Nasty Little Things: 4th Edition – The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker

When I originally set out to do Nasty Little Things as an ongoing series, I wanted to start at the beginning, or at least my literary beginnings. I wanted to go back to the first titles that teased my appetite for blood, guts, and viscera.

William Shakespeare’s late 16th century tragedy Titus Andronicus couldn’t have been a better place to start. Shakespeare’s blood-soaked play showcases the extreme brutality of man, and woman, making it the perfect template for would-be goreologists and splatterpunks-in-training.

I followed that with H.P. Lovecraft’s 1920s short story “Herbert West-Reanimator.” While that may not be an obvious choice for a reoccurring column that promises “the most twisted, boundary-pushing, brutal-of-epic-proportions horror fiction,” it stands as a shocking piece for its time with glimpses of what would come in the following decades. Without it, we might not have Richard Laymon or the Wrath James Whites, Elizabeth Massies, and J. F. Gonzalez’ of the writing world.

For the fourth edition of Nasty Little Things, I jump ahead several decades to 1986 to revisit the novella responsible for Clive Barker’s now iconic Hellraiser mythos, The Hellbound Heart. Barker wrote many disturbing tales focused on the dark underbelly of human existence–partly grounded in reality, part supernatural–before The Hellbound Heart was published, but this was my first exposure to the author’s work.

I remember being especially struck by Barker’s blend of sexual pleasure and physical suffering. The cover of the 1991 HaperPaperbacks edition, the copy I have, illustrates perfectly how he blurs the line of pain and pleasure in this story. At first glance, you may just see an upside down head, a conglomeration of twisted bodies resting gently in the hammock of raw sinews, a man in the lotus position being pawed from every direction by steel grey female figures, their heads of animal or beast. The meditating man looks like he is in a state of ecstasy, but further inspection reveals he is just as likely experiencing severe pain (or both) considering the hands violating his skin, gripping his naked ribs, and clawing at his head. The upside down head is an orgy of the otherworld.

For anyone not familiar with the story, The Hellbound Heart is concerned with Frank, a man seeking the most exquisite pleasures. Using a puzzle box known as the Lemarchand Configuration he summons the Order of the Gash, or Cenobites, but what Frank understands as pleasure has a wholly different meaning “on this side of the Schism.” The Cenobites asked what Frank wanted, to which he replied, simply, “Pleasure.” They give him a heightened sensitivity unknown in his world, but it’s not the “virgin whores whose every crevice was his for the asking” as he had expected, “they had brought incalculable suffering.”

One aspect of The Hellbound Heart that makes me feel overwhelmingly icky is the exposed muscle, the skinless state of Frank for a majority of the novella. That sinewy bastard actually gives a woman head in this story! It’s not as cute as I make it sound. That scene left me feeling vaguely depressed with a heaviness in the pit of my stomach.

Exposed flesh—not little cuts and scrapes, but full on chunks of missing skin—really makes me sick. Remember that scene in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 where Leatherface is flinging flaps of skin all over the place in the dirt? Wounded flesh and dirt is another combo that turns my stomach. Dirt in an open gash is like granules of sand in peanut butter; it can’t be cleaned out. My arm hairs stand on end just thinking about it. And Frank isn’t just wounded; he is a wound, at least until he can build himself back up by feeding on people. And he does, slowly.

Without skin to protect all those nerve endings we would feel everything. A light breeze could ignite a severe burning sensation. Your entire body would pulsate with sensitivity. Not only that, but the sticky, gooey surface would attract every dust particle and they would cling to your bloody muscle fibers like dirt to a child’s sticky candy-coated fingers.

Frank finds himself in this state of hypersensitivity where touch and taste is his worst enemy.

“It seemed he could suddenly feel the collision of the dust motes with his skin. Every drawn breath chafed his lips; every blink, his eyes. Bile burned the back of his throat, and a morsel of yesterday’s beef that had lodged between his teeth sent spasms through his system as it exuded a droplet of gravy upon his tongue.”

And sound…

“His head was filled with a thousand dins, some of which he himself was father to. The air that broke against his eardrums was a hurricane; the flatulence in his bowels was thunder.”

