Title: Books of Blood, Volume 1.
Author: Roald Dahl.
Genre: Fiction, literature, short stories, horror, fantasy, occult, crime.
Publication Date: 1984 (this collection 1988).
Summary: This book collects the first (of 6) volumes of Books of Blood and 6 short stories. In The Book of Blood, a young man fools a paranormal researcher by pretending to channel the dead at an infamously haunted place, but the dead that congregate there are of a different breed, and avenge themselves by making sure their real voices are heard. (This story frames Barker's entire Books of Blood series, by providing the "book" into which all the consequent stories are supposed to have been written.) In The Midnight Meat Train, office worker Leon Kaufman falls asleep on the subway and wakes up to come face-to-face with the infamous "Subway Butcher" and his latest victims, but upon coming to the last station of the train, he discovers that the truth behind the murders is much more ancient and much more sinister than he could have ever imagined. In The Yattering and Jack, a lower demon gets assigned by Beelzebub to win the soul of Jack Polo, an oblivious man completely immune and ignorant to all manifestations and hauntings the Yattering subjects him to, but, unbeknownst to the demon, Jack is far from oblivious, and has very definite plans of his own. In Pig Blood Blues, former policeman Redman starts working in a borstal, where he uncovers a deadly secret when one of the boys he tries to help claims that a young man by the name of Henessey had killed himself, but remained to terrorize the others by transferring his soul into a body of a pig that lives on the property. In Sex, Death and Starshine, Leroy Townsonio is struggling to direct Twelfth Night in a run-down theater with an unskilled cast, when he gets approached by a mysterious man, Mr. Lichfield, who promises to ensure the last production of the theater will be brilliant and his wife will play the role of Viola, though he has a horrible secret and sinister intentions for the theater and the acting troop up his sleeve. In In the Hills, the Cities, a gay couple takes a romantic but strained vacation to Yugoslavia, and, after running across two cities that create massive communal giants by binding together almost 40 thousand bodies of their citizens and staging a mock battle every 10 years, witness unbelievable, mind-shattering carnage when one of the giants suffers an accident, to which the other reacts in a horrific way.
My rating: 8.5/10.
My review: I was pleasantly surprised with this book, because I'd read Cabal by Barker before, and while I liked it, I didn't particularly remember it or attach to it in any way. In these stories, Barker's writing is nothing short of delicious, especially for a fan of the horror genre. It's highly sexual and erotic in its style, and somehow it works so well alongside shocking gore and exceptionally disturbing imagery. In The Book of Blood, Barker merges erotica and horror together so skillfully, it's actually difficult to pin-point whether the writing is more sensual or disturbing, and whether it can really so effectively be both. I found the concept of the haunted house and the spirit highways quite interesting, as well as the way her need and sexual energy fuels and empowers the gates between the worlds. I loved the concept of him becoming a book, and the way Barker traces it as a very long-standing tradition, in one way or another. Just about the only thing I could have lived without in this story is the "love conquers all" thing he threw in in the end. My understanding of the occult is a little bit different, so while I don't mind a concept like that in Harry Potter, in a story like this it seems silly. The Midnight Meat Train is actually the story for which I picked up this book (along with Dread), because I watched the movie and thought it was so compellingly ludicrous, I simply had to trace it back to its roots. I didn't regret this choice. I loved his descriptions right off the bat - he captures the depravity of New York, and Kaufman's love/hate relationship with it, beautifully. Suffice it to say, of course, that when it came to the gore, Barker's descriptive talents made the entire thing wonderfully chilling with a side of revulsion. I enjoyed the very distinct Lovecraftian vibe I got from the ending - the ancient, incomprehensible horror that a person's mind cannot fully intake without breaking is very reminiscent of the cosmic horror Lovecraft is so famous for. And something I personally like a lot is the ambiguity of what the reader is supposed to feel at the ending. Technically, the ending could be called "happy," since Kaufman is able to find peace and purpose, and seems happier than he was ever said to have been, but the reality of his situation is so stunningly horrifying, it is made even more so by his acceptance of it. I was highly amused by The Yattering and Jack, and it actually stood out in the collection for being very humorous. Animal torture and suffering is one of my biggest triggers, so I can't say I enjoyed the carnage that The Yattering did on the cats, but I can see how it was an effective plot device in this case. I am noticing a pattern of Barker's, as well, to do with occult and insanity. Although I strongly share the belief that being unable to reconcile the unexplained is often what leads to insanity in the case of people encountering