Thursday, 27 May 2010

Clive Barker's Coldheart Canyon: A Hollywood Ghost Story

I have issues with Clive Barker. In theory I should love him, the gore factor, the homoeroticism, the 80s, etc., but somehow I find his books inherently forgettable and that annoys me because I really want to love him and he insists on making that so hard for me. I keep being surprised by books of his, they jump out at me from nowhere and I discover I’ve read them and just couldn’t remember a damn thing about them. (Actually the reason CB keeps cropping up in my house at the moment is that my husband has suddenly developed something of a big boy crush on him and his novels keep dropping through my letterbox with alarming regularity and startling me with their familiarity).

When I read the blurb about Coldheart Canyon I thought that it was going to be right up my street: A Hollywood Ghost Story, it promised me, I love old Hollywood, I love ghost stories, this has to be the Clive Barker book for me! Also, one irate Amazon reviewer described it as: ‘far from what I would call horror, it descends into nothing better than semi-pornographic filth.’ And that was all the incentive I needed to head straight to ‘proceed to checkout’!!!

Coldheart Canyon follows Hollywood action hero Todd Pickett. Todd is a global superstar, probably along the lines of Bruce Willis in his heyday (or more likely someone more current that I haven’t heard of). Todd’s rise to fame has been meteoric and he has been at the top of his game for a long time, or at least a long time in Hollywood years, but as he gallops through his thirties (know the damn feeling) his grasp is beginning to slip. He’s built his career on his pretty face and, because your thirties mostly suck, that pretty face is starting to show the inevitable signs of age and that simply will not do in Hollywood, especially when there’s any number of taut young things creeping up behind you ready to steal your crown with their fresh young fingers.

In attempt to rectify his pesky age situation and grant himself another few years clinging to his superstar pedestal, Todd allows himself to be cajoled into plastic surgery. This was his first mistake; the surgery goes badly wrong and although he is reassured that, given time, there should be no lasting damage; he can’t face public and tabloid scrutiny in his current damaged condition. So his manager scouts for the ideal recovery location, and finds Coldheart Canyon, a dream hideaway closeted in a secret corner of the city, and remarkably so much of a secret it can’t be found on any map.

In the 20s, Coldheart Canyon was home to beautiful silent film star Katya Lupi who was renowned for her decadent parties where the cream of Hollywood’s elite would gather to indulge their darker tastes and fantasies. To add to her mystique, Katya is the proud owner of series of mysterious hand painted tiles that were purchased and transported as gift to her from her lovelorn manager, William Zeffer from a monastery in her homeland of Romania and meticulously recreated in the cellar of her Coldheart Canyon home. These tiles depict a landscape of Hieronymus Bosch proportions, another world known as ‘The Devil’s Country’. And the thing about the ‘The Devil’s Country’ is that you can physically enter it and experience all of its hellish delights. Unsurprisingly ‘The Devil’s Country’ swiftly becomes a prime attraction for Katya’s famous friends, and a powerful currency for Katya, however, as is always the way with these things, there is a steep price to pay for its favours. Entering ‘The Devil’s Country’ changes people physically and spiritually, it enslaves them with its horrific pleasures so much so the need to return, if denied, can kill them. For Katya ‘The Devil’s Country’ gives her eternal youth and beauty, consequently she remains the unchanged mistress of Coldheart Canyon in present day still residing within its boundaries as exotically beautiful as she was on the screen 80 years prior.

With Todd, to all intents and purposes, essentially a captive in the mansion it isn’t long before he becomes aware of Katya’s presence and he is easily captivated by her beauty which makes it easy for her to draw him into her dangerous world where dead movie stars are alive and copulating and a semblance of hell is secreted in the basement. Our temporally disfigured, hapless hero is rapidly seduced into Katya’s domain and voraciously initiated in the pleasures of the ectoplasmic flesh. Unfortunately, what he fails to realise while he’s getting his action hero freak is the devastatingly addictive nature of ‘The Devil’s Country’ and, indeed, the cold, callous nature of its ever youthful mistress which makes for a dire combination. Years ago the capricious Katya grew weary of sharing her other hellish world with Hollywood’s rich and famous and closed it up to them, severing the still human stars from that which they desired most. The calamitous results of this action are illustrated with actual star stories of premature death and self- destruction. Now these starlet phantoms are gathered within the grounds the Hollywood mansion tortured by their illustrious past and they are understandably more than a little pissed off with their current state of dislocation and our feckless hero is heading for a hell of lot of trouble, quite literally. It doesn’t take too much of an imaginative leap to see the parallels Barker is drawing and to recognise the recurrent metaphors for the darker, unpleasant side of Hollywood and fame.

Clive Barker has effectively taken the classic form of the haunted house novel and subverted it, in his own inimitable style, with varying degrees of success. As a ghost story it maintains many of the classic gothic elements we’ve come to expect and adds some unique twists to enliven the familiar structure, and while this is refreshing, it did at times seem like as a direct result of that it did struggle for identity. It wasn’t traditionally creepy enough to be a classic ghost story, but equally it wasn’t dark, twisted and depraved enough to be a classic Barker novel. That said, ‘The Devil’s Country’ is impeccably realised, but then Clive Barker is invariably at his best when creating fantastical other worlds and making them beautiful in their horror and depravity.