And sight…

”The eyes! Oh god in heaven, he had never guessed that they could be such torment; he, who’d thought there was nothing on earth left to startle him. Now he reeled! Everywhere, sight!”

If you’ve ever had a hangover where strong scents or lighting (not even bright lights) make you physically ill, you understand to some vague degree what torments Frank is victim to.

Frank suffers exquisite anguish, but conjures his own horrors just at the sight of him. Julia, the wife of Frank’s brother, eventually discovers him in the same room where he met his fate with the Cenobites. After you read the following passage, which details the state she finds him, you may not believe this, but she willingly helps Frank spill the blood he needs to regenerate into a flesh-and-bone-(and skin!) man again.

“It was human, she saw, or had been. But the body had been ripped apart and sewn together again with most of its pieces either missing or twisted and blackened as if in a furnace.”

Eeww, that’s nasty! But we’re not done yet. Here’s my favorite part:

“There was an eye, gleaming at her, and the ladder of a spine, the vertebrae stripped of muscle, a few unrecognizable fragments of anatomy.”

Everything I’ve shared so far happens within the first 50 pages of the book and that doesn’t even include the grotesque descriptions of the Cenobites!

Barker conceived of an unbelievable otherworld with contorted humanlike monsters, but it never feels made-up. Reading it, my chest felt tight, stomach full of lead, and skin tickled by goose bumps. At the same time, the prose was poetic, the words light and airy albeit bloody and horrific.

The Hellbound Heart, like Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus or Lovecraft’s “Herbert West-Reanimator,” is a bonafide gore classic and an important entry in extreme horror fiction. You will not only marvel at the excessive bloodletting, but you’ll be wooed by Barker’s eloquent prose and his ability to render the sick beautiful.

Visit Clive Barker’s website and follow him on Twitter.

Nasty Little Things: 3rd Edition

Welcome to the third edition of Dreadful Tales’ Nasty Little Things. We will scour the ends of the earth looking for the most twisted, boundary-pushing, brutal-of-epic-proportions horror fiction to share with you each month. For the gorehounds out there, we offer another title to add to your list of goriest reads. These are the books that, for reasons we will explain here, have tested our gag reflexes and sanity. What are yours? Please share below in the comments section!

For this installment of Nasty Little Things I go back in time again to 1922 to take a look at H.P. Lovecraft’s gruesome mad scientist tale “Herbert West – Reanimator.” While there’s no doubt much sicker fiction in the way of graphic violence, “Herbert West – Reanimator” was a twisted little story that unabashedly offered details of Dr. West’s experiments in the reanimation of corpses. You can be sure that back then, and certainly now, Lovecraft managed to elicit more than a few gasps in surprise and shock at the grisly nature of his subject and explicit narrative. Before splatterpunk and goretastic bizarre fiction, Lovecraft was freaking people out with his tale of exhumed corpses, reanimated appendages, and blood-thirsty undead. So for this reason, I add “Herbert West – Reanimator” to the Dreadful Tales’ vault of Nasty Little Things.

The story starts with our narrator explaining his connection with Dr. Herbert West and without the slightest hesitation, Lovecraft jumps right into the meat of it; the doctor seeks the freshest corpses for his experiments to bring the dead back to life. Initially he tests his animating solutions on various small animals, but very quickly progresses to humans. What he can’t get from the medical school where he studies, West and his accomplice, our narrator, appropriate themselves from a nearby grave. Not only are West and the narrator digging up corpses, they keep their ears open for word about the recently deceased in a continued effort to get only the freshest corpses.

The first human specimen to be reanimated emits a terrible sound which our narrator describes at length.

Not more unutterable could have been the chaos of hellish sound if the pit itself had opened to release the agony of the damned, for in one inconceivable cacophony was centered all the supernal terror and unnatural despair of animated nature.

This unfortunate undead escapes their makeshift laboratory only to go back to the grave in an attempt to claw its way back in! I always found that revelation very disturbing and, since Lovecraft never ties up that loose end, imagined the corpse wandering aimlessly forever and ever.

