Thursday, February 9, 2012

Rawhead Rex by Clive Barker

This is not a commentary.

This is me planting my standard in the ground and declaring war.

Come at me, motherfuckers.

Recently I got into a conversation with someone else in my program about why people deride genre fiction over literary fiction. I usually hate this conversation. My MFA program is geared toward writing popular fiction and I hear people bitching about literary fiction, claiming literary fiction is just as formulaic as genre fiction, and proudly claiming that they never read anything that crosses the gaze of the elitist literati that snub their noses at our lovingly crafted tales of wizards and robots and vampires and little old ladies snooping around the hedgerows. These sorts of sentiments reek of insecurity but recently I've been asking myself about those lines and how I'm going to define those terms for myself.

Part of me feels that the terms are ultimately meaningless. Good writing is good writing. Good writing is about ideas. It challenges the mind, it has something interesting to say and an engaging way of saying it. It challenges the heart. The lyricism of the words move the spirit and affect the emotions deeply. Good writing changes the perception of the reader. I've been deeply affected by stories of families in small towns and in stories of people fighting off zombies.

I will say that most genre fiction tends to aim low. I will say that most genre fiction tends to be unambitious in conception and execution. Sometimes that's fine. The general stereotype of genre fiction is that it's more focused on plot than on psychological depth. Sometimes I like that. I can bitch about the construction of the Drizzt books 'till the cows come home, but there's a reason my Skyrim character is a two sword-wielding drow ranger.

In short, I think people read their genre fiction to get their guilty pleasure kicks, then they read their Jonathan Safran Foers and Dave Eggers for their high minded stuff.

But there are some writers who work within genre conventions and create works of deep emotional resonance, whose writing leaves me staring out into space. It's a real pleasure to discover their work.

Long and the short, I love Clive Barker. He's my hero, he's the reason I do what I do, and anyone who disagrees with me is wrong. Plain and simple.

There is nothing original about Rawhead Rex but, as any good comedian will tell you, it's not about the joke but how you deliver it.

I can't help but notice that a lot of the books assigned to the monsters in literature class deal with monsters as a thinly disguised gender metaphor. The widows of Breeding Ground were....I guess....supposed to be the wrath of women, the werewolves of The Wolfman are a couple of Oedipal figures fighting to see who gets to fuck the pretty girl. The symbols aren't directly addressed, but they're there. Barker states it up front: Rawhead Rex is a symbol of destructive masculine energy. He wrecks shit, degrades his acolytes through peeing on them, feels surges of sexual energy, masturbates on things, and generally acts unbound. He mocks the virgin shepherd because the fear of sexuality inherit in all Christianity lacks the vigor to defeat him but he's subdued and beaten by the symbol of femininity, which negates his virility and allows him to be smashed by the townsfolk.

He's also not an idiot. Most of the monsters are pure id. They wreck shit and get angry but they aren't much more than wild animals with a couple of superpowers and a scary mask. Rawhead wrecked shit too, but he acted like he was entitled to it. He's an old thing, bound by old rules and governed by primal symbolism but he's a king. It's a refreshingly new angle to see an ancient evil and it works astonishingly well.

I'm betting the two things that freaked people out in the story was all the descriptions of male erections and the child eating stuff.

Barker is aware and actively engaged in the symbolism behind his monster. As Rawhead smashes through a farmhouse in pursuit of a mother, Barker calls it exactly what it is: thinly disguised rape scenes. Most horror violence is deeply sexual, but most horror writers, frankly, suck at writing sexuality. Ask 'em to write a bloody murder and they're fine, but when they do a sex scene their stuff falls in a spectrum between scared little boy and mean-spirited little boy. Personally, I blame our religiously repressed, messed-up culture that gives violent movies and 'R' rating but if Michael Fassbender shows his penis the movie gets an 'NC-17.'

The horror in this story has teeth. It has sexuality. It's not coy about the human body and it doesn't treat it as something divorces from our sense of fear. As for the eaten kids, is there anything more terrifying to an adult?

Rawhead Rex is a great story.

I like the artistry and the nuances behind it. Clive Barker does this stuff correctly.

Now I'm gonna troll my fellow student's pages and pick fights.

It's on.


Jennifer Loring said...

I love this post. That is all.

Creature said...

I love your post, too.

Christopher Shearer said...

This is what I like about you, Joe.

