Poor marksmen have the option of firing lots of bullets and letting probability hit the target for them. This was Clive Barker’s approach in his Books of Blood series, and in volume 2 he scored a massive hit.
“Dread” is Clive Barker’s all-time best anything and one of the scariest horror stories I’ve read so far. A young college student called Steve comes under the aegis of an older man called Quaid, who seems to worship fear as a religion, albeit one that admits no salvation. Quaid is curious about the nature of his god, and wants to use Steve’s brain as a testing ground. The result is a shocking and fascinating story that puts King’s “Apt Pupil” on notice for the most disturbing mentor/student relationship in fiction, despite its short length.
It could have stood to be a bit shorter. The ending of “Dread” disappoints the same way “The Hellbound Heart”‘s did. Clive Barker’s endings are usually too cheap and too camp, and out of phase with the rest of the story. After scenes of powerful existential dread, it’s boring to end with horror movie gore. Welcome to Le Restaurant De Barker, where we serve world-class cordon bleu with pop tarts for dessert.
The other four stories are another day at the office. “Hell’s Event” is about a demon who enters a footrace. Barker does the best he can with an uninspired idea. “Jacqueline Ess: Her Will And Testament” is nice and gory, and evokes more flavours of Stephen King. A woman with psychic powers reshapes her life using the power of her mind, and not in a way endorsed by Oprah or Tony Robbins.
“The Skins of the Fathers” gets silly in places, reminding of Barker’s most annoying creation (Mister B Gone), but keeps lots of action and excitement in the mix and ends up being the most accessible story of the volume. “New Murders in the Rue Morgue” is a stat-flipped “Hell’s Event”, featuring a great idea (C. Auguste Dupin was a real person, Poe’s stories about him weren’t fictional, there’s been a coverup, etc…) but the story is just not that exciting. It seems perpetually ready to kick into high gear…and then you turn the last page and wonder what happened.
The Books of Blood contain about thirty stories in all. None of them reach the high water mark of “Dread” (“How Spoilers Bleed” is close), but there’s a lot of good material spread throughout. But Clive Barker’s inconsistency wears on you. You get good stories, and bad stories. Even worse, you get semi-good stories weighed down by cancerous tumors: poorly-attempted comedy, bad horror movie cliches, incomprehensible “what?” moments that disrupt the atmosphere and jerk you out of story, and stories that seem promising but just can’t get off the runway.
Unreliability is a sin that only artists can get away with this. Imagine being a plumber and only knowing how to replace an S-bend every second day on the job. In a way, the shakiness of the Books is emphasised by their own pull-quote: “Every body is a book of blood; Wherever we’re opened, we’re red.” Crazy, world-bending horror, and they’re heralded by that dumb joke we got tired of in middle school.