“I am a man, and men are animals who tell stories. This is a gift from God, who spoke our species into being, but left the end of our story untold. That mystery is troubling to us. How could it be otherwise? Without the final part, we think, how are we to make sense of all that went before: which is to say, our lives?
So we make stories of our own, in fevered and envious imitation of our Maker, hoping that we’ll tell, by chance, what God left untold. And finishing our tale, come to understand why we were born.” Sacrament – Clive Barker
Well, I am back to the grindstone for my second book review, and it is another one from my BookRiot Read Harder Challenge. This time I am covering off the ‘book by or about someone who identifies as LGBTQ’ category – Sacrament by Clive Barker.
This is also the fourth book I have read this year (my GoodReads challenge is to read seventy).
A quick reminder: my 5 star ranking system is as follows:
5 stars – Brilliant. I would recommend this to everyone, and it is very likely I will re-read it in the future (possibly many times).
4 stars – Very good. Would happily recommend to others, this will be a welcome addition to my bookshelf.
3 stars – Good. Solid writing, solid story, no major flaws. Might also have some exceptional parts offset by weaker components.
2 stars – Ordinary. Generally means that the weaknesses (story, style, theme etc.) outweigh the positives.
1 star – Not good. Avoid.
Sacrament – 4 out of 5 stars
As with the previous BookRiot book challenge review (Seeds of Time by John Wyndham), I was already a fan of the author (Barker) for his fantasy and his horror work. I love Imajica, (an amazing fantasy novel set against an epically weird and magical world) and re-read it last at the end of 2014, the Books of Blood are some of the best horror short stories ever written, and The Hellbound Heart gave us one of the most identifiable horror villains of modern times – Pinhead – who must rank alongside great villains like Pennywise the Clown and Patrick Bateman.
Actually, this makes me wonder – is reading books by your favourite authors in the spirit of the Read Harder Challenge? Too late now…
Anyway, despite being a fan, this book has sat neglected on my shelf for over a decade, unread. Mostly unread. For some reason I bought it back in 2000 or 2001, read the first forty or so pages and then stopped. Even during my reading lulls, this is uncommon behaviour – stopping a book before it is finished is incredibly rare for me. I didn’t really give this one a go.
And I regret that decision – this book is excellent. Not Brilliant. But very good. Not as creative or expansive in world building as Imajica or Weaveworld, nor as tightly constructed as the Hellbound Heart or Cabal, but an engaging story line and written with the Barker artistry I have come to expect.
I actually had three (now two) unread books by Clive Barker sitting on my shelf (Sacrament, Coldheart Canyon, and Incarnations), so I used this opportunity to relieve myself of some this ‘unread book’ guilt. I picked Sacrament because:
- The author Clive Barker is gay; and
- The protagonist Will Rabjohns is gay,
so this book just seemed to fit the challenge category all too well. That said, this is not a ‘gay book’ – it is not an exploration of either the author’s or the protagonist’s sexuality, rather this sexuality is a backdrop to the story. Will’s homosexuality certainly contributes in interesting ways to the themes (see below), but it is not the driving purpose of the novel. I think it is interesting that (apparently) a person at HarperCollins tried to convince Clive to ‘change the pronoun, change boyfriend to girlfriend – no one will notice’. Whilst I think the story would be weaker without the inclusion of the gay aspect of Will’s character (again, it contributes to theme in two significant ways), if Will’s sexuality had been changed, I wouldn’t expect it to fundamentally change the plot.
The protagonist, Will Rabjohns is a nature photographer with a specific focus; he documents the last specimens of creatures that are heading towards extinction. Whilst photographing the dying moments of whole species, Will, a gay man, is dealing with the deaths of many of his gay friends from ‘the plague’ – AIDS.
A violent encounter with a polar bear leaves him in a coma, dreaming/remembering a key moment in his youth. It is in this remembered moment that he encounters two ageless supernatural human-looking beings, Rosa McGee and Jacob Steep. Rosa is murderous, psychopathic even, and also very sexual (on one occasion she is murderous and sexual simultaneously). Meanwhile, Jacob calling himself the Killer of Last Things, hunts down and slaughters the last mating pairs of endangered animals. Jacob and Will end up sharing a mystical connection, and it is this connection that sets Will on his path of documenting the death of species.
Coming out of the coma, the psychic connection is renewed (in a sense) which launches us towards the final conflict between Will and Steep.
