Review: “Cabal” By Clive Barker (Novel)

Well, I thought that I’d revisit an old favourite today 🙂 Ever since I got back into reading regularly again several months ago, I’ve meant to re-read this book again, but have always got distracted by other books. I am, of course talking about Clive Barker’s 1988 horror masterpiece “Cabal” 🙂

This book and I have a rather strange history. I first found this cool-looking book in a charity shop in Waterlooville when I was about fourteen or fifteen. However, shortly after I bought it, I found that the inside cover illustration terrified me so much that I didn’t dare to open the book again.

About three or four years later, I discovered Cradle Of Filth’s “Midian” album and learnt that it was inspired by “Cabal”. I then read the novel twice in about as many years. Not to mention that the tagline from the cover also appeared in a nightmare that I had about a decade ago too. So, I’m honestly surprised it has taken me this long to re-read it for a third time.

So, without any further ado, let’s take a look at “Cabal”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 1989 Fontana (UK) paperback edition of “Cabal” that I read.

The novel begins in Canada, with a mentally ill man called Boone meeting his psychiatrist, Decker. To Boone’s shock, Decker tells him that – under hypnosis – he has confessed to a series of grisly murders. Although Boone cannot remember the crimes, Decker seems to have evidence of them and inisists on talking more with Boone about them before he goes to the police.

Racked with guilt, Boone throws himself in front of a truck. However, he survives and wakes up in hospital. There is another man in the room with him, a strange man called Narcisse who has metal hooks attached to his thumbs. Narcisse tells Boone about a place called Midian, a fabled sanctuary for the strange and monstrous. Then, as Boone watches in horror, Narcisse removes own his face.

In the chaos and panic that follows, Boone slips out of the hospital and decides to search for Midian….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it was even better than I remembered 🙂 If you like atmospheric, intelligent, well-written, subversive, timeless and fantastical horror fiction, then you need to read this book. Seriously, it’s the kind of book that lingers in your imagination and improves with every reading of it. It is the kind of book where, even if you know what is going to happen, you’ll still want to read it again and again.

I should probably start by talking about the novel’s horror elements, and what a feast of fear it is 🙂 This novel contains an exquisitely dark mixture of ultra-gruesome splatterpunk horror, suspenseful horror, gothic horror, paranormal horror, dark fantasy, body horror, slasher movie-style horror, psychological horror, social horror and character-based horror. But, interestingly, this is one of those novels that comforts as much as it horrifies.

In essence, it is a gleefully subversive story about misfits and mainstream society. Unlike more traditional horror stories, this is a story about a group of strange creatures trying to protect themselves from the cold evil of mainstream society and all of it’s authority figures. Although some of the creatures in this novel may be monstrous in appearance and/or deeds, the true monsters of this novel are all too human. In other words, this novel is a bit like “Blade Runner” (thematically, at least. It isn’t a sci-fi story) , but from the replicants’ perspective. And it is awesome 🙂

Like with Barker’s “Weaveworld“, this novel is a giant middle finger to the mundane and the mainstream. It is a furious critique of a narrow-minded mainstream society that hypocritically condemns what it considers to be “strange” without ever glancing inwards.

Nowhere is this better seen than in the novel’s main villain, Decker. Although he appears to be a respectable psychiatrist, it is revealed surprisingly early in the story that he is actually a serial killer (who is trying to frame Boone for his crimes). Not only is Decker an incredibly chilling character, but one of the most horrifying elements of the story is how easily he is able to blend into mainstream society and enlist the help of policemen etc.. to do his bidding.

This novel is also an incredibly well-written and atmospheric story too, with so many wonderfully evocative descriptions and intriguing locations that you’ll probably want to visit Midian again and again.

Seriously, although the novel’s third-person narration may appear a little bit formal or elaborate when read today, it flows really well and is an absolutely beautiful mixture of formal descriptions, impish irreverence and fast-paced matter-of-factness. Seriously, Clive Barker has an absolutely amazing narrative voice 🙂

Another cool thing about the older edition of “Cabal” that I read is that it also contains some illustrations by Barker himself. Although the front and inside cover art is by a different artist, the illustrations within the novel itself are these eerily symmetrical and surreal Rorschach ink blot type drawings in Barker’s unique art style. They’re illustrative enough to add atmosphere and personality to the book, but infrequent and mysterious enough to allow the reader to picture the story in their own way.

In terms of the characters, they are brilliant 🙂 This is one of those novels where the main characters (eg: Boone, his girlfriend Lori, Narcisse and the inhabitants of Midian) are intriguing, flawed, sympathetic, complicated characters who really feel real when you read about them.

