Strange comfort

With our collective consciousness reeling with images of September 11, lingering threats of anthrax, the nightmare of Enron, and what seems like an overabundance of missing and dead children on the 7 o’clock news, chatting up scary stories might seem a little oxymoronic.

Yet, it is exactly at times like these, with anxiety hissing just beneath our active thoughts, that the conventions of horror fiction work their best magic. There is a strange comfort in darkly surreal mythology—a comfort that allows us to believe (even if only temporarily) that there are things more terrifying than watching the World Trade Center implode, that Good inevitably and invariably triumphs over Evil, that there is in fact some kind of cosmic order that can somehow be restored by the heroics of one good soul.

In his latest novel, Coldheart Canyon, master of dark-fantasy Clive Barker exploits his genre for all it’s worth before kicking the clichés where it counts and taking the reader as far from real-life worries as possible. In its most skeletal form, horror fiction is little more than psychological levers and cables designed to lift and plummet the reader through an emotional roller coaster before safely depositing him or her back onto the platform of the everyday. Like any good amusement, the thrill of the ride hinges on the expertise with which the mechanical bits are concealed.

With an intense flare for the macabre, Barker cloaks the gears of this fairly traditional haunted house story in the costume of Hollywood legend—perhaps the most adaptable cliché ever for a Faustian bargain. The book is populated with stock characters like Todd Pickett (a thinly veiled Tom Cruise action-film idol type) who seeks refuge from a botched face lift in a long-gone but not forgotten silent-film star’s mansion; and the president of his fan club, Tammy Lauper, an overweight, neglected housewife from Sacramento who is destined to be the one good soul that rescues Pickett, and presumably the rest of us, from our naive desires and the horrors of the underworld.

But that’s about the extent of convention and cliché in this novel. With painterly detail, Coldheart Canyon unfolds mundane fantasies of fame, unrepentant sex, and eternal youth using enough grotesque, wickedly orgiastic imagery to make Anne Rice’s Queen of the Damned look a little like a cheap ethno-appropriation of a Britney Spears summer sizzler.

No stranger to the land of make-believe (yep, that’s the author himself in costume on the cover), Barker immerses himself in his storytelling. If there is a singular point of weakness to this novel, it might be the somewhat protracted attention to the death of Todd’s dog. However, having lost his father one week into this project, Barker seems to have taken a dose of his own medicine and muddled through his commitment to deadlines by tackling his own unresolved feelings headlong in his lyrical prose.

On a happier note for Barker, Disney has purchased the rights to his forthcoming Abarat Quartet, a cycle of four interrelated novels. In case you were wondering, Barker laughs at the idea that the Eisner effect may remove all or most of the sinister devices from his dark vision: “The fact that they could come in and say they want it was an exciting surprise.”

In light of his many talents, fiction writer (The Inhuman Condition, Books of Blood, Vol. I-III, The Great and Secret Show), playwright (Subtle Bodies, The History of the Devil, Frankenstein in Love), film director (Hellraiser, Lord of Illusions) and producer (Gods and Monsters), Clive Barker’s new novel, Coldheart Canyon, reminds us that above all else, this man is a born storyteller.