There’s a scene in Texas Chainsaw Massacre where Lila, a sheltered city girl whose minimal script development leads us to believe is troubled but who may also be a victim of her sister’s emotional abuse more than anything else, confronts Richter, a coal-rolling gun-toting mechanic who is deeply anxious about the pernicious influence of invasive species why he’s such a nihilist and he acts very confused by the question.
She clarifies that his fume-spewing truck is hastening the climate apocalypse and he diverts this with a paean about how he doesn’t like being told what to do. Of course this isn’t an answer at all. But this is because asking Richter why he’s nihilistic, in the context of this film, is somewhat akin to asking a fish why it is wet.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre hates all its characters, except perhaps Leatherface, so completely that they can’t help but be nihilistic. They exist only to die. This creates a problem of sympathy. You have none for any character except the man who wanders around wearing the recently sliced off face of his dead guardian and silently murdering every person he encounters with brutal efficiency. While watching the film I struggled to even gather what these sketches of American failure were named. I never caught Ruth’s name at all prior to her death, nor Richter’s. I figured out Dante’s name 30 seconds before Leatherface began killing him. As is often the case in Texas Chainsaw movies the deaths of our protagonists tend to be drawn out affairs that focus on the total abjection of the subject and this is definitely the case here even if this is realised principally via a tendency for apparently dead characters to come back to life long enough to move the plot forward slightly before fully expiring.
The setup for this instalment of Texas Chainsaw is that Leatherface disappeared after the events of the first film. OG final girl Sally Hardesty became a Texas Marshall and spent the intervening years hunting for the killer but unsuccessfully. As one character points out, it’s hard to catch somebody when you don’t know what they looked like and Leatherface wears a mask.
Our protagonists blunder into this hunt in the form of a car-full of enterprising urban investors who have worked with a bank to purchase (almost) all of a ghost town in rural Texas with the idea of creating a millennial outpost of Austin where they can create a kind of liberal utopia.
They are stopped by a creepy sheriff who encourages them to be respectful of the locals and of course promise to do so. There’s a sense of racial tension around the scene as Dante appears to be the leader of the thrust to gentrify the ghost town and he is also black. The sheriff eases up on his, “y’all best move along” act when Melody, the emotionally abusive older sister, speaks up to mention she was originally from the region.
Things devolve when the gang arrive in town and discover a tattered Confederate battle flag hanging outside a dilapidated orphenage. Dante insists it has to come down because it would upset the investors and he rushes into the supposedly abandoned building to find that the proprietor is still living there: a very frail old woman. Also a resident is one final charge of hers who she insists requires special care and who cannot possibly handle the world outside.
The protagonists argue with the woman over the flag in the process of which she says some remarkably racist things and the situation devolves to the point where the police are called to remove her. Dante is quite certain he owns the building and that she was supposed to be gone already. She insists it was merely a mix-up with the bank and that she still has the deed. The stress of the altercation causes the old woman to have a heart attack and the police drag her out without her oxygen tank to take her to the closest hospital. Her last charge goes with her. She dies en-route thus reigniting Leatherface’s blood lust.
It should be obvious by this point that we shouldn’t like any of these people. The locals suck. The old woman (apparently named Mrs. Mc) is a racist old piece of crap. Luther is the worst possible example of a good ol’ boy. The police are racist, hostile to outsiders but also quite willing to drag an ailing woman out of her home without her medical equipment because somebody with the backing of a bank said so. The city liberals may be remarkably devoid of racism and sexism but they reek of un-earned self-righteousness. They are an invasive gentrifying force collaborating with a bank to push out the poor hicks left behind by American decline in order to create a party-town for Austinites who want to LARP small-town life. They assume they own the orphanage when it transpires Mrs. Mc is right and she remains the rightful owner and they act upon that assumed ownership with arrogant self-assuredness.
A line from the trailer involves a bunch of people on a party bus photographing Leatherface as he revs his chainsaw. One of them says, “Try anything and you’re cancelled bro.” It stirred up a lot of discourse on Twitter for how fucking cringe the line is. And it’s not any better in context. Except, like every single line of dialog in this film it serves a singular purpose: to make you hate all these people.
This movie attempts to create a microcosm of American culture in the town of Harlow and then to show every single person within that microcosm as being beneath contempt. There’s not a single person worthy of even the slightest ounce of sympathy.
This is good because they will receive none. Over the course of the film Leatherface kills them all. Leatherface, who never speaks a line, is the only one we see experience a sincere emotion other than anger or fear when he grieves the death of Mrs. Mc. The fact that he then cuts off her face to wear as a mask is neither here nor there. The gaze of the camera allows us to sympathise with him before allowing him to terrorise and dispatch the police and Ruth. This movie seems all over the place because it displays such obvious contempt for the racism, insularity and ignorance of our hicks in the very same scene that it shows us the arrogance, selfishness and hypocrisy of our urban liberals. But when Sally re-enters the scene it tips its hand and this scattered opening with its uniformly detestable and largely forgettable protagonists becomes clear.
By the time Sally discovers Leatherface is back almost everyone is dead. Only Mel and Lila remain. Sally traps them at gunpoint and uses them as bait to draw Leatherface out. She confronts him demanding recognition but she doesn’t get it. Leatherface doesn’t remember her even as she’s devoted her whole life to hunting him down. He impales her with a chainsaw. It is a cutting rebuke for how recent Halloween films have used Laurie Strode. There’s no redemption to be found in a cathartic exorcism of trauma here. It’s just another avenue for cruelty.