Actually, my only real criticism is that it is unnecessarily long; instead of building to one climatic crescendo it seemed to have three endings staggered through the last part of the book the last being nothing more than a long epilogue informing us of characters’ fates that really didn’t add anything to the story. Oh yeah, and there’s a great big long bit at the beginning about the hero’s dog dying which I thought was gratuitously self indulgent, but my husband reasonably informs me that in showing us the incredibly strong bond Todd has with his dog we are also seeing how empty and barren his life actually is, he has no one to implicitly trust and rely on and unconditionally love him except for that dog. Ok, fair enough, but it was still too damn long.

Also, the odd, but then I suppose apt, choice of Todd Picket über fangirl Tammy Lauper as the novel’s heroine. My problem here is that the majority of Tammy’s character is based around the fact that she is a larger lady. The archetypal obsessive fan, delusional, overweight, sublimating her deficiencies with unrealistic infatuation. Ultimately Tammy is inherently capable and her more objective insight into the machinations of Hollywood does serve her well and I can accept that her more excessively womanly figure is necessary, not as generalised psychological assertion regarding bigger women, but as a juxtaposing Madonna figure, all things maternal, fertile and nurturing and alive in comparison to the destructive decay of Katya. But really you are left thinking that it’s a bit of a leap between obsessed fan club president and the mounting of a dangerous otherworldly rescue expedition for what is essentially a complete stranger.

I was also kind of both intrigued and distressed by the inclusion of many real life bygone stars. While part of me felt it was a valid inclusion that very much epitomised the destructive truth behind the Hollywood façade, and also I felt a bit smug for recognising them and for appreciating the connotations of their real life stories, it also made me a little sad to see the stars I grew up loving, the idols of yesteryear; Valentino, Clara Bow, Lana Turner, Jean Harlow, etc. depicted in such a tragic way, although I will admit it did add to the perverted charm of the piece.

I also feel obliged to point out that with regard to ‘semi-pornographic filth’ it’s not much more than one extended ghostly orgy scene and while, granted, I felt a wee bit naughty reading it on the bus in front of school kids, it’s really not worth getting that worked up about. Or maybe I’m just not that shockable.

For the most part I kind of enjoyed Coldheart Canyon, though it did annoy me a little. Clive Barker’s prose is divine and seductive and while I do wish it had a more solid identity and had had more of an edit, but there is still a lot to redeem it, and it did give me, as promised, both classic Hollywood and a ghost story so I can’t really complain. And I’m fairly certain I’ll remember it too.


  1. Great review. I've always loved Clive's stuff but I found Coldheart to be indulgent and unbelievable, especially the Tammy character. But yes, his writing is "divine and seductive" as always. I also don't think a novelist has ever appeared in character on the cover of one of his books before; I prefer the UK cover, with the eyes of Theda Bara:

  2. Thanks, Will!
    I'm glad it wasn't just me who felt that way about it.
    I'm fairly sure you're right about that cover shot, or at least it's certainly nothing I've ever come across before with other authors. I thought it might be of interest for folks.
    The UK cover is the one I've got, and Theda's eyes are always a treat so I should have included that one as well really.

  3. That is the silliest cover I've ever seen. I've always thought of him as a bit of a berk, to be honest, and that cover pretty much puts the tin hat on it.
    I'm more of a Jim Herbert man myself. You won't catch him in a rat costume on the covers of his books.

  4. Nice review, Jinx! I'm a fan of Barker myself, but I have to admit I haven't really read his newer stuff. Mostly "The Hellbound Heart" and all his short stories from the 80's. The general idea behind the novel sounds like it'd be great... the mystery and horror behind Hollywood. I might give this one a try someday.

    And by the way, don't feel distressed about struggling to like an author. I've run into the problem a few times myself, most notably when I started out with Ramsey Campbell. If you stick with him, you might just end up loving the guy. Or hating his guts. Whatever works!

  5. Matthew, I can't stop smiling at the fact you used 'berk' to describe CB there. It's the most eighties insult of them all and I love it!! I've always said that it should be used more in everyday insulting.
    Jimmy Herbert does rather look like a rat strangley. I met him once, an eternity ago, at an old friend's house. He introduced himself by saying he could picture me lying on a open grave. Nice. That's no way to talk to a seventeen year old, Mr. Herbert, you bad, bad man. I also read 'The Magic Cottage' at that house in a room with a view of the house it was inspired by, The Roundhouse, which I believe belonged to Dirk Bogarde, he bought it for his aunt I think. I totally forgotten about all that. Still sniggering at 'berk' though.

    Oh, Joe, thank you so much. I fear I'm going to have no choice but persevere with Barker since my husband is probably going to try and marry him at some point.



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