Books of Blood
|I get more invitations at Halloween than at any other time of the year. Invitations
to go to college campuses and talk about the history of horror fiction, or to contribute a list of my ten favorite
fright films for some glossy magazine, or to extemporize a scary story on a late-night chat show. At the beginning
of my career as a published writer - which began in 1984 with the three books you find here collected under one
cover - I accepted a large number of such offers, happy to have a platform from which to promote my work. But in
recent years, as my books have moved further and further from the unrelentingly bleak, violent tales which earned
me some early notice, I've declined most of these offers. I'm uncomfortable being viewed as the 'Horror Guy,' invited
out of seclusion at the season of pumpkins and campfire tales to talk about the Dark Side, while the passions that
fuel my current work go undiscussed. I've even avoided the usual Halloween jamborees - the parties and the parades
- out of an unease with the whole business.
Last year, however, I broke the rule. My lover, David Armstrong, persuaded me that a visit to the Halloween Parade here in Los Angeles - which has grown into quite an event of late - would be the perfect antidote to the difficult time I was having with my current novel. I should just put down my pen, have a glass of vodka and join him, he said. I agreed, as long as he didn't insist that I wear a costume. I'd go strictly as a voyeur. Fine, he told me, his costume would be elaborate enough for the two of us.
It was no idle boast. He began his transformation in the middle of the afternoon. It took six hours. By the time he was finished, he was unrecognizable. He'd reconfigured his face so that it resembled a hawkish, horned gargoyle, spurts of hair sprouting from his brows and chin. He'd painted his body so that he was several shades blacker than the Lord made him. He'd put on several leather accoutrements and had endowed himself with a grotesquely large dildo, which swung before two water-filled black balloons. From the top of the cleft of his otherwise naked butt hung a tail that would not have shamed a stallion.
It didn't occur to me until later, when I began to make notes for this introduction, that he looked as though he might have stepped out of one of the stories in this collection: an amalgam of sexual excess and demonic elegance, as likely to fuck you as tear out your heart.
At ten-thirty we went down to the Boulevard. It was a bitterly cold night, but once we were amongst the crowd the sheer number of bodies warmed the air. There were tens of thousands of people thronging the street, a goodly number of them in elaborate costumes. There were Barbie and Ken dolls waddling around in their gaudy boxes; there were drag queens in every kind of outfit from Prom Queen to Beverly Hills Widow; there were all-American ax-murderers with their steroid-pumped bodies gleaming through the bloodied tatters of their T-shirts; there was a small brigade of Confederate soldiers, armed and proud; there were enough silver-skinned and suited aliens to fill a fleet of saucers. And besides these, there were the many thousands who'd just purchased a mask for the night, and were stalking the streets looking like their favorite bogeyman. Frankenstein monsters (and their Brides), Freddy Kreugers, hook handed Candymen, even a couple of Pinheads. Finally, there was that smaller but noteworthy contingent which was using the event as an excuse for shameless exhibitionism. A group of glamorous transsexuals, parading their surgically created attributes; a fellow in a shabby overcoat who was showing every third or fourth person he passed what he had between his legs; a band of gloriously corpulent women who had bound one another into fetishistic costumes so tight it was a wonder they could breathe.
There were demons too, but nothing approaching the transformed David, who was constantly called away to play out some scene for a photographer: threatening a blonde Lolita, whipping a tattooed punk in collar and leash, being ravished by a gaggle of boys-as-valley-girls. But here was the curious thing: watching the way people's eyes fell on my monstrous companion - the mingling of delight and revulsion - I began to remember what had made me a horror writer, all those years ago. I had enjoyed mightily eliciting that complicated package of responses: knowing the words I was putting on the page would stop people in their tracks, as my lover's curious beauty was now doing; make them wonder, perhaps, if the line between what they feared and what they took pleasure in was not a good deal finer than they'd once imagined.
A short story is like a time-capsule. It records - in a fashion that cannot be easily understood until some considerable time has passed - very specific details of how the author's life was being lived when the words were set down. This is not so true of a novel; at least the kind of novels I write, which tend to be large and take a year or more to write. The first draft of a short story may be set down in just a couple of days; pure and intense. A large novel, by contrast, is a kind of compendium: it may even be constructed to embrace contradictions and ambiguities.
So now, I look at these stories, and almost like a photograph snapped at a party, I find all manner of signs and indications of who I was. Was? Yes, was. I took at these pieces and I don't think the man who wrote them is alive in me anymore. Writing an introduction to the tenth anniversary edition of Weaveworld last year I remarked on much of the same thing: the man who'd written that book was no longer around. He'd died in me, was buried in me. We are our own graveyards; we squat amongst the tombs of the people we were. If we're healthy, every day is a celebration, a Day of the Dead, in which we give thanks for the lives that we lived, and if we are neurotic we brood and mourn and wish that the past was still present.
