"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The ache of a rotten tooth: The Last Illusion by Clive Barker

"The Last Illusion" by Clive Barker
From:  Clive Barker's Books of Blood, Volume VI (1985).

Swanns last illusion or Harry D’Amour’s?

That was the first question which occurred when I finished Barker’s story last Sunday afternoon

Reading “The Last Illusion” was another attempt to broaden the scope of my fiction reading. In the last month I've over-indulged in rereading acknowledged classics by M.R. James, E.F. Benson, and a few others. UK horror, of course, has many mansions. And so, to mix a metaphor, I stepped out of the gilded cage of canonical classics.

When Barker was first published in the U.S. in 1985, he work was of such high quality and variety, so new in tone and confident in its treatment of subjects like sexuality, that it seemed like the author emerged full-blown from the head of Zeus. I bought the first three volumes of The Books of Blood. I'm not sure if I read all the stories, but I do recall “In the Hills, The Cities,” and “Skins of the Fathers.”  

I was never able to finish any of Barker's novels after The Damnation Game. Like Blake's poetry, they seemed too rich, too long, and too dense. (It was still a few decades before I learned I had high functioning autism, too, which probably under-girded these rationalizations.)

“The Last Illusion” was published in the U.S. in 1988 in the Pocket Books collection titled Cabal.
I decided to read it last weekend because Hammett-style  detective fiction is a default for me.
And “The Last Illusion” certainly has a family resemblance to one of my favorite Hammett Continental Op stories, “The Gutting of Couffignal”.

In that story, the Op is employed to babysit a room full of wedding gifts in a mansion at a wealthy island enclave. Until figuratively all hell breaks loose. In “The Last Illusion” Barker's detective Harry D’Amour is employed to babysit a dead man. In a mansion in Manhattan. And all Hell literally breaks loose. Where Hammett's Op has to fight his way through a night of ambuscades and shoot-outs while slowly figuring out how to turn the tables on an army of crooks arrayed against him, Barker's dick has to navigate a night full of sui generis demons, all the while trying to figure out how to turn the tables on them.

The Op meets a gutsy White Russian noblewoman, but she is not all she claims to be. D’Amour meets, among others, a woman who is convinced she is alive inside a tiger that consumed her. (And, in a wonderful little scene, he bursts a demon called a Castrate with gunshots.)

Both Hammett and Barker show the reader a good time, with clever reverses and complications.

Barker's style is relaxed and confident, and “The Last Illusion” has some marvellous dialogue and set-pieces, some of which are quoted at length below.

We get the feeling early in the story that, unlike the Op, D’Amour has been a rather droll gumshoe until recently. Like Robert B. Parker’s Spenser.

Swanns last illusion or Harry D’Amour’s?

The last illusion of the title refers to the magician Swann’s defensive measures to keep himself out of Hell in the interregnum between his murder and cremation. But Barker's title also refers to the collapse of Harry D’Amour’s last illusions in a world that can be comprehended purely by ratiocination and Aristotelian logic.

I have a decided aversion to the psychic/occult detective gimmick that gave us Flaxman Low, John Silence, Carnacki and too many others. One of the chief strengths of supernatural/weird fiction is the fact that the uncanny is untypical and unnameable, traumatic and disturbing to those who experience it. Detective work in fiction is, conversely, retrospective and mundane. Happily, there is no scientistic mumbo jumbo in “The Last Illusion.”  No appeals to “more things in heaven and earth” or Einstein or multiverses or etheric waves. No use to electric pentacles.  Barker's demons are law-governed liars and con artists, and are trying to steal a prize and take it back with them to the Gulfs.

D’Amour thwarts them with good old Black Mask wit and guile.

And a gun.

And an axe.

14 June 2017


....Valentin came up and said: "How do you like your steak?"

"Just shy of burned," Harry replied.

Valentin was none too pleased by the response. "I hate to overcook good steak," he said.

"And I hate the sight of blood," Harry said, “even if it isn't my own."


“....Swann was a fine tactician, you know. But he could be careless. That was how they caught him. Sheer carelessness. He knew they were coming for him. I told him outright, I said we should cancel the remaining performances and go home. At least he had some sanctuary there."


....At the moment we don't know how many of them there are, of course. They might simply have sent Butterfield, but I think that's unlikely."

"Who's Butterfield with? The Mafia?"

"We should be so lucky," said Valentin.


