Reading with SJ: Fiction (at last!)

Don’t be too shocked, but this time I’m actually going to talk about fiction I’ve read.


Deep breaths, people! We’ll get through it together, I swear. Thankfully, I’ve got two really good titles to recommend today.

Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances by Neil Gaiman – I’ve been wanting to read this for a while and hadn’t gotten the chance until now. I’m really glad I did make time for this, though. I think you either love short stories or you don’t, and I’m definitely in the former group. I also really love Gaiman’s collections because he makes a point of discussing where each story comes from, which is always fascinating and endearing. I loved his introduction on why he gave the book the title he did, his thoughts on the phrase, and a lot of other things. After slogging through what felt like a creative drought and a swamp of market frustrations, his introduction made me sit down and cry because it reminded me why I love stories so much. Likewise, his piece Making a Chair is a wonderful reminder that I don’t have to be “on” all the time. I can be a person, it’s not the worst thing in the world if I’m not art-ing 24/7.

I don’t think there’s a weak story in this book. All have their moments and all of them really run the gamut of themes and emotions. A Lunar Labyrinth, Feminine Endings and My Last Landlady are enthralling and chilling in their own ways. Orange is fun and plays with form a little bit, which I love. and Diamonds and Pearls and The Sleeper and the Spindle are two very different and intriguing takes on fairy tales. Return of the Thin White Duke and The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury please me for the obvious reasons, but I was also really taken with these stories because they draw the reader in so well. The former is really good at world-building while staying true to Bowie without delving into fanfic, and the latter is so emotional,, so obviously passionate that it feels like a moment is being shared since I’m such a massive Bradbury fan, myself. In some ways Jerusalem almost feels a little like a Bradbury story – not one of his obvious genre pieces, but one of his more literary oddities. A Calendar of Tales gets major props for taking me by surprise and delighting me so much. I love the format of how this story came about, and I just love all the individual tales that form this quirky, unusual piece. It’s fabulous. Also, The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains is a masterpiece. The voice on this is so strong, the storytelling so clear and clean, the descriptions of the environment so complimentary to the action…this is how you write, plain and simple. I got this from the library, but now I actually really want this book, because I can see myself returning to it the same way I keep going back to my Bradbury collection when I’m feeling in need of a certain feeling or two.

The Scarlet Gospels by Clive Barker – I love Barker’s work, though I haven’t read it all, so I think I have a somewhat unique perspective on this one. I’ve been reading over reviews, people feeling cheated that apparently the original 1000 + page version got condensed to 360 or so, some even wondering if Barker wrote this book.

I loved this thing. Plain and simple, I honestly think Barker did write it, I do think the editing could have been done better, but I am pretty dandy with the book we got. Now, I’m not familiar with the character of Harry D’Amour before now, so that may color things. Fan reaction and what actually happens in the book really intrigues me here.

I will agree that the prologue is perfection. You can tell it’s written by someone who’s directed film because the pacing is phenomenal, and the action, the tension, and the intensity just does not let up. Straight out of the gate we are shown that this is going to be a brutal book and Pinhead/Hell Priest is not a force to mess with.

It really intrigues me the direction Barker went with this character. You can definitely tell he’s taking it back for himself. I like the concept that Pinhead was a demeaning nickname and not one the demon likes. I like that he has his own agenda, and that he has the balls to seek and eventually challenge Lucifer.

I do agree some of the humor was forced, but it wasn’t something that was over the top for me. I do think the pacing was pretty fast in the second half of the book compared to a lot of Barker’s work, though I don’t necessarily feel that the characters were dragged through Hell with nothing to do. If anything, they were led on a quest to find Norma and are at the mercy of Pinhead’s machinations and the consequences of them. Those who prefer Barker for straight horror or noir will probably prefer the first half of the book or so. The second half reads more like a very streamlined, insanely dark variation of Imajica set in Hell. And the settings work. I don’t know what people were expecting, but he’s written fairly civilized versions of Hell before, and this felt like an expansion on that. Honestly, with how casually the damned souls and tortures and things were mentioned and the focus kept on politics or the demon people in the streets, that’s a little unsettling, isn’t it? That torture and the like are so day-to-day to not even have to go into detail on it.

