Transcending storytelling; moving into the realm of myth
By Paula Guran
By Paula Guran
676 pages. HarperCollins. $27.95
You can read COLDHEART CANYON in a number of ways -- as a delightfully decadent Hollywood roman á clef exposing (once again) that glamour is a dark and dreadful magic; as a gossipy romp, a campy "insider" view of the fascinating cesspit of showbiz; as the sort of ghost story in which the dead remain trapped and tortured by their lives; as post-modern Gothic complete with cursed mansion that hides secrets and imprisons an impure and sinister damsel rather than an old-style innocent; as an entry-to-a-magic-place novel in which the lost world entered is dangerously entrancing; as an exploration of fantasy and illusion; as metaphysical horror -- an under-appreciated and often misunderstood area of literature where a handful of writers are creating brilliant work; as magic realism -- an overused but still acceptable term the literati can swallow more comfortably than "fantasy" and "horror"; it can even be read as a romance of sorts -- Danielle Steel on acid maybe.
There are also aspects of the cautionary monster trope (we create what we deserve), the curse-of-immortality tale, a twisted redemptive theme, and some purely gleeful perversity thrown in.
Any of these interpretations are, however, unlikely to encompass enough of this extraordinary novel to do it justice. Barker appears to be transcending his role as storyteller and moving into the realm of mythmaker. Myths deliver truth through fiction, transform and awaken those who encounter them. C. S. Lewis wrote in his essay "Myth Became Fact":
Human intellect is incurable abstract...Yet the only realities we experience are concrete--this pain, this pleasure, this dog, this man. While we are loving the man, bearing the pain, enjoying the pleasure, we are not intellectually apprehending Pleasure, Pain or Personality. When we begin to do so, on the other hand, the concrete realities sink to the level of mere instances or examples: we are no longer dealing with them, but with that which they exemplify... In the enjoyment of a great myth we come nearest to experiencing as a concrete what can otherwise be understood only as an abstraction.
In the Introduction to GEORGE MACDONALD: AN ANTHOLOGY, a writer whose work Lewis described as "mythopoeic", he explains that myth-making "arouses in us sensations we have never had before, never anticipated having, as though we had broken out of our normal mode of consciousness and 'possessed joys not promised to our birth'. It gets under our skin, hits us at a level deeper than our thoughts or even our passions, troubles oldest certainties till all questions are re-opened, and in general shocks us more fully awake than we are for most of our lives."
To continue further in this vein would lead to madness or a doctoral dissertation (which may, of course, be one and the same.) Most readers aren't looking to dissect a novel or rank its author. Not to worry. COLDHEART CANYON does not have to be read exegetically in order to enjoy it and readers can relish the book without analysis.
Somewhere north of Sunset Boulevard lies Coldheart Canyon. It is both a paradise and a hell haunted by the hungry ghosts of Hollywood's most beautiful and damned, movie gods and goddesses and those just as damned or just as beautiful but less publicly known. Here, too, live their monstrous offspring -- los niños -- children born from the corrupt couplings of the dead and the animals of the canyon. The ghosts exist in the canyon because, during life, they were participants in the hedonistic lifestyle of the ravishing and wicked silent film star Katya Lupi. Katya's huge home in the mysterious Hollywood Hills canyon provided a place where any desire could be granted, any fetish fulfilled. The ghosts remain hoping to regain entry to an underground chamber in the house, a vaulted room covered in 33,268 tiles hand-painted with scenes of a world of sensuality and torment. The room, purchased from an impoverished monastery in Katya's native Romania, was brought to the house in the 20s by her love-stricken manager and precisely recreated. It is a place of infernal power, an entry to another world -- the Devil's Country -- in which a doomed Duke and his band of hunters have been condemned to forever search for the son of Lilith, the Queen of Hell. Humans who enter the Devil's Country are changed both in spirit and in flesh. In Katya's case, the Devil's Country has given her eternal youth and beauty. The room is literally addictive and, as with any addiction, one pays a steep price for its fix. Todd Picket, a shallow A-List film star who seems to be living proof that beauty is only skin deep is thrust into Katya's domain by way of a botched, vanity-inspired facelift. Coldheart Canyon is supposed to be a cozy hide-out while he heals. Katya sees him as her soulmate and sets to beguile him, spinning thoughts in his mind that he could never imagine and indulging him with delights beyond both morality and mortality.
Calm, capable, and determined Tammy Lauper, a fangirl of the nth degree and president of Todd's "appreciation society", galoomphs into the canyon with a vague intent to see what has become of her idol. A pitiful believer in Todd and Hollywood's glittering lies, Tammy quickly learns that glitter is nothing like gold. Tammy -- fat, fair, maternal (although childless) -- plays Madonna to Katya's dark, sensuous, svelte Whore. Inner strength and beauty make Tammy the story's heroine and eventually she brings redemption to Coldheart Canyon and Todd as well.
