are not very good at getting along. (Jeez, that sounds so familiar.) But, like most “normal” families, they make an attempt at being nice until the strain is too much for them, and then all hell breaks loose.

The story was a quick read, and it showed the author’s more playful side. I have to say, the creepy gnome-guy who kept murmuring, “tasty” was my favorite. I think I have sat next to that guy, or one of his relatives, on the subway a couple of times. Creepy! Jenny the witch was also good, mostly because I think I have become the “Jenny” in my family. (Eh. Someone’s got to do it.)

I also loved that Matheson did such a nice job of portraiture in this little story – I could see every character clearly, but none more so than Silkline.  It was fun to watch him morph from an ordinary, run-of-the-mill leech at the beginning of the story – plump, well-fed, doing very nicely, thank you very much – to an imperturbable and sleek bloodsucker.  As someone else so helpfully pointed out, Silkline had an actual character arc in this story.

His mother would’ve been so proud.

 

  1. dictionary.com

Matheson, Richard, “The Funeral”. I Am Legend. 1995. New York: Tor, 2007