One of the most gruesome scenes, and a personal favorite, involves the reanimated corpse of their dean, Dr. Allan Halsey. Newly deceased and thus a perfect specimen for their experiments, West and the narrator exhume his body. But upon reanimation, the subject reacts violently knocking out both men and escaping into the night. Eventually, he is captured and locked away in an insane asylum – “where it beat its head against the wall of a padded cell for sixteen years” – but not before killing fourteen innocent victims. A watchman is clawed to death “in a manner not only too hideous for description, but raising a doubt as to the human agency of the deed.”

There are a couple instances, like that mentioned above, which our narrator suggests is too gruesome to describe or too horrible for him to write down, but Lovecraft includes most of the bloody detail throughout the story. But, for a couple passages it is the suggestiveness of the narrative and imagination of the sick and twisted reader that make the story more horrific.

One example of a graphic entry, which seem to become more frequent as the story progresses, is that of a dead boxer who West successfully brings back to life unbeknownst to him. Thinking the session unsuccessful, they bury the dead man who digs himself out of the grave coming back to the morbid doctors with a treat like a dog would a dead bird on your doorstep.

… a glassy-eyed, ink-black apparition nearly on all fours, covered with bits of mould, leaves and vines, foul with caked blood, and having between its glistening teeth a snow-white, terrible, cylindrical object terminating in a tiny hand.

Eventually West is not just satisfied to reanimate fresh corpses, but becomes obsessed with reanimating individual limbs. He takes on a more fiendish nature and frightening enthusiasm when assigned as a physician in the Great War. Here he has all the flesh he needs to conduct his experiments and this is also the setting for the goriest scene, one also made most famous by the film adaptation Re-Animator (1985).

West begins using reptile embryo tissue and “kept a large covered vat full of this reptilian cell-matter; which multiplied and grew puffily and hideously.” After obtaining an almost decapitated corpse, West severs the head from body keeping it in the vat of reptile cell tissue. Of course, as is customary by this point in the story, something goes wrong, West and the narrator flee the scene leaving the reanimated corpse behind.

The end of the story culminates in West’s unavoidable demise in the most appropriate way considering his ghastly endeavors in life.

Here’s to Lovecraft for sick experiments that result in terrible, stomach-churning monsters and a story that is truly nasty. I highly recommend reading this story aloud with a friend as my grandma and I did on a road trip once. Re-reading it together elicited many laughs and disgusted eeewwww’s! I didn’t really remember it being so graphic until I heard my grandma reciting the story which was interrupted intermittently by “oh my!”

Nasty Little Things: 2nd Edition

 Welcome to the second edition of Dreadful Tales’ Nasty Little Things. We will scour the ends of the earth looking for the most twisted, boundary-pushing, brutal-of-epic-proportions horror fiction to share with you each month. For the gorehounds out there, we offer another title to add to your list of goriest reads. These are the books that, for reasons we will explain here, have tested our gag reflexes and sanity. What are yours? Please share below in the comments section!

Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare

For this edition of Nasty Little Things, I am going to go way back to 16th century England to visit with famous playwright William Shakespeare and his violent tragedy Titus Andronicus. Before I was devouring modern horror fiction, I wasn’t much of a reader. In fact, I didn’t read at all unless it was a quiz about whether or not he’s the one for me in Sassy Magazine. That was until I discovered Shakespeare. Seems odd looking back that I would jump right into something as linguistically complex as Shakespeare, but when I discovered a little paperback of A Midsummer Nights Dream with an easy to understand glossary and notes section I didn’t stop reading his plays for years. A Midsummer Nights Dream was magical, dreamy, beautiful and intoxicating, but it was the nasty revenge play of the Goths versus the Andronici, Titus Andronicus, that finally whet my appetite for horror literature. This was long before I discovered the brilliant film adaptation with Sir Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange which only adds to my love of this sick tale. So, what makes this the sickest of the sick? Taking some inspiration from the story of Philomela in Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Shakespeare penned one of the most brutally violent and detestable rape scenes in horror fiction and subsequently the sickest revenge plot as well. Our poor innocent, virgin Lavinia is raped by Goth brothers Demetrius and Chiron, but that isn’t the worst part. They cut out her tongue out so she cannot tell anyone what happened, and lop off her hands so she can’t write or cleanse her body of the vile act. Lavinia eventually finds a way to reveal her violators and upon this revelation her father kills Demetrius and Chiron, bakes them into a pie, and feeds their flesh to their own mother! After she dines deliciously on a pie made of her sons’ flesh Titus says gleefully;

“Why, there they are, both bakes in this pie;

Whereof their mother daintily hath fed,

Eating the flesh that she herself hath bred.”

