Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Yattering and Jack by Clive Barker

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.

Image by Ashnkatt

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!


Cin Ferguson said...

Hey Joe,

I loved this short little story too. Very good. And the POV didn't bother me a bit. I did read that Barker didn't like this story as much as some of his others. He felt it was not his best. Still, I enjoyed it. :)


C. R. Langille said...

I like how Barker does Hell too. I play a lot of paper and pencil RPG stuff, and the denizens of Hell have generally been described as being Lawful Evil. I find that interesting and love that it bleeds through to some author’s literature as well; evil, but with rules. Order to the malignant things that wish to do us harm. For some reason, it makes it more believable than just utter chaos hell-bent (excuse the phrase) on our destruction. I like how he portrayed that feeling about the Yattering and those he worked for.

Christopher Shearer said...

You could be a pretentious American, who talks with a fake British accent (half the English majors I know, and Madonna), and then maybe you'd like it a little more. Give it a try. See how it turns out. As for the POV. Yeah, the story wouldn't have worked at all without it. There's nothing wrong with it . . . blah, blah, blah, as I always say, but know what you're doing--because it can get bad and stupid really quick if you don't.

Jennifer Loring said...

It's definitely very British. But it's got a half-cooked turkey attack, so what's not to love? Anyway, I don't know why head-hopping doesn't bother me in Barker's work when it makes me want to tear my eyes out in most others'; I suspect it's because, as Chris has mentioned here and previously, he does it so well.

R. D. DeMoss said...

I found the lawful version of hell interesting and think it makes for an interesting story, but it makes hell lose a lot of scare factor for me. Maybe that's because if there's a system, rules, or organization, the mystery ends. And since the unknown is where the greatest fear is derived, this ordered style of hell isn't as terrifying. Barker lets this version of hell bleed through more than one work; I'm not sure if it was intentional, but I saw "The Yattering and Jack" to be in the same universe Mister B. Gone was told from. In Hellbound Heart, the Cenobites also follow structure but in a different way. They obey pleasure and pain, which leads way for a dichotomy of order and chaos. Hellbound Heart is considerably the darker of the tales, and I can't help but wonder if that's because chaos is so prominent in there.

Jeff Brooks said...

While I was somewhat turned off by the head hopping in Rawhead, I found it less bothersome in this story. I'm positive it is because I've had literally no exposure to the omniscient narrator before Barker, and with each of his stories I'm sure I'll get more and more used to it. I also think the head hopping works especially well in this story because we get fewer perspectives, and they don't scene change very drastically.

J.L. Benet said...

I wasn't as put off by the POV shifts in this story, but that was due to their only being two POVs. I think the same effect can be achieved without an actual headhop.

The stiff upper lip thing was actually annoying to me after a while. Once we find out that he's not a rube, we understand how cold and calculating he is. He has been planning this for years and has let those around him take the brunt of the malevolence. I took it as black comedy, so it wasn't really offensive, as we expect such things to be over the top. But when a reader finds himself not rooting or caring for either of the main characters, I don't tend to think of the story as a success. Neither the imagery nor the characters were all that memorable, which is probably why I had forgotten all about this tale.