31 Days of Stories 2022, Day 13: “Dread” by Clive Barker

From Books of Blood: Volumes 1–3

When British writer Clive Barker’s six-volume Books of Blood series first started appearing in 1984, it became an immediate smash, drawing the attention of horror aficionados on both sides of the Atlantic. No less a luminary than Stephen King, then at the height of his genre dominance, gave Barker a huge leg up when he wrote, “I have seen the future of horror and his name is Clive Barker.” (King was riffing on a statement that Jon Landau, then a music columnist for Rolling Stone, had made about Bruce Springsteen’s impact on rock ‘n‘ roll.) Barker did indeed go on to become a prolific and bestselling author and filmmaker, though he never again achieved the combination of inventiveness and intensity found in his early short stories.

The pieces collected in the Books of Blood are, by and large, informed by Grand Guignol perversity: they are replete with monsters of all kinds, sadism – often of a sexual nature – and copious bloodletting. They earned Barker a place as one of the early practitioners of an extreme form of horror fiction known colloquially as splatterpunk.

It’s a position Barker has taken pains to distance himself from in later years. Writing in the introduction to the Sphere omnibus edition Books of Blood: Volumes 1–3, Barker claims that short stories resemble time capsules. A short story, Barker writes, “records – in a fashion that cannot be easily understood until some considerable time has passed – very specific details of how the author’s life was being lived when the words were set down.” This in itself is troubling: given the wanton carnage throughout the Books of Blood, it is disquieting to contemplate how the author’s life must have been lived at the time they were committed to paper.

Barker himself admits that his outlook on fiction – if not life in general – has changed since he wrote his early stories. In later novels, many of which took the mode of epic dark fantasy, he is much more interested in goodness and the notion of redemption. “Not so in the stories,” he writes. “Here, the monsters triumph, sometimes transforming those they touch in ways that might be deemed obliquely optimistic, but nevertheless surviving to do harm another day. If, by chance, evil is overcome, then it more often than not takes its witnesses and its endurers down with it.”

This is certainly true of “Dread,” one of the best and steeliest stories in the entire six-volume collection. Unlike many of its companions, “Dread” is not a splatterpunk story in its essence, relying more on psychological fear than gross-out body horror. It tells the story of Quaid, an eccentric university student (is there any other kind?) who is obsessed with the philosophical study of the eponymous condition. He meets Steve, a fellow philosophy student, who becomes a kind of acolyte, with disastrous results.

It is worth quoting the opening paragraph in full, since it provides a kind of justification for what is to follow, as well as serving as a kind of mini-essay on why readers and writers continue returning to stories of terror:

There is no delight the equal of dread. If it were possible to sit, invisible, between two people on any train, in any waiting room or office, the conversation overheard would time and again circle on that subject. Certainly the debate might appear to be about something entirely different; the state of the nation, idle chat about death on the roads, the rising price of dental care; but strip away the metaphor, the innuendo, and there, nestling at the heart of the discourse, is dread. While the nature of God, and the possibility of eternal life go undiscussed, we happily chew over the minutiae of misery. The syndrome recognizes no boundaries; in bath-house and seminar-room alike, the same ritual is repeated. With the inevitability of a tongue returning to probe a painful tooth, we come back and back and back again to our fears, sitting to talk them over with the eagerness of a hungry man before a full and steaming plate.

By casting this in an omniscient voice and setting it apart from the tale proper as a kind of ad hoc prologue, Barker lends the observations in this paragraph the aura of divine fiat; the musings provide the intellectual underpinning for the story to come, and the particular attitude this story will adopt. (Note: there is no delight the equal of dread.)

This is Quaid’s central philosophy, the study of which he determines to be his life’s work. He scoffs at Steve, who is (ironically) pursuing a course in ethics, suggesting that the true interest of any philosophical inquiry should involve an encounter with the darker side of our nature. “We should be walking close to the beast, Steve, don’t you think?” Quaid asks. When Steve questions why this is so important, Quaid responds, “I think if we don’t go out and find the beast … sooner or later the beast will come and find us.”

The rest of the story unfolds as if to prove Quaid correct. Following summer break, Quaid invites Steve to his isolated home in a rundown part of town (with no neighbours or interlopers to disturb the solitude), where he divulges how he spent his summer holidays. He has kidnapped a fellow classmate, Cheryl Fromm, and run an “experiment” on her to determine how willing she is to confront her darkest fear. Cheryl is a vegetarian with a horror of animal meat. Quaid locks her in a room with nothing but a hunk of roast on the bone. How long will she go, how close to starving, before giving in and eating the hated meat? (Hint: it’s days, and the meat is putrefying by the time she breaks down.)

Steve is equally appalled and fascinated by this bizarre experiment; he will become even more appalled when he cottons on to who Quaid’s next intended subject is.

To say too much about how the plot works itself out would be unfair, though it should come as no surprise that there is not a happy ending. What Quaid does discover is the price of addressing his own deepest fear, which involves a grotesque fantasy of an axe-wielding clown. (Barker does manage to shoehorn in a bit of the old ultraviolence right at the end.) The fascination, for the reader, is in witnessing the various characters in the story confronting their individual fears in different ways, and measuring the psychological and physical tolls these showdowns have.

Barker’s story is an exercise in psychological tension that keeps getting more and more claustrophobic the longer it goes on. The blood-soaked finale, in which Quaid’s obsession with dread comes back to haunt him most ironically, provides grim satisfaction and proof of an important rider to the story’s opening declarative statement: “There is no delight the equal of dread. As long as it’s someone else’s.”

31 Days of Stories 2022, Day 13: “Dread” by Clive Barker