Saturday, March 24, 2012

Human Remains by Clive Barker

Human Remains taps into some hot button issues with me.

I'm obsessed with physical beauty. There's an argument to be made that I am deeply shallow. I do believe that people who are beautiful lead better lives, which makes me deeply jealous of them. I do also believe that people who are beautiful become commodities to other people. They can never be entirely invisible and they stop entirely belonging to themselves. It's one of the themes in Natsuo Kirino's novel Grotesque, which is a source of heavy inspiration to me.

Gavin, the amoral hustler from Human Remains, is defined by his beauty. He's aware of it, he revels in it, and he is terrified of letting it slip away. There's a lot of fear of aging going on underneath the skin of the story. The people I know who are the most afraid of aging are athletes and the beautiful; the athletic fear losing their abilities and the beautiful fear losing their identities. In the back of my brain, where all my nasty ideas live, I like to think that all aging does is even out the playing field.

This is a doppelganger story that starts out about fucking and ends with identity.

It's not sex. In the immortal words of Dear Coke Talk, the difference between fucking and making love is Hallmark. There's something incredibly narcissistic about the way Gavin approaches his work. Most prostitution stories in the horror genre paint prostitutes as victims, but Gavin isn't really about sex. He commodifies his beauty, and looks down on the people he deigns to share himself with. He's not even particularly straight or gay or bi. He's just an object to be desired.

So, of course, he picks up a man outside an art house cinema. There's something off about the man. He's nervous and the nervousness never lets up even on safe ground. He doesn't give the usual tells. While he's admiring the beautiful but odd collection of antiquities, the mark gets attacked by something. Gavin investigates the bathroom rather stupidly and discovers a statue in a bathtub. Things go pretty wrong for him after that.

The rest of the tale is a fairly simple doppelganger tale, but with one twist. There's not a lot of active malevolence between Gavin and his shadow. He almost embraces the idea of having something else deal with all the sloppy work of presenting his face to the world. He becomes hollowed out, turns to junk, and watches as his twin become a better version of him than he could ever be. Barker has a real gift for creating fine lines between enmity and love, and this story blows me away every time. It's more rich and emotionally complex than the two other stories we've read this semester.

In an interview on his work, Barker echoes a lot of views I have about the horror genre. It's very conservative. It's obsessed with the status quo. It's about destroying the monster. People who've delved deeper into the genre (I'm looking at you, Chris) are there any other writers who successfully celebrate the supernatural with the same intelligence and beauty as Barker?


Cin Ferguson said...

This was the first time I'd read this story, although I'm no stranger to Barker and I'm sure he's my favorite writer of all time because I've loved every tale of his I've ever laid eyes on.

I think you had some great insight into this short story. You highlighted the story of beauty/ability and aging...of losing the 'edge' on life. (Not to mention that the statue becomes a piece of human "art" or "artifice" in the end.) Barker's prose is thought provoking and brilliant. When I read this piece, I thought immediately of Greek mythology and Narcissus. Great posting. Well done! :)

Jennifer Loring said...

Yeah. I don't have much else to say except that I love this story. Reading it again after so many years, I can see how it subconsciously influenced a good deal of my short fiction. This is Barker at his finest.

J.L. Benet said...

As an athlete getting towards the end of my rugby career, I understand the issue of the effect of aging. We were actually talking about this issue after the game this weekend. While I am still in great shape, it's due in great part to my training smarter. I have to put a lot more thought and effort into my training than I did in college.

I will agree about the lack of malevolence between Gavin and his Doppelganger, which is one of the big reasons I didn't like the story. Gavin was shown as caring about his appearance so much that it seemed rather odd that he seemed to take the situation pretty much in stride. I wanted to see him fighting against the Doppelganger, trying to retain his precious appearance.

C. R. Langille said...

I definitely liked that line between enmity and love that you pointed out. I think that Barker did an excellent job with that aspect, and created a believable character with Gavin. I also think that you bring up a good point, Gavin wasn’t about sex, or even money really, he was more about his own physical attractiveness, and being an object to be desired.

Christopher Shearer said...

As one of the beautiful people, I don't know that I agree with your first paragraph. The rest, however, no issue. As for your question. I don't know. Barker's unique. Part of me wants to say Ramsey Campbell, but not really (interesting fact, Campbell and Barker are from the same neighborhood in Liverpool and went to the same high school, though years apart). His views, especially on sex, are liberal for horror, but not liberal in general. There's Lansdale, who plays the conservative horror angle, just as he plays racism, as a joke, but that's not as bold as what Barker does. Laird Barron possibly, but I haven't read enough to be sure and the same goes for Lee Thomas. No, scratch that. Got it. Caitlin R. Kiernan. She does.

R. D. DeMoss said...

I have to say, I laughed when I read your idea that aging evens out the playing field. In a lot of ways, I agree. I've had long discussions with men and women on several occasions that women tend to start off with better looks early in life but grow out of them while men tend to grow into better looks. I don't think younger women being attracted to older men is necessarily always a gold digging issue--I think age evens the playing field out a bit. Or at least I keep telling myself I'll look better when I'm older!

I want to say beauty is a double-edged sword, but Human Remains doesn't really support that argument. Gavin was as shallow as can be, yet he was content with his shallow life. He loved to be admired. I hear time and again from beautiful people that being beautiful is so difficult because they need to keep up with their beauty. Although I agree it could be a chore, I wouldn't say it's a burden. In the end, regardless of beauty (gift or curse may it be), the moral of the story is to appreciate the humanity of living, because without it, beauty is pointless. I can jump on board that moral.

Jeff Brooks said...

I really love the relationship between Gavin and the statue. Like you said, there isn't an enmity there, there isn't a hate. Gavin seems to connect with the statue in such a strange way, it really sets a gripping tone for the end of the story.

Jay Massiet said...

I'm probably one of the few who didn't care for the story that much. I thought the entire thing was a little too flat. There was no horror, sure the monster bathes in blood but that's not shocking for the genre, and even if it's a character story, I felt Gavin was inconsistent because he is shallow, but someone with as much narcism as he should have hated the idea someone else was trying to look like him.

Will Errickson said...

Over the last 2 years I've reread BOOKS OF BLOOD - re-re-re-read in some cases - but "Human Remains" was the only story I skipped. Dunno why, really; I didn't recall much of it, seemed to make little impression. As a more mature reader 25 years after first encountering the tale, a re-acquaintance may be in order. Thanks for singling this one out!

Anonymous said...

This story doesn't seem as talked about as "In The Hills, the Cities" or several other stories from Books of Blood, but I think it was my favorite from the whole collection. Not scary at all, but haunting.