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The air became cold, then bitter, but he kept up his painful pace, avoiding the roads wherever possible, though they would have been easier to walk than the ploughed and seeded ground. This caution proved well founded at one point when two police vehicles, book-ending a black limousine, slid all but silently down a road he had a minute ago crossed. He had no evidence whatsoever for the feeling that seized him as the cars passed by, but he sensed more than strongly that the limo’s passenger was Decker, the good doctor, still in pursuit of understanding.

When I was ten years old Clive Barker’s Nightbreed was released in cinemas. I have never seen this movie, but I can still remember how fascinated I was with the press stills released to magazines and newspapers at the time. They featured grotesque creatures, bulbous limbs and scarred faces, the stuff of nightmares. I was too young to see the film and so desperately wanted to, wanted to find out what these creatures inhabiting an underworld kingdom of Barker’s invention called Midian were. Cabal is the book that inspired the film Nightbreed. I have always thought the film had a better title, a more intriguing hook. Just what are the Nightbreed?

Boone is a young man tortured by visions of violence and death. He is a paranoid schizophrenic, who has finally achieved a kind of peace, leaving the days of endless nightmares and self-harm behind him. All thanks to Lori, a beautiful and understanding young woman, whose patience has given him hope of a life he can share with someone else. Until that is his therapist, Decker, shows him a collection of horrific photographs and tells him that he is in fact a killer.

Under hypnosis Boone apparently began to speak about things and events that only the killer of these people could have known. Decker offers to help him uncover his memories and prepare his defence. Horrified at what he has done, Boone cuts off contact from Lori and attempts to take his own life. He survives and winds up in hospital, where he meets a madman named Narcisse. The stranger whispers to him of a place called Midian, where the freaks and rejects of society are welcomed. Boone sets off to find it, pursued by the police for the eleven deaths Decker assures him he caused. After an encounter with some of the strange inhabitants of the underworld city, and a sudden death, Boone finds himself transformed into a new kind of being. When Lori finds him, he has returned from beyond the grave, more beast than man, a member of the Nightbreed. She has problems of her own though. The police are hunting her undead lover and a madman killer called Button Head is on her trail.

I am putting my cards on the table here. I found this book to be a bitter disappointment. Like the worse kinds of disappointments, this is due to Barker raising my expectations to a height, just before they come crashing down. The novel itself has a fascinating subtext relating to the oppression of homosexuality by mainstream society. Midian itself is a place where dualities thrive, male/female, life/death, beauty/horror. What’s more the characterisation of the Nightbreed as freaks is in keeping with the marginalisation of homosexuals, with numerous illustrations by Barker interspersed through the text resembling demonic Rorschach tests. The implication is clear, the tools of reason being used to oppress the most vulnerable members of society.

It’s important to note that up until very recently homosexuality was still considered a mental illness. The Guardian recently ran an article about the antagonistic relationship between the gay community and psychology. As fascinating as this is, I just wish Barker was less obvious in his symbolism and ironically more direct in his language. I found myself in the unusual position of admiring his visual imagination, yet finding the prose dreadfully dull. This could have been Michel Foucault meets The Lord of the Rings! Instead it is a thin novel stuffed with grotesque violence and underwhelming sex.

I am very sorry this was the case.

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