the occult, and that the best defense thereof is to accept everything and anything as normal, I am beginning to think he drives it home a little strongly by having characters in almost every story so far either go insane, or almost go insane. Otherwise, I really enjoyed the battle of wits between Jack and The Yattering, the very human, petty, and bored way the lower demon is described, and the final "battle" they wage for Jack's soul. Again, the ending is a touch spoiled by the thought that somewhere back in the house his daughter is now permanently insane, but there is a distinct feeling of satisfaction when Jack finally gets his. Pig Blood Blues was quite an interesting concept. I am very, very fond of pigs, and though I understand how they can easily be terrifying (with their similar physiology, high intelligence, and propensity to eat anything, with an established rep of being used for disposal of bodies by psychopaths and the Mafia), Barker is the first person to make a pig seem more scary than adorable and silly for me. Ironically, he does so not by describing the pig in any terrifying way, but just the opposite - the pig is almost eroticized in the descriptions of its cleanliness and aesthetic beauty. Then, of course, the way in which Henessey possesses the pig is absolutely revolting and horrifying, and the story builds to a climax very unexpectedly and very quickly. The ending, with the crazy young man riding the pig and the "feast" is absolutely barbaric - you feel like you're thrown into a past of tribal brutality, which is a strong note to end the story on. An enjoyable read. Sex, Death and Starshine would probably have to be my least favourite story from this collection (although I still highly enjoyed it), simply because, I suspect, I cannot personally relate to the subject matter. The world of acting and theater, especially behind the scenes, has never held any allure for me (in fact, the couple of times I ended up helping out backstage at a theater production, I found it a very hectic and stressful vat of ass). I'm not a very big on the undead, as far as horror goes, either. I did, however, immensely enjoy the overall message of the story, and getting back to its Greek roots - the way actors "have given up Dionysus for Apollo" (monetary gain over art for the sake of art). It's quite a way to make the point, with the dead troop performing for the dead for the sake of performing in the end. I am unsure whether I was meant to feel this way, but I kind of felt uplifted by the ending, even though they've all been killed and damned. I thought the characters were rather unlikable, so I kind of felt that the fate they ultimately ended up with was the most productive thing to happen to them, and perhaps actually a step up from what they had been doing "in life." In the Hills, the Cities may just be one of the most chilling stories I have ever read - I am fairly sure it has burned itself on the inside of my eyelids. The story itself but, more than that, the image of the horrifying human giants. Even without the carnage and insanity that the story culminates in, the image alone of tens of thousands of people tied together to make a realistic and detailed human giant is extremely creepy and unsettling (I don't know whether I would recommend entering this story's title in Google's image search, but if you're a big horror fan who loves being utterly unnerved and doesn't reach that state easily, I certainly would). I don't know what I found more horrifying in the end - the carnage of the first giant, or the insanity and the consequences thereof of the second, but the story gets more and more disconcerting with every new plot development, even though you believe it cannot possibly get any more horrific every time. Taking into consideration that this is the first short story collection of Barker's I have read, so far I am of the opinion that if you don't read anything else by the author in your life, you should definitely read this story.
♥ The dead have highways.
They run, unerring lines of ghost-trains, of dream-carriages, across the wasteland behind our lives, bearing an endless traffic of departed souls. Their thrum and throb can be heard in the broken places of the world, through cracks made by acts of cruelty, violence and depravity. Their freight, the wandering dead, can be glimpsed when the heart is close to bursting, and sights that should be hidden come plainly into view.
They have sign-posts, these highways, and bridges and lay-bys. They have turnpikes and intersections.
It is at these intersections, where the crowds of dead mingle and cross, that this forbidden highway is most likely to spill through into our world. The traffic is heavy at the cross-roads, and the voices of the dead are at their most shrill. Here the barriers that separate one reality from the next are worn thin with the passage of innumerable feel.
♥ The air seemed suddenly alive: the very molecules of oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen jostled against her in an intimate embrace. The nimbus around Fuller's head was spreading, finding fellow radiance in every object in the room. The unnatural sense in her fingertips was spreading too. She could see the colour of her breath as he exhaled it: a pinky orange glamour in the bubbling air. She could hear, quite clearly, the voice of the desk she sat at: the low whine of its solid presence.
