Rawhead Rex by Clive Barker: “So ugly that everyone died.”

Rawhead Rex is everything that’s wrong with horror. Seriously.

Now that I’ve gotten your attention, let’s look at some good things. First, Clive Barker is a phenomenal writer: he took literally the most boring way to open a story ever, a two page description of his setting, and somehow kept me interested. Once Rawhead Rex (AKA, Satan himself) actually enters the story, the reader gets tossed between several different characters. One would think that at least one of these would be uninteresting, however, Barker  pulls it off. Every single character seemed real, deep, and gritty. This is classic of the horror genre, and should be applied (at least in my opinion) to fantasy and sci-fi as well. In addition, Barker’s setting, sense of a greater story, and prose should make this a good story. I would even say that technically it’s the tightest story we’ve read in the Horror RIG so far…yet, in my opinion it come up short and lacking.

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Despite the obvious technical skill of the writer and his skill with building sympathetic characters, the story comes off as very senseless to me. Sure, I get it, horror is supposed to be a little senseless, a little horrible…but Rawhead just took it to a whole new level. Thematically, it was pretty dead. In fact, I had the thought that if this story ever gets a movie re-boot (yes, it was adapted for the screen in 1986), Michael Bay would be the perfect director––because Michael Bay’s movies are just like Rawhead Rex: Technically beautiful, mildly interesting, yet so totally and completely lacking in the “human themes” department.

The second problem I had with Rawhead was the fact that the monster was just so darn overpowered. Sure, its gets killed in the end by a mob of angry humans, but it’s just so powerful that anytime a new character was introduced, I knew they were going to die. There was no suspense, not even the pretense of a fight. Barker gave me strong characters, but he didn’t give me anyone to root for, and that’s ultimately what I look for in a story. Sure, Ron suddenly has an epiphany and gets handed a magic fix to the story’s problem and he overcomes his jello-arms to grab some pagan statue that somehow came to be hidden in the center of a Catholic altar…and he beats Rawhead’s skull in with it…but it all came too easy for me. No one struggled in order to obtain their goal; everyone just died and blundered there way into it–and sure, life works that way sometimes, but stories require more justification than real life. If you wake up in the morning and are in a bad mood, you don’t need to have an explanation. But if your character is inconsistent there’d better be a reason or your readers will call you on it. Personally, I didn’t find it entertaining to read about a monster that eats children and “baptizes” people in urine–maybe it would have been worthwhile if we had followed a consistent character throughout, and maybe it would have been worthwhile if there was more semblance of a struggle. Alas, there was not.

Oh, and the total desecration of the church, crucifix, and books bothered me for religious reasons, obviously. And also because it was never really established that holy things affect  Rawhead. It would have made sense if he feared God or feared the eucharist or something…but all he feared was a pagan statue of a pregnant woman. (subtle jape at the church by the way, Clive, with “all that time they’d bowed their heads to a goddess). ANYWAY, that’s just my personal preference there.

So, to recap Rawhead Rex:

1) great technical writing, you can really see Barker’s talent as an author

2) strong, gritty, believable characters that I was instantly interested in.

3) lacking an obvious theme

4) gratuitous violence/desecration

5) Overpowered monsters.

So I’m at a bit of a dilemma. The writing and characters in this story deserve a 5/5. Truly, some phenomenal stuff here. However, the crazy violence/overpowered monster/personal preference really make me want to give it a 2/5. Personal preference aside, however, I’ll go with a 3-3.5. Anyone who has heard me talk about writing/had their story reviewed by me knows I drive character into the ground. And this story deserves a passing score simply because of how Barker writes his characters.

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10 thoughts on “Rawhead Rex by Clive Barker: “So ugly that everyone died.”

  1. Yeah I had similar issues to you when reviewing this one. I couldn’t help but applaud the craft skill but was uncomfortable with what happens in the story. My sticking point was the disturbing violence against children that was a big theme throughout the story. Now that you point out the altar desecration, I have to agree on that point as well. It is not that I think anything of these things shouldn’t be written about, but that when they are, there should be a point. And you mentioned that there didn’t seem to be any of that in this work. I have to agree, I didn’t see a reason either.

