It’s easy to see the quality horror fans attribute to Barker’s early work. He’s an excellent writer, and his ideas are jaw-droppingly creative and original, at times.
Personally, however, I don’t connect much with it. After a couple of his books, it’s hard to put my finger on why. Part of it, I think, is I find his prose too clinical and passive, his use of uncommon words and phrases too hand-me-that-Thesaurus. Some of his stories are affected by personal pathos, too. There’re no interesting or realistic female characters in any of his early stories that I’ve read, for example: They all amount to being described as worthless whores not just by characters, but by the omniscient narration itself. Their only personality traits are being dumb and craving sex with everything. (Granted, in a lot of Barker stories, you’ll find all anyone craves is sexual depravity, but at least one gender is granted a will.)
The first Books of Blood volume was a mixed bag for me. Often, I’d find myself interested in the idea behind a story, but bored by the execution where nothing much surprises you and it’s told with such a passive interest by a narrator who spends too much time philosophically dwelling on coagulating blood coating everything and pooling everywhere.
I loved ‘Pig Blood Blues.’ This story focused on a horrific mystery being investigated by a new teacher at a juvenile remand center. The center’s isolation from the outside world felt genuine, and, as a reader, there was this uneasy sense of no escape, of no alternative but facing the impossible pig-god-whatever, of laying down with it in its fetid pen. That’s enough to induce shivers. This tale’s all pigs, decay, Lovecraftian cults, death worship — and the obligatory weird sexy stuff.
The rest, however…the introductory tale, ‘the Book of Blood,’ gave context to the series that was interesting, but heavily suffered from the passive writing style with nothing much happening. Both ‘the Midnight Meat Train‘ — where a serial killer stalks New York to feed flesh to the living, once-human foundation — and ‘the Yattering and Jack‘ — where a lower-echelon demon must drive the soul from a very straight-faced, que-sera-sera man using madness — had the typical, interesting set-ups, but took them nowhere. Every turn and every page and every encounter is incredibly predictable, taking the interesting set-up and doing nothing beyond the pitch.
‘In the Hills, the Cities‘: Two sister-towns in rural Yugoslavia form living giants to enact a traditional battle against one another. A bad year for both towns’ harvests and livelihoods cause some inherent structural issues for both fleshy giants. Two young lovers complain about one another and see the aftermath. Cool set-up, and then it’s over.
‘Sex, Death and Starshine‘ features a theater’s last play — a rendition of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night — to a supernatural audience come to bid the building adieu. Neil Gaiman very clearly took a lot of influence from this story for his award-winning 19th issue of Sandman. I liked it, but the misogyny and characterization collapsing to rush the goofy ending affected my enjoyment some.
Both of the older, bloodier Barker books I’ve read have really disappointed me, due largely to the misogyny and flat characterization. Still, his ideas are creative and terrifying, and I find myself looking forward to more of his stories.