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by Douglas E. Winter

"What must I do in the time remaining? Only everything."
-- Clive Barker, Galilee

In the pantheon of things demonic, two insistently sexual creatures thrive: the succubus, which assumes the female form to mate with sleeping men; and the incubus, which exerts the masculine by laying upon, and usually ravishing, its slumbering victims. Ann Arensberg's Incubus (Alfred A. Knopf, hc, $24.00) explores the malefic male impulse—an obvious progenitor of Count Dracula -- with formidable style; but the familiarity of her setting and story, framed as an equally familiar occult investigation, results in a disappointing novel that reads like an overwritten episode of "The X-Files."

It's a shame: Arensberg, best known for an elegant and endearing first novel, Sister Wolf (1981), brings serious craft and intent—and a leading imprint, Knopf—to horror fiction at a time when mainstream publishing interest in the subject has waned. Read sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, Incubus is powerful and, at times, profound; but its plot simply fails to fulfill the promise of its prose.

The book opens uneasily with a preface in which narrator Cora Whitman, the once-skeptical wife of an Episcopal rector, insists that the experiences she will recount are supernatural in origin—thus pre empting the novel's essential tension, which concerns the collision of Cora's hard-headed materialism with husband Henry's wishful spiritualism. Henry, who heard the voice of God on the battlefield in the waning days of World War Two, longs for another word from on high—some confirmation, or continuation, of that encounter. His faith, tested by the mundane, is no longer enough—and certainly it is not reinforced by Cora, a curiously apathetic bride whose domesticity (cooking, gardening, and the writing of recipe columns) cloaks a deep and divisive anger with a life that seems profoundly rote: "A pastor's job is something like women's work," she tells us. "Once it is done it is almost time to do it over again." [p. 48] The feminist subtext evolves skillfully into supertext with the arrival of a mysterious and invasive "entity," which ends the passivity of their life (and love), awakening Cora and Henry into a world haunted by possibility.

Arensberg's setting—the village of Dry Falls—is one of those isolated, bucolic Maine landscapes that has featured so often in the novels of Stephen King (and a myriad of pretenders) that it is this generation's Transylvania. It is, however, aptly named: Gripped by a drought that is physical and spiritual, its crops and marriages wither as the summer of 1974 deepens. With horrific inevitability, a scourge worthy of the Old Testament -- with a nod to Charles Fort's The Book of the Damned—is followed by incarnation. Animals give birth to monstrosities. Innocence is lost when schoolgirls are raped by the night-visitor. Then the women of Dry Falls—and finally Cora—are set upon by this demonic force.

The same territory was covered, more than twenty years ago, by Ray Russell in his own Incubus (1976), a no-holds-barred horror novel that offered a unique twist on demonic lore. Russell was exploitative and entertaining, while Arensberg is more delicate, and certainly more desperate to assure readers that she indulges in the stuff of horror not for its guilty pleasures but for meaning. Fortunately, she declines to push the obvious gender buttons, and instead presents the nocturnal assaults in terms more humanist than sexist, while offering her own speculation on the materia prima of demonology. The problem, however, is that her thoughts are nothing new, but simply restate the Fortean rhetoric of Whitley Strieber's Communion series and other ruminations on the premise that We Are Not Alone.

As a result, the philosphical tone that emerges is one that plays Fort's famous maxim—"I think we're property"—into the slogan of a twelve-step program. Incubus is a curious homage to nineties paranoia and its obsessive cults of alien abduction, Satanic child abuse, and global conspiracies. As Cora's preface states: "By publishing the following account of our own experiences, we hope to make clear that we, like yourselves, are victims." [p. 6] Which reminds us, yet again, that we are not responsible; oh no, not us. The demon made me do it.

A more personal demon inhabits a more powerful, and meaningful, novel to be found just to the right of Arensberg's on the shelves: Clive Barker's Galilee (HarperPrism, hc, $26.00; pb, $7.50). The conundrum faced by its narrator, Edmund Maddox Barbarossa, is seemingly the credo for Barker's creative existence: "What must I do in the time remaining? Only everything." In the fifteen years since publication of his Books of Blood, Barker has written ten novels and more than thirty stories; he has scripted and directed three motion pictures (while writing or producing seven others, including most recently the sublime Gods and Monsters). His art and photography have been exhibited and reprinted around the globe; and his interviews and critical and social commentary have appeared in media of remarkable variety.

With Galilee, Barker's ever-expansive aesthetic and stylistic pursuits find an ideal structure, producing his most controlled and widely appealing novel. It is the first of his novels to be written in first person, embracing and perfecting the experimental structure of "Chiliad: A Meditation" (Revelations, 1997), in which he inserted himself directly into his story. Although Maddox Barbarossa is the narrator of Galilee, this wheelchair-bound dreamer (who never leaves his stepmother's mansion save through the telling of tales) is a thinly-veiled avatar of Barker, offering a uniquely autobiographical work.

An apocalyptic prophecy rouses Maddox from years of self-pity and procrastination to begin penning a long-promised history of his family; but it is a Clive Barker history, in which fact and fantasy meet and mingle with equal significance: "The time has come to tell everything I know. Failing that, everything I can detect or surmise. Failing that, everything I can invent. If I do my job properly it won't even matter to you which is which."