The kills in this movie are uniformly excellent. There’s a flat physicality that this movie successfully inherits from the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Being murdered hurts. And we see many people suffer extremes of abjection that never spill over into farce. Some people run and die. Some people fight and die. Some people scream and cower and die. Some people never even see death coming. But, uniformly, when death comes, it sucks. The kills aren’t the sort of ironic nods of Jason’s later ventures nor are they the almost farcical theatrics of the Scream series. They’re brutal, beautifully executed, and drive home that each one is the ending of something that is better off gone.
The bus massacre is particularly well-executed as Leatherface cuts his way through a massive crowd of people who scream and ineffectually try to run from him as he cuts them down one by one with his saw. It reminded me most of the Darth Vader corridor murder from Rogue One – or rather the Darth Vader horror movie that some Star Wars fans wished could follow from that scene. Here it is. An implacable man in a mask, wielding a technologically augmented blade, cutting down a host of confined victims who are entirely unable to protect themselves. Bon appetite.
Leatherface has been powered up a bit in this, able to shrug off multiple stab wounds, shotgun blasts and even a taste of his own saw. He is also strong enough to bring a moving bus to a stop… somehow. He’s also a silent implacable killer. It may be the case that Michael Meyers and Jason Voorhees have their origin from him but it is equally true that this iteration of him is influenced by contemporary portrayals of Michael and Jason. Leatherface isn’t a crazy guy in a mask (well he is but he isn’t only a crazy guy in a mask) he is an unstoppable force of annihilation.
After Leatherface kills Sally there is a final confrontation in which Mel and Lila attempt to put him to rest. They almost seem to succeed but this turns out to be a fake-out and the movie ends with Leatherface cutting Mel’s head off and swing it wildly around with his chainsaw as Lila, facing backward out the sunroof of a moving car screams to her vehicular death. Nobody survives.
Nobody deserves to survive.
In the end, Texas Chainsaw Massacre looks at this microcosm of America it constructs and says the only thing to do is to chop it to bits with a chainsaw. America deserves the abjection experienced in the slow deaths of Dante, Mel and Lila but abjection is not redemptive as it is in much of the slasher genre. There’s no redemption here. There is harrowing and there is the grave.
Brand New Cherry Flavor is a Netflix limited series based on the first section of a 1996 novel by Todd Grimson adapted by Nick Antosca who is previously known for Channel Zero and Brand New Cherry Flavor is a mess.
I’ve often said that I’m much fonder of an ambitious project that swings for the fences and misses than for a project that plays it safe, strives for little and accomplishes less and so I do have a fair amount of fondness for this messy and confused attempt. It certainly succeeded at injecting a fair amount of edge into the often atmospheric and moody world of Netflix horror miniseries with its regular use of well-executed practical gore effects and disturbing body horror. A scene in which a character pulls a worm out of the eye socket of another is well done enough to make even horror fans cringe a bit and there is a moment of Cronenberg-inspired body horror fused with seedy sexual desire in episode four that was incredibly disturbing – but in the precise way that people fond of extreme horror are likely to gel with. Antosca owes a very deep stylistic debt to Cronenberg throughout the series and I would recommend that people who enjoyed eXistenZ or Vieodrome in particular will enjoy the seedy aesthetics of this show.
I would also like to mention that Rosa Salazar delivers an excellent performance as the show’s anti-hero, Lisa Nova. I think it’s funny that somebody who has been putting in the effort in genre film as long as Salazar is still getting “will this be her breakout performance?” notes on her performance here, particularly after she already starred in the sadly poorly received Alita: Battle Angel, but it is true that she brought precisely the correct blend of edge, cruelty and vulnerability to this difficult role to make the character’s journey something we care about. Shame that Eric Lange wasn’t really able to keep up with her. Happily, Lange’s Lou Burke is rapidly eclipsed by Catherine Keener‘s Boro – and Keener provides an understated performance that works quite well as she drifts through the madness her character authors with a faint smile a sense of detachment.
But for all that the show had slick visuals and some strong performances from the leads it ends up being a little bit muddled. It is, at its core, a show about contracts. The inciting action drives this home as Lou offers Lisa a contract to direct a feature length adaptation of her short film and tells her to get a lawyer to read it. She does not, instead trusting a music video director friend-of-a-friend to ensure it’s all good. This leads to her missing a loophole that allows Lou to steal her movie in an act of petty spite for her rejecting his sexual advances.
In the second episode, Lou reinforces that there’s a dichotomy between a promise and a contract – and he suggests that the contract, the agreement on paper, is ultimately far more important than the promises made. This ends up being something the show reinforces in the final episode. But throughout it we see the various victims of either Lisa and Boro’s shared quest for revenge on Lou or the war-of-the-witches that builds between the two once Lisa discovers how Boro has manipulated her suffering and dying despite never having entered into a contract at all. But then perhaps this is the point.
When we think of contracts we often think of them as a device to enable something. We enter a contract to secure work or to agree to the performance of a service. A person who signs a contract agrees to do a thing and in exchange the other party also agrees to do a thing: A does a job, B pays for it. But when we look at the world of Brand New Cherry Flavor we see, more than anything else, a world where people with power, when unconstrained, do whatever they want to whoever they want.
Lisa emotionally manipulates Mary to get the performance she wants out of her for Lucy’s Eye. She’s so successful that, while the two of them are both high on Peyote, Mary rips out her own eye and eats it. Lisa films it and adds it into her short – grist for the creative mill. Lou exploits his power to make or break would be stars. Alvin Sender, despite his obsequious demeanor makes it just as clear that he wields power and expects obedience. And, of course, Boro does what they want to whoever they want whenever they want. They drug people, murder people, enslave them as undead zombies. They ensorcell people and they steal the bodies of people, forcibly overriding their victims’ minds so that they can continue their eternal life. These people don’t need contracts to enable them. Boro has eyes on Lisa the second she sets foot in Los Angeles and long before Lisa comes to them for help with her revenge on Lou. Boro, in fact, manipulates Lisa to the position where she expects Lou to betray her and while Lou’s ultimate motive for his treason is personal, common and pathetic there may, in fact, be a bit of self-fulfilling prophecy in how things work out for Lisa in that Boro primes her to believe she has the power to hurt Lou and the will to use it.