Shakespeare takes it to the limit of wickedness in Titus Andronicus and that’s why it is my Nasty Little Thing this month! If you’re not sold on reading Shakespeare, I highly recommend the 1999 film adaptation, directed by Julie Taymor, titled Titus. Both Hopkins and Lange are in top form!

Nasty Little Things: Meli’s Thanksgiving Day Gross-Outs!

 We enjoy all the diversity horror fiction has to offer here at Dreadful Tales, from a deliberately paced, atmospheric tale to a balls-to-the-wall action piece. While our bookshelves boast eclectic taste, we do love a nasty bit of fiction. The type of reading that not only pushes you out of your comfort zone, but refuses to acknowledge that such a thing exists. This is why we’ve decided to dedicate a monthly column to the nastiest, most brutally extreme gore in the genre in a new feature called Nasty Little Things. Each month could bring something different, but it will always offer examples of the most transgressive, sick, and twisted shit in horror fiction lit. For the inaugural post, I’m flying solo to bring you a list of the sickest gross-out scenes in horror fiction to celebrate the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday. For me, this day is all about food and that euphoric tryptophan-induced coma that sweeps over you right after the first meal. A holiday that celebrates eating ’til a near bursting point is the most wonderful time of the year, but it can also be terribly uncomfortable and full of regret. Once I’m past the third or fourth helping I just stand at the fridge nibbling right out of the Tupperware. But this year, not to worry because I’ve got a full-proof plan, and full-proof list, to kill even the strongest appetite. For the first edition of Nasty Little Things, I present “Meli’s Thanksgiving Day Gross-Outs,” my picks for the nastiest gross-out scenes in horror fiction that are sure to keep you away from the leftovers with your dignity in tact. Declaring what’s the sickest, grossest, and most depraved in horror lit can be problematic. A lot depends on the reader’s interpretation of the writer’s words or the reader’s own personal phobias etc., so keep in mind these are the scenes that I found to be the nastiest. You can play along at home by leaving your sickest scene in the comments section. Bon appétit!

Book / Author: Pressure by Jeff Strand
The Scene: Cactus Neck Tumor
Why it’s gross: Among the top picks for worst ways to die, I think choking on your own blood (say, from a stab wound to the throat) is pretty high up there. Not only is gagging on your own blood really gross, but you get just enough oxygen to keep you alive and struggling to breathe for hours. OK, that last part may not be scientifically accurate, but it’s definitely a slow, agonizing, and disgusting death. Worse than that? How ‘bout impalement by cactus in the freakin’ neck! The death of one of Strand’s fated characters in Pressure isn’t directly caused by cactus impalement, but it makes their last moments especially horrific. The thought of feeling thousands of little pinpricks in my neck is enough to make the bile rise in my throat because sometimes pain can be so excruciating it’s vomit-inducing. That’s why Strand’s Cactus Neck Tumor scene had to make my Thanksgiving Day Gross-Out list. Because “a large piece of bloody cactus…embedded in her neck” just makes my stomach turn. Big ole nasty, bloody piece of cactus hanging from her neck like a barnacle from another world. Yuck!
Best Served With: Gazpacho

Book / Author: Endless Night by Richard Laymon
The Scene: Pan-fried Finger Foods
Why it’s gross: Laymon has all kinds of nasty bits to choose from, but I have a particular aversion to cannibals. People eating people, people wearing people, it all gives me the creeps and seriously kills my appetite. To this day, I can’t forget what I was eating and drinking the first time I saw The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) – Doritos with water! In this particular scene from Endless Night, we find one very disturbed character frying up faces and fingers in the skillet like a macabre breakfast only a sicko can appreciate! He even compares the fingers and thumbs to “stubby little sausages.” As if that wasn’t bad enough he continues to muse, “They were browning up nicely except for the nails, which had curled oddly.” Finally, without any regard for the weak-stomached readers, Laymon has this psycho eat a finger tip! Taken out of context, it may not sound so bad, but it was enough to keep me away from the franks for a while. That little detail about the fingernails helps make this scene particularly cringe-worthy.
Best Served With: Fried bologna sandwiches