They’re characters with histories, emotions, libidos, introspection and all of these wonderfully human qualities. This contrasts really well with the novel’s incredibly creepy villains, who are motivated by things like authority, sadism, conformity etc…

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really interesting. Usually, I praise books for being short. This novel is a very rare exception. At a slender 253 pages in length and with an intriguing open ending, this novel feels like a mere fragment of a much longer story.

It’s the kind of compelling, gripping story that will make you want to read more (and, despite the formal narration, this novel is a surprisingly quick read). So, you will probably feel a little bit disappointed that it ends when it does. Even so, by leaving the reader wanting more, “Cabal” is the kind of book that you’ll return to again and again.

In terms of how this thirty-one year old novel had aged, it has aged astonishingly well. Thanks to the novel’s fantastical elements, themes and character-based drama, it is pretty much timeless. Yes, it is written in a slightly formal (but beautiful) way, there are a couple of mildly dated moments and the story has a slightly “80s” atmosphere to it. But, the story, characters, atmosphere etc… are wonderfully timeless 🙂

All in all, this novel is a masterpiece 🙂 Seriously, the only real criticism I can make of it is that it is too short. If you love intelligent, atmospheric, beautifully-written and imaginative horror fiction, then you need to read this book 🙂 Or re-read it again.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a very solid five 🙂

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Three Lessons Writers Can Learn From 1980s Horror Fiction

Ah, 1980s horror fiction 🙂 Although I was somewhat late to the party when I discovered books from this awesome period of literary history in second-hand bookshops and charity shops as a teenager during the early-mid ’00s, I felt like writing about them today.

This is mostly because I’m currently re-reading one of these awesome books (Clive Barker’s 1988 novel “Cabal”) at the moment, and because some of my visits to charity shops in the months before writing this article have shown me that these awesome books seem to have fallen outside the usual 1-30 year delay between new books and charity shops.

Anyway, I digress. So, what can 1980s horror novels teach us about writing?

1) Don’t be afraid to be intelligent: Although 1980s horror novels have something of a reputation for being a “trashy” genre of fiction, they are a lot more descriptive and linguistically sophisticated than you might think. Even though you’ll find that older novels in general tend to have a more extensive and formal vocabulary than popular modern novels do, this is especially true in 1980s horror fiction.

To give you an example, here’s a random description from Clive Barker’s “Cabal”: ‘The sun gleamed on the mausoleums, the sharp shadows flattering their elaboration.‘ This almost sounds like something from a revered 19th century novel, yet it is from a novel that looks like this:

This is the 1989 Fontana (UK) paperback edition of “Cabal”

So, what can this teach us? In addition to showing us how contrasting “beautiful” formal descriptions with scenes of horror can make these scenes more dramatic, it also reminds us that it’s ok to use long words and well-placed formal descriptions. Your readers are smarter than you might think. Remember, these horror novels were “trashy” popular entertainment during the 1980s.

2) Don’t self-censor: At the time of writing this article, I was still in the middle of a longer horror fiction project of mine and I was starting to worry that the scenes of horror were too gruesome. Then, I started re-reading “Cabal” and I realised that what I was writing was actually pretty tame compared to a typical 1980s horror novel. In other words, what I’d described in a couple of sentences or paragraphs, an 80s horror novel would devote at least half a page to.

So, the lesson here is don’t self-censor. Although, thanks to things like slightly less repressive film censorship, modern fiction doesn’t really have the same impetus or reason to be ultra-edgy that it did during the 1980s, it is always important to remember that fiction is one of the most free and open storytelling mediums out there.

In other words, if what you are writing is essential to your story, then keep it in and don’t self-censor. After all, you aren’t making a film or a videogame, you’re writing a story and the written word has more freedom than other storytelling mediums do.

3) Presentation matters: I’ve talked about this before, but one of the many awesome things about 1980s horror novels is the fact that they are works of art. Almost without fail, the cover art will be a wonderful piece of dramatic, high-contrast art that wouldn’t look out of place on a film poster or a heavy metal album cover. Seriously, old horror novel cover from the 1970s-90s (and maybe the early-mid 2000s) just look really cool:

And, yes, the Shaun Hutson cover is a 2000s reprint, but it looks awesome nonetheless.

Likewise, some old horror novels will do cool things like – in many of Shaun Hutson’s novels – including dramatic epigrams featuring everything from historical quotes to (if the publisher can afford it) quotes from heavy metal song lyrics. Likewise, old horror novels from the 1980s will often have really dramatic-sounding titles too, like “The Undead”, “Scorpion”, “Plasmid” etc.. too.

So, yes, although the story itself is the most important thing, presentation also matters too.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three More Thoughts About How To Make Zombie Stories Scary

Although the zombie genre is probably one of the least scary genres of horror fiction out there, it is a lot of fun to both read and write. So, although I’ve probably looked at this topic before, I thought that I’d list several more ways to make zombie fiction a bit more scary.

