Thursday, April 15, 2010

Review of Coldheart Canyon by Clive Barker

Well, I've decided since I read a lot and watch a lot of movies, it would be a good idea to start writing some reviews.  You know, to share my thoughts, give something back, turn people on to some new possibilities for their own reading or viewing pleasure...and occasionally, I must confess, to absolutely rip some poor schmuck apart in the interest both of being entertainingly snarky and warning readers away from unworthy additions to our artistic table.

Our first selection is an older title, but definitely worth consideration: Coldheart Canyon by Clive Barker.

It doesn’t take one much to realize that I’m a Clive Barker fan.  My DVD shelves contain copies of Hellraiser and Candyman.  My bookcases proudly display autographed copies of the Books of Blood, The Hellbound Heart, and Visions of Heaven and Hell among many others, including our topic for today, Coldheart Canyon.

I hesitate to divulge too much in this review, because part of what makes Barker’s work enjoyable is the process of discovering the strange, unknown worlds he creates on the page.  Suffice to say that the world presented in Coldheart Canyon is called the Devil’s Country, and it seems to be just that.

The novel follows movie star Todd Pickett as he hides himself away in a place called Coldheart Canyon while recovering from a disastrous cosmetic surgery.  But the owner of the Canyon, and the reason for its unfortunate name, is still present--Katya Lupi, a movie star of a previous era, who supernaturally retains her youthful beauty and apparently insatiable sex drive.

What awaits Todd and the rest of the cast of characters is a strange mix of eroticism and sheer terror as only Clive Barker can deliver.

The characters are certainly believable, but one has the feeling of being caught in a tug-of-war of the emotions as we are rocketed from sympathy for the characters on one page to loathing them on the next.  Todd Pickett, for instance, is at once the heroic everyman, the lost child, and the egocentric asshole.  We can sympathize with his emotions as he’s experiencing the wonders of Coldheart Canyon.  He has the feeling of someone caught in a world he doesn’t understand, but can’t bring himself to escape from.  In that sense (and in others as will become clear as one reads the book), Coldheart Canyon is actually a metaphor for the extravagances of Hollywood life.  Glamorous at a glance, but repeated exposure leads one to see the corrupt underbelly.  Todd plays the same role in both scenarios: Hollywood and Coldheart Canyon.  He is tempted by the immeasurable lure of the Hollywood lifestyle just as he is seduced by Katya Lupi and her pleasures.  But he understands, on some level, that neither is healthy.

It’s a plight we can sympathize with, and it makes Todd’s behavior when he’s in “movie star mode” somewhat more forgivable.  Still, he is a spoiled rich kid who is accustomed to getting what he wants, and this side of his character shows itself repeatedly throughout the text.

Most of the other characters seem equally paradoxical.  Tammy Lauper, for instance, is the overweight woman whose heart is even bigger than her girth.  She seems immediately likeable, and we can’t help but to feel sorry for her as she’s either overlooked or openly mocked because of her weight.  At the same time, there’s a slight tinge of insanity that colors our perception of her character as we discover just how obsessive a Todd Pickett fan she actually is.

Other characters seem equally paradoxical.  It is the contradictory nature of the characters, and our emotional turns regarding our perceptions of them, that is truly the most enjoyable part of this book.  Rather than the stereotypical horror story fare of painfully one-dimensional characters that are either meant as stand-ins for the everyman or as generally unlikeable shallow caricatures, mere shadows of what real humans might be like (often painted with a cynic's hardened brush), this book offers characters that come complete with all the faults and qualities one would expect to find in human beings.  The extraordinary nature of the events these characters find themselves exploring serve as a perfect backdrop to explore the extremes of the human experience in a way other forms of literature would not so easily allow.

Clive Barker is never one to shy away from the sexually explicit, and this book certainly provides no exception to the rule.  In Clive Barker’s worlds, sex and death, pleasure and pain, don’t seem as concrete of terms as we would come to expect in everyday life.  The lines are often blurred, giving us a unique psychological perspective on pleasure, pain, and morality.  Barker has a happy talent for making the ugly beautiful and the beautiful ugly, expertly demonstrated in this book, as in a scene in which characters participate in an orgy of ghosts.  One is almost tempted to feel aroused by his detailed descriptions of the encounter, but just as one is beginning to vicariously experience the pleasures described, one is then reminded that the participants are not, in fact, alive, and can’t help but feel a slight revulsion at the thought, despite the fact that this is not true necrophilia, as the ghosts are presented as attractive people rather than decomposing corpses.

Coldheart Canyon has everything going for it.  Intriguing characters, a unique plot, and a willingness to show us details other authors might shy away from.  It’s an emotional roller-coaster ride that’s both thrilling and thought-provoking.  However, the ride simply lasts too long.  The book, coming in at 676 pages, occasionally has a hard time holding interest.  Several points throughout the book feel like they would have been an appropriate climax, requiring only a brief epilogue to finish the story, but Barker didn’t choose to end at any of these points.  He knew what he wanted to say, and by god, he was going to say it no matter how many pages it took.

The end result is worth the extra effort, but one can’t help but to feel the book would have been made stronger by cutting perhaps 100 or 200 pages.

All in all, it’s a worthwhile read for Clive Barker fans.  Those who are offended by graphic depictions of sexual encounters might want to look for another book, however, though personally I think they’d be best served by getting off their moralistic high horse and enjoy a good fuck story like the rest of us.


1 comment:

jess said...

Over-the-top, lurid, long...and absolutely UNFORGETTABLE!
Clive Barker is a writer who never takes the subtle way out. It's a cliche that sometimes the scariest things are those things which are only hinted it or suggested (shower scene in PSYCHO is often trotted out as an example).