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Intimate, Brutal, Indelible: “Dread” by Clive Barker

Welcome back to Dissecting The Dark Descent, where we lovingly delve into the guts of David Hartwell’s seminal 1987 anthology story by story, and in the process, explore the underpinnings of a genre we all love. For an in-depth introduction, here’s the intro post.

Clive Barker is a name that looms large in horror, and not just due to his habit of putting his name all over everything he’s worked on. He’s lent his unique blend of European gothic storytelling, modern interplay of desire and punishment, and a willingness to go to more gruesome and intimate places than his peers to a variety of comic books, movies, and video games. His seminal work of extreme gothic horror, Books of Blood, redefined what modern horror meant when it emerged, complete with endorsements from blockbuster authors. “Dread,” a story which first appeared in Books of Blood, uses the familiar structures of gothic fiction and the twisted horror-noir aesthetic of 1950s stories and comics to build an intimate and disturbing portrait of a mad philosopher and his trusting pupil. By subverting the standard tropes through a punishing application of realism and disallowing any form of detachment, “Dread” transcends its influences to become a truly disturbing and indelible tale.

A chance encounter with a stranger at a university bar brings Steven into contact with the mysterious Quaid, an older man with an arresting presence whom everyone seems to know, but few know anything about. Intelligent, charismatic, and eccentric, Quaid delights himself in philosophical discussions about the concept of dread and trauma with both Steven and Steven’s classmate Cheryl, a staunch vegetarian who is willing to charge headlong into Quaid’s arguments. As the year goes on, Quaid and Cheryl become close, and Steve drifts along, eventually losing contact with them both. That is, until after a holiday break when Quaid approaches Steven with an unusual invitation: Come to his house in a decaying neighborhood, and Quaid will show him pictures of what happened over the holiday between him and Cheryl. Soon, Steven learns of Quaid’s horrifying experiments on Cheryl to expose the root of her dread and trauma. Worse still, he finds himself trapped, the subject of Quaid’s next twisted experiment to understand the roots of fear and dread, even if it destroys them both.

So far, so gothic—a mad scientist (in this case a mad philosopher) performs inhuman experiments on people. A younger man, more idealistic and an audience surrogate, is drawn in and befriends this mad scientist, and then is told in horrifying detail of the ways his new best friend has perverted the natural order. Where it differs is that the scientists in these stories are usually presented as someone who goes mad—at one point they were sane, regular people. Quaid is not presented that way. He’s an enigma, a figure who dresses in shabby and nondescript clothes, his eyes described as snakelike with pinprick pupils. The usual elements that would make him seem like a normal human being—a place to live, distinguishing marks, relationships—are all strangely absent from him. From the beginning, he simply appears at the bar and Steven can’t remember where he’s seen Quaid before. Rather than the mad scientist, he resembles a different familiar figure in gothic fiction, that of a devil drawing people in and leading them to their damnation, the ambiguously human creature tempting and manipulating desire in exchange for death or worse.  

Quaid’s presence in “Dread” as a devil offering what the other characters desire plays on the recurring theme throughout The Books of Blood: the idea of desire (as commonly presented in gothic fiction) as bait in a trap that costs you everything. Quaid, a man who views himself as above his fellow humans and presents as a complete enigma who disappears and reappears at will, is adept at finding out what others need and desire, baits the hook, and then psychologically guts his victims, turning them into manic animals. The focus in Barker’s work is never the desire. It’s the self-annihilation that comes about as consequence for that pursuit. In the case of both his victims, Quaid presents himself as a provider, someone willing to give them what they need. For Cheryl, that’s companionship. For Steven, it’s a person he respects (and is obsessed with) who gives him validation. Quaid even lures Steven to his apartment with answers about what happened to Cheryl. It makes what he does even more horrifying, as he views his torture (the way Barker’s devils do) as transactional: While the cost certainly isn’t worth the reward, he provides something both of his victims tell him they want. In “return,” he uses them as subjects in his experiments.

Steven, our audience surrogate, is one of those subjects. His fascination with Quaid’s world makes him a perfect target for Quaid’s experiments, and unlike his predecessors in the gothic tradition, Steven feels every moment of Quaid’s punishing intelligence. Barker eschews the idea of a detached moral observer standing in for the audience. In intimate detail, Steven is subjected directly to confinement and sensory deprivation mirroring his childhood trauma, and as the viewpoint character, that means we’re given a front-row seat to the erosion of his sanity and humanity. Worse is how genuine it feels. Most of the people reading this are lucky enough to never experience confinement, to never experience the conscious feeling of one’s sanity and personhood slipping away. Barker writes with the visceral knowledge of someone who has experienced such pain, or who at least has access to firsthand accounts of that experience. Seeing Steven as he was and then watching him crumble into a fear-driven shell with the mind of a seven-year-old isn’t horrifying simply due to the end result, but also the intimate, human depiction of Steven’s breakdown and the knowledge that his trauma will alter him irrevocably.

Once Steven is no longer a sane narrator, the story splits between Quaid and his own dread and the broken, deranged “Stevie” as he giggles his way through the streets on his way to exact vengeance on Quaid. By comparison, Quaid’s inhumanity, and desire to process his trauma (nightmares of his parents’ murder and his subsequent fear of clowns) through his experiments is what eventually damns him, as he refuses to confront his own trauma and instead visits trauma on others. As he lies dying after Steven attacks him with an axe, he can only think about how torturing his former pupil destroyed all shreds of Steven’s humanity. That his own trauma turned him into an equally inhuman monster that condemned two people to a fate worse than death is clear, but only occurs to him in the final moments of his death.

“Dread” ends on that ironic note, with neither humor nor pathos for its villain. While the ending’s irony and final gruesome image of a broken Steven hacking Quaid to pieces with an axe while dressed like a ghastly vision of a clown is pure EC Comics, the stark realism of its depiction of trauma and gothic moral calculus played utterly straight gives that ironic twist a much heavier impact. It’s Barker’s ability to wield these elements—devil figures, mad scientists, grim irony, gothic morality—and bring them into modern focus while denying the reader’s ability to look away that makes “Dread” such a punishing, intimate read. It leaves a fingerprint as indelible as the one Quaid left on Steven, and one equally as disturbing.

And now to turn it over to you. What are your thoughts on “Dread,” and does its power lie in its lack of escapism, or its successful blending of modern and classical horror elements?

What’s your favorite “Clive Barker Presents…” property? Or, for that matter, your favorite story from Books of Blood?

Please join us next week as we discuss familial curses, evil aristocrats, and other classical gothic elements in Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” icon-paragraph-end

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