Recently, an ex made a comment of Facebook asking if I'd written any "Steampunk at Seton Hill." OK, no big deal. Except, she's in a fucking MA program at Chatham getting a degree in writing agricultural fiction (whatever the fuck that is), reads McSweeney's constantly, and actually likes Jonathan Safran Foer, which is a dead giveaway to pretension and a lack of taste. Have you ever read Jonathan Safran Foer? It's shit. Pure shit. Shit that wins awards, but shit. And you know me, I like literary fiction. I read and enjoyed Ulysses, which is about as comprehensible as Foer, but Foer's books are aimed to be incrompehensible. Just shit.

Now there's shit in genre fiction too. A lot of it, but there's good stuff too.

And the people in my program'll publish--good luck finding a home for your agricultural fiction.

There are a lot of literary writers I like, and a lot of genre writers I like (and a lot of both that I can't stand--a lot of both that prove that you don't have to have any talent or substance to put a book out and even less to sell it--and go ahead, come at me now for saying that--not you, Joe, I know you're laughing--I'll give you a list of them, and I bet you, the person thinking of coming at me, just loves their novels. Well fuck that.)

And for everyone who complained about Rawhead Rex. Yes, I've read your posts. Read it again. Barker's one of the best for a reason. Look at it for what it is, don't throw off catch phrases about POV shifts and fully-developed characters, when you don't even really know what that means. You can learn a lot from Barker. Go do it.

Read the good stuff, regardless of genre. Toss the rest, and listen to Joe Borelli, because he knows what he's talking about.

R. D. DeMoss said...

The more I think about this story, the more I don't believe this story is symbolic. I would say the story of Adam and Eve eating the fruit of knowledge is symbolic of sex. I would agree that most horror has deeply-rooted metaphors of a sexual nature. However, when you have the monster that is described as a giant penis ejaculating on the temple of a goddess, I think the story goes beyond metaphors and symbols. So, what does such a story become? Satire. Barker is amazing, and I'm sure he knew what he was doing. He didn't want people to wonder if the monster was a penis. I think he was trying to stir deeper thought. My inclination is that he was challenging horror writers to write horror stories that aren't sexual metaphors, he's making fun of such tales. Or maybe I'm looking too deep.

You're absolutely correct about horror writers having trouble with sex scenes. I can write about self-mutilation in horrific detail all day long without flinching, but ask me to write about something like fellatio and I'm frightened.

Creature said...

Ryan: Sex stuff is hard to do because sex stuff is hard to articulate without degenerating into hee-haw locker room bullshit. The way I generally try to do it is to copy the frankness of sex advice people, then thinly retell my own experiences.

C. R. Langille said...

You make a lot of great points, and hit the symbolism spot on. What I found most interesting about the story, was the fact that it worked on some level, even though he ignored a lot of ‘rules’ that get pushed onto us as writers. I think I initially had a lot of trouble with this story because the complete bypassing of the ‘rules’ threw me for a loop, and that was all that I could focus on for the most part. I’ve said it in my post, and I believe I mentioned it in a couple of others, but the background of the story is what really caught my attention and kept me going. The lore he set up around Rex pulled me in from the get-go and had me hooked. Rules or no rules, Barker was able to take this story and make it entertaining enough that people have enjoyed it.

Jennifer Loring said...

Chris, I love your comment as well. (Agricultural fiction, really? What the hell...) I couldn't agree more with your suggestion that those who didn't like "Rawhead Rex," or get it, or whatever, read it again. I couldn't believe how much I found within its pages this time around, compared to my first reading (which was admittedly a very long time ago). And it reinforced for me why Clive Barker is and will always be one of my favorite writers.

Jeff Brooks said...

I've gotta stand by you in your war. This was my first Clive Barker story and I loved it. It was so perverse and made me uncomfortable at many times, but I found the story so compelling because of that. Barker seems fearless as an author because he writes what he wants to and doesn't give a shit.

Also, unrelated: Love the Drizzt reference. I too have a love/hate relationship with Salvatore.

Cin Ferguson said...

"Good writing is good writing."

Yep. I loved this story too, Joe. Barker is one of the best. :) My writing Guru.

Chris...WTF...Agricultural fiction? I guess that's a genre that needs shit to grow. And I've gotta go read some Jonathan Safran Foer so I can get edumacated in literary fiction shit. (Curses!)

Man...I'm glad I came to where the party was at! :)

Will Errickson said...

"Long and the short, I love Clive Barker. He's my hero, he's the reason I do what I do, and anyone who disagrees with me is wrong. Plain and simple."


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