Indeed, his family is a living fiction—myths, if not divinities, "hiding away from a world which no longer wants or needs us." Its founders are two souls as old as heaven: Nicodemus Barbarossa, a long absent and apparently dead father who, like many of Barker's male deities, is a priapic legend; and his lover, the "mother of mothers" Cesaria Yaos, "an eternal force . . . born out of the primal fire of the world." Their lifespans and talents transcend those of humanity, conjuring miracles and madness, taking life in an instant and, quite possibly, giving it. The extraordinary pair have spawned, together or by illicit tryst, four ungrateful children, each of whom evokes a classical deity, yet finds nothing in the modern world but pain.

Christ was born in a stable; Nicodemus perished in one. Cesaria mourns, awaiting his rumored return, in the family manse. This replica of Jefferson's Monticello, built at the turn of the Eighteenth Century in a North Carolina swamp, is known as L'Enfant—another lost child, rotting with a malaise that is spiritual as well as physical. Like the best of gothic castles, L'Enfant is a place where the past is present, and the present past—where time heals no wounds, but merely preserves them.

Maimed in the same mysterious accident that killed his father, Maddox has lived there for nearly 150 years within the comfortable confines of his imagination. When he finally finds the nerve to enter the dome room of L'Enfant, its skittering shadows part to reveal visions of a greater, yet unreachable, wisdom: "It takes something profound to transform us; to open our eyes to our own glorious diversity." In a moment that echoes Barker's recognition of the meaning of the puzzle that had haunted his own storytelling, Maddox realizes he can walk again :

"For now I had the answer to the question: what lay at the center of all the threads of my story? It was myself. I wasn't an abstracted recanter of these lives and loves. I was—I am—the story itself; its source, its voice, its music. Perhaps to you that doesn't seem like much of a revelation. But for me, it changes everything. It makes me see, with brutal clarity, the person I once was. It makes me understand for the first time who I am now. And it makes me shake with anticipation of what I must become."

In embracing a more personal role as author, Barker pronounces, through Maddox, the refined goal of his writing: "And in my heart I realize I want most to romance you; to share with you a vision of the world that puts order where there has been discordance and chaos. Nothing happens carelessly. We're not brought into the world without reason, even though we may never understand that reason. An infant that lives an hour, that dies before it can ever lay eyes on those who made it, even that soul did not live without purpose: this is my sudden certainty. And it is my duty to sweat until I convince you of the same."

With this manifesto, Barker steps away from the bleak and chaotic impulses of certain of his early horrific pieces, while reminding his readers that even the most bloody of his books is fraught with a concern for meaning, if not metaphysics. Galilee does not reject Barker's abiding impulse for horror -- indeed, there are several fine moments of frisson—but it does invite readers to evolve with him to a level of storytelling that is transcendent: "All I want now is the time to enchant you."

And enchant us he does. Galilee is an epic supernatural romance, blending the visionary fantasies of E. R. Eddison and Mervyn Peake with the contemporary gothic of Daphne Du Maurier and William Faulkner. Its narrative elements are disparate—confessional, historical, folk tale, fairy tale, fantasia, romance, and "that most populist of idioms, the rags to-riches story." In these pages the grotesque and the domestic are harmonized, as Barker pursues his relentless (and increasingly Biblical) vision of a world interpenetrated with the supernatural, where reality and fantasy are not opposites, but one.

The novel is anchored by its namesake, a latter-day (and black) Dionysus. Nearly two hundred pages pass, however, before that "cluster of contradictions" known as Galilee moves onto stage. The pivotal character is Rachel Pallenberg, whose destiny is to become his true love. Wooed from the ranks of commoners, she becomes an American Diana, the latest trophy bride of one of the Gearys, a Kennedy-like dynasty.

The Geary family was founded on a singular materialism: "Business before anything." When Rachel literally fails in her appointed labor, suffering a miscarriage and finally the news that she cannot bear children, her marriage collapses. Her departure is the first of the signs, offered by an astrologer, of the fall of the House of Geary: "Crime had mounted upon crime over the generations, sin mounted on sin, and God help them all—every Geary, and child of a Geary, and wife and mistress and servant of a Geary—it was time for the sinners to come to judgment." Murder and destruction spiral out of a hidden past and into the present, with but a single certainty: "In the end, everything comes back to Galilee."

In this engrossing tale of two families entwined by fate and fancy, Barker explores the perils of the magnificent alongside those of the material, deftly eschewing, as he has throughout his career, the use of the fantastic as nostalgic escapism. His demigods are as troubled as his demimondes. By investing the Gearys with the dream of materialism that is America, Galilee would fulfill his own dream of escape; but he learns that even gods have no freedom—particularly from their worshipers.

The truth of Galilee has less to do with its characters or their adventures than with its recognition of the importance of the storyteller—his voice and his conscience—in the telling of tales. In this truth is a redemption both personal to Barker and paramount to readers of dark and fantastic fiction, who work their way, again and again, through stories without point or purpose until coming upon the likes of Galilee.

In Barker's own words, it is a redemption that is fundamental to our art, and our humanity; thus Maddox concludes: "I've come to see that as nothing can be made that isn't flawed, the challenge is twofold: first, not to berate oneself for what is, after all, inevitable; and second, to see in our failed perfection a different thing; a truer thing, perhaps, because it contains both our ambition and the spoiling of that ambition; the exhaustion of order, and the discovery—in the midst of despair—that the beast dogging the heels of beauty has a beauty all its own."

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