No. Contracts constrain the powerful. In Brand New Cherry flavour it isn’t that a contract enables you to do anything. Instead the contract sets the limits of what the powerful can do to you. Boro makes a contract with Lisa to help her take her revenge on Lou in exchange for the kittens she begins vomiting up. Lisa makes a contract with Lou which she believes will constrain him in his choice of director but she’s deceived.
Contracts are protective in Brand New Cherry Flavor. This is a show with a remarkable body count. Almost every named character is either killed or maimed. But it’s notable that the people who survive: Lisa, Boro, Lou and Jules are all people who have entered into contracts with each other. Lisa adheres to the precise limit of her contract with Boro and, as such, is unconstrained in the use of her own, not inconsiderable, power to repel Boro’s attempt to take more than they were owed. Lou enters a contract with Lisa and, despite losing everything of value to him, he lives. We can safely assume that Jules has signed a contract with Lou and Jules was also intimately involved in the deception of Lisa regarding the terms of her contract and he, too, survives, if barely. In the end his girlfriend happily announces that his restorative surgeries are going apace. Meanwhile Roy and Code, Jonathan and Christine and even Mary never engage in contracts. They enter the arena of the powerful without any such protection and they are consumed.
There’s a scene early in the first episode where Lisa moves into her apartment and discovers a coyote being eaten by a pack of stray cats. Cats turn up a lot. Boro compels Lisa to vomit white kittens and Boro leaves Lisa with a cat of her own as a token of their contract. Lisa’s mother may, in fact, be a spirit of a white jaguar. The spirit is an ancient enemy of Boro’s but in particular she is a spirit being who Boro broke a contract with. The Jaguar left Boro for dead but they managed to escape and the two of them have been playing something of a game of cat-and-mouse ever since. Boro wants to steal the jaguar’s magic to reinforce their own and Lisa is a conduit to that magic. But Boro is playing with fire since Lisa, as such a conduit, is a being with power of her own to wield, and Boro has, by necessity, to educate Lisa in the use of that power in order to advance her revenge and position her to become Boro’s new vessel. As the show goes by the dead coyote slowly decays and nobody really does anything about it. Lisa, becoming increasingly a witch rather than an artist, seems somewhat at home with it and her visitors all react with revulsion but think it should be someone else’s job to clean up. Instead it’s just… consumed.
Hollywood, in Brand New Cherry Flavour, is the domain of predators who eat anything smaller than them and who have implemented the contract to impose the minimal limits upon their consumption necessary to allow any collaboration at all. But this goes beyond people being inhumane – this presents a cosmology where altruism is punished. It’s a universe where powers contend and overthrow each other: a universe of struggle. This then allows us to unify the dialectic we’ve established surrounding a contract. Because, in its character of a restraint upon the powerful and a shield for the less powerful against predation it allows a savvy negotiator the opportunity to secure more power to herself. In their pentultimate confrontation, Lou castigates Lisa, accusing her of being no better than him. In a sense he’s not entirely off the mark. Lisa did exploit Mary. “She’s an actor; she means whatever I allow her to,” she says at one point. Mary believed there was something far more mutual between her and Lisa to the point where, when Code tells Mary how little Lisa really cares about her, she murders him on the spot in a particularly brutal fashion. Except Lou has missed something important. Lisa, burned by her inattention to her contract with Lou, has used her contract with Boro to grow both the power available to her and her will to use it. The first time Lou sends an assassin to kill Lisa he almost succeeds. The second time, Lisa eats the assassin. This is, in part, because Lisa has secured power from Boro but that’s not the full story. We know, by this point, that Boro is a parasite. They need Lisa’s power to execute their magic. That is what the kitten blood is all about. It’s fuel. So when Boro heals Lisa and grants her increased strength with which to confront the assassin, who Boro intentionally puts in Lisa’s path knowing full well the outcome, they’re only returning to Lisa a fraction of the power they took along with the knowledge and the will to use it. Lisa isn’t like him. By the time they have their second-last encounter she is far more powerful and far more willing to use that power. This is demonstrative in how she approaches her revenge – as a restorative vengeance which Nietzsche describes as being built around a need to assert a lack of fear: “The intention of showing their complete lack of fear goes so far in some people that the dangers of revenge—loss of health or life or other losses—are in their eyes an indispensable condition of every vengeful act.” Lou fidgets and hesitates when he decides to kill Lisa and ultimately goes through an intermediary. He’s unable to summon the will to do the deed himself. By this time Lisa has already infected Lou with a parasite, been a conduit through which Jules spontaneously combusts inadvertently led to the death and zombification of Lou’s son at the hands of Boro and eaten the assassin Lou sent to kill her. Lou’s money is power just as Lisa’s magic is. But he doesn’t have the will to wield it. He’s small and pathetic. Lisa, ultimately, has so little concern for him that she gives him the final insult of letting him live. Blind. Ruined. When they meet for the last time, he asks her not to turn on the TV – he doesn’t want to hear it if he can’t see it.
