An unkind cut: A critical review of Clive Barker’s “Tortured Souls”

So Clive Barker released a novella this year, and I was suckered into reading it by the name “Clive Barker” and the pleasantly suggestive cover drawing (which was done by illustrator Bob Eggleton, who did all those drawings of Godzilla I loved as a kid). Perhaps the best thing about a novella is that, since it only takes an afternoon to finish, even if it’s not very good, it’s over in a flash.

Oh yeah, the book was kind of dreadful. Let’s talk about that.

“Tortured Souls: The Legend of Primordium” takes place in Primordium, a city of such violent filth and corruption that citizens willingly give themselves up to Agonistes, an entity that surgically transforms humans into something more than human via a combination of surgery and spiritual penance (in a process that sounds like it would fit well in the Hellraiser films). Enter one Zarles Krieger, an assassin who is goaded by Lucidique, the daughter of a senator Krieger slew, into entering Agonistes’ surgery wing. There he is transformed into The Scythe-Meister, an ultimate killing machine, so he can cut out the city’s corruption. But when the decadent emperor falls, that role is simply filled by more monsters–political monsters, surgical monsters and more. What happens next? I don’t know; between Krieger, Lucidique and Agonistes popping in and out of the story, I’m not sure where to look.

I keep getting the feeling that this book is a joke I’m not in on. Even though the book’s jacket description is quite straightforward, there must be something here that I’m missing. Because I must confess, I haven’t read that much of Barker, but what I have has been better than this. In “The Hellbound Heart,” the basis for the Hellraiser movies, Barker’s writing was liquid and lyrical, more in tune with poetry perhaps than pure prose. In “Tortured Souls,” it is trying too hard (the characters’ names alone sound like they’re trying too hard). I get that Barker is trying to compose something that is more suggestive of fables and fairy stories, but when Neil Gaiman wants to write something that has a fairy story quality, he does so in a child-like way, that is, with a sense of wonder and overripe imagination. Barker seems content to write in a childish way. The dialogue and descriptions are trite and familiar, like a high school student (or an enlightened middle school student) trying to write dark fantasy for the first time and parroting his or her influences a little too obviously. The dialogue in particular is frustrating because there is no distinction between the way different characters talk, so no one has any shape or form.

The book is noticeably in need of an editor. On page 27 we read: “At nine minutes past one, a pair of horses approached…they drew nearer, and dismounted.” Apparently it is the horses that have dismounted, presumably from other, larger horses. Page 55 gives us the repetitive run-on sentence: “He hung by his mouth from a device whose purpose was beyond the Generals’ comprehension, his mouth hooked up, as though he were a fish.” There are other repetitions that defy logic in so short a book. The history of Krieger-cum-Scythe-Meister is frequently repeated throughout the novella, and chapter three begins with a recap of the previous chapter. There is no reason to do these things in a book that takes less than half an hour to read.

But the worst is when Barker spells things out; along with his own childish writing, Barker feels his audience must have a childish attention span. On page 43, a dog trots out of a kitchen after a slaughter, leaving red paw prints on a white carpet. “He was eating something human,” Barker adds, in case we didn’t catch on that the red paw prints having something to do with said slaughter. Oh well.

This is not to say that there is nothing worthwhile in the book. The transition from horse travel to driving is an interesting truncation of history, and there is the suggestion that Primordium is an archetypal paradigm of a city rather than an actual city. And while the character of Lucidique probably has the most potential for pathos, if you feel the need to latch onto any of the cast, I suggest the generals Urbano, Bogoto and Montefalco. Their descriptions and dialogue are so absurd as to be finally comical (it’s Urbano who “puked a yellowish puke” on page 67), and perhaps hint at the small book’s larger purpose, which is (hopefully) a kind of satire. A satire of what, though, is to be determined. Barker’s own writing perhaps? You might be better off sticking with Eggleton’s typically excellent paintings and sketches that inhabit the book; just pretend like that’s what “Tortured Souls” is really about, and that Barker’s prose is simply padding.

(But seriously, what is the deal with Dr. Talisac and the Mongroid? Anyone?)

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