Book Review : Clive Barker - Cabal (1988)
Each year, This is Horror's Bob Pastorella and I (alongside Penboys Review's Chris Novas in 2018) read through key works of one great horror writer. Our goal is simple: better understand why our chosen writer is revered and/or debunk the myth that he was ever good. Last year, we did Peter Straub without any incident except maybe that it was a little boring at times. This year, we were supposed to do Clive Barker's Books of Blood, but I liked them way too much, got carried away and finished the first volume already. That thing was supposed to last me five months.
That is why I'm reviewing another Clive Barker classic today: Cabal. Because what else am I gonna do while Bob and Chris go through the killer Books of Blood?
So, Cabal is the story of Boone, a man suffering from an unknown mental illness. While institutionalized, he is confronted by his psychiatrist to a series of photos of murders he might've or might've not committed. Horrified, Boone tries to kill himself by jumping in front of a moving car. When it fails, he decides to make a run for it to Midian, a city that appeared in his dreams. Over there, he is "welcomed" by monsters known at the Night Breed and by his psychiatrist Decker, who reveals to him that he committed the murders and that he intends for Boone to be a patsy for law enforcement.
Cabal couldn't be any more different from The Hellbound Heart or the Books of Blood. It's a contemporary Gothic love story that's halfway between Edgar Allan Poe and Beetlejuice. I can't exactly call that horror because there isn't anything scary or horrifying about it. It doesn't mean it's not interesting, though. Cabal is overflowing with symbolic dualities: life and death, day and night, humans and monsters, sanity and illness, there definitely is something going on there. What does it all mean? I don't think the overall message of Cabal is complex or profound, but let's examine a particular scene (or maybe more of an event) that unlocks its meaning.
When Boone gets shot by Decker and the police officer, the Night Breed drag his corpse to Midian's morgue. But that corpse disappears and Boone is eventually brought back to life. That brings forward our ultimate duality: (religious) truth and appearances, which is key in understanding all the others. By reaching Midian, Boone unlocked his true nature as Night Breed. He's not mentally ill, but a "monster" connected with higher forces. He's not meant to live in daytime with all the codes and illusions, but at night time where people show their true selves, etc. By setting up these dualities and subsequently collapsing them, Clive Barker tries to show that our binary understanding of the world is erroneous. That good vs evil and other moral shortcuts we take using dualities are flawed.
I thought Cabal was smart and well-crafted, yet a tad uninspiring? I mean, Barker's entire point is undercut by one fundamental problem: the Night Breed are portrayed as the good guys and the humans are the evil and duplicitous ones. And this problem resides in the lighter, Tim Burton-esque tone he chose for Cabal. I don't know if there were other ways to make the Night Breed seem amicable and transcend the cliché embedded perception of monsters, but I thought it was counterintuitive to what the novel tried to achieve. Cabal is fine, it's just not fucked up good like the previous material I've read from Clive Barker, and that disappointed me. I know it's unfair, but it is what it is.