The Great and Secret Show (Clive Barker)

Posted: September 6, 2015 in fiction
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

I was talking with a professor once about my master’s thesis, and she asked what was going on in the life of the author I was writing about at the time she wrote the novel, and I told her I didn’t know because I had never read any of the biographies. “How can you stop yourself?” she asked. The truth is, I seldom see authors as people. The name Charles Dickens is a tool I can use to group novels with a similar style and thematic interest, but I find myself curiously incurious as to the man himself. Stories stick with me, like the way that he was driven to keep telling the story of Sikes and Nancy until it killed him (check his public performances rather than only what’s in the novels), but dates and events that don’t inform the fiction just bounce straight off of me. The only author I’ve really felt as a living presence breathing through his stories is Ray Bradbury. Until, of course, I met Clive Barker.

I should make it clear that I’m not talking about an actual physical meeting; I mean I started reading his books. There is something about his writing that makes me feel that we share some important ways in which we see the world. That might seem strange for someone who’s stupidly optimistic about people to say about a horror writer, but nevertheless, I find it to be true.

If she said, “It’s all connected . . .” once in her telling she said it a dozen times, though she didn’t always know (in fact seldom) how or why.

It takes a great deal of skill to write a long novel, particularly one that doesn’t waste words. This narrative reaches almost seven hundred pages, yet is as trim as a distance runner in the Olympics. It’s complex, with several different key characters who come and go and wax and wane in importance. In that sense, it’s a bit like Middlemarch or Bleak House. The first time I read Middlemarch, I thought it was all about Dorothea Brooke and her marriage troubles. The second time, it was all Fred Vincy and Mary Garth, and his growing up to become the type of man she can respect. The third time, it was mainly Mr Farebrother and his disappointment in life. I haven’t yet identified closely with Tertius Lydgate, but I suppose his strand will be the next to claim importance. But they’re all here in the book, all at the same time, with separate but intertwining plotlines that could trip someone who isn’t careful.

For me, this book is mainly about Tesla, even though we’re a few hundred pages in before she walks onstage. Tesla writes screenplays, and she is the hero of this book. She’s friends with a journalist, Grillo, whose name distracted me because it means Cricket in Portuguese, and though they’re both writers, Tesla is the better stand-in for the author.

Mary Muralles had asked to be told Tesla’s story before she told her own, and for all her quiet voice she spoke like a woman whose requests were seldom denied. This one certainly wasn’t. Tesla was happy to tell her story, or rather the story (so little of it was hers), as best she could, hoping that Mary would be able to throw some light on its more puzzling details. She held her silence however, until Tesla had finished, which – by the time she’d told what she knew about Fletcher, the Jaff, the children of both, the Nuncio and Kissoon – was close to half an hour. It might have been much longer but that she’d had practice in the craft of concision preparing plot summaries for studios. She’d practiced with Shakespeare (the tragedies were easy, the comedies a bitch) until she’d had the trick of it down pat. But this story was not so easily pigeonholed. When she started to tell the tale it spilled out in all directions. It was a love story and an origin of species. It was about insanity, apathy and a lost ape. When it was tragic, as in Vance’s death, it was also farcical. When its settings were most mundane, as at the Mall, its substance was often visionary. She could find no way to tell all this neatly. It refused. Every time she thought she had a clear line to a point something would intersect.

Her scenario had been a sort of imagined revenge upon the cosy, smug existence of the town. But in retrospect she’d been as smug as the Grove, as certain of her moral superiority as it had been of its invulnerability. There was real pain here. Real loss. The people who’d lived in the Grove, and fled it, had not been cardboard cut-outs. They’d had lives and loves, families, pets; they’d made their homes here thinking they’d found a place in the sun where they’d be safe. She had no right to judge them.

I feel like this is Barker’s description of his own process. He’s really good with the “bait and switch” – you meet a few people, you spend eighty or a hundred pages with them, and you think they’re the main part of the story, then you meet a different group and they’re the most important for a while, then you switch to a third, and they all meet each other and regroup themselves and, as in those Victorian serials, you have to pause and remind yourself who people are every time you see their names in a different context.