The world was opening up: throwing her senses into an ecstasy, coaxing them into a wild confusion of functions. She was capable, suddenly, of knowing the world as a system, not of politics or religions, but as a system of sense, a system that spread out from the living flesh to the inert wood of her desk, to the stale gold of her wedding ring.
And further. Beyond wood, beyond gold. The crack opened that led to the highway. In her head she heard voices that came from no living mouth.
♥ It saw another sight, the lie in him, the absence of power where she'd thought there had been something wonderful. He had no talent to commune with ghosts, nor had ever had, she saw this plainly. He was a little liar, a boy-liar, a sweet, white boy-liar without the compassion or the wisdom to understand what he had dared to do.
Now it was done. The lies were told, the tricks were played, and the people on the highway, sick beyond death of being misrepresented and mocked, were buzzing at the crack in the wall, and demanding satisfaction.
That crack she had opened: she had unknowingly fingered and fumbled at, unlocking it by slow degrees. Her desire for the boy had done that: her endless thoughts of him, her frustration, her heat and her disgust at her heat had pulled the crack wider. Of all the powers that made the system manifest, love, and its companion, passion, and their companion, loss, were the most potent. Here she was, the embodiment of all three. Loving, and wanting, and sensing acutely the impossibility of the former two. Wrapped up in an agony of feeling which she had denied herself, believing she loved the boy simply as her Go-Between.
It wasn't true! It wasn't true! She wanted him, wanted him now, deep inside her. Except that now it was too late. The traffic could be denied no longer: it demanded, yes, it demanded access to the little trickster.
♥ Mary Florescu knew she was alone. Above her the marvellous boy, her beautiful, cheating child, was writhing and screeching as the dead set their vengeful hands on his fresh skin. She knew their intention: she could see it in their eyes - there was nothing new about it. Every history had this particular torment in its tradition. He was to be used to record their testaments. He was to be their page, their book, the vessel for their autobiographies. A book of blood. A book made of blood. A book written in blood. She thought of the grimoires that had been made of dead human skin: she'd seen them, touched them. She thought of the tattooes she'd seen: freak show exhibits some of them, others just shirtless labourers in the street with a message to their mothers pricked across their backs. It was not unknown, to write a book of blood.
♥ And after a time, when the words on his body were scabs and scars, she would read him. She would trace, with infinite love and patience, the stories the dead had told on him.
The tale on his abdomen, written in a fine, cursive style. The testimony in exquisite, elegant print that covered his face and scalp. The story on his back, and on his shin, on his hands.
She would read them all, report them all, every last syllable that glistened and seeped beneath her adoring fingers, so that the world would know the stories that the dead tell.
He was a Book of Blood, and she his sole translator.
~~The Book of Blood.
♥ He was embarrassed now even to think of his naivety. It made him wince to remember how he had stood and announced aloud: "New York, I love you."
It had been at best an infatuation.
And now, after only three months living with his object of adoration, spending his days and nights in her presence, she had lost her aura of perfection.
New York was just a city.
He had seen her wake in the morning like a slut, and pick murdered men from between her teeth, and suicides from the tangles of her hair. He had seen her late at night, her dirty back streets shamelessly courting depravity. He had watched her in the hot afternoon, sluggish and ugly, indifferent to the atrocities that were being committed every hour in her throttled passages.
It was no Palace of Delights.
It bred death, not pleasure.
Everyone he met had brushed with violence; it was a fact of life. It was almost chic to have known someone who had died a violent death. It was proof of living in that city.
But Kaufman had loved New York from afar for almost twenty years. He'd planned his love affair for most of his adult life. It was not easy, therefore, to shake the passion off, as though he had never felt it. There were still times, very early, before the cop-sirens began, or at twilight, when Manhattan was still a miracle.
For those moments, and for the sake of his dreams, he still gave her the benefit of the doubt, even when her behaviour was less than ladylike.
♥ He couldn't help wondering, too, about the man behind the atrocities. Was there one psychotic loose, or several, each inspired to copy the original murder? Perhaps this was only the beginning of the horror. Maybe more murders would follow, until at last the murderer, in his exhilaration or exhaustion, would step beyond caution and be taken. Until then the city, Kaufman's adored city, would live in a state somewhere between hysteria and ecstasy.
