Forbidden Tomes: BOOKS OF BLOOD I-III by CLIVE BARKER

Logic would never place horror and erotica in the same field. But history goes to show, these two genres often cross over, finding commonalities in each other that perhaps should not be uncovered. For the most part these crossovers are subtle and quiet. Not so with Clive Barker, who broke open the pairing with his debut work, the BOOKS OF BLOOD.

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First published in 1984, these stories combine two things that often go together – sex and death – but does so in such a blatant, shameless, and powerful way that is so rarely seen. Clive Barker is obsessed with flesh. His prose style is unflinching and brutal, often satirical, but always engrossing (emphasis on gross) in its exploration of the human body. It makes sense, then, that he would focus his stories on the most corporeal of all human acts: fornication and decay.

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The three-part collection is split into different forms of stories. There are traditional horror yarns – “The Midnight Meat Train,” “Rawhead Rex,” and “Scape-Goats,” et cetera – and more comical stories, like “Son of Celluloid,” “Sex, Death and Starshine,” and “The Yattering and Jack.” My favorites, however, occupy a bizarre in-between of philosophical fantasy and horror: “In the Hills, the Cities,” “Dread,” “The Skins of the Fathers” and “Jacqueline Ess: Her Will and Testament” are the best examples. Here, Barker creates a space in which reality bends, then shatters altogether, questioning the nature of humanity itself.

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In the latter stories especially, the human body becomes an almost celestial plane of horrors, a conduit for the supernatural and the surreal. It might be acceptable to say that the titular story – “The Book of Blood,” kicking off Volume 1 – lays out Barker’s thesis in this regard: “The dead have highways,” he begins, and ends by showing the dead breaking into our world through those highways, literally engraving their words into a boy’s skin. The flesh of his characters is always so vulnerable, yet powerful, too – Jacqueline Ess uses the power of her sexuality to actually alter men’s anatomies, and an entire town joins together to create a singular giant in “In the Hills.”

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What truly makes me love these stories is the sense of freakishness, of abnormality, that pervades the best of them. Barker infuses his protagonists with an aberrant streak that might make them frightening, but also makes them sympathetic, heartbreakingly so. Those of us who have felt like freaks can find voice in these monsters. It is the power of horror, to find a heart in the most horrific of things, and Barker understands this better than most. His stories find the purest core of horror – no trappings, no undue elegance, just raw blood, terror, and beauty.

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