Some horror writers, especially the ones I went to high school with, misuse vulgarity. Graphic descriptions of urination, disembowelment, castration, are used to force people out of their comfort zone. But these writers are mistaking shock value for terror.
Clive Barker is not one of these writers. In his story, Rawhead Rex, the vulgar is inherent to the monster and a key part in understand Barker’s ideas about society and the monsters we face.
The story is told from various male viewpoints (with one notable exception), including the monster’s own. While Barker head-hopped a bit much for my taste, I quickly didn’t care because the narrators were so distinct and interesting.
The notable female point of veiw is Gwen, a menstruating mother. As I was reading the scene, I wondered if the detail of her period was relevant to the horror or just Clive Barker trying to jolt me with gross anatomy. Then the monster was frightened by Gwen’s menstrual cycle: “there was no way he could bring himself to touch this woman; not today. She had the blood cycle on her, he could taste its tang, and it sickened him. It was taboo, that blood, and he had never taken a woman poisoned by its presence.”
I was, I’ll admit, a little put off by this, but by the end of the story, I realized this detail was key to Clive Barker’s monster.
Rawhead Rex is a very unique, very masculine monster and is deeply rooted in the wild obscenities that isolate him from polite society. He’s nearly human in his intelligence, though his hunger controls him: “He never been a great thinker. Too much appetite: it overwhelmed his reason. He lived in the eternal present of his hunger and his strength.” There are only two things the monster mentions that are worse than his hunger.
The first is loneliness. When Rawhead remembers being buried under the earth, he thinks it’s worse than being dead because of the loneliness. The other men in the story are able to hide their flaws, bury them under respectability and keep them secret. But Rawhead’s darkness is as exaggerated as his size and he (if he ever was anything that was not monstrous) was consumed by his hunger and isolated from others. Rawhead reflects that loneliness, not death, was humanity’s revenge for the times he raped women, which he viewed as an act of revenge against “the big-bellied sex.”
The only thing more powerful than his hunger is his fear of women, which speaks to the other defining trait of his monster, his fear of creation. His hate and fear of women, the revenge he must take on them, his propensity to eat children, to destroy a new life, (he can’t wait to gorge on some baby-meat) speak to his war on life. The scene where the monster masturbates (in a church, no less) also speaks to Rawhead’s desire to subvert life. When he thinks about creating life, it’s an act of destruction. He remembers impregnating the women he raped and describes how the hybrid child killed his victims.
Barker needed to describe and utilize the monster’s vulgarity to show he separate Rawhead was from society and how the dark things the monster represented (mostly rape and pedophilia) get buried.
For example, there’s a scene where Debbie, a little city girl, needs to urinate and insists she do it in private. Barker is not at all obscene in this scene; he’s not describing her soiled knickers here or how she looks doing it, because the nine-year old girl is not monstrous.
While it can be argued Debbie’s need to urinate is what caused Rawhead’s attack on the car, her need for privacy saves her life. There’s no indication from the monster’s point of view that he notices the younger, more tender child as he eats her brother.
The little girl’s prissiness, her need to keep her bodily functions private, is contrasted with the monster’s celebration of his own urine when in a different scene, that’s equal parts homoerotic fetish and perverted sacred right, he baptizes his worshiper in his piss.
The contrast also exists between the tidy secrets the humans and the monster’s open embrace of the obscene. Deep in the minds of these men, we can see a lot of their well-hidden faults. The greed and self-importance of Ron Milton as well as his fears about his own masculinity, the drunken desires of Detective Sergeant Gissing who was a pedophile in thought if not in deed, the lack of faith in both Declan Ewan and Reverend Coot.
But the monster glories in his darkness, uninhibited as the wildest of animals. He elevates himself to a kind of dark holiness. His anti-societal rule that the wilderness belongs to him, that his strength makes him king and god.
Religious institutions are very weak in this story, but the primitive gods both bad and good are strong. In Rawhead’s world, Christ is a dead god. While a Christian will take infinite comfort in the sacrifice and suffering of a god who died to save his creatures, there’s something more feral and wild about Barker’s divine creator than “let there be life. Okay, Im’ma take a rest now.”
In modern Christianity, especially the mainline religion of the Church of England (Episcopalians and watered-down Catholics in America), we take comfort in God, but we don’t expect his wrath. We pray when we’re in trouble for miracles don’t really expect them answered, just as we don’t really expect Him to damn the wicked. We talk about sin and suffering as human problems that can be redeemed through good acts and repentance, but we don’t often address the issues except when they specifically touch us.
Barker reminds us of the sometimes savage natural force that is not easy to recognize in the pristine quietness of a church. Barker reminds us of a deeper darker force than human evil, a demonic evil.
The church in Rawhead Rex is a lazy church. The Harvest Festival Service is for showing oneself off as a member of the community, rather than a religious celebration rejoicing in the bounty of the harvest and celebrating the holy. And because this is a community that has forgotten to worship the life-giver it is one that has forgotten to fear the life-destroyer.
Rawhead Rex is vulgar to shock us out of our complacency. We don’t talk about rape or pedophilia. We bury our shit under pastoral fields, that maybe could have been orchards if we cared enough. We show up in church, not to learn charity or to better our souls, but to be seen in our new suit and talk about ‘those others’.
Rawhead, as a symbol of destruction and vulgarity, reminds us there are darker forces at work in the world. They are not clean or sanitary, but they are to be feared. These dark things can be buried by the sanitizing force of society, but they will not stay hidden forever. When the emerge, if we have the courage to face these evils greater than one individual, it takes the brutality of community to kill them.
It will take a primitive uniting force. Something that can turn a blank stone into a statute. Something that can take the parts of two human bodies and turn them into a third entirely new person. The thing that Rawhead most feared, the creative force, the life-bringer.
Ron Milton and Rev. Coot do not stand a chance against this monster alone. Rawhead is only hurt by the united effort of the police officers and he is only killed him was when: “the crowd closed in. Human hands, weak, white human hands were laid on Rawhead’s body. Fist speed on his spine, nails raked his skin… Overpowering him by sheer weight of numbers… Their hatred was old; in their bones, that they but know it.”
Alone we cannot defeat the monsters. Individuals have no strength against the darkness, this ancient wildness that wants to mark us with its stench. It takes the united effort of many to confront and kill the beast rather than bury it. It takes a positive creative force to end the darkness.
Or a lot of small fists, sharp nails, and bludgeoning action.