Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Damnation Game

by Clive Barker

A text can be read any number of ways; the only real limitation being the extent of the reader’s own ingenuity. The range of interpretation is theoretically limitless. Despite this interpretive breadth privileged the reader, the writer of the text in question still more likely than not composed it with a specific reading in mind. The writer means a text to be read a certain way, or a certain number of finite ways. Different texts are written under the aegis of different intentions. Is there a “right” way to read? What about a wrong way? I would argue that there are many “right” ways to read, but only one fundamentally “wrong” way – which is to read passively. A truly productive and interactive reading can only be accomplished by identifying the author’s intended method of interpretation and subsequently reading “through” the original intention. That is, I mean “reading through” in the same manner Jackson Mac Low uses the term “writing through,” which is of a creative and reflexive praxis. The reader must pass through the writer’s autonomy and investigate the text in lieu of his or her own subjectivity and context.

I finished Clive Barker’s “The Damnation Game” the other night. I mostly read it on the L to and from work. I enjoyed it. Yeah, the story dragged at numerous points, but it was a thoroughly immersive read and Barker writes a fully realized world, however horrific. The book operates under a very peculiar tradition bringing with it its own set of rules and tendencies: the bestseller mass-market novel, and in particular the horror mass-market novel. Clive Barker has truly extended himself as a writer in the multimedia sphere over the past thirty years; he has worked in drama, horror fiction, children’s books, film and even video games. For all his wide breadth, it was in horror that Clive Barker started out, and it’s from there that one can track his trajectory in relation to the standards of popular fiction. In “The Damnation Game,” he follows, falls prey to, and even occasionally transcends the mass-market format.

Clive Barker burst onto the eighties horror/bestseller market with bluster and noise; much early praise compared him to Stephen King. These comparisons have some truth to them, and its important to note King himself endorsed the young Barker. I haven’t read much Stephen King, but while I was living in Yonkers, I picked up “The Stand” and made it through about 50-60 pages one night before giving up. I hate to be another King-basher; many of the complaints leveled against him are reactionary, even if he is indeed a problematic writer. What were some of my complaints? Well, King’s prose is pretty thin, while also being excessively voluminous. It tends to circle around plot and character, piling on unprompted exposition, interior monologues and superfluous detail. I came across those same problems with Iain Banks’ “The Business” – I was shocked by the sheer amount of extraneous verbiage in that book. Tighter editing would greatly benefit either King or Banks, at least in the above-mentioned instances. This got me to thinking. Perhaps this prose padding derives not just from the author, but the very format. Maybe this manner of prose springs from the desire to create an entirely immersive read, a “page-turner” to suck the reader in, instead of instigating interaction or friction. Barker does not entirely steer clear of the above-mentioned pitfalls, but he does utilize them in a manner that warrants a closer look. So let’s investigate “The Damnation Game” itself.

“The Damnation Game,” published in 1985, is Barker’s first novel, though he’d already gained notoriety both with his work for the stage and for “The Books of Blood,” a collection of short fiction. “The Damnation Game,” along with “The Books of Blood,” is easily classified as horror fiction, though in his later work he strays away from such clear categorizing into what can only be broadly termed the “fantastique.” “The Damnation Game” concerns a battle of wiles between Mamoulian, an incredibly long-lived alchemist who has the ability to reanimate dead flesh, and Joseph Whitehead, a perverse and cruel multi-millionaire taken under the wing of the alchemist decades ago, before betraying him. Caught in the crossfire is Marty Strauss, an ex-convict bodyguard with a gambling addiction, and Whitehead’s daughter, Carys, a heroin addict.

The novel opens amidst the wreckage of post-WWII Warsaw. An unnamed thief, who we later learn to be Whitehead, picks his way through the ruins in search of a gambler rumored to be unbeatable. The city is an abattoir of mangled flesh and immediately courts issues of transgression and displaced sensuality central to Clive Barker’s work. He obviously revels in this Grand Guignol setting. We see his prose come alive as he describes the corpse of a man who was killed for performing a one-man “Faust” in a bombed-out amphitheater. When the thief comes across the actor a second time, he is “…naked. His bare feet… eaten at and his eyes taken out by birds; his torso was riddled with bullet holes…His mouth gaped, but the birds had taken his tongue as well as his eyes. No loss.” It’s florid, yes, and Barker takes an uncomfortable degree of pleasure out of rendering such gore, but it has an unmistakable power, a grace almost.

As mentioned directly above, Barker’s fascination with depravity, and willingness to exploit it in his books, makes it difficult to separate his attraction to depicting human cruelty from his criticism of such. The filmmaker Dario Argento might be a helpful artist to investigate for comparisons. Additionally, look at Barker’s own work writing and directing the horror film, “Hellraiser.”
Consider our introduction to Anthony Breer, the Razor-Eater, a moribund cannibal and child-killer who provides many of the more gruesome thrills of the book. Breer prepares a noose for himself as he reminisces about stealing a gruesome photo book, “Soviet Documents on Nazi Atrocities.” See how Barker’s prose alights as Breer remembers the book’s contents, the “…pictures of the burned-out ruins of Chekov’s cottage in Istra, and others of the desecration of the Tchaikovsky residence. But most- and more importantly- there were photographs of the dead. Some of them heaped in piles, others lying in bloody snow, frozen solid. Children with their skulls broken open, people lying in trenches, shot in the face, others with swastikas carved into their chests and buttocks.” The level of horror implicit in such passages makes it difficult to continue reading, but they also affirm Barker’s ability to craft vivid, image-based prose.

Barker’s primary strength is in imagery and depicting the juncture of sexuality and violence. Point of view is problematic throughout, as Barker leaps, sometimes clumsily, from head to head. The tension is also occasionally deflated as he moves into the head of Mamoulian or Breer. Such a tactic stresses an important theme of Barkers – his sort of nihilistic humanism. This is a novel of monsters, but each and everyone is human, and the only glimpse of anything beyond human ken is simply the bleak void Marty encounters in Mamoulian’s room. So yes, leaping even into the heads of the books “monsters” does help to humanize them, but it still undermines the developing tension of the novel.

How to read “The Damnation Game” then? Clive Barker obviously has something he wants to convey concerning physicality, flesh and sensuality. A sober reading becomes problematic due to his enthusiasm to exploit these serious concerns of his within the framework of “the mass-market.” In his defense, Barker offers an alternative perspective on the status quo from a writer like Stephen King. He has commented in interviews how, as a homosexual, he has always been in someway an outsider from conventional society. Barker, then, is writing from outside the status quo, and his novels celebrate a liberated existence from conventional strictures. A writer like Stephen King writes from within the status quo, celebrating it almost. The Stephen King threat is a threat from outside the privileged mainstream. King is also an American, while Barker is British. King comes from the reigning imperialist world power, while Barker comes from a country previously known for its imperialism and now somewhat marginalized on the global sphere. It is interesting to note that Barker left the U.K. during the Thatcher administration. Barker, then, can be seen as a writer from a marginalized perspective. writing himself into the mainstream. Sexuality and physicality is both a means of pain and empowerment for the characters in Clive Barker’s novels. Power, then, serves as a lens through which to observe the machinations of his characters. Victim and aggressor are ambiguous roles, each balanced on the pin-point of power itself.


Anonymous said...

A nihilistic humanist. That's interesting. I never thought of Clive Barker that way. Thank you for your well thought out article on The Damnation Game. It's one I haven't read. Now I'm going to.

Anonymous said...

nice essay

Unknown said...

If you really want to try and "get into" King, I would recommend his collections of short stories as a starting point, not his most immense and unwieldy novel.