Tortured Souls by Clive Barker (book review).

March 8, 2018 | By | Reply More

While your present reviewer would consider himself a fan of Clive Barker, he has to admit to being a bit perplexed by this short novella, ‘Tortured Souls’. It certainly uses one of Barker’s most consistent and enjoyable tropes in the way that supernatural horror is grafted onto Judaeo-Christian mythology. The very idea that God would create, perhaps even ordain, a being like Agonistes to carry out his will is shocking, but in some small way does help to answer the question on why God allows pain and cruelty to exist if He is both omnipotent and all-loving.

Yet within a few pages of Agonistes being introduced, we’re taken into the city of Primordium and that’s where things start to become less satisfactory. Primordium is introduced as an ancient city from our past, older than Rome or even Troy, which is fair enough. But for a city that old, it isn’t described even remotely realistically and that undoes the effect of antiquity that Barker seems to have been aiming for. I don’t mean that the archaeological aspects aren’t quite right. A certain suspension of disbelief is more than acceptable when you’re reading horror or fantasy fiction, so if Barker wants to describe a city using terms like ‘senate’ and ‘villa’ that don’t exactly mesh with what we know of human history in the third millennium BC, that’s hardly the end of the world.

Rather, it’s the way Barker mixes much more modern, even contemporary, ideas into the story that come across as more than a little jarring. Characters frequently drive from one place to another and, in context, Barker does seem to mean they’re driving cars rather than, say, chariots. Okay, perhaps Primordium is meant to be a technologically advanced civilisation about which we know nothing. There doesn’t seem to be any reason for Barker to take that position, though, given the fundamentals of the story are essentially timeless. But where the illusion is shattered completely is when characters in shock or pain call out the name of Jesus Christ.

Either ‘Tortured Souls’ draws upon Judaeo-Christian mythology or it doesn’t. If Agonistes is one of the God’s creations, made on the day after the six days of the Creation myth documented in Genesis, then the entirety of the Judaeo-Christian myth cycle has to be respected, too. The figure of Christ may or may not have been prefigured in the Old Testament, depending on your point of view, but to have a character call out to Christ simply makes no sense if you’re setting a novel in an ancient, presumably Old Testament-era setting if the introduction to Primordium as before even Troy is meant to be believed.

It’s these anachronisms that weaken ‘Tortured Souls’ more than anything else. The actual story itself isn’t imaginative enough to dispel these concerns, the characters themselves never really developing beyond simple, even archetypal, sketches. The two central characters are the street urchin-turned-assassin Zarles Krieger and the senator’s daughter, Lucidique. When Krieger kills Lucidique’s father, she inexplicably allies herself with him and becomes his lover, seemingly for no other reason than to allow Barker to throw in a bit of sex. The mad scientist Talisac turns himself into the womb that will give birth to his monster-child, but why he has to do this, seems to fulfil no function beyond giving Barker the opportunity to describe Talisac’s condition in gruesome detail. It’s weirdness for weirdness’s sake and, frankly, is so ridiculous that the manner of Talisac’s death is so obvious it lacks any emotional punch at all.

So, while the story itself isn’t bad and the artwork by Bob Eggleton perfectly serviceable, this isn’t the timeless dark fantasy Barker usually managers to deliver with pitch-perfect skill. That whole surgical S+M vibe that Barker employs to great effect in his ‘Hellraiser’ stories has been done to death by now and feels derivative and bland here. Similarly, the characters may shock at first, but lack the nuance and motivation that make, say, both protagonists and villains in ‘Weaveworld’ or ‘Cabal’ feel so rich and vibrant.

Neale Monks

March 2018

(pub: Subterranean Press, 2015. 87 page deluxe hardback. Price: $30.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-59606-636-6)

check out website: www.subterraneanpress.com

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Category: Books, Horror

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