I loved it. The world building in this is awesome. And for those who feel like this version of Hell doesn’t match what Barker would do…uh, this fits pretty well with his work in Mister B Gone. It would make sense for that version of Hell to modernize into what’s in this book, even. I like that he gives Hell a religious order with the Cenobites, that it has its rulers, its own problems and machinations, and that the demons look upon Lucifer as their version of God gone away.

Obviously if you are traditionally religious this probably isn’t for you. Likewise, this is also a really graphic book and has a lot of language, so keep that in mind. Also, if you weren’t aware, Barker writes characters of all ethnicities and lifestyle choices, so I’m sure that presses some people’s buttons, as well.

Pinhead as a character is…well he’s his own thing. He’s not like the films, he’s not even completely like the version in Hellbound Heart, but that would make sense because he’s spent all this time obtaining magic and building toward his goal. It is stated quite a bit how much of himself he’s disfigured, how much he’s given up to obtain knowledge of magic and to get closer to his one goal, the one thing that drives him, even more than his own religious pursuits. Plus, he is cruel, he is badass, he is uncompromising. The character of his lackey is traditional Barker, and is fairly squirm-worthy in parts.  With the other characters, the protagonist group,I felt like the characterizations were just enough. Granted, I was unfamiliar with them, but I like Harry, I like Norma, I don’t mind the others. Dale can be a little bit much, but we’ve all known people like that, so it didn’t wear on me the way it seemed to on some people. I really don’t know that going hugely in-depth on anyone else would have really worked in the context of this storyline. Honestly, I love Barker, and I love Imajica, but I don’t know if I would’ve wanted to read over a thousand pages of context for this kind of story. It is more urban fantasy than straight horror, to be fair. Those hoping for a return to the Books of Blood will be sorely disappointed. I would have liked things a little slower paced in places with maybe a little bit more time spent taking in parts of Hell instead of just plowing through it,but that would have taken away from the goal, which was for Harry et al to get back their dying friend.

I like Harry, too. I like the background context, I like how he was drawn to watch all the horrible things going on, I don’t mind the direction his character was taken and where he ended up. It felt like a nice cap to the things you learn at beginning of the book, though maybe I’d feel different if I was more familiar with the character. I love Norma, love his interaction with Norma, love that the main group of protagonists are fairly ragtag and not the typical group of adventurers or pretty people that usually you find in a lot dark urban fantasy titles.

I understand that this isn’t going to be everyone’s cuppa. Hell, it won’t be every Barker fan’s thing. For me, though, it reads as the streamlined work of a mature writer trying to balance a hell of a lot in one story. This thing was built up so much, it would be impossible to please everyone. I like that it combines his particular take on horror with his particular take on world-building. It’s unapologetic in its goriness and its take on religion in the world of the book. It’s fascinating, riveting in parts, even. Would I have liked more? Sure, I’d have taken it, but I honestly don’t know that it would have added anything except more stuff. Any more challenges for Harry to get to Pinhead would have slowed things down unless there were just epic scenes that we’re missing. And I’m sure Mr. Barker’s back story on everything is insane and incredible, but I don’t know that it was completely needed here. Some stuff to fill in just a little in places, maybe, but another two books’ worth of pages more? I just don’t know what that would add unless the whole plot was turned around.

Story-wise, it had me by the throat and kept me reading way later than I should have been most nights, and I loved the new take on what has become such a huge figure in horror. Because every part definitely reflects Barker’s work at one point or another, I’m going to probably incite wrath and say yeah, he wrote this, he’s changing things up, streamlining and all that. And it works. It may not be what everyone had in their heads,, but it’s his book, and it works, and I, for one, loved it and am so happy I got to read it so soon.

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