Before tackling 'Midian Unmade', a 2015 anthology of short stories edited by Joseph Nassise that were set in the world that Clive Barker conjured up for his 1988 novella, 'Cabal', I felt the need to re-read that source, which I'd last read soon after it came out. I also rewatched 'Nightbreed', a film that Barker wrote and directed himself from the same source novella and which
It's an enticing novella, proof that Barker can be just as powerful with few words as he is with many. After all, his initial success was as a writer of short stories, collected in 'The Books of Blood', one of the pivotal pieces of modern horror literature. While I can happily immerse myself in beautiful verbose prose, like that contained in Barker's bookstops of novels, I prefer the economical Barker from this novella and his short stories.
Fundamentally, this is an attempt at modern mythmaking, creating a McGuffin in such a way that it's not just what everyone in the story cares about but something that we care about too. Once we do, it stops being a McGuffin and potentially becomes transformational for us as readers, as it clearly was to Barker himself. This is something of his love letter to freaks and explores not only how a society of such could build and thrive but how appealing that could be to people marginalised not by physical attributes but other reasons.
Our lead character is one such. He's Aaron Boone, who would be considered a normal man if it wasn't for his unspecified mental issues which torment him. There's something about sexual dysfunction, but we assume that this is more of a symptom than a cause. He's been in therapy for a long time and it's his psychiatrist, Decker, who tells him that he's a serial killer. Calgary has been hit by a series of linked murders and the details match what Boone has been telling him in their trance sessions. Boone doesn't remember any of it.
Trusting Decker more than himself, he takes ownership of these crimes, which horrify him and he decides to finish them by throwing himself in front of a truck. And, in the hospital, he hears a name that he's heard before in hospices and mental wards: Midian, a mythical refuge where sins are forgiven. What's more, he gets the directions: it's in empty country northwest of Athabasca. And so off he goes, "east of Peace River, near Shere Neck, north of Dwyer."
He finds it too and the Night Breed who live there, under a ghost town by a cemetery. He's attacked, he's bitten and, escaping, discovers that he's not the killer after all. It was Decker all along. That might sound like spoiler territory, but it isn't. We learn this early, if we ever believed that Boone was the killer to begin with. And, unlike the movie, this opening section is told by Boone himself solo. We haven't even met his girlfriend Lori yet, who will promptly take up the narrative and move us forward, searching for him and setting into motion a whole set of events that will change so many.
Frankly, the plot isn't the main reason to read this novella. It's there and it's enjoyable but it's deliberately archetypal. Barker doesn't craft these characters so much as place them into roles and then place those roles into a mythological framework. In a regular novel, Boone would care about Midian because of what it can offer him, Lori would care about it only because it's how she can find him, Decker because of how it can help build the fictional narrative he uses as a shield from his crimes, the police only as a location and nothing more. Here, Barker elevates it to mythic stature, hinting to us that it might be real if only we believe it enough. To us, these characters can be seen as evidence.
The archetypes go deep. In many ways, this is framed as a werewolf novel but it's also a vampire novel and a folk tale of any supernatural being. Barker trawls it all in, effectively explaining that all such creatures are really what we men have conjured up from glimpses of different Nightbreed. This is less a new mythology and more a new framework to govern old mythologies. And that is really enticing. Yeah, those stories are just fiction, he's telling us. What's really going on is something so much bigger...
Having gone on from 'Cabal' to 'Weaveworld' and 'The Great and Secret Show', this feels gloriously concise. In fact, it's more condensed than the movie. There are no dreams to kick things off for Boone, no sexy porcupine ladies. The first dreams we get are Lori's, eighty pages in. There are precious few characters, as Barker restricts us to primaries: Boone, Decker, Narcisse the patient with the directions to Midian. Only when we actually reach Midian do we meet Nightbreed and then fewer than in the film: Rachel, Babette and Mr. Lylesburg.
This allows Barker to focus on the important things, which in turn makes the story here more believable than the movie. Reasoning is clearer. Motivations make sense. The police attack on Midian was utterly over the top in the film but feels appropriate here. Even the leader of the Breed, Mr. Lylesburg, has meaning here beyond being just frickin' annoying, as he is in the movie.
It also means that, with fewer overall words to play with, Barker is careful in how he uses them. There are glimpses of the literary magician that he has become, but only glimpses because he hasn't got room to release words in the floods he can now. He chooses them wisely. His use of profanity, especially, is reserved for profane moments and it carries all the more punch because of that.
I loved 'Weaveworld' when I was a late teenager, but I don't remember a lot about it. Parts of 'Cabal' have stayed with me longer, perhaps because they play even more to archetype and so unfold in a simpler but just as powerful fashion. Reading again, I thoroughly enjoyed what now seems like a barebones legend, almost something that might have been told not by Boone and Lori but by Nightbreed a generation or two into the future in an attempt to explain a massively important period in their history. ~~ Hal C F Astell