When we first meet Lisa and Lou there is a vast gulf of class and status at play. She’s living out of a car. He’s living in a mansion where he keeps falcons and he is able to throw around cash to do whatever he wants. He sees the world as his oyster. But this class antagonism proves insufficient to forestall Lisa’s revenge once Lisa uses the system of contracts in place to marshal her strength and pit herself fiercely, completely, against him. Lisa isn’t just like Lou, she’s far far more terrifying because while Lou might be guided by appetites, while he might be a predator, he’s divided against himself while Lisa has an intensity and singularity of focus that allows her to use any power she can seize far more effectively. And, of course, Lisa is not alone. Things don’t go well for her allies but she has them nonetheless. She even tries to protect them. But more than that, she marshals their strength and guides it into the spear-thrust of her attack on Lou and later into her escape from Boro.
Lisa’s proletarian stature remains throughout the series. She never gets much money and what she does she spends to rent a room in a derelict hotel. She’s the only tenant in the cavernous building and so she ends up with a demesne much like Boro’s a home for a witch – a run-down and forgotten place possessed not by the bonds of capital but by the will of the holder to take it. When we learn the backstory to Lisa’s movie we discover that it was financed by the star and shot in her house. Lisa hadn’t any money before shooting and she didn’t after. She didn’t even pay for the peyote they took.
When Boro tries to jump into Lisa they’re unable to explicitly because her will is too strong to dominate. They try to compel her to despair by killing the last of Lisa’s allies and by pushing her to renounce life. But she refuses. Lisa would rather live with all the death and terror and monstrosity that suffuses her life than give in. Mary chooses otherwise and is consumed in her stead.
Ultimately it’s fundamentally important to understand how Brand New Cherry Flavour decouples class position from power. At the end Lisa is confronted with a Hollywood executive more powerful and insidious than Lou ever was and she laughs in his face. She’s done what she set out to do with Lou and set his world on fire. All his bourgeois posturing, his anxiety, concern for lineage, his pride in family and his last-minute defensive moralizing are ash. And she did it without needing to engage bourgeois power. Boro is never seen spending a penny on anything. They take the scraps and refuse a butcher doesn’t need to feed their zombies. They take what they want directly and what they don’t take they make themselves – they’re a gardener and a doctor one and the same with being a witch. Boro is not bourgeois; they’re something far older, something best approached via Nietzsche’s ideas of master morality. But Lisa is not an embodiment of slave morality so much as an exemplar of proletarian will thrusting against the power of her enemies.
Brand New Cherry Flavor is a clumsy, messy work full of internal contradictions. There isn’t an easy or neat through line and this interrogation of Lisa’s revenge and its ties to power dynamics and class is, itself, something which suffers from muddled and unclear readings. But the one thing that shoots straight and sharp as an arrow through this tangled mess of a horror story is the will of the protagonist. It gleams out of Rosa Salazar’s expressive eyes and radiates from her stance. It is something the rich predators of Hollywood lack. There is a certainty to the poor, to the forgotten, to the underbelly, here. Even the cheap assassins Lou hires have more certainty, more will, than their employer. This doesn’t become a valorization of the proletariat. Lisa isn’t a good person and many of the other proletarian characters we encounter are far worse. But it is an evident divide from the contempt this show demonstrates for Bourgeois comfort and platitude. Brand New Cherry Flavor is a difficult show to recommend. The chances are if you’ve read this far and still want to watch this show you’ll appreciate the experience. But it’s a tough pill to swallow with an expression of theme that is, at times, as messy and haphazard as the gore that gloriously spatters every frame. But it is compelling. This season has me curious to read the book it’s adapted from in part to see if certain structural elements of mirroring between Boro and Lisa that don’t pay off in the show are present, and resolved, in the book and in part because I suspect that as somebody with an appreciation for Barker, Bataille and Burgess I might also enjoy the work of Grimson. At the very least, this eight-episode war-of-the-witches is far better paced than the average Netflix fare and is served well by being only eight episodes long. If you’re a fan of horror it might be one to consider this Halloween season.
Every character in the book thinks about sex. A lot. Lori is concerned about her sex life with Boone. Boone worries he can’t please Lori. Eigerman is comforted by cartoons of sodomy on the toilet wall and comforted that they stay safely cartoons on a wall. Ashbery is terrified that people will find out about his paraphilia for women’s underwear. Decker gets hard when he murders. At the climax of the book, Boone, well, the text can speak for itself here:
"Baphomet's head. It turned to him, vast and white, its symmetry fabulous. His entire body rose to it: gaze, spittle, and prick. His congealed blood liquefied like a saint's relic and began to run. His testicles tightened; sperm ran up his cock. He ejaculated into the flame, pearls of semen carried up past his eyes to touch the Baptizer's face."
So yeah, the climax of the book involves one of our protagonists ejaculating into the face of a god. Cabal is a book about sex. Everybody, at least everybody with a remotely human viewpoint, is thinking about sex all the time, and honestly nobody is very happy about it. Lori and Boone are a good couple but can’t make it work in the bedroom. He usually ends up crying over his inadequacy. Eigerman wants his sodomy carefully abstracted. Ashbery is terrified of his secret being found out, and keeping his secret from being found out is Decker’s whole motivation. Decker’s twin desires for the little death to be reflected in an orgy of vast, grand death, but not to be seen to be a sexual being drives the entire plot of the story.
But Cabal isn’t about sex. Not entirely. Not if you plumb its depths. In 1988, the same year Cabal was published, Clive Barker said, “What I like to write is ‘iceberg’ literature. Most of it is below the surface, and you produce things that don’t explain everything.” And Cabal is, in some ways like an iceberg. I read Cabal when I was in my early twenties. At the time I was still deeply closeted about my bisexuality, and the wild, kaleidoscopic world of Midian was a thrilling and illicit fantasy. I read it then as a book about sex and was satisfied to see it that way.
