Subterranean Press 2014 Deluxe Edition, illustrations by Jon Foster; originally published 1997
I’ve been circling in on really reading Clive Barker for years now. I’ve up to this point still only managed to read a few novellas (‘In the Hills, the Cities’, collected in The New Weird edited by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer, and ‘Rawhead Rex’, collected in the The Mammoth Book of Monsters edited by Stephen Jones). I saw Chiliad, a very slim volume and with illustrations to boot, at my local library and thought I’d give it a go as well. I’m glad I did.
I’ve been picking up a notion here and there that Barker, like his co-master of modern horror Stephen King, is a surprisingly spiritual writer, one not afraid to tackle faith as much as monsters and who seemingly goes so far as to profess to be some kind idiosyncratic religious believer. Yes, I’m talking about the guy who gave us the Hellraiser franchise of movies and associated publications, the guy whose fiction has graphic content that can make even the aforementioned Stephen King blush. If you doubt me about Barker’s spirituality, Chiliad would be a good place to start testing that doubt. In addition to containing brief moments in the story that are violently and sexually explicit, the tale is also explicitly spiritual, a search for and from faith it seems.
And it is a tale about doubt too and the bout between life-giving meaning and despair-dealing pointlessness, not just for individuals but for the world. Chiliad relates gruesome and harrowing cycles of violence and vengeance that reach back to mankind’s beginning. In so doing it faces head-on the question of whether we are utterly alone in an indifferent universe or whether the universe, even filled with gratuitous and awful evil and suffering, might yet contain some kind of credible hope in genuine metaphysical goodness. Its narrative touches on theodicy too in showing individual human responsibility for choices made to pursue paths of evil and all the collateral damage that spins out from those individual choices to do evil. (Indeed, part one of the book is entitled ‘Men and Sin’.)
The metaphysics here is of both varieties: the pop misnomer that has connotations of psychics and paranormal phenomena (which feature as central plot aspects in the tale) as well as the technically proper use of the term, which denotes the area of analytic philosophy that studies things like time, existence, identity and troublesome pairs of concepts like universals and particulars, substances and properties, freewill and determinism. Barker’s little book is a genuine meditation on the nature of time as well as the nature of persons and meaning. In fact, he adopts and adapts the well-worn trope of figuring time as a river and part two of the book is significantly titled ‘A Moment at the River’s Heart’.
But for all this philosophical weightiness, the book is far from ‘heavy going’. It is very much a need-to-know-what-happens-next page-turner with some good twists and turns. And that is a feat. To write something so overtly abstract and meditative that yet spins several engrossing yarns is some pretty kick-ass artistry and hats off to Mr. Barker for that alone. Indeed, the book is also an overt meditation on storytellers and their craft as much as it is on finding meaning in the middle of life. The author several times breaks the spell of the story to address the reader directly and talk about their cooperative relationship in the narration of the story. But it all flows very smoothly and you still somehow feel like you’re in the fictional dream throughout. The meta-fictional asides do not cloy or bore. Barker is good.
Each of the two main narratives that make up the book (each about a man living by a river in England, their respective lives separated by a thousand years) is introduced by a gorgeously weird and mysterious apocalyptic vision. The first is ingenious in creating a yearning that existence would somehow climax in true meaning and joy, but it does so obliquely and really only opens the question and incites the longing. The vision has to do with digging old people out of graves and watching them grow backwards into infanthood. The second vision is ingenious in setting up a scenario that shows the absurdity of a world that contains zero doubt and thus zero faith. It describes a sort of ‘second-coming’, not of Jesus, but of every god that was ever worshipped as well as myriads that weren’t, a world where someone would actually desire to hide themselves away from all this open and crystal clear divinity so that they might experience some divine obscurity and the opportunity for spiritual longing and a wilfully given belief. These visions are enthralling for their depth and resonance. As I say, though, the main tales of the book are actual plots about developed characters and these are riveting. (I finished the book in no time.) The net effect is thus both meditative as well as entertaining.
Mr. Barker now has my full attention and I look forward to really digging into his body of work (and would welcome suggestions for which books to prioritise reading). I’ll leave you with his own closing words to the book, which give some indication of the tone and tension in which it’s written. The narrator has decided to commit himself at last to the ‘river’ he has been only observing:
…I wade in.
I cannot tell you if John of the Desert, dressed in his coat of goatskins, awaits me there, his hands spilling baptismal water; or if Christopher the Giant will come to set me on his shoulders, calling me Chylde; or if Christ may come, trout leaping at His heavy hem, eager to strew their rainbows before His pierced feet.
Or if I will be only carried away, looking through the plain glass of my eyes, hoping to see before I drown sun, moon, and stars hanging in the same firmament.
(Inner illustration by Jon Foster)