Change is a vital element. There’s an Art to transforming matter, there’s a sea of pure thought that one of our bad guys is trying to reach, and when people go there they are changed – the metaphors that we use to describe our personalities become literal. For example, the contract lawyer who fucked hundreds of people with his writing hand? It turns into a dick. The things people don’t talk about or don’t want to admit come to the surface, secrets are revealed, illusions are shattered, and they have to deal with reality as it is rather than as they’ve constructed it.

Despite the extreme transformations wrought upon most of the characters, Tesla’s changes are primarily internal. She doesn’t go to the dream sea, and the magical evolving elixir leaves her healed, but otherwise apparently unchanged. However,

She no longer had to keep her cynicism polished; no longer had to divide her imaginings from moment to moment into the real (solid, sensible) and the fanciful (vaporous, valueless). If (when) she got back to her typewriter she’d begin these tongue-in-cheek screenplays over from the top, telling them with faith in the tale, not because every fantasy was absolutely true but because no reality ever was.

And

For Tesla, leaving Palomo Grove was like waking from sleep in which some dream-tutor had instructed her that all life was dreaming. There would be no simple division from now on between sense and nonsense; no arrogant assumption that this experience was real and this one not. Maybe she was living in a movie, she thought as she drove. Come to think of it that wasn’t a bad idea for a screenplay: the story of a woman who discovered that human history was just one vast family saga, written by that underrated team Gene and Chance, and watched by angels, aliens and folks in Pittsburgh who had tuned in by accident and were hooked. Maybe she’d write that story, once this adventure was over.

Except that it would never be over; not now. That was one of the consequences of seeing the world this way. For better or worse she would spend the rest of her life anticipating the next miracle; and while she waited, inventing it in her fiction, so as to prick herself and her audience into vigilance.

One of the issues the novel raises, both explicitly and implicitly, is that evil is easy and good is hard. We start the novel with two men, Jaffe and Fletcher. Jaffe has discovered the existence of the Art and has this excessive ambition (think Macbeth) to control all of reality. Classic world-domination stuff, easily recognizable as evil. He runs around town pulling people’s fears out of them and shaping that emotion into evil creatures (terata). So, his partner and opponent, the arch-nemesis, must be good. Fletcher is Jaffe’s reflection; he wants to prevent Jaffe or anyone else from controlling reality. In a sublime moment of sacrifice, he fragments himself into a hundred little bits that fly into people and the things or people they desire most appear. These hallucigenia battle the terata, and that seems like it’s going to be the climax of the book, but, just kidding, it’s not. Fletcher clearly has the more difficult task; he has to be passive and inspire others to action, while Jaffe can be active and force others to passivity. Fletcher gives up his life to empower others to defeat the evil, and Jaffe just accumulates endlessly. However, the difficulty is, how do you represent a good man, when he’s not actually in the act of sacrificing himself? As Jaffe’s emotional mirror image, Fletcher has no ambition at all. He wants to just sit still and contemplate the sky. How is this good? In order to be effective, good must be active. I think this is one of the reasons Fletcher has to be replaced by Tesla as the novel’s moral center. His version of good is just as unrealistic as Jaffe’s version of evil.

As we move into the second half of the novel, Jaffe is also replaced by his son, Tommy-Ray. He has an incestuous obsession with his twin sister, and is in love with death. Instead of wanting to control all of time and space, he wants to kill everything. And instead of stopping Jaffe and wondering if people will eventually evolve into sky, Tesla has to save the world. One of the problems with good and evil is that good is absolute while evil has degrees. If someone starts talking about the greater good, you know they’re only talking about what they prefer or what will benefit them personally more. But there’s always a greater evil behind the one you can see, and Jaffe and Tommy-Ray eventually seem weak puppets caught up in someone else’s master plan.

