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.”
“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.”
”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.