Ginger Nuts of Horror
WARNING: This series contains HUGE spoilers, and is designed as a discussion for people familiar with the source text. I do not wish to spoil your enjoyment of The Great And Secret Show, so please read it before reading this. Thanks.
Well, were to start?
Actually, let's start at the start – turns out, I had read this one before. Or at least, most of it. The dead letter office in Omaha is surely one of Barker's great opening gambits, the man who works there one of Barker's classic characters – a man full of ambition turned bitter, with no sense of how to get from his lowly surroundings to the level he aspires to, and with the desperate feeling that the last of his youth is draining away. That time is running out.
And then the letters start to speak to him.
As he opens and reads thousands upon thousands of undelivered records, he starts to uncover America's secret life, hints of a world either underneath or adjacent to ours, and a mysterious method of manipulation that might allow passage between the realms, known only as The Art.
I mean, come ON, people. For some reason, I'd incorrectly ascribed this sequence to Imajica, and some of his later journey to Cabal, but it's surely testament to the writing that at the best part of 20 years distance I could still recall this concept with such clarity. It's a superb idea, and a brilliant opening to this story.
The writing seems to have taken a quantum leap since The Hellbound Heart. While Barker still has a gift for sketching a character with admirable succinctness, this time out there seem to be less of the archetypes of that novella. The characters here – all of them, from bit players to lead characters - have inner lives that are rich and detailed, with contradictions, hopes, dreams, prejudices. It's so well done that you barely notice at the time – only reflecting back on the novel did it occur to me how vivid these people were to me.
Similarly, the prose style here is ridiculously readable. This is a hefty tome, but I found myself devouring it in large chunks. Part of that was the pace of the narrative driving me forward, to be sure, but I think too a lot of it was just the sheer line-by-line readability of the prose.
Though, what a narrative! I'm struck again by the pacing – it's a big old book, but the pages fly by, decades covered in the first part alone. A story that a lesser author might have made part 1 of a protracted novel series is told economically in the first 100 pages or so – effectively as a long prologue to the events of the then-modern era that make up the bulk of the tale. The notion of two godlike entities, one evil, one good, in a deadlock conflict... man, I'm falling asleep just typing it. But what Barker does with these concepts makes it not just interesting but vibrant. Having the evil one be not a cackling villain, but rather someone bitter, with insatiable ambition, who lusts for power and loves the darkness. Having the good entity forged from a junkie scientist who just wants to be left alone to become one with the sky, but reluctantly recognises his responsibility to prevent his counterpart from using The Art. I mean to say, in this novel,
Barker casts a junkie scientist as the messiah. And makes him not even want the gig.
I have no words for how cool I find that, honestly.
Those smarts resonate throughout the book, in ways large and small. The fact that the 'son' of the good entity later effectively rejects his father's overtures in large part because he wants no part of that conflict does a great job of showing how The Good Man Fletcher has passed on his traits, without ever making that link explicit in the text. Similarly, the romance between one of the 'good' and 'bad' siblings is exciting not because of the fact that it happened, but just how far Barker runs with the idea, and how well he succeeds in confounding expectation at every plot turn.
And again, the characters! The two lovers are great, but one of my favourites is the mother of the 'bad' twins. She's vulnerable, weak, damaged by her experiences, but that weakness doesn't prevent her loving her children as best as she is able. Nor does it prevent her from threatening their lives rather than let them be taken by their father. It's this kind of deep, layered characterisation that helps the whole novel sing – it's complex but entirely internally consistent with who she is, and injects incredible tension at points.
And the hits just keep on coming. There really is virtually no aspect of this novel, from the master narrative to the smallest detail, that I didn't find compelling. The notion of the successful comedian whose house on the hill is filled with 'rescued' carnival art from the 30's – it's just note perfect, IMO. The notion of Quiddity, and the idea that it's existence as the ocean of dreams is what fuels all humanities ambition and activity, for good and ill, all driven by our subconscious desire to recreate the feeling of bathing in it's waters. The note perfect platonic-yet-deeply-loving relationship between the awesomely named Tesla and Grillo. And the notion of the lovecraftian horror that lurks on the other side of the sea, desperate for a way to enter and consume our world. A force that promises despair and endless suffering without mercy.
Then there are the twin threats - Kissoon, and the lad. Kissoon is a wonderful creation; fiercely bright, intelligent, repulsive and very, very dangerous. His menace is immediately apparent, though he is also manipulative enough that I found myself, alongside Tesla, constantly questioning that assessment, at least at first.
'The Devil mixes lies with truth',
and all that, but very smartly executed.
The lad, on the other hand, are nightmare made flesh – a lovecraftian, nameless horror that seeks total control and uniformity through brutality and despair. The not-quite descriptions of this force from the other side of the dream sea are just superb, conveying the nightmare of the fever dream, where all is frantic chaos and fear and misery the only constants. It's fitting that they are viewed only from a distance, for me – their nature means to get too close is to succumb to madness, after all.
And just on a sentence level... I put in some bookmarks as I went through, and here's a few that leapt out:
“His eye glinted. The Knife glinted. Glints collided...”
“It would not be the first time he had gone seeking knowledge with a weapon in his pocket. It was sometimes necessary.”
Having discussed fears of earthquakes brought on by a good grasp of geology, and the notion that the town could be swallowed by one: “She kept her anxieties at bay with swallowings of her own: a sort of sympathetic magic. She was fat because the earth's crust was thin; an irrefutable excuse for gluttony.”
“Since his princess had lost his mind, he had all the conversational skill of a ticking bomb.”
I loved every damn moment of reading this book. It's up there with my favourite Barker works, which also means it's up there with my favourite books of all time. The scope of the story is enormous, and the way all the elements tie together at the end is so elegant as to be staggering.
In the context of The Scarlet Gospels, Harry D'Amour has only a fleeing appearance, towards the end. Even there, Barker's increased skills as a writer makes him seem at his most rounded, at least for me – less of a noir trope, more of a functioning being – and yet again his blind clairvoyant friend is evoked, suggesting her importance to him is higher than her brief mention in Lost Souls indicated. And of course, we know that this means Harry D'Amour and Pinhead both occupy the same fictional universe as The Art, Quiddity, the lad, and all the associated mythos, which I find fascinating and exiting as prospects.
And on that note, Everville beckons – Second Book Of The Art, and the final part of my Path to The Scarlet Gospels. Join me back here soon, won't you? I'm very curious to see how this all plays out...
Follow the links below for Kit's other entries in this fabulous series