♥ Kaufman found the man's certainty attractive. Monsters on the prowl. Six heads: a dozen eyes. Why not?
He knew why not. Because that excused his city: that let her off the hook. And Kaufman believed in his heart, that the monsters to be found in the tunnels were perfectly human.
♥ He was, after all, not one of the common herd. He could stand at his window and look down on a thousand heads below him, and know he was a chosen man.
He had deadlines to meet, of course, like the people in the street. But his work was not their senseless labour, it was more like a sacred duty.
He needed to live, to sleep, and shit like them, too. But it was not financial necessity that drove him, but the demands of history.
He was in a great tradition, that stretched further back than America. He was a night-stalker: like Jack the Ripper, like Gilles de Rais, a living embodiment of death, a wraith with a human face. He was a haunter of sleep, and an awakener of terrors.
♥ Kaufman almost smiled at the perfection of its horror. He felt an offer of insanity tickling the base of his skull, tempting him into oblivion, promising a blank indifference to the world.
♥ Kaufman thought of the city he'd loved. Were these really its ancients, its philosophers, its creators? He had to believe it. Perhaps there were people on the surface - bureaucrats, politicians, authorities of every kind who knew this horrible secret and whose lives were dedicated to preserving these abominations, feeding them, as savages feed lambs to their gods. There was a horrible familiarity about this ritual. It rang a bell - not in Kaufman's conscious mind, but in his deeper, older self.
♥ Kaufman's face was raised to it, and without thinking about what he was doing and why, he fell to his knees in the shit in front of the Father of Fathers.
Every day of his life had been leading to this day, every moment quickening to this incalculable moment of holy terror.
Had there been sufficient light in that pit to see the whole, perhaps his tepid heart would have burst. As it was he felt it flutter in his chest as he saw what he saw.
It was a giant. Without head or limb. Without a feature that was analogous to human, without an organ that made sense, or senses. If it was like anything, it was like a shoal of fish. A thousand snouts all moving in unison, budding, blossoming and withering rhythmically. It was iridescent, like mother of pearl, but it was sometimes deeper than any colour Kaufman knew, or could put a name to.
~~The Midnight Meat Train.
♥ Why the powers (long may they hold court; long may they shit light on the heads of the damned) had sent it out from Hell to stalk Jack Polo, the Yattering couldn't discover.
♥ He was no less disinterested in events when his younger daughter Amanda confessed her lesbianism to him. His response was a sigh and a puzzled look.
"Well, as long as you don't get pregnant, darling," he replied, and sauntered off into the garden, blithe as ever.
What chance did a fury have with a man like that?
To a creature trained to put its meddling fingers into the wounds of the human psyche, Polo offered a surface so glacial, so utterly without distinguishing marks, as to deny malice any hold whatsoever.
Events seemed to make no dent in his perfect indifference. His life's disasters seemed not to scar his mind at all. When, eventually, he was confronted with the truth about his wife's infidelity (he found them screwing in the bath) he couldn't bring himself to be hurt or humiliated.
"These things happen," he said to himself, backing out of the bathroom to let them finish what they'd started.
"Che sera, sera."
Che sera, sera. The man muttered that damn phrase with monotonous regularity. He seemed to live by that philosophy of fatalism, letting attacks on his manhood, ambition and dignity slide off his ego like rain-water from his bald head.
♥ It would even share the shower with Jack, hanging unseen from the rail that held up the shower curtain and murmuring obscene suggestions in his ear. That was always successful, the demons were taught at the Academy. The obscenities in the ear routine never failed to distress clients, making them think they were conceiving of these pernicious acts themselves, and driving them to self-disgust, then to self-rejection and finally to madness. Of course, in a few cases the victims would be so inflamed by these whispered suggestions they'd go out on the streets and act upon them. Under such circumstances the victim would often be arrested and incarcerated. Prison would lead to further crimes, and a slow dwindling of moral reserves - and the victory was won by that route. One way or another insanity would out.
Except that for some reason this rule did not apply to Polo; he was unperturbable: a tower of propriety.
♥ The demon was utterly stumped. If the man could not raise more than a flicker of concern when his cat was exploded in the dining-room, what chance had it got of ever breaking the bastard?
