A Review By: Amelia
Ghost stories are probably the oldest genre when it comes to fiction but why are ghosts always average people who’ve come back from the grave for some extraordinary reason? Why have we never heard a story of Marilyn Monroe’s ghost and how she moans and shrieks in the mansion she died in? Why have we never feared that we’d bump into Humphrey Bogart’s wandering spirit when the sun goes down and we’re left in the dark? Clive Barker must have wondered the same thing when he wrote Coldheart Canyon, a story about excessive celebrity lifestyles and the ghosts that are reaped by the excessiveness.
The story begins in Romania during the 1920s when Romanian-born actress Katya Lupi purchases a unique work of art, a series of sculpted and painted tiles depicting, in a grotesque and obscene manner, the local legend of a Count who is cursed to haunt the nearby wilderness for all eternity. Katya, although she outwardly appears to be an angel and often plays one on screen, is a sexual deviant intent on throwing the wildest orgies imaginable in her Hollywood dream house with all her fellow celebrity perverts in attendance (Rudolph Valentino and Mary Pickford just to name a couple). Obliviously she’s thrilled by the obscene artwork and displays it with pride, and when it’s discovered that there really is magic in the old cursed tiles, Katya becomes just that much more powerful. Fast-forward about eighty years to the year 2000 and enter Todd Pickett’s life: a twenty-nine year old mega movie star who’s already past his prime. He undergoes plastic surgery but something goes wrong and it leaves him more or less disfigured. His agent sends him to Katya’s ‘former’ home in Coldheart Canyon and although secluded and seemingly abandoned Todd soon discovers that Katya and her deviant subjects still hold court.
The first point I’d like to make is that Coldheart Canyon is written in an interesting way. Barker has always had amazing style. He writes in beautiful prose even when describing the most horrific things, and can create worlds and storylines that the rest of us just literally, could never even imagine: and, of course, Coldheart Canyon is no exception. Barker has written it in a linear plot beginning in the 1920s and ending in the 2000s, but he writes it so that you discover the past by what happens in the present. In the first few chapters of the book you discover how the events of the novel unfold, but not why: the why is left until nearly the last few chapters of the book, which is a fascinating twist to the ending of a book that we, as readers, will think we have entirely sussed out by about page two hundred.
Point number two that needs to be made is how disgusting Clive Barker’s mind truly is. Where as horror is the predominant element in many of his other works, sex is the predominant element in Coldheart Canyon. Now, I’m not saying that Barker’s horror isn’t sick and/or twisted, I’m just saying when you write your sex scenes to appear as horror, some perverse shit is going to go down. One particular chapter comes to mind in which Katya is described masturbating with live snails… I’ll leave you to ponder how and, more importantly, why Barker had this imagery bouncing around inside his head.
Now, lets move onto the characters of the novel (as if the above statement isn’t enough to deduce what they’re like!). Barker has always written very strange and scarred characters: Frank, the hedonist main character of the Hellbound Heart, the Barbarossas, a clan of godlike beings from the spanning epic novel Galilee, any of the characters written about in Books of Blood, just to name a few novels worth! Katya and Todd are no exception to Barker’s strange and scarred repertoire. The two of them are characters driven by their inner demons: inner demons that are masquerading as human desire and are sustained by the excesses of their Hollywood lives.
And, of course, if they weren’t messed up individuals by their own accounts, the location – Coldheart Canyon and the dream palace hidden away in secret to host the kind of parties that nobody was supposed to know about – only strengthened their demons and added to their neurosis. Barker created an amazing landscape when he created the canyon. The house is inhabited by the stunningly beautiful/batshit crazy Katya, mistress of the enchanted tiles that are a cursed fountain of youth. The canyon in turn is inhabited by all manner of strange and horrible creatures: ghosts of dead celebrities being the most prominent of these beings. When Todd discovers the house and moves in he only adds to the chaos of the notorious canyon. There is a catch though; I found that without the bizarre characters inhabiting the canyon, the overall story would have lagged; just as the characters without the location would have made the overall story non-compelling.
Overall, Coldheart Canyon is a book that can go both ways: you’ll love it, or you’ll hate it. The characters are fantastically flawed – as that is kind of Barker’s specialty – and they’ll draw you in with their constant debauchery and pitfalls. The location of the forgotten dream-palace is haunting and disturbing but picturesque and peaceful all at the same time and will have you eager to learn about every single inch of the wicked place. The plot of the novel will leave you disgusted and enthralled but the pacing may leave you wanting more. That was my one issue with the novel: it seemed to be about two hundred pages too long. There was a point within the narrative where all loose-ends are tied up and each of the characters are left with their own closure, be it death, heroism, nihilism, etc etc, but then Barker continues to add more where more isn’t really needed. It was almost as if he wrote them as an afterthought – a two hundred-page afterthought – that he paper-clipped to his finished manuscript and then hoped for the best.
My final thoughts on Clive Barker’s Coldheart Canyon are that it is a fantastic read. The characters and locations take you to new and exciting realms of fantasy while one foot stays firmly rooted within a realistic landscape. The story is original and reaches, seemingly, into unknown territory as it deals with ghosts of the rich and famous and how they deal with their afterlives of sex and excess. The pacing may throw you off near the end, but if you power through, it is well worth it as Barker truly is a master of prose and horror. All in all, Coldheart Canyon is an irresistible and unmerciful picture of Hollywood and its demons told with the raw narrative power that have made Barker a worldwide horror writing phenomenon.