Saturday, July 6, 2013

Book Review: The Great and Secret Show

The Great and Secret Show
By Clive Barker
HarperCollins, 1989
Buy it at Amazon or Barnes & Noble
Recommended by Marshall Lemon

I should let you know up-front that The Great and Secret Show is a tough nut to crack. It's imaginative but constrained, sprawling but unfocused, and epic in scope but surprisingly subdued in delivery. It might appeal to horror fans, even though it's not really scary, and it might appeal to fantasy fans, even though its magic is grotesque and grounded in the real world.

It's hard to sum up the plot briefly, but it goes something like this: While working in a dead letter office, unassuming paper-pusher Randolph Jaffe discovers that there is a small, well-hidden world of magic users scattered here and there across the United States. He wants this power for himself, and eventually becomes a creature of darkness called The Jaff. This sets off a chain of events that lasts over 20 years and involves ten or fifteen major characters, eventually culminating in a struggle to stop a world of darkness from engulfing our own.

The setting is the strongest part of the book. Although the story mostly takes place in a California suburb, as Jaffe discovers, there is more going on than meets the eye. Barker creates a system of magic that is more reminiscent of medieval heraldry than the wizards and demons of the traditional high fantasy canon. Throughout the course of the book, the characters encounter an atomic bomb in a Nevada desert time loop, a Mexican cemetery full of vengeful undead spirits, a lake that springs out of a mysterious sinkhole, and a world of bizarre creatures from beyond our own dimension.

One thing that Barker does better than anyone is creating absurd, disgusting creatures, and that talent is on full display here. The Jaff has the ability to create monsters out of people's worst fears, and some of the results are fittingly disconcerting. You'll see plenty of things with scales and legs before the end of the day, but the most vile creatures actually come from another villain, Kissoon. The Lix are snake-like demons that arise from a combination of bodily fluids, and are roughly as unsettling as they sound.

The creatures and places they inhabit are a delight, but the story and characters that give rise to them are unfortunately much more lacking. The story takes forever to get going, and changes protagonists with such regularity that it's easy to wonder if Barker was just making up characters as he went, getting bored with each one.

At first, Jaffe's rival, Fletcher, emerges as a likely contender for protagonist, but is quickly replaced by Fletcher's son, Howard. Howard turns out to be ineffective, however, as he slowly surrenders the story over to reporter Grillo, and Grillo hands it off to his friend, Tesla, who ends up doing most of the heavy lifting towards the end of the book. The characters actually don't interact with each other much, meaning that the final result feels much more like five or six separate novellas than a cohesive story.

Barker also does not have a very good grasp on heterosexual relationships, but insists on shoehorning them in whenever possible — once between Howard and supposed rival Jo-Beth, who fall in love instantly and never do anything proactive for each other, and once between Raul, an enchanted ape-like entity, and occasional hero Tesla. It's about as weird as it sounds, and not much comes of it.

You'll probably never read anything quite like The Great and Secret Show, although whether that's a good or bad thing depends on your own tastes. For what it's worth, I wasn't a big fan, but I'm glad I read it just the same — it's chock full of an equal number of good and bad ideas. If you want more traditional horror, I like Salem's Lot by Stephen King, but who doesn't?