….Somewhere close by, music was being played. It sounded like a drunken jazz band extemporising on bagpipes; a wheezing, rambling cacophony. Valentin’s face instantly became a portrait of distress. ‘God help us . . .’ he said softly, and began to back away from Harry.
   ‘What’s the problem?’
   ‘Do you know how to pray?’ Valentin asked him as he retreated down 83rd Street. The volume of the music was rising with every interval.
   ‘I haven’t prayed in twenty years,’ Harry replied.
   ‘Then learn,’ came the response, and Valentin turned to run.
   As he did so a ripple of darkness moved down the street from the north, dimming the lustre of bar-signs and street-lamps as it came. Neon announcements suddenly guttered and died; there were protests out of upstairs windows as the lights failed and, as if encouraged by the curses, the music took on a fresh and yet more hectic rhythm. Above his head Harry heard a wailing sound, and looked up to see a ragged silhouette against the clouds which trailed tendrils like a man-o’-war as it descended upon the street, leaving the stench of rotting fish in its wake. Its target was clearly Valentin. He shouted above the wail and the music and the panic from the black-out, but no sooner had he yelled than he heard Valentin shout out from the darkness; a pleading cry that was rudely cut short.
   He stood in the murk, his feet unwilling to carry him a step nearer the place from which the plea had come. The smell still stung his nostrils; nosing it, his nausea returned. And then, so did the lights; a wave of power igniting the lamps and the bar-signs as it washed back down the street. It reached Harry, and moved on to the spot where he had last seen Valentin. It was deserted; indeed the sidewalk was empty all the way down to the next intersection.
   The drivelling jazz had stopped.


….A wise man, Harry reminded himself, would screw this note up and throw it down into the gutter. But if the events in Wyckoff Street had taught him anything, it was that once touched by such malignancy as he had seen and dreamt in the last few hours, there could be no casual disposal of it. He had to follow it to its source, however repugnant that thought was, and make with it whatever bargains the strength of his hand allowed.


….Even as he was weighing up the odds he heard her say:
   ‘Help me . . .’ The voice was a ghost of a ghost; but it was indisputably her, and she was in terror.
   He reached for his .38, and started up the stairs again. Even before he had turned the corner he felt the nape of his neck itch as his hackles rose.
   She was there. But so was the tiger. It stood on the landing, mere feet from Harry, its body humming with latent power. Its eyes were molten; its open maw impossibly large. And there, already in its vast throat, was Barbara. He met her eyes out of the tiger’s mouth, and saw a flicker of comprehension in them that was worse than any madness. Then the beast threw its head back and forth to settle its prey in its gut. She had been swallowed whole, apparently. There was no blood on the landing, nor about the tiger’s muzzle; only the appalling sight of the girl’s face disappearing down the tunnel of the animal’s throat.
   She loosed a final cry from the belly of the thing, and as it rose it seemed to Harry that the beast attempted a grin. Its face crinkled up grotesquely, the eyes narrowing like those of a laughing Buddha, the lips peeling back to expose a sickle of brilliant teeth.


….when dealing with the Gulfs it was wiser never to believe your eyes. The moment you trusted your senses, the moment you believed a tiger to be a tiger, you were half theirs. Not a complicated lesson, but it seemed he had forgotten it, like a fool, and it had taken two deaths to teach it to him afresh.


….Harry sensed that the more he knew the less enthusiastic he would be about the journey they were now taking.


….In Harry's experience it was only the good who needed sleep; iniquity and its practitioners were awake every eager moment, planning fresh felonies.


….Despite what Valentin had said, there was no more sound or sight of occupancy up here than there had been below, but as they advanced towards the master bedroom where Swann lay, a rotten tooth in Harry's lower jaw that had lately been quiescent began to throb afresh, and his bowels ached to break wind. The anticipation was crucifying. He felt a barely suppressible urge to yell out, and to oblige the enemy to show its hand, if indeed it had hands to show.


…."Nothing the Prince of Lies offers to humankind is of the least value," Valentin said, “or it wouldn't be offered. Swann didn't know that when he first made his Covenant. But he soon learned. Miracles are useless. Magic is a distraction from the real concerns. It's rhetoric. Melodrama."


…."It didn't take Swann long to realise he'd sold his soul for a mess of pottage," he explained. "And when he did he was inconsolable. At least he was for a while. Then he began to contrive a revenge."


"By taking Hell's name in vain. By using the magic which it boasted of as a trivial entertainment, degrading the power of the Gulfs by passing off their wonder- working as mere illusion. It was, you see, an act of heroic perversity. Every time a trick of Swann's was explained away as sleight-of-hand, the Gulfs squirmed."


…."Something wrong?" Harry asked.

"Just a feeling," Valentin commented. "I have a suspicion maybe the Devil's in Manhattan."

"So what's new?"

"That maybe he's coming for us." As if on cue there was a knock at the door. Harry jumped.


….The sound of the furnace soothed Chaplin; its rumbles and rattlings were as familiar as the complaint of his own intestines. But there was another sound growing behind the door, the like of which he'd never heard before. His mind made foolish pictures to go with it. Of pigs laughing; of glass and barbed wire being ground between the teeth; of hoofed feet dancing on the door. As the noises grew so did his trepidation, but when he went to the basement door to summon help it was locked; the key had gone. And now, as if matters weren't bad enough, the light went out. He began to fumble for a prayer – "Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour -” But he stopped when a voice addressed him, quite clearly.

"Michelmas," it said.

It was unmistakably his mother. And there could be no doubt of its source, either. It came from the furnace. "Michelmas," she demanded, “are you going to let me cook in here?"


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