After the extreme horror of “Rawhead Rex,” I was a little nervous to read Clive Barker’s “The Yattering and Jack,” which is also included in his Books of Blood collection. And yet this was an almost whimsical, precious little tale comparatively (if anything can be called “precious” that includes multiple cat murders).
The Yattering is the antithesis of Rawhead. Where Rawhead was a confused, child-like ancient demonic creature, the Yattering is a lesser demon, all ephemeral and subject to the instructions of middle management. His job is to essentially haunt the house of bland milquetoast Jack Polo and annoy him to insanity. Polo takes the jabs in stride, appears to not realize the source of them, and rolls with it all, even as his wife commits suicide and his daughters begin to be adversely affected.
And yet Jack is more than meets the eye. It slowly dawned on me as I read that since we’re predominately getting the Yattering’s point of view, we don’t know if Jack’s mildness and c’est la vie attitude are genuine failure to see what’s happening to his house and home or if, as I suspected toward the end, he knew darn well what was going on and chose to essentially ignore it so as not to give the Yattering the satisfaction.
The Yattering and his bosses reveal through the course of the story that the reason Polo has been targeted at all is that his mother had been a follower of their kind but had renounced them in death. Therefore, hell must wreak revenge on the family, targeting Jack’s mother’s closest living kin—himself.
Unlike “Rawhead Rex”’s quick, violent, and deadly ending, where we barely get to savor the hero’s victory as Rawhead had already killed the man’s son, in this story we see the human truly triumph over adversity, with Jack very effectively tricking the Yattering and ultimately becoming his master, without killing himself or his daughters in the process. The Yattering thinks itself so clever, cunning, and intelligent (and he is, especially compared to Rawhead), but his smug surety of his own abilities is precisely what leads to his hubris and ultimate downfall. Jack is able to trick the Yattering into a rage, provoking him to go outside where he is forbidden to go. Crossing the threshold of the Polo residence causes the Yattering to become visible, corporeal, and therefore controllable. Jack is the Yattering’s new master. And though the Yattering warns Jack that “‘it’s considered ungodly to have any contact with the likes of me […] People have been burned for less’” (63) and that this could mean Jack can’t get into Heaven upon his death (64), Jack responds with the refrain he’s voiced throughout the tale: “‘Che sera, sera.’” (64)
The phrase itself has an interesting history, according to linguist Lee Hartman, and appears to be an invention of English speakers looking to exoticize the proverb “whatever will be will be” by making it appear as if it has roots in Spanish, Italian, or French, when in fact it does not. It also has no regular spelling, appearing sometimes with multiple accent marks and sometimes as “que” instead of “che,” as it does in the song popularized by Doris Day. (Hartman) In essence, Jack Polo has made a motto of an aphorism that sounds fancier than it actually is, a phrase borne of appropriation and invention, much like both Polo’s mother’s flirtation with demonic worship and Jack’s own apparent calm masking just as much cleverness and cunning as the Yattering.
Words and names generally are important in this tale. “Yatter” means “idle talk; incessant chatter or gossip” with the implication that the content of the talk is a bit frivolous and uninteresting, as is further evidenced by “yammer,” “chatter,” and “natter” all having similar origins and derivations (“Yatter,” OED). So the Yattering’s entire identity is wrapped up in spewing nonsense at a man who counters back with a phrase derived of nonsense which essentially means nothing other than “I acknowledge that events happen outside of my control.” Isn’t this phrase, then, essentially a bit meaningless? We therefore have two forces of nothing combating one another.
And yet Jack Polo’s name isn’t meaningless. “Jack,” often a nickname for “John,” is a name, a word, a noun, a verb…it serves multiple purposes and can connote actions such as propping up a car or providing comic relief (as when used to signify a jester). A “jack-of-all-trades” is a master of multiple practical avocations, in fact, and therefore Jack’s practical dispatch of the Yattering is quite well foreshadowed by his name alone (“Jack,” OED). “Polo” is a game, which further extends the battle between the two; while the Yattering sees it as a war, to Jack it might be less fraught than it seems, and to have a whimsical personal refrain, a practical first name, and a surname taken from a sport implies a kind of pragmatic strategy on Jack’s part. Yes, it’s a game of nonsense, but one must be careful in the arranging of the pieces and the players. Game theory itself is an entire academic discipline comprised of logic, mathematics, and philosophy.
Thus the story takes us from Point A, wherein the Yattering is the clever imp and Jack is the dull victim to Point B, which sees the Yattering reduced to a simpering servant and Jack triumphant and clever. While the result is not terribly horrific per se, reversals are a thread running through a lot of horror literature and media. The turn, the moment the plot becomes dire for one or more characters and something irrevocable occurs is something good horror employs quite frequently. In this story, we may be delighted to see it work out for our hero, and yet it’s also frustrating in a way, since the reader is pulled along through the action from the Yattering’s perspective. Is it satisfying to see him reduced to servitude? Or are we happy that for once human ingenuity wins out?
Barker, Clive. “The Yattering and Jack.” Books of Blood Volumes One to Three. New York: Berkley, 1998.
Hartman, Lee. ““Que sera sera”: The English Roots of a Pseudo-Spanish Proverb.” Southern Illinois University, 2013.
“Jack.” Oxford English Dictionary.
“Yatter.” Oxford English Dictionary.