The King is Dead, Long Live the King: Clive Barker’s Rawhead Rex

WARNING: Do not read this story while eating lunch, like I did. Also: spoiler alert!

This is a review of the Clive Barker novelette Rawhead Rex, not the movie of the same name. All I’ve seen of the movie is the above trailer; my favorite part is when Rawhead leaps into the air like he’s doing the wave! I have combed the Internet for an animated gif of this wondrous moment to no avail.

Rawhead Rex appears in the third volume of Clive Barker’s The Books of Blood, a six-volume story collection released in the U.S. in the early 80’s. Technically it is a novelette, but I am going to refer to it as a story. The Books of Blood propelled Mr. Barker to celebrity status in horror circles. I read Rawhead Rex for the first time over thirty years ago, and still remember parts of it. To be honest, this isn’t the sort of story one forgets.

According to the online version of the OED, the meaning of raw-head is bogeyman; I already knew that Rex is King in Latin. Thus, Rawhead Rex means King of Bogeymen, and he lives up to that title here. The story opens with a man trying to move a rock that turns out to be the gravestone of Rawhead, who thanks his savior by killing him and spiking his body head-first in the earth.

Not having eaten for a few hundred years, Rawhead has a hearty appetite. He eats a child’s pony, and then the child. Pretty horrifying, but Rawhead is just getting started. Next he attacks a policeman’s car, baptizes his first follower by pissing in his face and devours another child, dragging him through a car window in a nightmarish sequence. Soon afterwards he burns a village to the ground, but is undone by the statue of a Venus figurine underneath the church’s altar. The story ends with Rawhead’s piss draining into the earth.

Rawhead Rex is visceral horror and thus isn’t for everyone. That said, this story is a ghoulish masterpiece, featuring a breakneck pace, gobloads of freaky energy and lots and lots of wonderful imagery. Barker’s description of Rawhead’s face is one of the high points of the story:

It was huge, like the harvest moon, huge and amber. But this moon had eyes that burned in its pallid, pitted face. They were for all the world like wounds, those eyes, as though somebody had gouged them in the flesh of Rawhead’s face then set two candles to flicker in the holes.

Garrow was entranced by the vastness of this moon. He looked from eye to eye, and then to the wet slits that were its nose, and finally, in a childish terror, to the mouth. God, that mouth. It was so wide, so cavernous, it seemed to split the head in two as it opened. That was Thomas Garrow’s last thought. That the moon was splitting in two, and falling out of the sky on top of him.

More happens in Rawhead Rex than in many novels I’ve read, and Barker still makes time to open with an extended introduction. Technically, starting a story with exposition is a big no-no, but there are exceptions to every rule. The start-with-action rule has more to do with our current society’s collective short attention span, anyway.

Character development in Rawhead Rex is bare-bones basic. Barker often leads with the worst traits of his human characters. Reverend Coot lives up to his surname, Detective Sergeant Gissing is a pedophile, Declan Ewan enjoys murder and monster golden showers. The humans tend to do stupid, inexplicable things. Why does Denny Nicholson charge the barn instead of calling the police? Why do Ron Milton and his family decide to take a Sunday morning drive when there’s a bloodthirsty beast on the loose? Who knows? Logic isn’t this story’s strong point. Description is, and Barker pours it on.

That said, Rawhead Rex has its own form of logic. Bullets don’t kill Rawhead, because Rawhead doesn’t know that bullets can kill him, but a small rock is enough to bring him to his knees. Barker’s vivid description of Rawhead makes it believable that there are those who would worship him as a God. He also seems to be able to dominate certain human beings with his will, an ability that is never explained.

Rawhead Rex doesn’t have a protagonist, unless you count Rawhead himself. The point-of-view of this story bounces around like a ping-pong ball. Alternating point-of-view has fallen out of style in writing circles – another writing rule – but make a list of the authors who use this technique and then tell me if it’s a stupid rule.

<Rant> I once had a short story rejected because it was written in alternating points-of-view; I had another rejected because it was told in first person present, and genre fiction isn’t written in first person present. I eventually sold both stories. From my time reading slush I have learned that markets who are extreme sticklers for such rules are often less than professional, and you don’t want to be published there anyway. Which is not to say that you shouldn’t follow the writers’ guidelines. Because you should! </End Rant>.

Clive Barker has had a long and successful writing career, but I’ve never read anything of his that matched the freakish energy of The Books of Blood. It’s a shame this collection is out-of-print, but short stories aren’t considered to be commercially viable anymore. Thus, Rawhead is gone but not forgotten. The King is dead; long live the King.

 

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3 thoughts on “The King is Dead, Long Live the King: Clive Barker’s Rawhead Rex”

  1. I guess I didn’t stop to think about character development during what was a fairly quick read. Most of the characters didn’t have time to be developed, because they were eaten. We got snapshots of Thomas, Gissing, Declan, and such before they were devoured, but I felt most of their introductions were enough for us to know they needed to be eaten. But I definitely agree with you on the “humans stupiding themselves to death.” Rawhead acts on instinct (which sort of limits him as a threat, to be honest, because he’s only interested in his little territory). The human characters seem to deliberately act AGAINST their instincts of self-preservation. Denny runs into a dark barn (his territory!) even after his traumatized daughter comes inside the house, rather than maybe call the police. Rather that getting out of town when the village is literally burning to the ground, Ron insists on staying in Zeal, because otherwise, his vulnerable family will never come back. Coot is paralyzed by dread when Rawhead rises and tells no one. They try to use modern logic to fight an ancient evil and it bites them. Literally.

  2. I will say I learned something about this story after reading your post. I didn’t realize that his name meant King of the Bogeymen. That to me is rather interesting since I like to name my characters based on the meaning that ties into their personality. It was hard to get into this story because the characters were so shallow. I wonder if we were supposed to infer what they were like based on the information we were given. I really wanted to know more about what that rock held over Rawhead Rex. He clearly feared it but why?

  3. Hey George,

    Always enjoy reading your reviews. The face is what sells Rawhead as a monster. I could see it as a work of terror, but what left me more terrified is that I could see him smirking or smiling as he worked. Beasts are terrifying, and I think stripped to its barest definition Rawhead is a beast. But there’s an intelligence in him and that’s what makes him truly terrifying, we’re lucky that his hunger stopped him from being too ambitious.

    My favorite description of the face though were his teeth. I loved how they would unsheathe from his gums like weapons whenever it was feeding time. When Barker made those teeth come on the scene, you knew there was about to be a lot of blood.

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