Willem Zeffer, Katya's discoverer, manager, buyer of the Devil's Country -- now Katya's eternal slave -- is another denizen of the canyon. Weak and subservient for decades, he, too, is touched by Tammy's purity of spirit.
A one-time child star, Jerry Brahms is now an elderly remnant of glory days of Tinseltown. Possessed of pre-Stonewall generation gay charm he can still dish with the best. Jerry is not completely free of Katya and the canyon, but not entirely possessed either. He functions as both guide and voyeur.
Comic/tragic relief is supplied by Gary Eppstadt, a prototypical powermonger without a single redeeming quality. Another supporting role is taken by Maxine Frizelle, Todd's hard-as-nails agent who ultimately personifies the LA "player" in a game tinged more by theology than the latest box office returns.
As ever, Barker's language is liquid diamonds -- fluid, glittering, fascinating and priceless. And the flow of the gems is particularly sensual in the novel, even for this author. No one writes the dark erotic like Barker -- bizarre, unflinching, intensely imaginative, divine and depraved -- and it is particularly apt for COLDHEART CANYON where lust is integral and beauty essential.
Ultimately the book's greatest strength lies in that myth-thing mentioned earlier and the author's ability to relate the real world through fantasy. There are thresholds here that one must cross, doors of illusion that must be opened, but Barker is not offering an escape from anything. He leads the reader into the fantastic in order to confront the real world from a different perspective, perhaps offer a new view of our ordinary yet complex lives.
If there is any continuing philosophy (or mythic thread) in Barkerian fiction it may be (as is said in Coldheart Canyon) that "there's always some light in the darkness somewhere"; that miracles can arise from the profane as well as the sacred. Demons are fallen angels and angels can be terrifying intermediaries between the supernatural and the mundane. Nothing is ever as simple as black and white or good vs. evil.
And herein may lie not the downfall of the book, but the undoing of its marketing. It's obvious that Harper Collins decided it was time to push Barker into the mainstream. They are right to do so as there is no author more deserving of such an attempt. Unfortunately, they chose the wrong book. COLDHEART CANYON may be a crossover, but the mainstream American audience does not wish to be awakened, is not comfortable with confrontation, and has no desire to push its limits. There is still a yearning for simplistic good guys and bad guys. Further, it remains more easily shocked by a hardcover novel than might be expected in the land of tasteless television and profitable porno. These readers (and their representative reviewers) won't be offended by the Hollywood Babylon motif or surprised by the notion that things beyond the normal ken occur there. They won't get a chance to break out of their normal mode of consciousness because the book will probably never reach them. Taboo for readers in Topeka is still violated somewhere before you get to bestiality and scatology even if it happens on the West Coast.
Still, it remains better to push than not, and perhaps COLDHEART CANYON will creep past the guardians of puritanical morality. Myths, after all, have a magic of their own.
If Barker has been misled in his expectation of conventional readers, he still supremely understands the role of the reader of dark fiction as well as his role as its author. A passage in COLDHEART CANYON vividly conveys both. Both aspects can be found in this passage, the reader who must keep looking and the creator who records what must be seen:
And still he kept looking. And still he kept seeing, and though there were horrors here, to be sure, nothing in him made him want to leave off his seeing...He was beyond reasoning at that moment. Beyond anything, indeed, but witnessing. He had become a living instrument; a flesh and blood camera, recording this wonderland. He kept turning on his heel, counter-clockwise, as sights caught his attention off to his left; and left again; and left again.
Barker is an astonishingly accomplished "living instrument" but COLDHEART CANYON does have some painful discrepancies and only a lack of editorial vision can be blamed. Much larger literary flaws than exist here, however, can be easily overlooked when considering the impact of myth, C.S. Lewis mentions "a particular pattern of events, which would equally delight and nourish if it had reached me by some medium which involved no words at all -- say by a mime, or film."
COLDHEART CANYONs pattern of events is a superb blend of the surreally real and the far reaches of the fantastic. Barker is the flesh and blood camera recording the very real horrors of a world in which greed and beauty are gods that must be appeased with slices of flesh, collagen and tucks; where venality rules and art is destroyed by avarice and ignorance; where sex is not transformative, but a transaction. He's also the magician who can conjure up the Devil's Country, devise a canyon where the supernatural is intrinsic and acceptable, make the unimaginable easily imaginable. And within the darkness of his design, he also shows the shining hope of redemption.
As for the myth-thing... C.S. Lewis also wrote of those who create myth, "Every now and then there occurs in the modern world a genius -- a Kafka or a Novalis -- who can make such a story." Number Clive Barker among them. -- Paula Guran (originally appeared in The Spook, Dec 2001)