Coldheart Canyon, by Clive Barker

coldheart-canyon-by-clive-barkerGenre: Dark Fantasy
Publisher: Harper Collins
Published: 2001
Reviewer Rating: threehalfstars
Book Review by Paul Kane

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Clive Barker’s latest novel is something of a return to his roots. After so many years of meticulously charting fantastical worlds and their inhabitants, he once again returns to the genre that made him famous with his Books of Blood series. This is not to say that Coldheart Canyon does not contain its fair share fantastical elements – far from it – or that books like Imajica and Galilee did not boast any horror and/or supernatural elements (this is Barker we’re talking about after all). It’s simply that the new piece is a more straightforward ghost story, drawing on the writer-director’s many years of living and working in Tinseltown.

Todd Pickett is a famous Hollywood action star who’s been at the top of his game for some time now. And that’s just the problem. The dream factory has a habit of chewing people up and spitting them out. In this business your looks are everything, and even though he’s still relatively young Todd has come to realise that these are fading fast. Following some bad advice, he has plastic surgery on his face – but it all goes horribly wrong and he is forced to retreat from the public gaze until the scars heal.

The place he chooses is a little-known house located on the outskirts of movieland in Coldheart Canyon. Long ago, during Hollywood’s golden age, it belonged to a ‘love-’em-and-leave-’em’ immigrant actress called Katya Lupi, who organised wild, erotic parties attended by some of the most famous faces in showbiz. When Todd takes up residence, though, he finds that Katya is still very much at home. Not only that; she hasn’t aged one bit in all this time. Eager to uncover the secret of her eternal youth, he embarks on an affair with her and in turn she introduces him to ‘The Devil’s Country’ – a room in the basement filled with painted tiles from a Romanian monastery. Tiles that have a unique effect on the visitor, transporting them to another time and place.

But that’s not all there is at Coldheart Canyon. Ghosts live in the treacherous regions surrounding the house, and strange hybrid creatures: the result of unions between these ghosts and the animals thereabouts. And they’re clamoring to get inside no matter what the cost.

I’ve always been a fan of Clive Barker’s fiction, ever since I first started reading horror and fantasy, and so I was pleased to find that although he’s been going so long, his work is still as vibrant as it was when he first started out. Barker doesn’t just crank out novel after novel in quick succession to make an easy buck – let’s face it, the guy’s loaded so he doesn’t really need to. No, like everything he does or has a hand in, this is a labour of love. In the introduction he tells us of the tragedies that befell him during the writing of the novel, like his dog dying (this crops up in the book itself) and his father passing away – but still he carried on writing it because he felt it had something significant to say.

And indeed it does, about life, the ageing process (Barker admits himself that he’s not getting any younger) and how Hollywood really operates. In here you’ll find all the gen on the backbiting, the superficiality and the pretense of the film industry, given to you straight by somebody in the know. In fact, parts of this read like a supernatural version of Altman’s The Player or Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard – where deals are struck at parties and so-called friends will stab you in the back as soon as look at you. Plus you can have great fun star-spotting, with many Hollywood greats (past and present) putting in cameo appearances.

The characters, as always, are fascinating. In addition to Todd and Katya these range from the tough-talking agent Maxine and the obligatory gay character Jerry Brahms (a pawn of Katya’s), to Todd’s trusted bodyguard/driver Marco and an unlikely heroine in the shape of Tammy, who runs Todd’s appreciation society and is worried enough about him to venture into Coldheart Canyon herself. And then there are the fantastical creatures which are a staple of any Barker adventure: led here by the Goat-boy Devil child, the Queen of Hell and those strange ghost-creatures already mentioned, described in typical Barker fashion – ala Cabal (‘But the head: that was the worst of her. Her mouth was nearly human, as was her nose, but then the skull curved and suddenly flattened so that her eyes, which were devoid of whites, and set to either side of the skull, like the eyes of a sheep, stuck out, black and shiny and stupid.’).

If the book has a problem, it’s length. The story could have been told in probably half as many pages and might have benefited from just such a trimming. The grand finale comes 100 pages before the end, for instance, leaving the remainder of the novel to rely on philosophical navel gazing, with a rather bizarre and jarring chase sequence tacked on simply for the sake of it. But this is a small price to pay to experience this master of the fatastique when he’s in full flow.

So visit Coldheart Canyon and come back changed, come back renewed. It is certainly well worth the trip.

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