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Coldheart Canyon by Clive Barker
(HarperCollins, $27.95, 676 pages, hardback; 2001.)

Since the industry of Hollywood is dreams, it is hard to understand why there have been so very few good stories of the fantastic cover scancentred on, or based in, the movie business. Even Thomas Tryon, the ex-movie star turned fantasy novelist, stayed strictly within the bounds of the real in his one movie novel/fixup, Crowned Heads (1976). The single novel that this reviewer has come across that mixes the movies with fantasy with any real measure of success is Theodore Roszak's exquisite 1991 novel Flicker, and even it is likely to offend genre fans in the delicious subtlety, rather than the wham-bam foregrounding, of its fantasticated underpinning. Within the movies themselves there have been a few successful attempts at this marriage, the most notable probably being Last Action Hero (1993), much maligned on release but now generally (and rightly) well regarded, and Woody Allen's 1984 excursion The Purple Rose of Cairo. One could add Maurizio Nichetti's delirious 1989 piece The Icicle Thief, although there the movie-within-a-movie is being screened on television, and it is the fantasies created by tv that are the real subject.

So the strapline on the cover of Coldheart Canyon is enough to set the pulse a-tingling and the jaws a-salivating: "A Hollywood Ghost Story." Barker is one of the most elegant writers and exciting imaginers in the horror business: almost as good a writer as Peter Straub, almost as good an imaginer as Ramsey Campbell. "A pity he should waste that writing and those powers of imagination on such garbage" is a common enough reaction, and perhaps an unfair one, although it does tend to be the ugly schlock moments rather than the wonderful flights of fancy that stick in one's mind after reading a Barker novel. But give him a ghost story and the results should be pretty stupendous -- after all, remember what a fine novel Stephen King crafted from the form of the traditional ghost story with his Bag of Bones (1998).

And for the first couple of hundred pages or so it seems that Barker has pulled it off. There is a beautiful sense of claustrophobia about the tale and its telling, not to mention that same delightful feeling as in Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood (1984) that strange and spectral archetypal figures are just on the limits of tangibility -- although here of course the archetypes are born of the movie industry rather than of legend. One settles down for what looks to be another five hundred or so pages of sheer bliss, to wallowing euphorically in a new addition to that rarest of beasts, the truly successful fantastication about the movies. There's ozone in the nostrils, the eyes are flared, the real world is forgotten...

But then...

But then Barker the horror writer takes over. After another couple of hundred pages occupied largely by increasingly kinky sex between mortals and bits of ectoplasm, described with all the erotic passion of a coroner's post mortem report, although much more nicely written, of course, the rest of the book is a fairly straightforward horror novel. Quite a good horror novel, as horror novels go, but not exceptional even in that arena.

This reviewer cannot recall having been so crushingly disappointed by a novel. What a complete waste of those first two hundred pages! What a complete waste of talents and abilities and imaginative powers!

The story starts back in the 1920s. Hollywood star Katya Lupi -- lovely, ruthless, promiscuous, worried about the advent of sound to the movies -- returns to her native Romania with her manager, worshipper and would-be spouse Zeffer to visit her folks. Zeffer has a blanket instruction to buy anything he thinks might amuse her for the new home she is building in one of the canyons near Hollywood. Visiting a rundown monastery, he buys from the monks the four walls of a room completely covered in hand-painted tiles depicting scenes from a Wild Hunt of sorts -- often in bestially cruel and/or pornographically explicit detail. The tiles are exported to Hollywood, where a room is constructed to hold them and the mural is painstakingly reassembled.

There is a legend behind those tiles. They were created at the behest of Lilith, Adam's first wife and also the Devil's wife -- and, too, the wife for a short while of ex-Crusader Duke Goga, after he and his huntsmen had accidentally killed Lilith's goatboy son by the Devil. The child does not die; instead, the Duke and his party are condemned forever to hunt the territory, the Devil's Country, that is both depicted in and is the tiles in an attempt to recapture him.

Once the room has been reconstructed in LA, Lupi discovers that entering it can gain one entrance also to the real Devil's Country, a seemingly endless tract of landscape through which Goga and his gang still ride in search of the goatboy. Time spent there has a curiously rejuvenating effect -- the place is, in effect, a fountain of youth.

Flip forward to the present day. Heart-throb movie star Todd Pickett's career has started to slide. In desperation he opts for a face-lift. It's a disaster. To keep him out of the limelight, his agent Maxine stows him away in a long-deserted mansion in one of the canyons near LA ... which proves, of course, to be still secretly inhabited by a youthful and sex-crazy Katya Lupi. And in the grounds Zeffer still lives, although he's not as youthful and not noticeably sex-crazy at all because decades ago Katya got mean about rationing visits to the Devil's Country when it occurred to her that its supply of rejuvenation might be finite. Also lurking in the grounds, almost always unseen, are the ghosts of hundreds and possibly thousands of old movie stars who were Katya's friends before she cut them off from their regular visits to the Devil's Country; these spectres, barred from the house by wards Katya has nailed into the doorsteps, can take on physical form when they want to, and they're all sex-crazy too.

Todd, who was pretty sex-crazy to begin with but has been looking forward to a lean time of it because his face is such a mess, becomes a sort of walking sex-craze on encountering Katya. He plays with her the games sex-crazy people play (or, at least, the games sex-crazy adolescents wish like hell they could play), then joins in one of the ectoplasmic orgies, then he boffs Katya in the Devil's Country -- an ecstasy enhanced by the fact that they get caught mid-boff by Goga and his pals -- and then he ... well, actually, I sort of lost count around here.

Goga isn't sex-crazy. Presumably being married to Lilith for the few years during which she entered this world to commission the tiles cured him of any sex-craziness he may have had, or maybe it's just that he's spent several centuries on horseback. Not sex-crazy either is Tammy, the president of Todd's fan club, either because she's fat (the novel displays a certain amount of stereotyping in the characterization) or because she sublimates it all in her obsessive collecting of knick-knacks relating to her idol. Either way, she gets concerned when Todd drops out of public view and heads to LA to investigate, following the trail to a certain old mansion in a canyon...

And that's when the viscera begin to erupt.

To use the movie terminology, there are some curious continuity errors in the text, as if the book went through a lot of rewrites. On page 77, for example, Todd has to cancel his facelift appointment because his dog is ill; but it's not until page 101, after the dog has died, that he makes the appointment in the first place. On page 249 it's mentioned that it's twilight, yet a little beforehand Todd and Katya have been viewing their surrounding by moonlight and starlight. On page 408 Tammy says to Todd that "We're going to do this together" (not sex, I hasten to add), yet on pages 411-12 it becomes evident that they didn't. There may be some other examples I didn't spot.

Because Barker is such a fine prose artist, Coldheart Canyon is in general very readable -- aside from the two hundred or so porno pages, which become very tedious after a while -- but that doesn't make it a good novel, or even a particularly good entertainment. It's certainly not one of Barker's own better efforts. Yet that first couple of hundred pages, when he seems to be setting up for a top-notch ghost story, are a remarkable achievement. Why he didn't just keep going, why he apparently suffered a crisis of nerve and reverted to the bizness-as-usual -- there's a mystery for you.


Review by John Grant.

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© John Grant 23 March 2002