Reading these stories over, I feel a little of both. Some of the simple energies that made these words flow through my pen - that made the phrases felicitous and the ideas sing - have gone. I lost their maker a long time ago. He liked horror movies more than I do; he had hopes for Hollywood; he was altogether more gleeful, less self-conscious, less moved by the falling note. I saw myself as a man who runs a freak-show, pounding on a drum, summoning up an audience to gawp at my collection of moon-calves and bottled fetuses.
That side of my nature has become a good deal more subdued of late. I did my yelling and my drumming, I made my catalogue of excesses, and finally, I suppose, grew a little weary of the show.
Now, fourteen years on, it's odd to revisit the carnival. I realize with hindsight that I was very lucky. I came along with these tales at a time when the publishing industry was still taking risks with fledgling authors and short stories. It would be virtually impossible for an unknown to get a collection like this published today, mainly because short stories have a much smaller readership than novels; I had in Barbara Boote, my first editor, someone who was brave enough to take a risk with material that made other editors queasy. And I had the great fortune to make a movie, the first HELLRAISER, soon after publication, the success of which drew people to my stories in far larger numbers than I might otherwise have enjoyed.
Looking back, it was a heady time. So many things I'd hoped for, dreamed of, came true in a short period. The books were published, and gained some critical favor, a monster I'd created was glowering from cinema screens around the world, people wanted my autograph and my opinions.
It seems so remote now. I can still recapture some of the taste of it, if I play a certain piece of music, or find a passage in one of the stories that I can remember writing. Reading over The Midnight Meat Train, I recall my first trip alone on the New York subway: getting delivered by mistake to the end of the line, which was a darkened, empty station. Reading New Murders in the Rue Morgue, my homage to the greatest horror writer in the world, Edgar Allan Poe, I recall a snow-bound Paris, when my late, great friend Bill Henry and I were marooned in a silent city where not a single piece of traffic was moving. Reading Son of Celluloid, I remember the beaten up revival cinema in my native Liverpool, in which I saw so many of the films that fuelled my imagination as a young man. Franju's LES YEUX SAN VISAGE, the extraordinary ONIBABA, die lush KWAIDAN; Pasolini's visionary labors and Fellini's deliriums. Reading Dread, I can even bring to mind the people from my University years who inspired the characters on the page (a dubious form of tribute, I daresay, but they made their mark on me).
I don't have any notion whether these stories will survive the passing of time; I doubt any author can know that with any certainty. But they're written, for better or worse, and though I might wish I'd polished this sentence better, or excised that, they still please me. That's the most you can hope, I think: that die work you do pleases, both in the doing and the revisiting.
One thing is certain: that the public's appetite for stories of the grotesque and the terrifying - for ghostly visitations and demonic possessions, for horrible acts of vengeance and foul monstrosities - is as healthy as it ever was. The people behind the masks on Santa Monica Boulevard last October weren't perverts and fiends: they were for the most part ordinary folks who were taking this opportunity to express an appetite that our culture demands we repress most of the time. (A repression which I applaud, by the way; the appetite is all the more powerful if it's kept under lock and key.) But we need to touch the darkness in our souls now and again; it's a way to reconnect with the primal self, the self that probably existed before we could shape words, that knows the world contains great light and great darkness, and that one cannot exist without the other.
In the journeys my fiction has taken since I wrote these stories, I've felt an ever stronger need to explore images of redemption rather than damnation. In Weaveworld, in Imajica, in Sacrament, and Galilee, even in my book for children, The Thief of Always, the images of pain and death are eclipsed by light and sanctity, the figures that represent evil are overthrown.
Not so in the stories that follow these observations. Here, the monsters triumph, sometimes transforming those they touch in ways that might be deemed obliquely optimistic, but nevertheless surviving to do harm another day. If, by chance, the evil is overcome, then it more often than not takes its witnesses and its endurers down with it.
I don't believe that any one story is truer than any other; die wisdom of these fictions - perhaps all fictions - lies in die effect they have upon individual imaginations. So I don't think it's useful to judge moral import; to try and tease out the lessons these narratives might seem to teach. Though I may occasionally use the terminology of the pulpit, these aren't sermons for either a White or Black Mass. They're little journeys; little parades, if you will, which wind away from familiar streets into darker and darker territory, until - somewhere very far from a place we know - we find ourselves standing in strange company, strange to ourselves.
Los Angeles, February 8, 1998