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Sunday December 30, 2007

Don’t burn this book!


MISTER B. GONE
By Clive Barker
Publisher: HarperVoyager, 250 pages
ISBN: 978-0007262618
 

I HAD not read a Clive Barker book before I picked up Mister B. Gone. I was, however, familiar with the name, of course, as I am aware of his 1987 film, Hellraiser, and have also been acquainted with the computer game, Undying, which he helped create in 2001. I thought the movie was okay, and the game a fun experience to be had when you’re alone in the dark.  

This is all a roundabout way of saying that I know Mr Barker strictly as a horror writer kind of guy, and even then, not through his books. So when I read his latest book, Mister B. Gone, I was a little surprised that it veered more into the realm of fantasy even though it is marketed as horror. 

This may or may not be a good thing, but, personally, I don’t mind, as I can enjoy a fantasy book as much as any other if it’s written well. And this book is written quite well. 

The story concerns itself with the miserable life of a low-ranking demon from Hell named Jakabok Botch, sometimes referred to simply as “Mister B”. It starts by telling how he escaped the demented torture his demon father inflicted on him, only to be ensnared by demon-catching humans from Our World. These humans, not surprisingly, turn out to be no less demented than Jakabok’s father when it comes to afflicting pain and abuse. 

Jakabok manages to escape from his captors and even falls in love with a human girl. But since he is a demon, his love goes unrequited. No surprise there, as Jakabok also happens to be a ferociously ugly demon, owing to “an accident” involving Jakabok’s father and an extremely hot fire.... 

The girl he fell in love with soon betrays him and he quickly learns that humans, too, can be as evil as demons, if not more so. 

This casting of humans in a dim light is later extended to the Forces of Good, the Angels, who also turn out to be beings capable of equally demented acts, all performed in the name of the greater good. It seems that in Mister B’s world, no being is capable of being truly good and of pure heart. 

Looking for allies, the much put-upon Jakabok befriends the demon Quitoon, who has taken to roaming Our World in a quest to visit every machine as humans invent them. Quitoon is quite taken by the human ability to create remarkable tools to improve their lives, but the harried Jakabok remains unimpressed, naturally.  

But he becomes even more closely entangled with the despised humans when Quitoon takes him along to a trip to Mainz, where it is rumoured that “someone named Gutenberg” has invented “a machine that will change the world”.  

Which brings me to the gimmick at the heart of this book. Mister B. Gone is told in the form of a memoir, with Jakabok himself narrating the tale. The twist here is that, due to forces that will be explained as the story progresses, Jakabok is the book, and has become imprisoned in it.  

This makes for some really interesting and occasionally funny moments. The very first sentence on the first page itself assaults you with Jakabok’s plea for you (the reader) to “burn this book”. Desperately trying to break free, Jakabok constantly tries to coerce you throughout the narrative to release him from his eternal cage by having you burn the book. 

Unfortunately, Jakabok is such a good and engaging storyteller that the reader constantly refuses to “follow his advice” and does not burn the book – well, this reader certainly didn’t!  

If all this sounds very iffy and post-modern to you, don’t be too alarmed. For all the gimmickry, the device actually makes the story work. I don’t think Jakabok would have had the same kind of charm if he didn’t directly address the reader. 

However, certain inaccuracies do jump out now and then. The story takes place before and during the events that led to the invention of the printing press, but near the beginning, the human demon-catchers use beer cans as bait. I don’t think beer cans were around before the 1950s! 

Apart from those little inaccuracies though – which are nothing more than nitpicks, anyway – the story, both in the way in which it is told and how it carries itself to its satisfying climax, is something for which Mr Barker is worth commending. 

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