Mister B. Gone. By Clive Barker. Harper. $24.95.
The Dark Sacrament: True Stories of Modern-Day Demon Possession and Exorcism. By David M. Kiely and Christina McKenna. HarperOne. $25.95.
Demons are an ideal subject for horror, being bundles of uncontrollable evil with vast if ill-defined powers to harm humans and their world. But Jakobok Botch, the “Mr. B” in the title of Clive Barker’s new novel, turns out to be somewhat endearing – disgustingly so, it is true, but endearing nevertheless. The book is structured as his (not really “its”) memoir, supposedly written in the mid-15th century, and the connective tissue of the novel is provided by Mr. B’s continual demands that the reader burn the book. Again and again, he orders, cajoles, begs, wheedles and threatens the reader in an attempt to get the book burned – a narrative device that is interesting the first few dozen times but wears thin thereafter, especially since it becomes pretty clear to any careful reader (long before Barker intends it to) why Mr. B would want the book burned. The idea here is that Mr. B will tell the reader snippets of his life story to induce the reader to burn the book. It is a story that starts in the ninth circle of the “Demonation,” a place that one would expect Barker to describe in detail but that, unfortunately, he never really talks much about. It seems to be much like Earth, but uglier and filthier; certainly there is no sign of eternal hellfire, or the eternal cold imagined by Dante when he created the concept of the circles of Hell. The way Mr. B leaves for the upper world, the people he encounters there (some of whom seem more demonic than he), and the adventures he has, make up the bulk of the book. Barker has written masterful horror before, but he is not at his best here, perhaps because he wants Mr. B to be both sympathetic and deeply evil. At one point, for example, he has Mr. B bathing in a tub of babies’ blood, then tries to create a grotesque comic scene by having him found out because he had a hole in his baby-collecting sack and left a trail to his hiding place. This doesn’t quite work. Nor does his relationship with Quitoon, a more-powerful demon who accompanies him for many years and whom Mr. B is surprised (as the reader will not be) to discover that he sort of…loves. The last part of the book, involving Johannes Gutenberg’s discovery of the printing press and the negotiation (not battle) between demonic and heavenly forces over the spoils of the world-changing forces thus unleashed, has effective parts but is mostly rather silly. The problem with Mister B. Gone – whose title, incidentally, makes little sense – is that Barker never quite balances horror and the supernatural against mundane affairs and humor. The book is written well, but to little purpose.
The purpose of The Dark Sacrament, on the other hand, is explicit: to show that demons exist in the modern world, continue to possess humans, and can be expelled by knowledgeable and trained representatives of organized religion (demons seem not to attack atheists). The book is in many ways more frightening and more humorous than Barker’s, including stories ranging from one of a woman told by her evil, dead grandmother to kill her boyfriend, and one of a little girl who hears a ghost sorting videos in the next room. The cases are treated by one of two exorcists: Canon William Lendrum, a Protestant, or Father Ignatius McCarthy, a Roman Catholic. The Dark Sacrament is structured as if David M. Kiely and Christina McKenna know the exact actions and innermost thoughts of everyone they profile: there are long dialogue scenes that include the precise words spoken by demons to the people they are possessing. And there is never more than a passing mention of possible non-demonic explanations for the occurrences. The woman with the evil grandmother, for example, had two suicide attempts, an eating disorder and depression so deep that it required hospitalization before she was possessed. Nor is there ever any questioning of the power of organized religion. “It is wonderful to participate in such a healing victory,” Canon Lendrum says after treating the girl with the ghost and the videos. “Experiencing the power of God’s love in these situations is something neither I nor those afflicted ever forget.” This is no doubt true for Lendrum and for people whose beliefs allow him to soothe them. It was no doubt true for McKenna, who claims to have had a six-week paranormal experience at age 11 that was resolved by an exorcist (Kiely, her husband, is a freelance writer of biographies, crime novels and mysteries). But readers who do not already believe in demonic possession as strongly as the authors do will find nothing in The Dark Sacrament to change their views. Indeed, the precise recounting of people’s words and thoughts makes the book read more like a novel than a work of nonfiction, and the unquestioning acceptance of organized religion’s version of spirituality guarantees the book an audience with a narrow, if strongly held, set of beliefs.