By Clive Barker. HarperCollins, 248 pp, $27.95, hardcover
What is Clive Barker thinking? His latest, the short horror novel Mister B. Gone, is so introspective, so filled with interruption and qualification and self-doubt and such, it's never scary. Yet if it's not scary, what is it?
The premise is simple. The book is damned. The physical book we hold in our hands contains the remains of a devil, the one named in the title, who implores the reader–"you"–to burn the book. Frequently. The novel starts that way and it's a nice bit of misdirection for me to tell you that the second-last sentence is "Paper burns easily."
In between we get the life of Mister B., aka Jakabok Botch, a minor demon of the Ninth Circle who escapes hell to roam the fields of Earth in the company of a larger devil named Quitoon. Their near-pointless wandering, and their acceptance of the random nature of life, brings to mind the absurdist work of Samuel Beckett or Eugí¨ne Ionesco, especially with Jakabok's subterranean homosexual yearning for Quitoon.
Jakabok is constantly asserting his dread nature. And yes, he tells us of various murders and indignities he's performed–but it's never convincing. He relates an encounter with angels that transforms him into a great devil, yet the great devilry that follows amounts to one kill and a long scene during which he eavesdrops on a series of lawyerly negotiations. Barker can write horror: "I seized the sliver of glass, indifferent to its slicing my palm, and drove it deep into the man's face. His sobs of sorrow became moans of agony, as I worked the thick glass up under his eye, pushing his eyeball out of its socket from below.”¦I stirred the blade in the pot of his skull."
But mostly what he writes are reasons to move on. "Everybody loves a measure of fright in their stories; a revulsion that makes the release into love all the sweeter." Okay, except there is none.
"This isn't a story. Stories have beginnings, middles, and ends." That's sadly true.
"Burn the damn book!" If you insist.