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A Measuring Up of "Haeckel's Tale"

I've only seen two of the "Masters of Horror" films so far. That's been enough to show me that creator Mick Garris has hit upon the best thing to happen to the horror film genre in ages with his bold anthology series for Showtime. Dario Argento's "Jenifer" I've watched three times and Tobe Hooper's "Dance of the Dead" twice. They're among the most out-there genre films in recent memory, and from everything I've been reading they may not even be the best of the installments that have aired to date. Still, it's not a competition; what "Jenifer" says about the sheer force of human sexuality and what "Dance of the Dead" says about the direction civilization may be headed in cannot be erased--or easily forgotten.

That said, it's hard not to drool and giggle maniacally at the thought of Clive Barker's entry into the popular series ... and it's coming. His latest short story, "Haeckel's Tale," appears in "Dark Delicacies," this year's highly touted anthology in which Barker's name appears alongside such luminaries as Ray Bradbury, Ramsey Campbell, Richard Laymon and Richard Matheson, who provides a kind of pre-introduction to the book. (A story of his, incidentally, is the basis for "Dance of the Dead," which was scripted by his son, Richard Christian Matheson.)

"Haeckel's Tale" stands out in Barker's career as easily the most traditional of any horror story he's written, and that's by design. Editor Jeff Gelb mentions in his introduction to "Dark Delicacies" that all contributing writers were invited to pen a work of fiction that "defined modern horror for them." One senses that Barker took that invitation very seriously indeed. You'll have to read his atmospheric tale of dread for yourself in order to learn what's on Haeckel's mind, exactly, but at least two aspects of the story can be looked at without giving anything vital away.

Barker launched into some mightily disquieting territory--even by his standards--in his novel "Coldheart Canyon." One of its most disturbing features was a devil child of extraordinary creepiness. Well, be damned if he hasn't revisited this penchant for fiendish urchins in "Haeckel's Tale." It may be a strain to watch for in future stories.

Also of note is that the peculiar "Haeckel's Tale," set in Germany in the late 1800s, is every inch an old-fashioned horror story, right down to the telescopic narration that effortlessly calls to mind the work of Conrad and James. Even Barker's most strident admirers may be impressed by what he has so artfully pulled off here. Had he published "Haeckel's Tale" under a pseudonym I doubt I would have been among the first to discover his true identity. That's how convincing his 19th-century prose is.

Sadly, the original idea of having Roger Corman direct the Barker tale for "Masters of Horror" has fallen through due to Corman's health, according to Clive Barker's Revelations site. However, "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" director John McNaughton has stepped up to the challenge, so what would have been an obviously perfect match of material to director may have to work a little bit harder to convince us. There are no strong concerns from this corner of the world.--Pete Mesling

Posted by Pete on December 10, 2005 4:08 PM
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