Something of a litmus test, this one: following in the wake of disillusionment cast by the entertaining enough but largely disappointing Scarlet Gospels, Clive Barker's Infernal Parade had the opportunity to re-establish the man's status as a supreme maestro of the absurd, the strange and distressing.
Those of you who follow my work on this site and other outlets will know that my history with Barker's work is significant: examples such as Weaveworld, Sacrament and Imajica are the reasons why I started writing myself and served to inform my fledgling imagination (and more besides; without the expanded contexts they provided, my perspectives; the function of my mind, my very personality, would not be as it is now. In a very real sense, I am as much a creation of Barker and those others whose work I have consumed as any of his metaphysical monstrosities or deranged divinities). It's therefore a fairly melancholy business for me when I have to report dissatisfaction with something that bears his name, the emotional response almost that of the faithful finding some contradiction or immorality in a holy scripture.
But in this instance, I don't have a great deal of choice; not if I want to maintain any integrity in myself or to my own small coterie of readers:
The Infernal Parade doesn't feel like a finished work; certainly nowhere near a publishable affair. Were it sent to me to edit by the various small presses I perform the service for, it would be sent back with a great degree of encouragement concerning the technical writing and imagery, but with numerous notes on how it can and should be expanded; on how profoundly empty and truncated it feels, after setting up so much promise in its early quarters.
Unlike The Scarlet Gospels, The Infernal Parade is a collection of short stories, strange myths and fairy tales, all loosely cohered beneath an over-arching mythology established in the first story: that of the eponymous event, fostered by unspoken powers within an undefined Underworld; entities that seek to cow humanity with awe and fear at the absurdity, strangeness and horror the Parade will consist of. Integral to that plan is one Tom Requiem; a murderer, a con-artist, a thief and general scoundrel who, upon his own hanging, finds himself recruited by said forces to lead the Parade rather than taking his allotted place in Hell. The stories thereafter consist of self-contained tales all of which describe the various creatures and personages that find themselves recruited into the Parade, usually after being the epicentre of some epic atrocity. All of these tales are well told and constructed, if, surprisingly, not terribly inventive: all are archetypes that will be familiar to anyone who enjoys fables, oral traditions or mythologies, given some degree of Barkerian twist, but rarely enough to make them stand out.
Throughout each are peppered various clues and references to the over-arching mythology, creating the impression of the work as a whole building towards some climax or resolution.
And this is where it becomes necessary for me to be brutally honest: the work doesn't feel finished. There is no closing chapter or story to conclude the mythology; the collection simply stops, as though there were no more tales to tell or transcribe, the resultant whip-lash leaving me with a distinctly bitter after-taste; a sense of hollowness and disappointment that I find genuinely distressing, giving how significant and unambiguously inspiring Barker's work has proven in the past.
This...this does not feel like a collection that readers should be charged for the privilege of seeing; it feels more like the kind of thing an established author such as Barker should be releasing as freebies via a blog or website. The sad and rankling fact is: I read the output of numerous independent and small press writers as a matter of course, none of whom can command a fraction of the price this book will command and that anything with Barker's name attached inevitably will, but which are flat out more competent, more earnest, more passionate and complete works.
Once again: there is nothing necessarily wrong with the work that the book contains; each of the stories is engaging and witty, poetic and pleasantly gruesome. It's just that there isn't enough; anyone who has paid through the nose for one of the signed or especial copies that are going to be sold alongside the main text are ultimately going to be disappointed; this is something that not even the hardest and fastest Barker acolyte (and believe me, I number myself amongst them) can hand wave away or ignore, especially given that The Scarlet Gospels, whilst enjoyable in its own way, was also a deeply flawed and problematic work.
This is not something that devotees of a writer with Barker's credentials expect; there is a flippant and unconcerned quality to the publication of such a work; a sense that quality and completeness does not matter, so long as it bears the writer's name. It is insulting and disheartening to find something so profoundly unfinished going to press and being marketed for the price that it is, when one can easily perform a cursory search of independent and small press titles and find ten or more such collections that are bigger, more complete and simply better produced for less than half the money (examples that spring readily to mind: Lost Signals, by Perpetual Motion Machine Publications, Bastards of the Absolute, by Adam S. Cantwell, Chiral Mad I, II and III, from Written Backwards, to name but a few).
Do not mistake this for the rantings of some spurned fan-boy or the entitled temper tantrum of a disappointed aficianado; I adore those of Barker's works which have proved inspiring to me in the past and likely always will; works such as Weaveworld, The Great and Secret Show, Sacrament et al still stand as some of the most exquisitely crafted works in their particular genres (not to mention beyond their boundaries, given Barker's penchant for transcending them). I also understand that Barker's personal status and escalating ill health may have something to do with the issues concerning his output of late. That said, this kind of frippery is likely to damage his hard earned reputation, particulsrly amongst those like myself, who will go out of our ways to purchase anything the man puts out.
Being brutally honest, this feels like the product of someone rifling through Barker's notes and discarded first drafts, cobbling them together into a very loose format and then marketing them as a grand work that they simply are not. This factor is perhaps emphasised by the fact that I am currently re-reading Barker's entire back catalogue (currently around half way through Imajica and Sacrament); books whose brilliance is in no way compromised by their familarity; that intimidate through the sheer bravura, variety and passion of their ideas, the unparalleled strangeness of their imagery. Books that are as intimidating as they are inspiring; that are fantastically conceived and written and composed stories, as well as vehicles for ideas that have rarely (if ever) been explored to such a degree. In comparison, The Infernal Parade feels like the work of another man, one not so intent on beguiling or moving or transforming his audience; one for whom those old ambitions and desires have long since fled.
Ten more stories of the same faintly folk-loric ilk of those The Infernal Parade includes, a story of the Parade itself, to conclude the collection and cap off the mythology, and it would have been a work worth talking about; different enough from most of what exists in Barker's back catalogue to be notable; its own entity, with a degree of enduring charm.
As it stands, all I can do is sincerely hope that any future publications bearing the man's name are more meaningful, and that this does not mark an indescribably sad swan song.