Book / Author: The Strain by Guillermo del Toro & Chuck Hogan
The Scene: An Intimate Moment with Worms
Why it’s gross: There’s plenty in The Strain to challenge the reader’s gag reflex. These vampires are not the romantic and mysterious figures that daintily nibble your neck, sipping your blood while caressing your bosom. They’re nasty, violent, and ugly. Their curse spreads like a virus, literally. When you try to damage these vile creatures, their wounds secrete a milky white substance writhing with infectious worms. In one of the most unsettling scenes a woman finds herself being invaded by these creatures through every orifice of her body, and I mean every orifice. “There was then a most unnerving wriggling sensation around her crotch – and then a sudden, twisting discomfort in her rectum.” Being violated by capillary worms is a top tier kind of nastiness. Waves of nausea run through my body just thinking of it.
Best Served With: Rice Vermicelli

Book / Author: The Midnight Meat Train by Clive Barker
The Scene: Out with his tongue!
Why it’s gross: Barker is a master of brilliantly twisted worlds and boundary-pushing prose. The Midnight Meat Train is an apt example of his complex storytelling, but also his proclivity for pushing the limits of perversion. Blood flows freely and the innocent are slain with impunity in this story, but it’s the cannibals that come back to haunt me. At the climax of this gruesome tale, one man finds himself up against a great evil, an evil that wants to silence him forever. “Suddenly his tongue was seized tight and twisted on the root… Blood was in his throat, he heard his flesh tearing, and agonies convulsed him.” Tongues being cut, ripped out, or violated in any manner gets my stomach in tumbles, but what happens next tops that. This malevolent force “stuffed the tongue into his own mouth, chewing on it with evident satisfaction.” The texture of a tongue, all slimy and rough, is more repulsive to me than any other body part. Cooked well it might be an appetizing little dish, but raw and right out of a living man’s mouth!? No way.
Best Served With: Blood sausage

Book / Author: Let The Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist
The Scene: The Unstoppable Libido of A Monster
Why it’s gross: Lindqvist is unabashed at representing a truly violent and brutal world full of human monsters. This is a beautiful, sometimes whimsical, tale of a charming friendship amidst a cruel and terrible world with plenty of scenes to make you gasp, wince, and gag. But probably the most disturbing and gut-wrenching is the self-inflicted acid bath one character takes in an effort to obscure his identity. His face is completely disfigured. Melted pieces of flesh hang from bone “as if the head had been replaced by a mass of freshly killed and butchered eels.” His mouth is melted shut, and one eye is melted down onto his cheek. It’s not just his horribly disfigured form that is so grotesque. Driven by a healthy dose of vampire venom and a sexual obsession, we’re treated to this mutilated man enjoying a rather enthusiastic five-knuckle shuffle! His “hand pulled the foreskin aggressively up and back, up and back, and the head of his penis appeared and disappeared, appeared and disappeared like a jack-in-the-box while he uttered a sound of pleasure or suffering.” That ain’t like no jack-in-the-box I ever had as a kid! That’s just plain sick!
Best Served With: Open-faced tuna melt sandwich

Book / Author: Slither by Edward Lee
The Scene: Parasitic Semen
Why it’s gross: No gross-out list could be complete without the maestro of morbid, Edward Lee. He knows how to warp minds and upset stomachs. When I think of gross, Slither is one of the first books that comes to mind. Plenty of nastiness in this book to chose from, but one scene stands out – the parasitic semen! First, a brief explanation, the island in which this sci-fi horror mash-up is set is overrun by worms. There are large ones, chitin-penetrating ones (that means they can penetrate shells), and even small parasitic ones, like those that star in this grossest of gross scenes. A nice gentlemen ejaculates in an equally nice lady’s mouth upon which she immediately spits it out due to the disgusting taste. But this isn’t because it’s her first time and the taste of splooge is foreign to her. It’s because it really tastes awful. And there’s no wonder why because “roiling amid his spat-out semen were hundreds of tiny yellow beads, smaller versions of the ones he’d plucked off his body the other night.” Now that is seriously sick!
Best Served With: Egg drop soup

So, those are my favorite gross-outs, what’s yours?