“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.