When I picked up Cabal now, two decades later, I said to a friend of mine that I thought I’d grasped Cabal the first time but what I’d really done was just make a fist in the ocean. This book has depths. But this book is a map. This book wants you to explore its depths, much in the same way Lori explores Midian, a layer at a time, each time being seduced deeper. Each time making the choice to be seduced.
Cabal is a book about infection
I mean it’s not like it’s the first time a horror author wrote about infection. That risk, that the Other could get inside you and make you not who you were is central to horror at least as far back as Lovecraft. And 1988 was right in the heart of the first wave of the AIDS crisis. Back then, heterosexual transmission of HIV was still uncommon in the UK, but gay people had been dying of AIDS for a few years and it was on a few minds.
Cabal is an openly queer book with sex on its mind and particularly with the idea of sex as a source of shame on its mind; it shouldn’t be surprising that the idea of infection was bubbling in Cabal. The Nightbreed pass their dark gifts with a bite – the balm. If you are bitten by one of the Nightbreed, you can survive the experience. I mean you may not – the Nightbreed are monsters and, in their hunger, can be terribly savage, but Boone does. He takes a bite and he flees and he lives. Until he’s shot and dies. And upon death the balm awakens the infant monster to their true life. The book is never clear if this is the only way one can become a Nightbreed. We might shudder to consider Rachel and Babette. Rachel, the gentle, vampire-like monster who shows Lori kindness could be somebody who was given the balm, but what do we make of Babette? Was Rachel’s daughter killed with her? Or was she born to her? The book never tells us.
But the balm is not the only way infection is referenced in the book. Because there’s another thing that seems to be catching.
Cabal is a book about madness
Boone is schizophrenic. He hallucinates. He has intrusive thoughts. He suffers shame and guilt about his illness, depression tagging along with his schizophrenia. Boone’ psychologist, Decker, is also somebody with some deep psychological pathologies. Decker is a serial killer, a sociopath and a social chameleon. He’s not actually a doctor; he just stole a name and an expensive suit. He told lies that opened doors and let him exploit vulnerable people. Decker, who cuts out the eyes of his victims because he cannot bear the thought of being seen devoid of his masks (the mask he wears when about the murder is in fact his real face) sees in Boone a valuable victim of a different sort from his usual. And so he plies Boone with drugs, hypnotherapy and shocking images, and persuades the vulnerable, ill, man that he is a killer. That he has psychically blocked his own crimes out of an inability to face his monstrosity. This is, of course, transference. Decker is the one who is uncomfortable being put in the position of his own monstrosity. He is the one who hides behind masks behind masks behind masks in order to stay pure. Boone, in counterpoint, wears his heart on his sleeve. He thinks he’s too broken to be a good boyfriend for Lori.
Boone’s need to be emotionally sincere doesn’t extend just to his presentation; he is awash in very human pain and it leads to his failed suicide attempt. And you know, it’s interesting because at times Cabal tells us Nightbreed are made by infection, by the balm. But Boone throws himself in front of a truck and gets up afterward. He then hitch-hikes and walks from Calgary to the middle of nowhere. (Midian is described as being “North of Athabasca, east of Peace River, near Shere Neck and north of Dwyer.” While some of these places are invented, others are real locations in Alberta and they situate Midian as being somewhere perhaps in the vicinity of the Wabasca lakes, seven hours north and deep in the bush. There are few places in the world more remote.) So perhaps being Nightbreed is more than being bitten.
This fits with the descriptions of Midian provided when Boone first meets Narcisse. And when Narcisse cuts his own face off, Boone thinks he sees the flesh underneath transform. He’s a deeply unreliable perspective so we can’t be sure, but we never see one of the Nightbreed give Narcisse the balm, yet there he is in Midian when the action kicks off.
Perhaps being Nightbreed depends on a certain kind of mimetic infection. Cabal describes Midian first as a talisman of the mad, saying, “some belonged to the collective mind. they were words he would hear more than once: nonsense rhymes whose rhythms kept the pain at bay, names of gods.
Among them Midian.”
Early in the story, Decker describes Boone’s hypnotherapy sessions and says that Boone is confessing to, “something so abhorrent to you even in a trance you couldn’t bring yourself to say it.” It’s easy to treat this as a lie. Decker lies. Decker is a deeply unreliable character in this book, but then no character is reliable. Cabal shows us every one of its perspective characters facing moments where their senses clearly fail them and we, as readers, know that their perceptions cannot be trusted.
So if all our characters are unreliable, is it not possible that the germ of the Nightbreed lies in insanity?
This would certainly fit for Lori’s arc. Lori, the beautiful. Lori, the empathetic. Lori, the unwell.
Lori can’t look at herself in a mirror. Barker deploys an excellent bit of prose to describe her:
Her neck was too thick, her face too thin, her eyes too large, her nose too small. In essence she was one excess upon another and any attempt on her part to undo the damage merely exacerbated it. Her hair, which she grew long to cover the sins of her neck, was so luxuriant and so dark her face looked sickly in its frame. Her mouth, which was her mother's mouth to the last flute, was naturally, even indecently red, but taming its color with a pale lipstick merely made her eyes look vaster and more vulnerable than ever.
It wasn't that the sum of her features was unattractive. She'd had more than her share of men at her feet. No, the trouble was she didn't look the way that she felt. It was a sweet face. And she wasn't sweet, didn't want to be sweet, or thought of as sweet.
