Among the dusty tomes stacked away at the back of Goodwill, I found Clive Barker’s Cabal staring out at me. It drew me to it, the way Midian draws all of those people who aren’t quite able to break the bonds of madness in themselves. Cabal went on to inspire the film Nightbreed, but back in 1988 it was simply a book of short stories. The eponymous novella, taking up over two-thirds of the book, is a story about vampires, but it has the Barker spin that makes it much more intriguing than a generic book about creatures of the night. The other four stories appear in my collection, but they also form part of the final volume of the Books of Blood.
In Cabal, Barker follows a few different characters before a final showdown between the Nightbreed and the humans. Boone, a man suffering from quite a few psychoses, has begun to lose sense of himself, and that has been facilitated by his psychiatrist Decker. He’s been implanting memories of Boone killing people, sort of like inception, except the person who is actually responsible is Decker himself. Boone, unstable and looking for something to ground him, is introduced to Midian, a strange, uncharted area with a ghost town and a very active graveyard. He ends up pulling his girlfriend, Lori, into this addiction, and he also heralds the death of the Nightbreed.
In laymen’s terms, the Nightbreed are vampires. They can’t come out in the day or they explode into guts, and they feed to survive. But they’re led by a mystical demon known as Baphomet, a chained demon left in its torment in the bottom of a mortuary. Barker decides to leave much of Midian and the Nightbreed a secret, though; there’s a lot of nuances that aren’t explored, except for the fact that Nightbreed can’t be killed by normal means like firepower. But the choice to leave the Nightbreed a mystery mimics the way Boone and Lori are drawn to Midian; it’s a feeling, not an understanding, that draws them to this place. An addiction for people who don’t fit into the normal ways of life.
Barker knows how to explore character, and he does so elegantly enough with Lori and Boone. He turns Decker into a serial killer who is driven by his own inner psychoses, ones that take the form of a mask he wears to become a different person. But most interesting about Barker’s characters is that he takes a bite out of humanity; his stock characters, the ones who start the war with Midian, are the most reprehensible people he can think of. While this smacks of inauthenticity – it’s unrealistic to think every cop on the police force is a dick – the idea overpowers that disbelief.
But this collection of stories often utilizes the outsider status for the protagonist. In “Twilight at the Towers,” our protagonist is a man who has been ostracized from his British agency, only to find that he’s repressed memories of his true nature – that being a werewolf, one that has trained into subservience. “The Last Illusion,” one of my favorites from this collection, finds a detective who is forced to stop demons from stealing the body of a magician. There’s shades of Hellraiser within this tale, but it’s also got a tinge of noir that works well.
“The Life of Death” revels in the mystery of death and the power that murder allows. The protagonist finds herself entering a church with an excavated burial site underneath it; she contracts an illness that she spreads to others, and then finds herself pursued by a man she believes to be Death himself. “How Spoilers Bleed” is a tale about land-greedy men in the jungles of South America who are cursed with a terrible disease by the Indians they force off their reservations.
Each of these stories are bloody and violent, but they also have heavy themes associated with them. Barker’s tales play with the terrible nature of humanity; many of his characters are devoid of sympathy, focused solely on their own needs. But Cabal as a collection is a strong, focused, and surprisingly cohesive set of stories that convey Barker’s blend of horror without retreading ideas.