Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Cold Pleasure

Coldheart Canyon, by Clive Barker, Read by Frank Muller, HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2001

When I was in my adolescence, nothing thrilled me so much to read as books filled with demons, serial killers, ghosts, monsters from beyond time and space, and plenty of violence and sex (in that order). In the mid to late eighties, just as my interest was beginning to wane, it got a transatlantic jolt from what I considered then to be a much more sophisticated kind of horror. Not as electrically obnoxious as the American splatterpunk scene (yes, there was really such a subgenre movement with that marketing hook) nor a monster-in-the-closet yokel like Steven King, Clive Barker had a cool English refinement, a drier, almost journalistic style of reporting his fictions, and none of the tittering, leering quality when it came to writing about sex that didn’t actually grace American horrormeisters so much as snicker its way into their tales.

Here was, so I thought, an actually intelligent person who enjoys writing about spooks and ghouls, a notion that gave the rest of what I was reading a contact buzz of if not respectability at least a kind of cerebral cache. It’s not as if there isn’t a respectable, canonized vein of horror running through American and British letters. It was never, until recently, completely and absolutely implausible to believe that at some point a French Derridean would rehabilitate the works of King, Straub, Lansdale, and company.

At some stage, though, the entire enterprise of grisly supernatural stories lost whatever allure it had for me and I shifted my focus to such classics as MacBeth, Paradise Lost, and The Brothers Karamazov. Imagine my surprise when I saw Coldheart Canyon on the shelf and read that it was a story of old Hollywood. Well, that was interesting. Barker had grown up too, I thought, and on a whim, I snagged it.

Now not having gone back and read Barker’s books from my childhood (The Books of Blood series or The Damnation Game), I can’t remark on whether or not his style was and is everything memory says it was. What I can say is that Coldheart Canyon is both a better book than you might think, while still not as good as it could have been. It’s not merely my tastes and preferences when I say that the horror stuff doesn’t precisely work here, it’s that when stacked up against the non-supernatural elements, it’s nowhere nearly as gripping and moving.

This is, unfortunately, the kind of book where even if you can’t predict the precise turns in the plot, the broader strokes are obvious to anyone, even without a familiarity with all the particular iconography of horror films and books. When a Romanian monk ominously sells one character obscenely decorated tiles covering a room in the monastery basement, you know that the monk who sold it will soon after die and that the setting up of the tiles in America will unleash a timeless evil etc. etc. That sort of business is all too easy.

But when the hero of the book, vain pretty boy actor Todd Pickett’s old dog dies, his consuming grief and loneliness are actually quite touching. Barker can write about normal human beings with normal human issues and problems and that makes it kind of a shame that he finds them only interesting and compelling when their immortal souls are at stake or the very flesh off their bones.

And Todd Pickett is, at heart, a normal person, despite being a fabulously successful actor whose career is in decline, despite having gotten completely wrapped up in the ego trip that is Tinsel Town, and despite paying to keep his good looks intact with serious plastic surgery. When Barker writes about Pickett’s agent wanting to ditch him as his career starts to wane, when he writes about his strained relationship with his even more normal brother, when he shows us Todd in all his insecurities and human frailties, the writing zings with a real emotional crackle.

But then all the spooky stuff shows up and humanity gets lost in the shuffle. Todd waits out the healing process and disturbs the old ghosts in their slumber by retreating to the old mansion up in Coldheart Canyon. You can easily see it filmed in scary movie style, the crane shot from up over the high high front staircase down into the massive foyer, the creepy shot from far away on the lot, the dry ivy covered fountains in the courtyard). All that’s missing is the sheet covered furniture, the cobwebs, and the clanking sound of chains from the basement.

What does come up out of the basement isn’t a ghost, but rather the semi-immortal Katya Lupi, actress from Hollywood’s Golden Era, kept forever young by the evil magic of those aforementioned obscene tiles. Haunting the premises are also the spirits of a number of old dead celebrities from the same time period who wish to get into the house to get themselves some of that magic. It turns out the tiles depict among their various lubricities a hunting party who pursue the son of Satan through nightmarish lands, doomed to live forever until they catch him, and the immortality of the hunting party has a kind of second-hand rejuvenating power to those who view them. Seriously. The intricacies of all this aren’t worth going into, but it is at points like this where things take a turn for the ridiculous.

It’s also where the writing begins to seriously suffer. When one of Katya’s underlings considers all the dead souls under her sway, we are treated to this line: “To some she was simply the Bitch, to others she was the Dutchess of Sorrows.” It’s hard not to snicker. More laughs come from the ectoplasmic creatures who stalk the canyon, semi-ghosts made when the shades of such luminaries as Mary Pickford and Rudy Valentino raped the local fauna. “Los Niños” they’re called, which is supposed to sound sinister, but ends up ludicrous.

It’s always amusing to me to read a book in which people see horrific visions like Los Niños but don’t scream or freak out or get paralyzed with panic, taking it in stride when a monster says “I’m going to eat you.” I don’t really believe that people are, in fact, that solid. Yes, people can surprise you with their level-headedness in difficult situations, but it undermines the suspension of disbelief when characters so effortlessly roll with the punches. When Tammy Lauper, the president of the Todd Pickett fan club, is semi-raped by a part human/demon and part peacock freak and she strangles it to death while it ejaculates on her, she’s pretty matter-of-fact after this. Most people would perhaps shit their pants. I know I would, then I’d probably vomit, weep, then run like hell.

But of course Lauper doesn’t. In fact, that’s one of the generally established weaknesses of horror fiction in general. People at some point cease behaving like real human beings and instead react as the plot needs them to. See your best friend torn apart? No problem, you still have to get the magic ring/cup/tile/book. Nearly die yourself? Whew, what’s to drink around here?

And characters really are a weak link here. There are simply too many stock characters throughout, a kind of Hollywood roster of bit players. The actor who waits tables but really wants to direct. Tammy Lauper, the president of the fan club, is a fat, unhappily married woman and not too bright. People from small-town Middle America are the salt of the earth. Todd’s agent is mercenary but under it all a sentimentalist with a big heart. There is a crass, greasy, ugly producer, Jewish, I believe, who believes that everything and everyone is for sale. I kept expecting a wise old Native American or black guy to dispense sage counsel heeded only when it’s almost too late or a silent, inscrutable Asian butler.

Other than that, when Barker is skewering Hollywood, he’s deliciously bitchy and knowing and on fire. In one scene, a producer trying to convince a young waiter to venture into danger in his stead, promises him fame and fortune: “You could be the next Brad Pitt.” The waiter, Joe, replies quickly, “I really consider myself more the next Ed Norton.” When it comes out that Todd’s plastic surgeon has botched a number of operations and he wonders why that fact isn’t more well-known, his agent snappily retorts, “I guess no one really wants to talk about their unsuccessful ass-lifts.”

In the end though, and for the book’s last hundred pages or thereabouts, these kind of lovely touches and jabs are largely absent. Instead we are treated to atrocious mistreatment of bowels and blood and gore. It’s unnecessary. A better book could have just been about Hollywood venality and backstabbing and revenge without all the phantasmagoria. A better book would have been written without that kind of thing, but Barker has a certain reputation and simply must include gore by the buckets. A shame really.

Usually a stellar reader Frank Muller seems different for this book, a bit hokier, purring over the words with a matinee sinister twirl of mustachios. Granted, one should modulate one’s approach depending on the material, but Muller’s reading is at times so villainously contrived, it’s almost as if he’s providing a subtextual criticism of his own, which is distinctly distracting.

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