So here we have our lovers, beautiful, Byronic Boone who suffers his demons, his voices and codes, driving him toward Midian. And we have Lori. Boone promises her, “I’ll never leave you,” but he knows he’ll break that promise, and he does. He is, after all a haunted man. He is aware that there is something monstrous within him, something that wants to come out and that tortures him.
And Lori, for her part, is uncomfortable in her own body. She has a sweet face but she doesn’t think she’s sweet. She loves a vulnerable madman, and almost restores him to health before the exploitative void that is Decker sends him crashing down again. And when Boone leaves her, when he vanishes to Midian, she goes chasing after him. This is an irrational choice. She is putting off work to go traipsing into the bush of northern Alberta. It’s almost codependent – Boone was wracked with guilt, and one of the things that he felt guilt about was how dependent he was on Lori; she was the entirety of his fragile support system. He never noticed how dependent she was on him. Lori feels deeply alienated from the world. She needs Boone’s otherness.
When she learns that Boone has been killed in a ghost town, that he’s believed to be a serial killer who terrorized Alberta, murdered people indiscriminately, cutting them to ribbons and ripping out their eyes in their own homes, she goes to the graveyard adjacent where he died and mourns. But she brings a companion who isn’t comfortable in this eerie situation, and leaves, reluctantly. She gets a motel room so she can stay nearby while she decides her next moves, and her friend leaves her alone.
The people in the room next to her are having a party (later Decker will murder them all) and Lori becomes excited at the thinness of the wall, the idea that she is almost in public as she walks around her motel room naked out of the shower. She masturbates and falls asleep, having a sort of semi-prophetic dream.
"In sleep she was at Midian's Necropolis, the wind coming to meet her down its avenues from all directions at once - north, south, east and west - chilling her as it whipped her hair above her head and ran up inside her blouse.
The wind was not invisible. It had a texture as though it carried a weight of dust, the motes steadily gumming up her eyes and sealing her nose, finding its way into her underwear and up into her body by those routes too.
It was only as the dust blinded her completely that she realized what it was - the remains of the dead, the ancient dead, blown on contrary winds from pyramids and mausoleums, from vaults and dolmen, charnel houses and crematoria. Coffin dust and human ash and bone pounded to bits, all blown to Midian and catching at the crossroads.
She felt the dead inside her. Behind her lids, in her throat, carried up toward her womb. And despite the chill and the fury of the four storms, she had no fear of them, nor desire to expel them. They sought her warmth and her womanliness. She would not reject them."
The dream proceeds on as she demands Boone of the dead, and they refuse to surrender him. The dream becomes a nightmare. Sheryl wakes her. And despite this nightmare, this idea that Midian will bring the dead into her, that it will deny her Boone even so, she does the irrational thing and returns to Midian.
Lori doesn’t appear sane. When she later reappears with Boone, she puts herself in the position of the willing lover of a cannibal and a monster. Over and over again, she returns to sites of mortal peril. She seems driven by an unquenchable death wish.
This madness seems contagious. Decker drives Boone into relapse and Boone’s madness infects Lori. When Decker, Boone and Lori bring the insanity of their situation to Shere Neck, Eigerman rapidly goes off the deep end, emptying out his police precinct, mustering an irregular posse, threatening the local priest along, anything to purge the Nightbreed. It’s insane: tunnel vision taken to an extreme. Eigerman is irrational. The chief symptom seems to be an excited death drive. Boone attempts suicide. Narcisse can’t wait for his afterlife to begin. Decker and Eigerman desire slaughter. And Lori wants to be with the dead.
Death fascinates Lori. Or it does for a while. Because while she may seem to be possessed by a mad death drive, Cabal isn’t precisely a book about madness. It doesn’t matter that people are uncomfortable being sexual, that they lust for what they should not, that their lust bring them shame. And it doesn’t matter that Boone’s bite, after he is transformed, is infectious, nor does it matter that Boone is himself transformed by infection. We don’t know for certain every person who becomes a Nightbreed is bitten by another but one thing we know for certain is that every person who becomes a Nightbreed is compelled to go to Midian for one reason or another. Narcisse is so desperate to go to Midian that he mutilates himself to reveal to the Nightbreed that he is already one of them. Narcisse wants to go to Midian so that he can belong. Boone mostly seemed to crave Midian as a refuge, somewhere to be left alone by a world that was cruel to him. But he still craved Midian and went there. And when he arrived, “he found himself a bed out of sight between two graves and lay his head down. The spring growth of grass smelled sweet.” Lori, too, is drawn to Midian, if only to take Boone away from it. This compulsion is irrational, but it isn’t madness. It’s desire.
Cabal is a book about desiring to be other
Desire exists in so many forms throughout Cabal. Boone desires solace. Lori desires Boone. Decker wants to kill. Eigerman wants notoriety. Narcisse craves community. The Nightbreed want peace. It isn’t unusual for a story to center around a protagonist who announces a desire and pursues it. What separates Nightbreed is the ubiquity with which the omniscient narrator makes it clear that every person in the story moves toward the thing they want. Even in flight, Boone is reaching out for what he desires. Even when she knows it’s self-destructive, Lori seeks out what she desires with single-minded intensity. And Decker has to kill. But for Lori, Boone and Narcisse, the deepest desire is to reconcile the otherness they feel, the sense they have of alienation from the world of people, the cravings and urges that seem unusual with a sense of who they really are.
They need to transform. And the Nightbreed are transformation. Lori falls out of love with death. She barely escapes Decker at a burned out restaurant, and he murders her traveling companion, Sheryl. She goes back. She has some idea that she can find evidence to prove Decker is the murderer. Instead what she finds is a host of flies feasting on the corpse of her friend.