I mentioned that I liked his writing style previously; Clive Barker’s writing is artwork, almost poetry, and this book is no exception. Descriptions of the creative, the weird, the grotesque, are simply excellent, real word-paintings that give you both a sense of the image and a sense of the character’s reaction, yet I didn’t find myself bogged down in masses of unnecessary and turgid exposition dumps. There is still an efficiency of words here.
Interesting note – apparently Barker attributes his word efficiency to the fact he handwrites his stories (three drafts!) and then types them:
When you hand write a thing the size of Weaveworld (584 pages) you want to make sure every word counts because it’s such a huge labour to get it down. – CliveBarkerInfo.com
One can only imagine the effort!
Actually I can’t imagine this, my own handwriting’s legibility being akin to the results of strapping an inkwell to an epileptic gecko and then throwing it at a notebook – writing anything by hand is counter-productive.
Clive Barker is also one of the most imaginative authors I have ever read, and he is normally fearless in the gods and demons, the heavens and hells, that he creates. Sacrament has its share of psychic connections, dreams within dreams, and weird talking foxes, but I still felt that it falls a little short of his normal standard. The world lacks… grandeur, the characters are a little too normal. Perhaps it is simply more grounded than other tales, but I felt that this book just wasn’t as magical, and didn’t shine as brightly for me as other favourite Barker novels.
“Life was not a reversible commodity. Things passed away, never to return: species, hopes, years.”
The obvious themes of the novel are the parallel issues of animal extinction and the deaths of gay men from AIDS, with Will acting as an observer of both. Barker describes Will watching the polar bears – great creatures that used to be pristine, proud, and powerful – degraded, reduced in stature to filthy scavengers from garbage dumps. This is could then be compared to the sickness, and the subsequent reduction of Patrick, the ‘love of Will’s life’ and Will’s other friends who have died of AIDS. These themes are present, strong, but Barker doesn’t preach from the pulpit on either – like a photographer, Barker brings this sadness to your attention, forces you to look at it, but leaves it up to you as the viewer to make of it as you will. He shows you the deaths, shows you that good people, fine creatures are dying, but proposes no solutions, no actions.
Steep had never felt comfortable in the company of queers, but he’d felt, almost against his will, a kind of empathy with their condition. Like him, they were obliged to be self invented; like him, they looked in at the rest of the tribe from its perimeters.
A less obvious theme (to me) is that of the outsider, and how the outsider is free to invent themselves, to determine their own role in life. Rosa and Jacob are outsiders; supernatural beings who have no idea what they are, why they were created; they live around humanity but are not part of it. Not knowing their place, these creatures take what information they have, and create a place for themselves, a role for themselves. Barker mentions the mix of sadness and freedom felt by Will as a result of being gay and therefore being an outsider; as a gay man he defies expectations, he sits outside the tribe. This is sad, because without a place, without a set role, Will somewhat lonely, rejected. But on the flip side of this is the freedom; by having no set role provided by society, he is free to determine his own place, to create his own role and own community.
Final Thoughts – arty, sexy… but shy of amazing
I’m glad I finally got around to reading this book – I enjoyed reading it immensely. I read it quickly, eager to get to the next page, the next chapter, the ending. It had almost everything I want from a Clive Barker, artistry, imagination, and loads of sex. Actually the sex was interesting; the gay sex scenes were ‘lightly done’, or softer in detail than I had come to expect from Barker, who does not to shy away from graphic details. Further, the gay sex scenes were very traditional – that is, no violence, everyone enjoys themselves, it’s in a bed instead of a bizarre abandoned church at midnight etc. – very vanilla. Contrast this to the heterosexual sex scenes were aggressive power plays, and in one instance with Rosa, involved a graphically sexual auto-erotic asphyxiation murder of a naked man with a Rosary.
(I don’t think this was a message by Barker, rather it was simply a result of the protagonist being gay and a nice person and the very un-nice villains being heterosexual.)
But this book falls short of amazing. The plot just isn’t as rich, the worlds inhabitants just aren’t as interesting. Other Barker books resonate in my mind for weeks after I read them, but this… this ended, and that was about it. It will stay on my library, I will recommend it to others, but it wont get on the regular re-read list.
Well, if you made it this far, thanks for reading another of my book reviews. If you have any suggestions about improvements to my reviewing technique, please leave them in the comments, as I am very new to this.