Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Clive Barker's Book of the Damned IV

Every once in a great while, you run across a comic book that makes you wonder "What the hell were they thinking?" This fourth volume in the companion series to Marvel/Epic's Hellraiser anthology is one those books.

I do not say this because it is in any way a bad book. Not at all, although it is "bad" in the sense that it is evil. I say this because this is quite possibly the most disturbing book that Marvel has ever published, at any time and under any aegis. If this book had ever accidentally fallen into the hands of a zealous parent or ambitious prosecutor, the offending retailer would have undoubtedly been convicted on obscenity charges. Seriously, this shit is hardcore. If Avi Arad could go back in time and burn every copy of this book before it left the printers, I think he would.

Thankfully for him, there aren't too many copies of this in print. Hellraiser was a fairly successful franchise for Marvel for a few years in the early 90s, spawning numerous spin-offs and seasonal specials (seriously, there's a Hellraiser Christmas Special out there that must be seen to be believed). The franchise imploded in the mid-90s when every wannabe Marvel franchise imploded: they were pushing out tons and tons of spin-offs with no particular audience in mind, all of which floundered and eventually destroyed any remaining support for the core title. Towards the end, they even had a Code-friendly Hellraiser spin-off, The Harrowers, aimed at the newsstand market, with pencils by Gene Colan. Tell me that was in any way shape or form a remotely good idea.

I'm not usually one for horror movies. Not that I have anything against being scared, its just that most horror films are not very good. I mean, seriously, what is so frightening about Freddie Krueger or Jason Vorhees or any of those punks? The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre was very creepy, but the story itself paled next to Tobe Hooper's evocation of a suitably terrifying mood. Frankly, most "slasher" flicks that revolve around some masked maniac or supernatural monster killing lots of people until they are ultimately defeated are kinda dull.

But the Hellraiser films were, and are, substantially different.

Hellraiser continues to scare the pants off of me. I am a grown-ass adult and the first two movies in the series are still guaranteed to creep me out for days afterwards. The later ones are hit-and-miss, but that can be easily attributed to creator Clive Barker's steadily decreasing participation in the franchise. He sold the movie rights in exchange for the ability to make the first film exactly as he wanted to make it. He did it on a shoestring but it still holds up amazingly well, unbelievably creepy and still very effective. One of the most underrated films of the 1980s.

The basic concept behind the cinematic Hellraiser series, as well as Barker's original novella The Hellbound Heart, are deeply indebted to Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos. Lovecraft presented a cosmos demarcated by primal elder gods and monstrously powerful alien creatures, all of whom regarded humanity as nothing more than, at best, a passing inconvenience, and at worse, food. Lovecraft's universe is a harsh and unkind place, and if you ignore August Derleth's dubious contributions to the mythos (and who doesn't?), the Cthulhu cosmos is totally devoid of any conception of good or evil. Ultimately, the universe is split between the elder gods, the crawling chaos, and the dark geometric aliens who made Earth their home billions of years before mankind. Man doesn't fit into this mythology as anything but lunch.

Hellraiser takes this one step further. The dark elder forces in the Hellraiser mythos - represented by the dark god Leviathan - have as little regard for humanity as Cthulhu and Co. The difference between the two is that while Cthulhu may regard humans as nothing more interesting than an occasional snack, Leviathan actively despises the teeming chaos of humanity and wishes to impose an unnatural order on our society. And of course, by order they mean that they want to rip us all limb from limb and put us back together again until we make sense.

You don't have to know that Barker is very openly queer to see the S&M undertones here. Whereas most horror monsters deal in strictly sublimated sexualized violence, the Cenobites who serve Leviathan's whims are very blunt instruments of sado-masochistic desire. They are always talking about "pleasure through pain", and the exquisite delights of unbelievable agony. The fact that the monsters are all dressed like refugees from the local leather bar is hardly the most subtle indicator.

It's easy to make light, but the fact is that the blueprints of the Hellraiser mythos, as laid out in the pages of Marvel's adaptions, were almost unrelentingly grim. Most horror is based around simple archetypes: the demon, the killer, the monster. Isolated phenomena that can be dispatched without ultimately disruptign the fabric of reality too badly. Serial killers are real, but they are all too human and can be dealt with acordingly. Any cosmology that creates demons also creates angels. Most horror is self-correcting, for the simple reason that you don't want to drive your audience insane with by overwhelming them with inescapable nihilism.