"Both mind and body failed. The cloud of flies came at her, their numbers now so large they were a darkness unto themselves. Dimly she realized that such a multiplicity was impossible and that her mind in its confusion was creating this terror. But the thought was too far from her to keep the madness at bay; her reason reached for it, and reached, but the cloud was upon her now. She felt their feet on her arms and face, leaving trails of whatever they'd been dabbling in: Sheryl's blood, Sheryl's bile, Sheryl's sweat and tears. There were so many of them they could not all find flesh to occupy, so they began to force their way between her lips and crawl up her nostrils and across her eyes.
Once, in a dream of Midian, hadn't the dead come as dust, from all four corners of the world? And hadn't she stood in the middle of the storm - caressed, eroded, and been happy to know that the dead were on the wind? Now came the companion dream: horror to the splendor of the first. A world of flies to match the world of dust, a world of incomprehension and blindness, of the dead without burial, and without a wind to carry them away. Only flies to feast on them, to lie in them and make more flies."
Lori has already encountered the Nightbreed a few times before this; but this moment gives her the desire not just to live at peace with the existence of monsters in the world, but to collaborate with them. Lori is pushed far beyond the limits of her sensation and returns with newfound purpose. It’s a religious experience.
The Nightbreed fascinate Lori. She sees in them an alternative to, “the stench of creeping decay, the inevitability of it all.” She thought she was possessed by a drive to be occupied by the dead, and she is, in fact, occupied by the dead when Babette forms a psychic bond that lets them telepathically communicate across distances, that lets them see through each other’s eyes. Babette is the dead wind within her, filling her up, but Babette isn’t a wind; she’s a child, a young, vital child.
That vitality is what Lori sees in the Nightbreed: “the monsters of Midian – transforming, rearranging, ambassadors of tomorrow’s flesh and reminders of yesterday’s – seemed full of possibility.” This is enticing to Lori, who isn’t comfortable in her own skin. At one point, she is taken into Midian and allowed to explore it while Boone seeks the blessing of Baphomet, the god of the Nightbreed. She sees the Nightbreed in all their monstrousness, their horror and beauty. She sees a painter with the head of a dog and a bloated man covered in glowing maggots. She sees creatures with metal parts, and chimera. And what Lori sees in the Nightbreed is something she never before realized how much she wanted.
All that she coveted or envied in others of her species now seemed valueless. Dreams of the perfected anatomy - the soap opera face, the centerfold body - had distracted her with promises of true happiness. Empty promises. Flesh could not keep its glamour, or eyes their sheen. They would go to nothing soon.
But the monsters were forever. Part of her forbidden self. Her dark, transforming midnight self. She longed to be numbered among them.
Lori doesn’t crave extinction; she craves monstrousness. The Nightbreed aren’t sweet. Some of them are beautiful, but it’s the beauty of the angels in the Old Testament, a fury of sensation that overwhelms with its beauty. Most are hideous, deformed, bestial and sometimes broken. When the perspective, shortly thereafter, moves to Boone, this is reinforced, “they were what the species he’d once belonged to could not bear to be.”
Barker wrote Cabal to be a book open to multiple interpretations. In some sense it’s a book about transformation, but it’s a book about desiring transformation specifically. Lori achieves her desire in the end. She pushes herself to the brink of death and an inch beyond to achieve her desire and to repeat Boone’s promise, “I’ll never leave you,” back to him. That Boone has transformed completely is nothing even remotely touching a deal-breaker because Lori, too wants to transform.
But to understand this desire, we also have to understand the manner in which the Nightbreed transform. In the course of the story we witness several sequences of transformation; and what is peculiar is that these moments of transformation are described much more clearly than the way the Nightbreed look in their transformed state.
At one point, we finally get something approaching a clear example of Boone’s transformed state:
"Part the beast he'd inherited from Peloquin, part a shade warrior, like Lylesburg, part Boone the lunatic, content with his visions at last."
This description is nothing approaching an appearance. You can’t paint a picture of Boone. He looks like a beast perhaps, or like a shadow, or like himself only comfortable, at last, in his monstrous skin. And the descriptions of other Nightbreed are, with a few exceptions, either perfunctory, “a painter with the head of a dog” or are vague and impressionistic.
But the moments in which a Nightbreed changes from a human form to something else, when it reveals its nature as one of these, “ambassadors of tomorrow’s flesh,” the vision becomes clear, detailed, lovingly crafted and entirely alien.
One of the best examples of this moment of clear and vivid transformation comes during Lori’s first encounter with the Nightbreed. She has come to the cemetery at Midian to feel closer to Boone and she finds an animal in a thicket. It seems sick, dying. There is a woman standing in a tomb who begs Lori to bring her the creature. This woman is described like a vampire, and when her hand touches the sun, it begins to dissolve into dust, much like the dead in Lori’s prophetic dream. Lori, being Lori, helps the woman and the small creature. The creature digs its claw into Lori’s breast, like an anxious kitten, but when she passes the threshold of the tomb and goes to return the creature to the vampiric woman:
The animal was changing before her eyes. In the luxury of slough and spasm it was losing its bestiality, but not by reordering its anatomy, but by liquefying its whole self - through to the bone - until what had been solid was a tumble of matter. Here was the origin of the bittersweet scent she'd met before the tree: the stuff of the beast's dissolution. In the moment it lost coherence, the matter was ready to be out of her grasp, but somehow the essence of the thing - it's will, perhaps, perhaps it's soul - drew it back from the business of remaking. The last part of the beast to melt was its claw, its disintegration sending a throb of pleasure through Lori's body.