There was a mention of a love story. I didn’t find it very compelling. A boy meets a girl, their fathers are archenemies, her mother and brother hate him, so they cling to each other and eventually prevail, with the strength of their love and the strength of the apathy of the other characters. They’ve got bigger fish to fry, so Howie and what’s-her-name can do as they like.

One of the bits that I really identified with had to do with private viewing.

Of the hundreds of erotic magazines and films which William Witt purchased as he grew to manhood over the next seventeen years, first by mail order and then later taking trips into Los Angeles for that express purpose, his favorites were always those in which he was able to glimpse a life behind the camera. Sometimes the photographer – equipment and all – could be seen reflected in a mirror behind the performers. Sometimes the hand of a technician, or a fluffer – someone hired to keep the stars aroused between shots – would be caught on the edge of the frame, like the limb of a lover just exiled from the bed.

Such obvious errors were relatively rare. More frequent – and to William’s mind far more telling – were subtler signs of the reality behind the scene he was witnessing. The times when a performer, offered a multitude of sins and not certain which hole to pleasure next, glanced off camera for instruction; or when a leg was speedily shifted because the power behind the lens had yelled that it obscured the field of action.

At such times, when the fiction he was aroused by – which was not quite a fiction, because hard was hard, and could not be faked – William felt he understood Palomo Grove better. Something lived behind the life of the town, directing its daily processes with such selflessness no one but he knew it was there. And even he would forget. Months would go by, and he’d go about his business, which was real estate, forgetting the hidden hand. Then, like in the porno, he’d glimpse something. Maybe a look in the eye of one of the older residents, or a crack in the street, or water running down the Hill from an oversprinkled lawn. Any of these were enough to make him remember the lake, and the League, and know that all the town seemed to be was a fiction (not quite a fiction, because flesh was flesh and could not be faked), and he was one of the performers in its strange story.

Like William Witt, I like pornography, though I don’t keep a large collection like he does. Like him, I look for the signs of reality behind the illusion. But for me, it’s not the camera I’m looking for. I’m not looking for when the actors need prompting – I look for when they don’t. I want to believe that the relationship I’m looking at is real, even though the voyeurism is artificially enhanced. Instead of focusing on the genitals (I fast-forward through the anatomical portions of the entertainment), I look at their faces. I look at how the actors look at each other, I look at how they touch each other, I try to get a sense of what their body language tells me about the interaction. It doesn’t matter how attractive two people are, if they’re just going through the motions, I don’t like it. Even in porn, I want them to make me believe it. My fantasy life has started to change: instead of seeing a cute guy and imagining sex, I imagine romance – how his hand will feel in mine, how we’ll dance to the radio after dinner, how we’ll go out to the woods, the loving gestures (apart from sex) that make a life together. Watching porn for romance is a little counterintuitive, but if two people can preserve their internal sense of relationship while they’re surrounded by directors and photographers and fluffers and other actors, it must be very strong indeed. I know, they’re actors, but I want to be fooled. I want to continue to believe in love after watching.

So, what does such foolish optimism do when confronted with a horror novel? I look for the love. Not the repetitive Romeo-and-Juliet straight romance thing, I look for love between friends and family members. I look for all the places where love appears unexpectedly. I look for the way that, when pushed to extremes, most people are basically good. I look for the weakness of evil and the collapse of selfishness. I’m comforted by the continuity of life. Because of my fucked-up childhood, there is something Heimlich about fear. A certain amount of it is comforting because it’s normal. At one point, Tesla has to descend some caves under the city, and she can’t imagine why anyone would go spelunking for fun. Then, when it’s over, she understands.

Vaguely she thought: this is why men go underground. To remember why they live in the sun.

The caves are, of course, the darker sides of the human psyche, the horror genre itself. I enjoy dark books and films because they teach me the value of light, of goodness. They remind me why I hold so tightly to my foolish optimism, despite the clinical depression and abusive childhood. If my life were a horror movie, I’d be the villain. I have the unfortunate background, intense temper, and violent impulses that role requires. But every day I choose goodness. I choose who I am, not my circumstances, and I have decided to be a hero.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s