I really like this story, but I suspect I would have liked it more if I were British.
It's a really, really funny story, but it's the weird kind of comedy of manners stories that works best from Great Britain. In my gentleman's travels across the globe, I've had the opportunity to watch a lot of television. One of the more common themes that I saw on zany British television is the very polite catastrophe: a series of increasingly vile humiliations happens to a person who strives to remain dignified and unaffected by the chaos surrounding them. Subtextually, it's pretty clear that this is an effort by the British to make fun of the stiff upper lip that won them an empire, but it usually winds up looking like an uptight dude surrounded by naked butts and covered in mud.
Barker's story fits well into that genre of comedy but it has a very sharp twist; if poor Jack acknowledges the humiliation that the demon is subjecting him to, his soul will be lost to Hell. I have always liked the way Barker does Hell. It reminds me of a Bosch painting, all inhuman shapes and bitterness and longing for Heaven. It's also a very hidebound place, full of the kind of fussy little rules that fit in well with a Catholic worldview. It's a great battleground between the will of one man and the malevolence of one increasingly desperate demon.
Also, one of the greatest punchlines of any story I've ever read.
Speaking from a writing perspective, the big lesson I'm taking from this is the benefits of shifting POVs within a scene.
Most of the complaints I read in other people's reviews of Rawhead Rex were due to Barker's tendency to switch perspectives mid-scene. The effect doesn't really bother me. I like jumping heads to get different perspectives on a scene without sacrificing immediacy. It's a trick I use to a much more amateurish degree in my own work.
Here, jumping heads quickly enhances the effect in the story. The tale opens from the Yattering's perspective, and chronicles his growing frustration at Jack's complete obliviousness. We assume, like the Yattering, that Jack is completely clueless until a single paragraph, told from Jack's perspective, shows the reader that Jack is not just aware of the Yattering's presence but is playing a very dangerous game with it. From there, the facade of a comedy of good manners conceals a deadly game of wills between the forces of demonic chaos and the forces of English politeness for the soul of an "innocent" man.
It's a great comedy and one of the most intense battle of wills I've ever read.
Apparently they did the entire story as an episode of Tales from the Darkside. Enjoy!