Clive Barker is clearly a master of the craft, sowing uneasiness from the very first pages of Rawhead Rex. Sure, he merely describes the gentrification of the charming English village of Zeal, the influx of Londoners who are ruining the little cottages with hot tubs and kitchen additions. And then he discusses poor Thomas Garrow and his struggle to make a living from his aging farm. But he’s also mapping out the story’s themes of invasive species, destruction of natural habitats, humanity’s disconnection from nature and its own history – and how all of those elements lead to the Zealots’ (clever) confrontation with Rawhead
Farmer Thomas Garrow is an excellent introductive representation of these concepts. Thomas is ignorant of the farm’s history and resents his father’s wasteful legacy, all while fearing the village’s future (chock-full of annoying city folk). Thomas is disconnected from his instincts and ignores multiple signs that should have warned him off from digging up the strange stone in the Three-Acre Field. His pride and ignorance keep him from seeking help digging or even advice from neighbors on what the stone could be.
This is a recurring theme throughout the story. Coot and Declan feel dread the day Rawhead rises, but do nothing. Denny runs into a dark barn, after his clearly traumatized daughter wanders into the house. Ron insists on staying in Zeal, even as it’s in chaos, saying the family will never come back to their country house if they leave at the first sign of trouble. These modern men ignore the instinct that are meant to protect them from ancient threats.
Trying to fight a primordial menace with modern means equals failure and death. There is a sense that the people who conquered the Wild Wood and banished Rex tried to leave warnings behind – the stone in the field, the seal on the altar, imprinting the “Tall Man” so deeply in the local lore that the pub is named for it. But time has removed Zealots so far from these reminders that they’re useless, and the Zealots pay the price.
Conversely, for all his strength and teeth, Rex is a limited threat because of his instincts. He is not a strategic thinker. He’s like a shark, consumed with the thought of consuming. This prevents him from concentrating on anything long enough to plan a greater conquest than the territory of Zeal.
The struggle between the feminine and the masculine is another interesting aspect of the story. In an interview criticizing the film version of the story, Barker called Rawhead a “nine-foot phallus with teeth,” which is a pretty clear declaration on where Rex stands. There’s an undercurrent of sexual threat in Rex’s awareness of menstrual cycles, in tearing off Gissing’s genitals. But for all Rawhead’s manly power, he’s frightened and disgusted by menstruation. A woman on her period sends him running. The all-powerful weapon that forced him into his underground exile is a Venus of Willendorf type statue, representing fertile femininity. Rawhead is destruction incarnate, untamed and unleashed consumption. His greatest fear is life and creation. There’s something oddly poetic in that conflict.
In the end, the Zealots are reduced to the same sort of primitive mob that imprisoned Rawhead eons before, holding him at bay with the Venus statue and killing him with fists and knives. To fight an ancient monster you have to use ancient means. Without realizing it, they are refusing to repeat the mistakes of their ancestors and eliminate the threat that burned their village.
At a craft level, Barker is at the top of his game. The story establishes itself as horror right away – mothers die, children die, ponies die. No one is safe. His neat little language tricks, for instance calling the residents “Zealots,” keep the story interesting. He makes effective use of imagery tying back to setting, such as the “face huge like the harvest moon, huge and amber.” He uses details, like the dust motes on the quiet landing and the presence of a soft pink comforter, to keep the reader in touch with reality, even as a nine-foot monster is attacking Gwen’s house. And he is obviously a master at using body horror to poke at the reader’s dread triggers. Barker is unafraid of exploiting any bodily function to his advantage
As for weaknesses in the story, there were few. This is the first story in our reading schedule that included such an involved point of view from the monster… and I didn’t love it. I get that Barker was using the POV to explain Rawhead’s history, since much of it was obscured by time. But I don’t feel Rawhead’s internal monologue revealed enough detail to justify the distraction of his narrative. I wanted more information about the Wild Wood, his fortress and what his Kingship mean to him. And I could have lived without the image of him luxuriating in the buffet of young Ian’s organs. But that’s probably a matter of my preference as a reader.
Declan’s attraction to the profane could have been explained a little more. It was interesting, the way he interpreted Rawhead as a diety to be worshipped. But why? Barker could have explained Declan’s “unspoken ambitions” a little better and what lead Declan to want the “rare” pleasure of death and pain. There’s also the question of touching the altar carving and whether Declan’s touching it is what helped release Rawhead. And whether his touching it drove him to worshipping Rawhead.
I also had some questions about Rawhead’s fear of womanhood and fertility. If he’s so afraid of femininity and pregnancy. If he and his “brothers” were so afraid of femininity how could they stand to rape ancient female villagers and impregnate them? Because they knew the women would die birthing the hybrids, so making the thing they feared most another act of destruction? It was an inconsistency I found bothersome. Also, if Rawhead feared women, why was it Ron who wielded the Venus statue against him? Why not a menstruating woman? Why not Ron’s wife? Why not allow Ian’s mother an act of vengeance?
In the larger picture, those are relatively minor problems. This story was not to my tastes as a reader, what with the devoured children, the casual mentions of sexual violence and the copious amounts of urine (so much urine). But it is a very well-crafted horror story.