Tone and Gender
(WARNING: THIS POST IS FOR A CLASS ON HORROR FICTION. IT WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS ABOUT THE SHORT STORY “RAWHEAD REX .”)
It’s amazing what the sense of smell and a good collection of diction can do for fiction.
Clive Barker’s “Rawhead Rex” is more disgusting than scary, but it’s a great monster story. Barker brings readers to a simple town – the kind that I have often fantasized about moving to – and gives them a horrific vision of what might happen when a local farmer unearths something ancient and terrible.
On the first page alone, though Rawhead hasn’t yet surfaced to destroy the quaint town of Zeal, Barker uses the following words and phrases: conquering, tramped, “to its knees,” agonies, blade, barbarians, weapons, invasion, foul, parched, warm, disgorging, “bawling hordes,” distressed, “spill blood,” aggression, and insidious (362, Barker).
There is no question that the author of this story has an excellent sense of tone and how to set the mood in a horror story. For much of that first page, Barker is describing the Londoners who have relocated to Zeal for its small-town atmosphere, or the tourists who have come to visit for the day. Anyone else might make the mistake of describing these travelers in a mundane set of words – or even a series of pleasant phrases – and bringing out the horrific terms only when Rawhead is released.
But Barker knew the he had to set the tone, and he did this job perfectly. I knew from the first paragraph that I was going to read about violence and death. I was prepared for a good monster story.
Barker also made frequent use of the sense of smell, bringing me (often to my disgust) into the heart of the story. Nearly every page has a description of the way something smells, and it is usually unsettling in one way or another. “Even the earth, that had given up a sweet-sharp flavor as the blades turned it that morning, now smelt joyless;” (365) “It smelt like the dustbins at the back of the school canteen, times a million” (398).
For all that is fantastic about “Rawhead Rex,” I had two minor problems: first, it didn’t scare me. Most of the victims accepted their fate before they died, and once they accepted it, so did I. I feel that I would have been much more terrified if, like Gwen, the other victims had struggled to survive all the way to the end.
The other problem I have is with one line regarding Gwen, and with Rawhead’s issues with women in general.“’Dreaming it,’ she said. God, yes: dreaming it. “She sat down on the bed Denny and she had slept in together for eight years, and tried to think straight. “Some vile menstrual nightmare, that’s what it was, some rape fantasy out of all control” (376).
I understand that Gwen is trying to rationalize the impossible, and she is in a panicked state of denial that makes perfect sense at this point in the story. I also understand that Barker needs to foreshadow the importance of menstruation. However, as a woman, I read this line about the murder of her husband by a demonic beast as being a “vile menstrual nightmare,” and I laughed. If her periods have been so severe that such a thing could ever cross her mind, she should have consulted a physician long ago.
Rawhead’s problem with women in general is also confusing. He finds their ability to bear children confusing and revolting – which I can understand. However, he likes to eat children, which should technically make women fairly valuable to him. Then there’s the fact that he and his brothers used to rape the women of the town long ago. If he is so horrified by them that he rarely comes close enough to touch them, why did he drop that fear once in a while to molest the ladies of Zeal? Did he develop his phobia over time?
Those two issues were only minor concerns for me in a story that I found to be well written and fully engaging. Rawhead is a cool monster, and Barker’s story is a fun ride.
WORKS CITED Barker, Clive. Books of Blood, Volumes One to Three. “Rawhead Rex.” New York: Berkley Books, 1998.