Hellraiser, however, posited a horror mthos driven by the basic concept of hell as an infinite concentration camp, run by a horde of fiendishly creative Dr. Mengeles who have sworn allegience to a millennia-long religious inquisition of all things flesh. A serial killer can be dismissed because they're crazy, a demon because they're patently, irredeemably evil. But real-life monsters like Nazis can't be so easily dismissed. They are evil, yes, but they are also human, and their threat was the threat of a banal indifference to suffering and misery, and the all-too real potential for cruelty that exists within us all. The people who shuffled the Jews and the gypsies and the homosexuals into cattle cars that took them to death camps were human, just like you and me, and they weren't crazy or ignorant. The image of hell as an eternal Auschwitz, where you are tortured for eternity not because you were bad and are suffering in a righteous flame of retribution, but merely because you were born is enduringly terrifying. There is no higher morality at work in the Hellraiser mythos: there is all-consuming fear and there is never-ending pain. That's it.

Marvel produced some good - and some not-so-good - Hellraiser books over the course of their run. Pretty much everyone who ever had anything to do with painted comics did some work for the book at one point, from Scott Hampton to Dave McKean to John Bolton. Alex Ross did his first published comic work for the book (I think, I may be mistaken). As a hardcore Christian, however, he hated Hellraiser and everything it stood for and almost refused to take the assignment until - reportedly - Clive Barker personally begged him to illustrate a story, on the grounds that it would give Ross' talent a showcase that would enable him to move on to bigger things. Sure enough, it did. Neil Gaiman did a story for the book. Colleen Doran did two. Bernie Wrightson, Ted McKeever, Kevin O'Neill, Jorge Zaffino, Kyle Baker, Gray Morrow, Bill Siekiewicz... the list goes on. Larry Wachowski (yes, that Larry Wachowski) even recieved some of his earliest writing credits on the book.

But we're talking about one book in particular. The fourth Book of the Damned featured "The Revelations of Johnny John". The idea is that this is the "revelation" of a convicted killer named Johnny John, sentenced to death on the electric chair for murdering a priest. After his death, they find a book in his cell that illustrates John's experiences in hell and foretells the coming apocalypse, when hell finally conquers the earth and, basically, everyone dies and is dragged off to hell for eternal torment. No heaven, no angels, just never-ending suffering on an inconceivable level.

This is a depressing, gruesome, unbelievably nihilistic comic. Probably the most extremly nihilistic thing I've ever read, and I consider Brett Easton Ellis' American Psycho to be one of the great works of American fiction. I don't recommend reading it unless you have a strong constitution and are not easily frightened by gore.


Here, we see Johnny John drowning in a river of blood. How fun! From the people who brought you Muppet Babies!


Here, we see the dead being force-fed their own bodies, and loving every second of it.


I've never even heard of porn that has has people being force-fed their own vomit. He says that vomiting up his stomach and internal organs is "orgasmic".

This is the image on the front of the program for the Harper Valley Elementary School First Grade Spring Pageant.

This is my favorite. Nothing like the implication of human remains being ground up in a meat grinder.

You get the idea. There are pages and pages and pages of this stuff, 48 pages in all. There's a part of this that is just absurd, but there's also a part that is just batshit-crazy frightening. I wonder what kind of people bought this book when it hit the stands. I really and truly do. I know there are people out there who listen to Norwegian black metal and read about serial killers all day who would get a real kick out of this, but in all honesty I think that this kind of nihilism is beyond even the weird kids who give themselves plastic surgery to look like 700 year old dark elves. This is just evil, and I feel dirty after reading it. Which is probably the point, but still.

It's rare that anything in the horror genre can achieve the status of truly, profoundly frightening. I think most horror is just sort of funny. Hellraiser, however, is deeply, deeply disturbing on that very profound level. There's something essentially disturbing about any fictional universe where suicide is the only escape from unrelenting pain (unless you're in hell already, in which case suicide will do no good). This kind of sickness is too outrageous to be funny or diverting, it is just chilling... because it reminds me that as amazingly evil as this is, mankind has done no worse throughout the realms of history.

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