Coldheart Canyon

by Clive Barker

Published by HarperCollins

688 pages, 2001

Buy it online




Ghosts of Hollyweird

Reviewed by David Abrams


I can imagine Clive Barker falling asleep on the sofa one night while watching Sunset Boulevard, then waking in the wee hours halfway through a showing of Splatter Cinema Showcase and getting a very bright idea for his next novel.

Hollywood. Has-beens. Ghosts. Sex. Angels. Cretinous atrocities resembling the love children of H.P. Lovecraft and Mary Shelley. Yes, the elements are all there for horrormeister Barker to whip up weirdness á la ready-for-her-close-up Norma Desmond and the author's own Nightbreed. Why not throw in a dash of Touched by an Angel for good measure? The result is Coldheart Canyon, a typically thick, luxuriant, ick-stained book which attempts too much and ultimately collapses under its own excess weight.

Coldheart Canyon contains several plot threads which tangle into one big ball of slime-coated string. First, there's the tale of Todd Pickett, a Tom Cruisean golden boy who is sitting at the pinnacle of Hollywood's A-list. Unfortunately, when you perch on the pinnacle, that usually means you're teetering and, in Todd's case, he's about to go sliding down the has-been side of celebrity. Concerned that his perfect good looks are starting to show too much wear and tear, he visits a cosmetic surgeon for a routine chemical peel. But something goes wrong while he's under the knife. Horribly wrong.

Bandaged and bleeding, Todd retreats from society and the paparazzi, buying an old mansion high in the Hollywood hills until his face can heal and he can again face the flashbulbs. The dream-palace he settles in once belonged to a thespian named Katya Lupi, the most beautiful actress of the silent era. In her day, 70 years ago, Katya out-Garboed Greta, vamped more sensually than Theda Bara and left Mary Pickford choking on her stardust. In the Hollywood heyday of parties populated by Valentino, Chaplin, Fairbanks and Barrymore, Katya was the life of all the parties. A simpering, pure-hearted virgin onscreen, she turned into a wild vamp after hours as she threw lavish orgies at her mansion in Coldheart Canyon.

One night, she shimmers into Todd's life as he's moping around the house. And when I say "shimmers," I mean that literally. The 80-year-old silent cinema has-been appears like a radiant mirage in a dark corner of the room, startling Todd as she walks out of the shadows. She's gorgeous and downright juicy as a ripe apple. Trouble is, she doesn't look a day over 30. Like Alma Mobley, the preserved beauty in Peter Straub's Ghost Story, Katya Lupi lingers in corporeal form: a sensuous ectoplasm that soon has Todd dropping his drawers and engaging in some very vivid (and spirited!) sex.

What Todd doesn't realize is that Katya has become a Queen of the Underworld, the ruler of a howling pack of deformities bred when humans like Victor Mature and Jean Harlow had sex with wild creatures. Those bizarre offspring now want access to a place called the Devil's Country -- a region which could only spring from Barker's imagination. Pinhead, Candyman and the Cenobites would feel right at home in this corner of Hell. The portal to the Devil's Country lies deep in the bowels of the Coldheart Canyon house and Katya has placed a spell over the doorway so no creature -- especially those resembling half-man, half-peacock -- could come back to the country which helps preserve their good looks (the secret to Katya's ability to look ravishing after all these years).

Meanwhile, topside in the real world, a member of Todd's fan club, a 200-pound housewife named Tammy Lauper, is trying to track down the elusive star who seems to have disappeared right off the face of tabloid earth. Tammy eventually makes her way to the Canyon where first she's assaulted by the well-endowed man-peacock, then finds Todd and aids him in escaping Katya's clutches.

While Coldheart Canyon ends up in a muddle of disappointment -- points are belabored, dialogue is curdled and plots are treacled -- there's plenty of ultra-sharp horror to prick your nerves in the hundreds of pages that come before the closing chapters. This is by no stretch of the imagination a tame novel. Everything -- ghosts, mutations, sex, Hollywood satire -- reads as if it has been plugged into an electric amplifier. Fair warning to prim, goody-two-shoes readers: there are several sex scenes which will curl your toes; scenes of an orgiastic cornucopia (pornucopia?) with a landscape of writhing limbs, exposed genitalia and kinky S&M; eroticism so intense that, were I to type an excerpt here, the very words on your computer monitor would melt your hard drive. Sex, pain, horror -- it's all a phantasmagorical stew bubbling in Barker's brain. Even Lovecraft starts to look like a Sunday School teacher by comparison.

As someone looking at Hollywood from the inside out, Barker is in the position to make poisoned-pen digs at Tinseltown. There are plenty of jabs at cinema's glitterati -- both past and present -- and I could think of no better place in which to set a novel like Coldheart Canyon. This kind of decadence and world-upside-down vision just wouldn't fly in Mayberry, now would it? With a sneaky grin and a stroke of his pencil-thin mustache, the author seems to suggest that there are plenty of maggots crawling under Hollywood's log -- just lift it and take a look at all that squirmy vanity and corruption.

Barker, much like his namesakes at midway sideshows, invites us to step up and get a ticket for the weird and impossible distortions which lie just behind the curtain. In many of (carnival) Barker's novels -- Weaveworld, Everville and Imajica among them -- there are doors between this world and a fantastic landscape full of sex, sacrilege and mysticism. In this case, it's a tiled room where the painted walls come alive into something resembling "an MGM musical designed by Hieronymus Bosch." Todd, Tammy and eventually the reader become trapped in this distortion of reality, a world with "a little pinch of Hell." He delights in bending our mind in new directions, like a pants pocket turned inside out. Witness Todd's first visit to the Devil's Country:

In one spot an animal the size and shape of a tiger was giving birth to half a dozen white lizards; in another a hen the size of a horse was retreating from her eggs in panic, seeing that they'd cracked open and were spilling huge blue flies.

Not exactly the kind of things you see every day in Mayberry or Hollywood. But crack open Barker's skull and these are the bits of thought you'll see squirming through his brain. Coldheart Canyon isn't a perfect book, but you'll have a hard time finding anything which comes close to Barker's ability to project a singular, twisted vision of this world and the otherworld. Through his words, he manages to connect with something dark and icky inside all of us. To paraphrase Norma Desmond, it's just him, the page and all those wonderful people out there in the dark. | January 2002


David Abrams has written for Esquire, The Greensboro Review, Fish Stories and other literary magazines.