  2. I have to agree with you on almost very point. The writing is excellent. The description and setting are done so well they alone made me really want to like the story. And I did at first. But then it just slowly slid down the proverbial hill. And for many of the same reasons you note. Where I differ is in the characterization. I really didn’t care about any of the characters. I think because my time with them was just too short. And they were all just so helpless. I just couldn’t bring myself to care when they died. I just had “Another One Bites the Dust” rolling through my head. And I do agree about the desecration. I kept waiting for a reason, and he never gave one. I just assumed Barker was taking a chance to take a stab at organized religion in the name of art. Which shouldn’t sit well with someone no matter what their religion.

    • Glad I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. It was hard for me to write the review because his writing was just so good. He made some rookie mistakes though, such as killing everybody off. Story kind of lost its suspense for me

  3. I’m going to have to disagree with you here, Jake, and other commenters. I loved Rawhead Rex. To me, it was horror at its heart and soul. This was a story designed to make the reader uncomfortable on every single level that it could find and then one more. Reading through the comments here I see that it was successful.

    I think a lot of the criticism I’m seeing comes from a place of personal taste. Some people prefer there horror leave them feeling good by the end. Sure it can make us scared, but once the monster is vanquished they prefer no lasting discomfort. That is perfectly reasonable, I’m not here to say that’s somehow an invalid desire, but you should realize that is a personal preference and not some sort of authorial law that must be followed.

    To me, this story was like the ones people tell around campfires to scare each other. We don’t boo those people when too many characters die horribly or the monster is too-powerful, in fact, that helplessness is what people want in that scenario. They want the thrill of imagining that creature slinking around in the night, just out of the firelight’s reach. They want to lay awake that night in their tents tossing and turning, reminding themselves it wasn’t real, it was just a story. It’s was just a story.

    • I don’t know if I was really uncomfortable throughout the story. I was more like disengaged while watching a slaughter. I guess my point was that the story didn’t really reach me on a personal level already, and the personal preference alienated it even more for me.

      I agree about the campfire story deal, true those are fun and whatnot. I don’t know. When I read horror, I want to feel like I need to stop and check over my shoulder for something creeping up one me, which is (i guess) part of the reason why I didn’t like Rawhead. I read it and promptly moved on, none of it lingered, none of it seemed quite all that scary. Maybe I just don’t like monster stories, as none of the stuff we’ve read has really jarred me on an emotional level. I’m picky. lol.

  4. I totally agree with you about the lack of a central character to root for, but by intentionally withholding this Barker makes us focus more on Rawhead. We don’t sympathize with him (unless you’re a psychopath), but this was more of a shock-value story. So instead of emotional connection we get a series of oh-my-God moments that keep us hooked to the page in morbid fascination. Granted, some people want different things in their fiction and I don’t think this could ever be stretched into a novel using this kind of kill-and-move-on-style, but the more horror I read the more I keep seeing stories like this one. Stories that are intentionally upsetting. Is this good or bad? I have no idea.

    • I think it may have worked for me if it were a little longer, now that I think about it, If he drew out the terror more, drew out what each person was going through, focused more on Rawhead stalking his prey than actually tearing it to bits like a rare steak. But again, that might just be me.

      When we have people’s guts being blown out on the big screen and beheadings and castrations on Game of Thrones (HBO), I think shock value stories kind of lose their…well… value. I’d argue that the only way to truly make something shock value-worthy is to get the reader to deeply invest in the characters and then have them die.

  5. I agree with Chris in that this story is built, at least in part, on shock value. On top of the child-eating, there are also repeated references to urination and defecation, and there was that scene where Rawhead gelded a man. But I don’t think the story was ALL about shock value. Although we got only a short portion of time with each character, I felt like Barker used that time well. We learned personal information about each character before the character’s death. While I knew doom was inevitable, I felt that I had no choice but to care about each death.

    • I love me some tasty children though…

      See, the personal information didn’t do it for me. It would kind of be like me saying “Oh by the way, he fought off cancer three times” and then Rawhead eats him. I get a distinct “LOL that sucks, bro” but not a deep emotional response, not like I would if I watched him go through the whole thing throughout the story, the diagnosis, chemo, pain, almost death, fighting it off, only to get eaten by a demon-monster. does that make sense?

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