♥ Meanwhile, Jack's life sauntered on. He seemed to live apart from his experience, living his life as an author might write a preposterous story, never involving himself in the narrative too deeply.
...So he continued to write his life, and waited.
~~The Yattering and Jack.
♥ She was hot on guilt, which didn't surprise him. They'd taken over the pulpit, these analysts. They were up where the Bible-thumpers used to stand, with the threadbare sermons on the fires below, but with a slightly less colourful vocabulary. It was fundamentally the same story though, complete with the promises of healing, if the rituals were observed. And behold, the righteous shall inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.
♥ Neat, thought Redman. So neat he didn't believe a word of it. Minds weren't pictures at an exhibition, all numbered, and hung in order of influence, one marked "Cunning", the next, "Impressionable". They were scrawls; they were sprawling splashes of graffiti, unpredictable, unconfinable.
And little boy Lacey? He was written on water.
♥ Redman, a city boy, had seldom seen the living truth behind, or previous to, the meat on his plate. This wonderful porker came as a revelation. The bad press that he'd always believed about pigs, the reputation that made the very name a synonym for foulness, all that was given the lie.
The sow was beautiful, from her snuffling snout to the delicate corkscrew of her tail, a seductress on trotters.
Her eyes regarded Redman as an equal, he had no doubt of that, admiring him rather less than he admired her.
She was safe in her head, he in his. They were equal under a glittering sky.
♥ She watched them through the slats of the gate, her eyes glinting like jewels in the murky night, brighter than the night because living, purer than the night because wanting.
♥ "You're making enemies."
"Thank you for the warning."
"This job's difficult enough without enemies, believe me."
She attempted a conciliatory look, which Redman ignored. Enemies he could live with, liars he couldn't.
~~Pig Blood Blues
♥ "We care to see this theatre end its days in suitable style, then die a good death."
"Too late for regrets by a long chalk. We should never have given up Dionysus for Apollo."
"Sold ourselves to the accountants, to legitimacy, to the likes of Mr Hammersmith, whose soul, if he has one, must be the size of my fingernail, and grey as a louse's back. We should have had the courage of our depictions, I think. Served poetry and lived under the stars."
♥ "A director is the loneliest creature on God's earth. He knows what's good and bad in a show, or he should if he's worth his salt, and he has to carry that information around with him and keep smiling."
It hadn't seemed so difficult at the time.
"This job isn't about succeeding," Wellbeloved used to say, "its' about learning not to fall on your sodding face."
Good advice as it turned out to be. He could still see Wellbeloved handing out that wisdom on a plate, his bald head shiny, his living eye glittering with cynical delight. No man on earth, Calloway had thought, loved theatre with more passion than Wellbeloved, and surely no man could have been more scathing about its pretensions.
♥ "We must make a choice, sooner or later," said Lichfield, his breath smelling less like chocolate than profound putresence, "between serving ourselves and serving our art."
♥ "There are lives lived for love," said Lichfield to his new company, "and lives lived for art. We happy band have chosen the latter persuasion."
There was a ripple of applause amongst the actors.
"To you, who have never died, may I say: welcome to the world!"
Laughter: further applause.
The lights of the cars racing north along the motorway threw the company into silhouette. They looked, to all intents and purposes, like living men and women. But then wasn't that the trick of their craft? To imitate life so well that illusion was indistinguishable from the real thing? And their new public, awaiting them in mortuaries, churchyards and chapels of rest, would appreciate that skill more than most. Who better to applaud the sham of passion and pain they would perform than the dead, who had experienced such feelings, and thrown them off at last?
The dead. They needed entertainment no less than the living; and they were a sorely neglected market.
Not that this company would perform for money, they would play for the love of their art, Lichfield had made that clear from the outset. No more service would be done to Apollo.
~~Sex, Death and Starshine.
♥ After a day, birds came, foxes came, flies, butterflies, wasps came. Judd moved, Judd shifted, Judd gave birth. In his belly maggots warmed themselves, in a vixen's den the good flesh of his thigh was fought over. After that, it was quick. The bones yellowing, the bones crumbling: soon, an empty space which he had once filled with breath and opinions.
Darkness, light, darkness, light. He interrupted neither with his name.
~~In the Hills, the Cities