Reflections on Horror Literature: Rawhead Rex

“Rawhead Rex” is a gruesome story from Clive Barker’s Books of Blood collection. I had a definite visceral reaction to the tale’s body horror, gore, gross-out moments, and frequent talk of rape and child murder, all of which made it a tough read for me. (Stylistically, I found the near-constant point of view shifts to be particularly distracting, which also made it a slog.) Thematically, however, the story left me intrigued more than disgusted. I’ve been long fascinated by the mythical character of Rawhead, even employing him–obliquely–into a story from my collection Grinning Cracks entitled “Abaddon.” In my story, a dark fantasy retelling of The Wizard of Oz, I use the creature (here called “Mister Head”)” as a twisted stand-in for the wizard himself.

In Great Britain and some swaths of North America, Rawhead has many different name variants, most commonly Bloodybones (for a truly creepy nursery rhyme-style dirge about the creature, seek out the 1988 Siouxsie and the Banshees song “Rawhead and Bloodybones,” a fanvid of which is viewable on YouTube). Ultimately, the creature is a boogeyman used to warn children against bad behavior, and this sort of scare tactic is not an uncommon one. As parenting focused less on fear and more on a combination of nurturing and wary consequences, however, our collective cultural reward systems shifted away from telling children to behave to avoid a boogeyman toward a gentler encouragement of good behavior to avoid reward deprivation (i.e. be good so Santa will bring you gifts). Have we lost something as a society by deviating from negative reinforcement? Perhaps. But kids being kids, they will still be drawn toward a fascination with the macabre as they mature and attempt to negotiate the various mysteries of the world. If parents didn’t invent Rawhead, children would do it themselves.

Something of the semi-forgotten nature of the monster is inherent in Barker’s story. When Rawhead is disturbed, he is quite literally unearthed after a long slumber, and in the centuries since his imprisonment, society has forgotten how to combat him. His ultimate undoing–a crude statue purportedly of Venus but sounding a lot more like a pagan matriarchal figure from Celtic mythology–is an interesting weapon and leads me to ponder the story’s potential as a castigation of patriarchal religion, but the fact that its wielder is a man and that the story’s female characters are rendered utterly useless–and are most often discussed through the thoughts of Rawhead himself as being nothing but seed repositories for his hellish offspring from violent rapes (shades of Breeding Ground here), I can’t even begin to see Barker’s point as being anti-patriarchy.

Still, there’s some interesting stuff in the extant material and in the creature’s description. The 1986 film adaptation was largely disavowed by Barker because he was reportedly disappointed that Rawhead wound up looking like a nine-foot phallus. When reading the story, I pictured something more like a very dark, disturbing version of Jack Skellington from The Nightmare Before Christmas, but in this adaptation the creature is far more lupine and animalistic. Frankly, I think it works better to keep some level of humanity about him but his name certainly signifies that there is something deeply wrong with his head. “Raw” connotes meat, tearing, and the exposure of muscle and bone—a lack of skin which could be seen to symbolize a separateness from mortals, an ability to remain alive despite deep wounds and unprotected skull. But the film depiction is all power and fur and teeth, and I fail to see the connection with anything “raw” and exposed. It’s unfortunate, indeed, that Google image searches bring up solely versions of the film creature, rather than artistic renderings of the mythological one. Still, one thing the film did differently that I find intriguing is that it made better use of the matriarchal spirituality angle by needing the creature to be killed by a woman, and I wish the original story had used that ending.

As it is, the story is most powerful and disturbing when it dips into Rawhead’s mind, a feral and almost childlike place of confusion over modern technology (e.g. he thinks cars are animals and that gasoline is their blood). He is wholly consumed with the idea of eating and being reinstated to his kingly status, and with much of the story taking place in a church, there is a hint that perhaps Rawhead is more than just a hungry monster—perhaps there was a time he was construed to be a god. Ultimately, it’s not violence or gender at play here, then, it’s a deconstruction of religion, and I wish Barker had done more with this idea.

This story makes me want to read more Clive Barker, whose catalogue I’ve never explored before, but I hope some of his other pieces are a little bit better developed. Indeed, this story comes very early in his writing career, so I might tackle one of his more recent works to see how his style has changed.

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11 Comments

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11 responses to “Reflections on Horror Literature: Rawhead Rex

  1. Samantha Lienhard

    I like the idea of Rawhead looking like a twisted Jack Skellington.
    It is hard to decide what the story’s theme is. I’m not sure I’d agree with it being a deconstruction of religion, since the church was still a key part of Rawhead’s defeat. I understand where you’re coming from though.

  2. A twisted Jack Skellington? Now that would’ve been creepy.

    I got more a perversion of religion vibe from Rawhead. Especially with the whole “baptism” scene.

    Getting into the monster’s head added a whole other aspect to the horror. It’s frightening seeing how his mind works and the base needs that drive him.

  3. Michelle R. Lane

    Since Jack Skellington is one of my gods, I almost feel like I should take offense. Jack would never do those things! Sure, Jack scared kids on Christmas, but I don’t think any of them were so scared that they pissed their pants. And, when Jack realized the errors of his ways, he made sure to correct his mistakes. Jack liked humans and wanted to show them a good time. Rawhead wanted to kill them after raping them and eating their children. No babies were eaten in The Nightmare Before Christmas.

    • Samantha Lienhard

      Rawhead can be the evil version of Jack–an alternate universe, where the Pumpkin King is not at all nice and certainly not interested in singing songs about Christmas.

  4. This makes me so sad thinking of Rawhead as some twisted form of Jack Skellington. I’m with Michelle on this one. Jack would never do these things, never. 😦

  5. Margaret Ayala

    I like that you called Rex’s fear and wonder of modern technology “childlike.” In the moments when he’s learning the world around him and exposed to technology make him almost sympathetic… almost. But this almost-sympathy for him helps make him a great monster–it helps add complexity to his character by showing him a little lost and confused, but smart enough to learn how to control what he doesn’t understand.

    • It’s almost like he’s trapped in the wrong place, really. In a society that’s okay with the strong feeding on the weak, he wouldn’t be as monstrous. He follows his internal drives and is never dishonest, but of course on the earthly plane where human life is valued, it’s obviously problematic for him to be allowed to exist.

  6. I love that you pointed out his “childlike” moments. For me that was just enough to add a touch of complexity to an otherwise single minded character. Rawhead reminded me of an super evil and less sympathetic version of Gardner’s Grendel. They both have that childlike characteristic.

  7. Hey Jack is Disney right? So Jack is the nice and toned-down version of Rawhead, that regrets his baby scaring ways, just like fairy tales like Snow White are distilled down from their more gruesome original tellings. And Jack is cuter than Rawhead.

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