1) Distances: Unless your story contains modern-style fast-moving zombies, one of the problems with zombie stories is that the easiest way for a character to save themselves from a slow-moving zombie is just to run away and/or find somewhere that the zombie can’t climb or walk into.

Likewise, although large groups of zombies can add suspense to a zombie story, there isn’t really that much suspense or horror in scenes showing well-armed characters fighting zombies from a safe distance (for a good cinematic example of this, watch “Resident Evil: Apocalypse“).

So, if you want to make your zombies a bit scarier, then focus on close-up scenes involving zombies. Have the zombie suddenly appear out of nowhere or place the main characters in situations where they can’t run away or attack the zombie from a safe distance. If your main character is in imminent danger of being eaten by a zombie, then this instantly adds a lot of suspense and horror to the scene in question.

In short, zombies aren’t that scary if they are a couple of hundred metres away from your characters. They are scary if they are only a few centimetres away from your characters.

2) Comedy: I’ve talked about this topic before, but there’s a good reason why horror stories will often include comedy elements too. In short, it is all about emotional contrast.

Scenes of horror will seem twice as shocking or scary if the audience has been laughing before they happen. The emotional gap between cheerful laughter and shocked horror is much larger than the gap between a more neutral mood and shocked horror.

So, including a fair amount of comedic moments in your zombie story can make the more gruesome and horrific moment seem even more shocking or horrific by comparison. This is especially important in the zombie genre, since your readers will probably already be familiar with the genre and are unlikely to find zombies particularly frightening on their own. So, emotional contrast is even more important than usual.

3) Implied horror: Zombie stories are one of the most gruesome genres of horror fiction out there. They are the closest thing we have to the classic splatterpunk horror novels of the 1980s these days. However, fans of the zombie genre have gotten used to all of this and, as such, are a lot more difficult to shock with hyper-detailed gruesome descriptions.

So, whilst your zombie story should include some grisly moments (since it’s kind of expected), don’t be afraid to leave things to the reader’s imagination sometimes. Scary horror is all about playing with the reader’s expectations and, if your readers are expecting a scene of ultra-gruesome horror, then a more subtle or implication-filled description can really catch them off-guard.

If you’ve already included a few gruesome moments in your story, then suddenly not showing one can also make the story scarier because your audience already knows what you will show. So, if you don’t show something, then your audience are going to imagine that it is considerably more gruesome than this (even if it isn’t).

Likewise, if you include a lot of implied horror in the earlier parts of your story, then a sudden moment of ultra-gruesome horror can also catch your readers off-guard and cause them to be a lot more shocked than they would be if they read a similar scene in a more consistently gruesome zombie novel.

So, a few well-selected moments of implied horror can really add a bit of extra horror and shock value to your zombie story.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Today’s Art (6th August 2019)

Well, I’m still in the mood for making retro-style “haunted house” paintings (seriously, they are so much fun to make 🙂 ) and, to my delight, the lighting in today’s digitally-edited painting turned out better than I’d expected too 🙂

As usual, this painting is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

“The Loathsome Library” By C. A. Brown

Today’s Art (5th August 2019)

Well, I thought that I’d return to making “retro haunted house” paintings, since they’re really fun to make 🙂 Plus, although I messed up the perspective slightly in this digitally-edited painting, it ended up being more detailed than I’d expected 🙂

As usual, this painting is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

“The Beastly Barn” By C. A. Brown

Review: “Meddling Kids” By Edgar Cantero (Novel)

A few weeks before I wrote this book review, I ended up watching several episodes of “Scooby Doo! Mystery Incorporated” and was amazed at how good this modern Saturday morning cartoon was.

A couple of weeks later, I was looking around online for second-hand horror novels and happened to find a modern novel from 2018 called “Meddling Kids” by Edgar Cantero, which seemed to be a Lovecraftian dark comedy parody of “Scooby Doo” 🙂

So, let’s take a look at “Meddling Kids”. Needless to say, this review may contain SPOILERS.

This is the 2018 Titan Books (UK) paperback edition of “Meddling Kids” that I read.

In 1977, the four young investigators of the Blyton Summer Detective Club (and their trusty dog Sean), solve the mystery of the Sleepy Lake monster. Far from being a giant salamander monster, it was actually a masked criminal called Thomas Wickley who would have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for those meddling kids.

Flash forward to 1990 and Wickley is up for parole. But, soon after he leaves prison, he is ambushed by Andrea “Andy” Rodriguez, a former member of the detective club who is determined to get the truth out of him. There were things in Sleepy Lake that were too strange to be part of an elaborate criminal scheme. Unexplainable, unworldly horrors that have haunted the nightmares of the club members ever since that fateful summer holiday.

