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Incarnations, by Clive Barker

Jan 29, 2010
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Barker's way with characters and situations.

Cons:A few scenes may have been a bit overdone.

The Bottom Line:

Novels, paintings, and plays?  What can't Clive Barker master?


We all know Clive Barker.  We know Hellraiser, and Candyman, and Pinhead, and maybe even Nightbreed, and the Books of Blood.  We know the Thief of Always, and hopefully you know Abarat as well.  What isn’t as widely-known about Barker is that, in addition to writing the story on which the first Hellraiser was based, he also wrote the screenplay AND directed the movie.  See, Barker’s background isn’t as a literary professor or a struggling small press writer who finally made it big.  Barker’s background is in the theater, more specifically as part of The Dog Company in London in the early 1980s.  Barker wrote several plays for this company, and in 1995 three of them were collected and published by HarperCollins in the book Incarnations.

Already a huge fan in 1995, I bought this collection when I saw it.  However, not being a RABID fan, I then let it sit on my shelves for 15 years before finally, just last week, deciding it was time to read it.  Better late than never.

Incarnations collects the plays “The History of the Devil” (1980), “Frankenstein in Love” (1982), and “Colossus” (1983)--presented in the reverse order--and all of them very much represent the Clive Barker we came to know and love in the 80s and 90s.

“Colossus” is a play about the famous painter Fransisco Goya Y Lucientes.  The action takes place at the country house of “The Duke”, for whom Goya is working.  The house has been destroyed by French cannon fire and the events of the play unfold in the aftermath.  The cast is huge, 46 characters, but of the three in this collection seems to be the easiest to pull off.

As the dust settles and the rubble is being removed, a body is discovered, wearing Goya’s coat, and the painter is assumed to have been killed in the blast.  Goya is alive, however, and keeps himself hidden in the shadows to see the underwhelming reaction of his children and decide from there if he wants to reveal himself or slink away and disappear.  Meanwhile, the rest of the household is also dealing with their own issues, all very detailed and very heavy.

One of my favorite aspects of Barker’s writing, aside from the fluidity of his prose, is the way his characters interact with one another.  He’s a genius at writing relationships in a true to life manner.  His dialogue, while revved up a bit for the stage, rings true and natural.  “Colossus” is a very funny play, which is a side we don’t get to see enough of from Barker as well, yet it also contains a very intense scene of cannibalism.  “Colossus” was an amazing piece of work, and the longest play in the book, but it had a rough start for me as, with so many characters, it was difficult in the beginning to keep them all straight.  Eventually, however, I fell into the rhythm of the piece and it wasn’t so important anymore to picture in my mind which character was talking, but instead just to keep with the flow of the play.

“Frankenstein in Love” is the second play.  Having been bored nearly to death with the novel Frankenstein when I read it in the early 90s, I’ve never been a big fan of Frankenstein fiction from other authors either, so I was probably looking forward to this one the least.  And if I’m being honest, it’s probably my least favorite in the book.  But that doesn’t mean it’s bad, just that the other two plays were so much better.

“Frankenstein in Love” is a timeless piece, meaning the era in which it takes place is difficult to pin down, but it’s in a small village, presumably in Mexico, during a revolution as Cesar Guerrero, AKA El Coco, is overthrowing the President, Garcia Heliodoro Perez.  But things aren’t as they seem, starting with El Coco himself.  For one, his skin is all different shades and textures.  And he’s got it in big time for one of the men in Garcia’s employ, Dr. Joseph Frankenstein.

“Frankenstein in Love” is a very strange play, full of amazing sights and scenes.  In his introduction to the piece, Barker claims, Frankenstein in Love is a play designed to disturb and scare its audience; to take them by their clammy hands and lead them into distressing spaces, there to show them sights that they will not readily forget.”  In that, he succeeds.  While not “scary” per se, I can definitely see so many of the visuals presented clearly in my mind, long after having read about them.

The story is pretty good, the cast much smaller than “Colossus” (a quarter that, in fact, with only 12 roles), but seems to me would be much more difficult to produce and stay true to the author’s vision.

Finally we come to “The History of the Devil”, the earliest play in this collection.

In this story--which has 38 individual speaking roles--the Devil is on trial for crimes against humanity.  If he can prove himself innocent of the charges, he’ll be freed and allowed to return to Heaven.  If found guilty, he must remain on earth.

To stand as his defense, the Devil has secured the services of Samuel Kyle, an average attorney from London with absolutely nothing special about him.  Nothing obvious anyway.

As the story unfolds, Barker paints a very sympathetic and believable portrait of this ultimately evil character, spotlighting the part human free will has played throughout mankind’s long history of wrongdoing, and shedding some light on our nature with the help of the prosecution in the case, Jane Beck and Catherine Lamb.

It’s a no-brainer that Clive Barker would write so well about the Devil, and in so human a fashion.  The humor in the play is obvious without being clownish, providing the perfect counterpoint to the atrocities and blasphemies presented in the characters’ actions.  There are times, especially near the end, when the dialogue reaches a particularly melodramatic level that from anyone else would come off as a little too “woe-is-me”, but in Barker’s hands fits neatly in with everything else.

The characters are classic Barker, with names like Milo Milo and Ulla Shim and Yapshi Kanishka.  Even with so many speaking parts, the sense of who’s talking is never lost as it was sometimes in the beginning of “Colossus”.

Incarnations wasn’t quite the quick read I had anticipated—plays are generally easy to get through, and while these did go by relatively quickly, it’s still nearly a 400-page collection.  There was very little stage direction, but a ton of dialogue, and unlike a lot of plays I’ve read, most of it was interaction between the characters, very few monologues, and little of the dialogue was used to stand in for off-stage actions—one of the few exceptions being Milo Milo’s death by crocodile.

I’m always curious to see if my favorite authors’ talents extend beyond what I’m familiar with from them.  Having become a Gaiman fan through his comic work, I was eager to read his novels.  I always love King’s nonfiction.  And I already knew I loved Barker’s paintings, and knowing Barker’s theatre background, I was curious to see his work in that area as well.  The beginning of all the plays was rough, but once I found the rhythm, they were easy as anything to get into, and I’m all the more determined now to track down a copy of his second collection, Forms of Heaven.

Nothing can take the place of his prose, which is where Barker’s talents really shine, but Incarnations certainly highlighted for me his skill at character interaction and dialogue.  This was a great collection and a fine addition to any library.  Highly recommended.


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