This fluid plasticity is the hallmark of the transformation of the Nightbreed. In the moment of their transformations, they dissolve into droplets and liquid flows. They become disorganized, undifferentiated matter. Boone’s substance, when he transforms, is fluid. The Nightbreed, to Lori, seemed full of possibilities.
In 1947, Antonin Artaud put on a radio play called, To Have Done with the Judgment of God. Few figures loom larger in assessment of Barker’s early theatrical work than Artaud through his concept of the Theatre of Cruelty, which sought to use overwhelming sound and light to stun the audience, as well as creating a situation where the mise-en-scène was put before the script. This is iceberg theatre – it’s theatre that deliberately invites multiple interpretations. It is also very much in keeping with the ideas of another avant-garde artist and philosopher widely regarded as influential upon Barker in Georges Bataille. And we can see stark parallels between Lori’s experience, her death-drive in Cabal and Bataille’s description of ecstasy in Inner Experience:
"What is thereby found in deep obscurity is a keen desire to see when, in the face of this desire,
everything slips away.
But the desire for existence thus dissipated into night turns to an object of ecstasy. The desired spectacle, the object, in the expectation of which passion goes beyond itself, is the reason why "I could die for not dying". This object grows dim and night is there: anguish binds me, it sears me, but this night which is substituted for the object and now alone responds to my anticipation? Suddenly I know, I discover it in a cry: it is not an object, it is IT I was waiting for."
Barker, like Bataille and Artaud, wants to shock the senses, to inspire ecstasy and to describe for his audience, people in the throes of this ecstasy. And it is via Artaud and Bataille that we must interpret how Barker describes the transformation of the Nightbreed.
In To Have Done with the Judgment of God, Artaud says:
When you will have made him a body without organs,
then you will have delivered him from all his automatic reactions
and restored him to his true freedom.
And in their moment of transformation, the Nightbreed become a body without organs. What then is it? Artaud is unclear except to say that a body without organs represents a true freedom. This idea of the body without organs was elaborated upon by two other authors who were deeply influenced by Artaud. In their 1972 treatise, Anti-Oedipus Gilles Deuleuze and Félix Guattari elaborate upon the body without organs in depth, where they position it as the “third term in the linear series.”
A Deuleuzian metaphysics is one defined by difference. Being is composed of a series of machines, “The breast is a machine that produces milk and the mouth a machine coupled to it.” These machines represent flows and breaks. But as these produce, including producing production, including producing the desire to produce, they also tend toward decay. But these philosophers reject that this system of being can ever lead fully to nothingness. Nothing is ever gone completely and the dead become dust in the wind, become flies or even become monsters.
So our body without organs becomes that undifferentiated point which is the barrier at which the breakdown of the old and the arising of the new meet. It could be seen as an ambassador of tomorrow’s flesh and a reminder of yesterday’s. But it is neither. It is an undifferentiated fluid surface. “The desiring-machines attempt to break into the body without organs, and the body without organs repels them.” The body without organs constitutes, “a surface over which the forces and agents of production are distributed.” But as the body without organs gives rise to the mitochondrial machinery that make something an organic thing, a differentiated thing, it seems in its repulsion of desire as if it miraculates them. The universe becomes this push and pull between being, and desiring to be and ending, desiring to end.
In Cabal, this is the root desire of Lori and of Boone and of all the other misfits whose lives fall into the constantly dying and being reborn cosmology of Midian. This desire to fall back to the undifferentiated and to arise again, phoenix-like in some new form. To blossom and then to fall. As Bataille poetically put it,
"Trees bristle the ground with a vast quantity of flowered shafts raised up to the sun.
The trees that forcefully soar end up burned by lightning, chopped down, or uprooted. Returned to the ground, they come back up in another form."
Boone and Lori destroy Midian. This isn’t their intention, Boone wants to be left alone. Lori wants Boone. But Boone and Lori attract the attention of Decker, and Decker, in turn, attracts the attention of Eigerman, who, for his part, cannot tolerate the presence of those who are everything his species could not bear to be. As a consequence of his destruction, Boone is granted the power to restore Midian and the obligation to do so.
There’s a thread running through Deuleuze and Bataille back to Nietzsche, that situates the origin of morality in debt. Deleuze and Guattari describe this as the force that transforms the socius (which we can treat as a special form of the body without organs). They describe it as being the origin of many things, but one of those is, “the pain of the initiations.”
Initiation is like a seduction through the layers of a necropolis. It brings you within by degrees. And it brings with it agony and the limit of the senses. But like seduction, and like becoming a Nightbreed, initiation is something we desire. We move toward our initiations and their agonies, knowing that they will bring us pain and desiring that pain. Boone and Lori seek out their debts. They become indebted to Midian because they desire it. They desire that constant breaking-down to the point of unmaking and reconstitution that is transformation, and in their transformation we see a template for understanding how a person might transform.
Transformation is like a seduction, like and initiation, it is the ecstasy of sensation that pushes us out of the rational and allows us to come back with knowledge, conviction and purpose. In Cabal, sex, death, shame, lust, revulsion, longing, fear and joy all tangle together like a mass of worms beneath the skin of the world or the mycelia of a colony of mushrooms. In order to be transformed we must first be unmade. Cabal teaches us this lesson well as first Narcisse, then Boone, then Lori are unmade and reconstituted transformed. They each, in their way, pursue those desiring machines within them along the path to breakdown, to the undifferentiated matter from which all new growth blooms, and then they arise again different, terrible, monstrous and alien.
The Nightbreed dance along the edge of the indescribable because they are everything that we can not bear to be. Much as Bataille’s ecstasy is like night falling, is a sensation akin to death, so to are the Nightbreed and therein lies their seductive appeal.