As a result of that horrifying summer, Andy has ended up living a life of crime, nerdy redhead Kerri has ended up in a series of dead-end jobs and weedy, nervous Nate has found himself in a mental hospital (but, at least he has the ghost of tall, athletic Peter to keep him company). About the only club member who is vaguely ok is Tim, Sean’s canine descendent.

Rattled by the mysterious incantations that Wickley babbles after she questions him, Andy decides that the only thing to do is to get the club together again and return to Sleepy Lake……

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is WOW! It’s a funny, creepy, thrilling and mysterious mixture of dark comedy, Lovecraftian horror and retro nostalgia 🙂 In other words, this novel is kind of like a mixture of H.P. Lovecraft, “The Last Door“, “Blood“, “Twin Peaks”, “Supernatural”, “The X-Files”, “Scooby Doo” and some kind of alternative punk comic from the 1990s. So, yes, it’s pretty awesome 🙂

The novel’s horror elements are pretty interesting. As you would expect from a modern Lovecraftian horror story there’s a really good mixture of ominous horror, occult horror, monster horror, suspenseful horror, jump scares, psychological horror, implied horror, scientific horror, economic horror/ post-industrial decay, claustrophobic horror and gruesome horror. Although this novel isn’t likely to leave you frozen with fright, there is a wonderfully creepy and ominous atmosphere in many parts of the story 🙂

The novel’s comedy elements also work reasonably well. Although there were only a couple of moments that really made me laugh out loud, the novel has a wonderfully irreverent attitude, some moments of bizarre slapstick comedy, numerous retro pop culture references, a gleefully farcical denouement, lots of amusing dialogue and some brilliant dark comedy plot elements too.

The novel’s detective elements are fairly interesting too. Although the novel enters the realms of fantasy and science fiction, pretty much everything in the story has a logical scientific, practical and/or paranormal explanation. Even though fans of H.P. Lovecraft won’t be too surprised by the premise of the story, there are enough clever plot twists and intriguing clues, locations etc… to keep the story intriguingly gripping.

Interestingly, this novel starts out as a slower-paced mystery, psychological thriller and character-based drama novel. These elements all work surprisingly well and, although this means that the first two-thirds or so of this novel are relatively slow paced (but still really compelling), the novel then segues into this absolutely spectacular action-packed final act that occasionally reminded me a little bit of the classic computer game “Blood” (which, again, is never a bad thing 🙂 ).

The story’s atmosphere is really cool too. In addition to the kind of ominous atmosphere you would expect from a Lovecraftian horror story, this story also includes the cynical nihilism of the 1990s (in addition to some vague hints of that decade’s more famous optimism) and a brilliantly dark and twisted version of the fun atmosphere of “Scooby Doo” too 🙂

In terms of the characters, they are brilliant 🙂 Not only do all of the main characters come across as stylised, but realistic, people with a huge number of quirks, flaws and emotions but the novel’s characters are also both a brilliantly inventive parody of both “Scooby Doo” and Enid Blyton’s “Famous Five” too. In short, the level of characterisation here is on par with Neil Gaiman’s amazing “Sandman” comics and Winston Rowntree’s “Subnormality” 🙂

The novel’s main characters also allow for the exploration of numerous themes such as mental illness, memory, non-conformity, friendship, love, trauma etc… too. Seriously, I cannot praise the characters in this novel highly enough 🙂 They’re a glorious band of misfits who are so much fun to hang out with.

In terms of the writing, this novel’s (mostly) third-person narration is amazing. It is this wonderfully weird mixture of formal descriptive narration, highly informal narration and more experimental/avant-garde narration… and, somehow, it really works 🙂

In true punk fashion, this novel isn’t afraid to break the rules by doing things like using film script-like dialogue segments, breaking the fourth wall (usually subtly, but one instance of it – involving a chapter ending- is truly epic) and occasionally inventing new words just for the hell of it. The inventive, irreverent and unique writing style in this novel is an absolute joy to read 🙂 Still, if you’re used to more conventional writing styles, then you might not enjoy the narration as much.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is interesting. At 442 pages, this is one of those novels that will sometimes feel like reading a DVD boxset. However, although the first two-thirds of the story are relatively slow-paced, they remain really compelling thanks to the atmosphere, the characters, the writing style and the mysterious plot. These slower-paced segments also contrast really well with the brilliantly gripping and fast-paced final act too 🙂

All in all, this is a punk Lovecraftian horror dark comedy parody of “Scooby Doo” that is set in the 1990s 🙂 Need I say more?

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a five.